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Mary Shelley: The Woman Behind the Monster

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2592 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Though Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley experienced countless trials and tribulations throughout her life, she endured them and they in turn, shaped her into the amazing writer she came to be. Mary was not her parent's first child. Her half-sister was from a past relationship between her mother and a man from England. Her father was distraught when her mother died shortly after Mary's birth. Shortly after her death, he began looking for more suitable women to be his new wife because he knew he could not look after the two small girls by himself.

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When Mary Shelley was born, her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was born on August 30, 1797 in Somers Town, London. She was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft, a famed educator, writer, and philosopher. She was the first child of William Godwin, a novelist, philosopher, and journalist. She also had a half-sister Fanny, who came about as a result of her mother's past relations with a man from America.

Mary was named after her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The original Mary had a drunker aristocrat for a father who failed at everything he attempted, and a mother who was a nondescript Irish woman. Mary first made her mark on the world when she opened a school alongside her sisters at the age of twenty-one. The school quickly failed, so Mary began traveling. She first stopped in Ireland, where she maintained a position as a governess for a time. Afterwards, she moved to London and worked for a publisher named James Johnson. After leaving London in 1792, she traveled to France to see the Revolution. Here she met Gilbert Imlay, an American man captaining a merchant ship.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay moved in together and lived this way until Mary gave birth to her daughter Fanny. She gave Fanny the last name Imlay. Before long, Imlay left Mary to fend for herself and take care of little Fanny alone. Mary decided to return to England with Fanny after being deserted. She attempted suicide in her depressed state and failed. She once again started working for James Johnson and began writing novels, political essays and history pieces.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is perhaps the one piece of literature that brought Mary Wollstonecraft to fame. It was published in 1792 and she was viewed as a pioneer for women's rights from then on. In her eyes, men and women should be raised, educated, and treated as equals. She believed that they should learn to live and coexist in peace and harmony with one another so long as neither of the two forgot their place. Her belief was that it was the privilege as well as the duty of women to bear the children while the men were privileged to have a superior legal position.

Mary Wollstonecraft's views led her to a meeting held by William Godwin, the man that would eventually come to be her husband. William was the son of a Nonconformist clergyman. He himself was part of the Calvinist ministry, but only for a few short years. His first book, Life of Chatham, was written after the works of some French enemies of organized religion, such as Voltaire, made him realize he wanted to take a different approach. He then became a philosopher-historian.

After he wrote History of the Commonwealth of England, it was proved as sound by scholars. He also wrote a series of sermons titled Sketches of History. His most famous piece of work was Political Justice, which was published four years before baby Mary's birth. He showed his literary versatility by writing not only a number of novels and a handful of plays, but when Mary was five years old he began publishing children's books. His most popular children's stories were the Tales from Shakespeare by his friends Mary and Charles Lamb, and his very own work Life of Chaucer.

He had many followers of "Godwinism," as they called his philosophy. Some of his philosophical disciples were William Hazlitt, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Coleridge and Lamb. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet, was particularly intrigued by the ideas proposed in Political Justice. He began inserting the themes of Godwinism into his poetry as well as trying to live out the principles. He was found to be a particularly devoted follower while the others eventually outshined Godwin and his philosophy.

William Godwin was handsome and slender in his youth, but he eventually became overweight and balding and his vision was quickly depleting. He hardly looked like the kind of man that would effectively influence the lives of millions of people. Even his most devoted followers described him as cold, impersonal and ever remote (Gerson 4,5). He ate excessively, borrowed money from anyone who was willing, and the most anyone could say about him was that he rarely smoked a pipe and drank very little. Still to this day no one understands why his followers worshiped him so much.

William Godwin was forty years old when he met thirty-six-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796. Although he was unaware of it yet, Mary was smashing his theories to pieces. The two met each other at one of William's social gatherings regularly held at his home at 7 Evesham Buildings in Somers Town on the outskirts of London. After a short period of time, the two began attending the theater, dining, strolling through London and frequenting coffeehouses together. Their mutual friends believed their relationship originated simultaneously in their minds, if not made in heaven.

Mary was perhaps one of the most intelligent women of her day, and Godwin dropped his cold aura and allowed himself to melt when he was in her presence. They began an affair in the fall of 1796 with no intention of getting married as neither of them particularly liked the restrictive terms of marriage. Mary then moved only a few doors down from him for convenience. They each wanted to maintain their independence, and they went to great lengths to do so, much to the amusement of their friends. They established separate social lives, neither one taking the other for granted.

In February of 1797, Mary discovered she was pregnant and everything changed as a result. Godwin's friends would suggest that William was anxious to have the ceremony performed. Although he personally was indifferent, he knew that Mary would be forsaken for birthing a child out of wedlock, and the "illegitimate" child would suffer. William also said he had grown fond of Mary's small daughter Fanny, whom he was teaching to read, and whom he wanted to receive his last name as well. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were joined in holy matrimony on March 29, 1797 at the altar of Saint Pancras Church.

They newly married couple tried to maintain at least the idea of their independence. They still lived in their separate houses a few doors apart, talked daily and only ate together when one of them arranged an invitation to do so. They always ate their lunches and dinners together at one of their houses, and they were completely oblivious to the fact that everyone, including their close friends, laughed at their exaggerated courtesy. Godwin knew his wife was approaching her due date, and it set him on edge. He could no longer focus on his work and the notes he wrote to her gradually got shorter and more closed-off as time went on.

Mary's labor was difficult enough that she had to be tended to by three physicians, one midwife, and two ladies who were close friends. The infant girl was born in the late evening of August 30, 1797. William suggested that they give her Mary's name, and she agreed. Later that night, Mary started suffering complications and for the next week and a half, she was under the constant attention of the three physicians. Godwin only left the room for the purpose of comforting Fanny. On September 9, she started to rapidly lose what was left of her strength, and on September 10, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft died.

Godwin realized that he was unfit to raise a three-year-old girl and an infant by himself. Several of the couple's friends volunteered to assist him, and a cook, a serving maid and a housemaid were all hired to tend to the house. Godwin realized that the only sufficient way to sufficiently solve his problem, and that was to remarry. Godwin met his first candidate in 1798- a woman by the name of Miss Harriet Lee. She was a headmistress of a girls' school in Bath, and collaborated with her sister Sophia to write a children's version of the Canterbury Tales. Godwin proposed to Harriet Lee in a letter after only a month. She ended the relationship because she understood the situation and why he was so hasty to remarry.

Godwin waited no more than a month after Maria Reveley, the wife of a close friend, had been widowed before he proposed to her. However, she was a good judge of character and declined his advances. The family dynamics soon changed with Godwin's marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801 (Mary Shelley 1). Godwin first met Mrs. Clairmont while they were both on an outing in the park with their two children. The four children would play together while the adults were left to sit and chat. They were married on December 21, 1801, the same year the new family had moved into the neighborhood.

Fanny was unwilling to obey her stepmother at first, but she soon was made to understand that there was a particular time and place to run wild. Mary, however, had grown to hate her stepmother. The only memories of her stepmother that Mary recorded are bad ones (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley 1). Mary could not deny that her stepmother took good care of her and her sister along with her own children, Charles and Jane, but she resented her nonetheless. The four children were joined by a new sibling, a little boy named William, when Mary Jane Godwin gave birth in 1803.

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Though her stepsister Jane was sent to a proper boarding school, Mary was never properly educated because Mary Jane Godwin saw no reason to do so. Mary had no interest in doing anything deemed a "woman's job." She would often burn food or let water boil over when being taught the basics of cooking because she was too busy reading. Mary read more than she did anything else. Her father had an extensive library which she often took advantage of. She could sometimes be found reading by her mother's grave, though she did not know her. She also enjoyed daydreaming- it offered her an outlet into her imagination.

She quickly found another creative escape in the form of writing. According to The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, she stated that "As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to 'write stories.'" Her first poem, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw" was published in 1807 through the publishing company her father started thanks to his new wife. By the time she was a teenager, Mary was in desperate need of a change of scenery as it was taking a large toll on her health. Her father arranged for her to stay with some friends in Dundee, Scotland.

Little did she know that she would meet her future husband upon his return to Scotland. Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of William Godwin's followers for a period of time in 1812. A year before he had become a follower of Godwinism, he had eloped with one of his sister's friends, Harriet Westbrook while they were both nineteen years old. History says that Mary Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley in the summer of 1813 when Mary, who was almost sixteen years old at the time, came home to London for a visit.

Percy Shelley would also have been in London at that time, along with his now-pregnant wife, Harriet. It may have been possible that Mary and Percy met several times unknowingly, seeing as Percy was at Mary's father's house so often in order to further his discipleship under the famed philosopher. Percy began to fall in love with Mary, and he confessed this to her on one of their walks to Mary's mother's grave at St Pancras churchyard on June 26, 1814. When Godwin found out about this on July 8, he forbade Mary to see Shelley any longer (A Biographical Sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) 1). On July 18, 1814, Mary agreed to accompany Shelley in his flee to France after he threatened to commit suicide. They took Mary's stepsister Jane, now calling herself Claire, with them.

Mary gives birth to a premature baby girl, whom she names Clara, on February 22, 1815. The baby dies two weeks later. As a part of the healing process from the baby, Claire suggests that the two accompany her to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Mary and Percy Shelley finally marry on December 30, 1816. After reading ghost stories together with some friends, Mary decided that she, along with the others, would write a horror story. This brings forth the birth of her most renowned book, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, published in March of 1818. She had been having nightmares about the death of her daughter, and her anxiety is what is believed to have brought this on. Mary was widowed at the age of twenty-four after a sailing accident in which Percy Shelley drowned. She later died at the age of fifty-three on February 1, 1851 due to brain cancer. She was buried at St Peter's Church in Bournemouth, with the remains of her late husband's heart.

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 in London, England and died in 1851. She was the daughter of two equally progressive thinkers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, which set the cast of her persevering intellect and her advanced education (Spark 18). She married Percy Bysshe Shelley in the year of 1816 and they traveled quite a lot together. Her most famous novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is viewed as perhaps the beginning of the science fiction genre. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley endured many struggles throughout her lifetime, but that is what has made her into such an amazing writer and that is why she is viewed so highly in the literary community today. 

Works Cited

"A Biographical Sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)." Victorianweb.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Gerson, Noel Bertram. Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. New York: W. Morrow, 1973. Web.

"Mary Shelley." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

"Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Spark, Muriel, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley. Mary Shelley: A Biography. New York: New American Library, 1988. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Sands 10

Mary Shelley: The Woman Behind the Monster

  1. Introduction paragraph
  1. Overview of her life
  2. Her impact
  1. Early Life
  1. Family background
  2. Growing up
  1. Moving forward
  1. Meeting new people
  2. Traveling the world
  1. Writings
  1. Where it started
  2. Her impact on the literary community
  1. Conclusion paragraph
  1. Overview of her life
  2. Restate introduction paragraph


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