The Electrifying Mary Shelley

by Suzanne Nielsen

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life...His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away...hope that...this thing...would subside into dead matter...he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains...
-Mary Shelley, recalling her nightmare that generated Frankenstein.

The setting of Frankenstein's genesis was, as might be expected, the proverbial "dark and stormy night." The year was 1816; the place was Geneva, Switzerland. Before going to sleep that June night, Mary Shelley had spent the evening huddled around a roaring fire with her husband and friends reading German ghost stories. Lightening bounced off the walls and illuminated the faces of all who were present that evening: Lord Byron, John Polidori (Byron's traveling physician), Percy Shelley, Clare Clairmont (Mary's step sister), and Mary. Lord Byron challenged all who were present to compete with him in writing the ghost story to end all ghost stories. The sky magnified the challenge by thrashing and crashing, inspiring the opening sentence of Mary's drafted version of Frankenstein: "It was on a dreary night of November."

Before retiring to bed that night Mary had agreed to take Byron up on his challenge. She slept restlessly while the creature that would become Frankenstein's creation appeared to her vividly. Eleven months later she turned that creature into to a modern Prometheus in her completed first novel. The following January 1818, Frankenstein was published. The author's name on the cover read Mrs. Percy Shelley. Mary was twenty years old at the time of publication.

Those eleven months spent writing and revising Frankenstein were themselves filled with frightening experiences. Four months after starting her novel, Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide. A month later, Percy Shelley's wife committed suicide. The following month, Percy and Mary wed in London. Then there were the children. Between 1815 and 1819 Mary gave birth to a daughter (Clara) who lived only a few weeks, a son (William) who died at the age of three, another Clara who lived only a year, and Percy, her only child to live to adulthood. In 1822 she suffered a miscarriage that almost took her life, and a month later Percy Shelly Sr. drowned at sea when his schooner was caught by a sudden storm. Mary was just shy of twenty-five years old. Whew.

Let me slow down and backtrack a bit here. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, born in August of 1797 to William Godwin, a political activist and philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a renowned feminist, was destined to leave behind an electrifying story, both through her invented works of fiction and her own biography.

Ten days after her birth, Mary's mother died due to complications, leaving behind infant Mary and a toddler daughter, Fanny. William Godwin parented both girls alone; he remarried when Mary was an adolescent. She and her father appeared to have a close relationship; Godwin saw to it that his daughter shared in the discussions of his friends on such themes as alchemy, religion and politics. As a result, Mary grew up reading and writing at a young age outside of the parameters of children's literature. She embraced poetry and alternative ideas to include atheism, feminism and life after life.

One of Godwin's admirers was the young Percy Shelley; he spent evenings at their house deep in discussion with Godwin about politics and poetry. Shelley was married at the time, but not necessarily content. He and Mary became intellectually attracted to one another, and as a result they spent many afternoons walking and talking about life and literature. They soon fell in love. Though he held liberal views and espoused free love, William Godwin was strongly against their involvement-Shelley was after all a married man, and his daughter only sixteen.

Percy and Mary left London for France, against her father's wishes. Mary's stepsister Jane Clare Clairmont traveled with them and they were gone for six weeks, until money ran dry. Only after the death of Shelley's wife and the subsequent marriage to his daughter did Godwin agree to make amends. It is during this silence between father and daughter that Mary began her novel.

Let's revisit that dark and stormy night in Geneva after everyone had bedded down. Mary had a dream; her dream revealed to her an image of what would eventually become known as Victor Frankenstein's creature. From what dark chambers of the mind did that dream issue? Frankenstein has been analyzed ad infinitum, and scholars continue to look at major themes and motifs in the text such as alienation, death, childbirth and (lack of) parental influence. Some see William Godwin as Victor Frankenstein and Mary as his creature. Others signify Frankenstein's corpse snatching and the act of stitching together used body parts as a means of "playing God," or rather, mothering and fathering a child within the womb of the laboratory. Electricity is a force in the story's progression, reflecting the influence of industrialization on society. Shelley's harrowing experience with death and desire to bring back to life her own mother is sometimes seen as a metaphorical connection in this creation as well. We can go on and on, as over 50 adaptations for the screen have-everyone has a spin on a great story told and everyone likes a scary story, especially if we can make it seem real. We know this much: in the summer of 1816 in Switzerland a child was born. His name was Victor Frankenstein. His mother's name was Mary Shelley. Like all humans, neither were immortal, yet their spirits live on.

Although Mary Shelly is mostly recognized for writing Frankenstein, her other works carry merit in the literary canon as well. Mathilda, written in 1819, a year after the publication of Frankenstein, is a story that went unpublished until 1959. Why? Some scholars say it is because the little story breathes too many secrets of unrequited love-a story about incest and death. Mary sent it to her father, and he encouraged her to not publish it. Reading it we recognize where the story mirrors Mary's own life and that of her father's. We also have another overlooked story titled Maurice, written in 1820, yet unpublished until 1997. It is story about a child who is abandoned by his parents, a recurring theme in Shelley's work. Beauty and revulsion, decay and destruction, nature vs. nurture, and a modern Prometheus are just a few recurring themes in Shelley's life and work.

At fifty-three years of age, Mary Shelley died of a brain tumor in London, alone. It was a cold February day, the skies were overcast and the mood morose. She left behind one son, Percy, and many protagonists that live on. The challenge she took up against Byron thirty-five years earlier involved a man giving birth to a creature. In the end that man denounced his creation, a Godwinian gesture that Mary Shelley never quite recovered from. Mary spent years anthologizing Percy Shelley's work and continuing to write short stories, essays and commentaries for literary magazines to support herself and her son. She was a creature of politics and feminism and a feminist, a creature that was destined to leave behind a story that lives on into a new millennium.

What is a poet? Is he not that which wakens melody in the silent chords of the human heart? A light which arrays in splendor things and thoughts which else were dim in the shadow of their own insignificance...but above all, a poet's soul is Love.
- Mary Shelley

© 2007 by Suzanne Nielsen.

Suzanne Nielsen has been published in various literary journals nationally and internationally. A collection of poetry, East of the River, was recently published by So’ham Books.