Happy Birthday, Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, Authoress of "Frankenstein"It’s the birthday of Mary Shelley, born Mary Godwin in London on this date in 1797. Her mother — feminist advocate Mary Wollstonecraft — died of complications after giving birth to young Mary. Her father, philosopher and author William Godwin, raised her. She grew up surrounded by literary luminaries of her day, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, and she loved to write stories.

When she was 16, she fell in love with one of her father’s students, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who happened to be married. The lovers ran off to Europe, where they conceived a daughter who died shortly after she was born. In the summer of 1816, they spent some time in Switzerland with Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Jane Clairmont.

Byron and Percy Shelley spent long hours debating philosophical topics like the nature of life, and whether it might be possible to reanimate the dead. Mary Godwin became obsessed with the question, to the point that it disturbed her sleep. She later wrote, “I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — 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; and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” That gave rise to her most famous novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.

Frankenstein begins: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. … It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the pains, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac for the above.


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