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date: 14 July 2024

Shelley [née Godwin], Mary Wollstonecraftfree


Shelley [née Godwin], Mary Wollstonecraftfree

  • Betty T. Bennett

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)

by Richard Rothwell, exh. RA 1840

Shelley [née Godwin], Mary Wollstonecraft (1797–1851), writer, was born at 29 The Polygon, Somers Town, London, on 30 August 1797, the only daughter of William Godwin (1756–1836), author and political philosopher, and the second daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), author and political philosopher. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever eleven days after Mary Godwin was born, and William Godwin undertook to raise their daughter as well as Fanny Godwin (1794–1816), Wollstonecraft's illegitimate daughter with Gilbert Imlay (1754–1828). Mary Jane Godwin (née Vial; former married name Clairmont) (1768–1841), whom Godwin married in 1801, brought her two illegitimate children to the family: Charles Gaulis Clairmont (1795–1850) and Clara Mary Jane (Claire) Clairmont (1798–1879). The birth of William Godwin jun. (1803–1832) brought to five the siblings who were partially, or by law, related. Presided over by John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft that hung in Godwin's study, this unconventional family, in which political idealism and financial distress were part of daily life, brought Mary Godwin an early apprenticeship in the largely unorthodox path she followed throughout her life.

Early years and education

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's education as a child included attendance at a dame-school and a spell of seven months in 1811 at Miss Caroline Petman's school for the daughters of dissenters at Ramsgate, where she had been sent for sea-bathing to treat an infected arm. Unquestionably, however, she received her most important education at home. William Godwin set a high intellectual standard for the household, encouraging the children's aptitudes and imaginations, and instilling in Mary Godwin confidence in her own power and responsibility to effect change as an activist in a society in transition. Under his tutelage, she achieved a solid foundation in history (ancient and modern), mythology, literature, and the Bible; visiting instructors provided art and French lessons. She also studied Latin, an uncommon subject for girls, and attended adult theatre and lectures with her father and family. Mary Godwin adopted her father's deism, which she blended with a poetic pantheism. She also adopted his daily discipline of spending each morning in writing and study, and throughout the course of her life she continued to study widely and in depth. She was fluent in Italian and French, acquired Latin and Greek, and some Spanish.

The unusual circumstance of two parents whose works voiced and influenced the reformist politics of an age of political, social, and technological revolution developed in Mary Godwin from childhood a keen awareness of the socio-political issues of her era. Her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein provides a picture of her precocity and her early awareness of her parents' literary significance:

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing. As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories’.

p. v

To this heritage, Mary Godwin's stepmother, with whom she had a difficult and strained relationship, none the less provided another untraditional role model as an occasional author and as proprietor of the family publishing firm, M. J. Godwin & Co. In addition, the Godwins' many friends and acquaintances included a spectrum of important authors, scientists, and political reformers of the day, who brought to the home a world of ideas and a level of discourse that few girls (or boys, for that matter) would have experienced. Some, like S. T. Coleridge and Charles and Mary Lamb, strongly influenced Mary Shelley's works.

In 1811 William Godwin described his daughter as 'singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.' He also commented that she was 'very pretty' (Abinger MSS). Mary Godwin's contribution of a summary sketch for Monsieur Nongtongpaw, a comic poem published by M. J. Godwin & Co. in 1809 and often reprinted, demonstrates her precocious intellect, as does Aaron Burr's report of her 1812 'lecture', 'The influence of governments on the character of a people', orated by her brother (Burr, 1.307). Her father's opinion regarding her appearance was confirmed by most observers, who often noted her hazel eyes, light auburn hair, high forehead, and exceptionally fair complexion. R. Easton's posthumous miniature portrait (Bodleian) captures her younger appearance; R. Rothwell's 1840 portrait (National Portrait Gallery), her more mature.

Life and career, 1812–1816

In June 1812 Mary Godwin was sent to the home of William Baxter, one of Godwin's political admirers, again to treat her infected arm. On 10 November 1812 she and Christina Baxter arrived at the Godwins for a seven-month sojourn in London, and on the next day, Mary Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and his wife, Harriet, at the Godwin home. In March 1814 Mary Godwin's stay with the Baxters in Dundee ended, and she returned home. In the interval, P. B. Shelley's intellectual pursuits as well as his commitment to provide Godwin with desperately needed financial assistance, had gained him the interest and admiration of the entire Godwin household. In early May, Mary Godwin encountered P. B. Shelley once again, and the pair, often meeting at Wollstonecraft's graveside in St Pancras churchyard, fell in love. Mary Shelley later described that period of her life as 'careless, fearless youth' (Journals of Mary Shelley, 2.443) and P. B. Shelley praised her for 'The irresi[s]tible wildness & sublimity of her feelings' (Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1.402). They found in each other ideal mates: she, almost seventeen, Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's 'Child of love and light' (P. B. Shelley, Revolt of Islam, I.i.9), eager to study and write; he, five years older, already a published poet, and her parents' ardent disciple.

William Godwin failed in his attempts to convince both his daughter and P. B. Shelley to end the relationship, no doubt in part because of the very arguments against legal marriage advanced in his own and in Wollstonecraft's works. At 5 a.m. on the morning of 28 July, Mary Godwin, accompanied by her stepsister Claire Clairmont, met with P. B. Shelley at a waiting coach, and, with very little money, eloped to the continent. This marked the beginning of the couple's life together, which Mary Godwin described as 'very political as well as poetical' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1.29), a hectic and passionate amalgam of love, study, creativity, social defiance, and financial skirmishes, which periodically caused her considerable distress. But she recognized her own affinity with that lifestyle, musing that 'The soul only enjoys' serenity 'in passing' but it 'constrains' the imagination 'too much, so that it always comes back to the state it finds more suitable, a state of agitation' (Journals of Mary Shelley, 2.514).

While on their unconventional walking tour through war-torn Europe during the lull between Napoleon's first and final defeat, Mary Godwin and P. B. Shelley kept a daily journal, which soon became principally hers, and which she continued to keep until 1844. Mary Shelley's revision of the elopement journal, along with four 1816 letters and P. B. Shelley's poem 'Mont Blanc', was published anonymously as History of a Six Weeks' Tour of France, Switzerland, and Germany (1817). It formed a narrative of the Romantic feelings and observations about nature, social mores, and politics. The elopement journey was the first of their many travels and collaborations, in which they encouraged and inspired each other's writing, at times worked on the same projects, and pursued their iconoclastic lifestyle. Mary Godwin was already pregnant when the elopers, penniless, returned to England in September 1814 and met with almost universal disapproval from family and friends. It was only later, after the loss of P. B. Shelley's protection and wealth, that she was painfully brought to the full realization of the effects of the severe and enduring societal censure placed on her as a result of what she termed 'the outset of my life' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3.92).

The death of his grandfather in 1815 brought P. B. Shelley an annual income of £1000, which ended the couple's acute financial difficulties. From August 1815 until April 1816 P. B. Shelley and Mary Godwin made their home at Bishopgate, in Windsor Great Park, which later served as a setting for her third novel, The Last Man (1826). In January 1816 Mary Godwin gave birth to their son William, all the more rejoiced in, as the couple's first daughter, born in London on 22 February 1815, had died twelve days later.

The writing of Frankenstein, 1816

In May 1816 P. B. and Mary Shelley (as she was slowly becoming known, although they would not marry until later that year) travelled with their four-month-old son and Claire Clairmont to Geneva, Switzerland, with the hopes of remedying P. B. Shelley's poor health. They chose Geneva rather than Italy because Claire Clairmont, who had earlier initiated an affair with Lord Byron, was already pregnant and anxious to see him, in hope of a permanent liaison. For the ShelleyByron colony of writers and would-be writers, the summer was a period of mutual inspiration and productivity. In her introduction to her 1831 revised edition, Mary Shelley recounted the story, itself part of literary history, of that stormy night in June in which a ghost-writing contest led to her novel Frankenstein (1818). From a 'waking dream' she created an instant myth that captured the public imagination. The story of the scientist and his creature rapidly permeated all levels of society, and became the material of theatrical productions, newspapers, political cartoons, parliamentary debate, translations, and countless inexpensive and/or pirated reprints.

Mary Shelley's first novel voices the concept of private politics as a mirror image of public politics, a tenet that would pervade all of her major works. She used the trappings of the Gothic novel to illustrate the destructiveness not of science, but of power protected by wealth and position. In the public mind, the nameless Creature has often been given his Creator's name, ironically supporting Mary Shelley's thesis that a corrupt political system equally victimizes the empowered and the disempowered. The best-known fiction of the Romantic era, Frankenstein is credited with introducing the science fiction genre into English literature.

Initially, critics believed Frankenstein was written by a man. Walter Scott proposed the author was P. B. Shelley, beginning a chain of criticism that has endured to the present. Analysis of the novel, whether favourable or not, was conducted in terms of its reformist political vision, which grappled with the social, scientific, industrial, and economic issues of the era. Once it was discovered that its author was a woman, however, critics seldom directly addressed the novel's politics, considered a ‘male topic’. Like P. B. Shelley and other English Romantics, Mary Shelley utilized her own experiences to interpret society, revered nature as a source of renewal, and was committed to public and domestic reform based on democratic principles, education, and expansive love. But the traditional bias against intellectual women caused most contemporary reviewers to evaluate her novels largely as romances, although the fervent animus of some reviews may have resulted from the unspoken belief that her work would be dangerous to the status quo. The power and imagination of her writing was recognized by various commentators with the dubious compliment that she had a 'masculine mind'.

Married life with P. B. Shelley, 1816–1822

On the Shelleys' return to England in 1816, they first took lodgings in Bath to prevent William and Mary Jane Godwin from learning of Clairmont's pregnancy. That autumn two tragedies deeply affected the ShelleyGodwin circle. On 9 October Fanny Imlay Godwin committed suicide at Swansea. And on 9 November Harriet Shelley, in an advanced state of pregnancy, drowned herself in the Thames, her body not being discovered until 10 December. On 30 December, with the Godwins as witnesses, the Shelleys were married at St Mildred's Church, London, thus healing the breach between father and daughter. In March 1817 the Shelleys moved to Albion House, Marlow, where they remained until they left for the continent in March 1818. To both Shelleys' great disappointment, the court of chancery that spring refused P. B. Shelley's efforts to gain custody of Ianthe and Charles Shelley, his children with Harriet Shelley.

Mary Shelley's letters and journal express her eagerness to have children; she gave birth to her second daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, at Bishopgate on 2 September 1817. In March 1818 the Shelley entourage, including Claire Clairmont and her daughter Clara Allegra Byron, travelled to the warmer climate of Italy to treat P. B. Shelley's illness, which had been diagnosed as pulmonary disease (White, 1.538). In Italy they continued their intellectual practice of wide reading and writing, expanded their social circle, and frequently changed residences. At Leghorn Mary Shelley reintroduced herself to Maria (Reveley) Gisborne (who had cared for her during Wollstonecraft's final days), and her husband, John Gisborne, with whom she and P. B. Shelley formed a lifelong friendship.

From Leghorn, the Shelleys moved to the Casa Bertini in Bagni di Lucca, in the foothills of the Apennines, an area of Tuscany rich in the history of Castruccio Castracani, the subject of Mary Shelley's next novel. From there, they moved to Venice and Este, so that Claire Clairmont could visit her daughter Allegra, who was in Byron's custody. The infant Clara Shelley, already ill before the journey, died of dysentery at Venice on 24 September 1818. On that day, Mary Shelley noted: 'This is the Journal book of misfortunes' (Journals of Mary Shelley, 1.226). After wintering at Naples the Shelleys travelled to Rome in April 1819, where on 7 June William died of malaria, further devastating both Shelleys. Mary Shelley, already expecting her fourth child, suffered a severe depression, and, always of a more reserved nature, she withdrew further into herself and away from P. B. Shelley. The two tragedies caused considerable strain in the Shelleys' relationship, a strain, it has been suggested, which may also have been exacerbated by P. B. Shelley's attraction to other women. But the Shelleys' union, from its dramatic beginning, favoured the concept of expansive rather than exclusive love, as articulated in Mary Shelley's letters during her brief love experiment in 1814–15 with P. B. Shelley's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and in P. B. Shelley's poem Epipsychidion. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley became impatient when she felt his inclusivity demanded too much attention, as it had with Claire Clairmont.

Perhaps as a means to return the Shelleys to their usual empathy, their next projects were written in close collaboration. While at Leghorn from June until October 1819, they borrowed a holograph transcription of the Relazione della morte della famiglia Cenci seguita in Roma il di II Maggio 1599, which Mary Shelley copied. Based on her copy, P. B. Shelley wrote his tragedy The Cenci, the story of the Cenci family's history of incest and murder, and Mary Shelley translated the story into English, which the Shelleys originally intended to publish with the play. During the same period, Mary Shelley wrote Matilda, a fictional account of a father's incestuous love for his daughter. William Godwin, and then Mary Shelley herself, withheld the novella from publication, fearing that a woman's writing on this taboo topic would provoke a scandal akin to those generated by Godwin's publication of Wollstonecraft's Memoirs and by the Shelleys' elopement. Not published until 1959, Matilda has often been construed in narrow biographical terms, but recent scholarship has reinterpreted it in terms of its literary complexity of character and narrative voice. As a result, Matilda is often placed among Mary Shelley's most accomplished works.

From Leghorn, the Shelleys went to Florence, where they resided at Palazzo Marini, via Valfonda 4395, where their fourth, and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born on 12 November 1819. They intended to remain in Florence so that Mary Shelley could continue her research for the historical novel she had begun in Marlow in 1817, Valperga, or, The Life and Death of Castruccio Castracani, published in 1823 for her father's benefit. In January 1820, however, they moved to Pisa, their home for the following year and a half, where they formed an international circle of British, Greek, and Italian friends. In May 1822 the Shelleys and their friends the Williamses moved to Casa Magni at San Terenzo for the summer, where the next month, Mary Shelley suffered a near fatal miscarriage. Then, on 8 July, the Shelleys' life together came to a tragic close: P. B. Shelley and Edward Williams, returning from welcoming Leigh and Marianne Hunt to Italy, drowned in a squall in the gulf of Spezia.

Life and career, 1822–1844

Although deeply bereaved, Mary Shelley, almost immediately after P. B. Shelley's death, expressed her confidence in her ability to write and to raise her son. She was also determined to bring P. B. Shelley the widespread recognition that he had failed to receive in his lifetime, by editing and publishing his works. Within a year after P. B. Shelley's death, she published her own 'A Tale of the Passions', and two essays, 'Madame D'Houtetot', and 'Giovanni Villani', as well as P. B. Shelley's texts, in The Liberal.

Initially, Mary Shelley had planned to remain on the continent, which she found more conducive to her independent temperament. But Sir Timothy Shelley, P. B. Shelley's father, who refused ever to meet her, would not consider any support for Percy Florence unless he was raised in England. For her son's sake, she returned in August 1823 and spent most of the remainder of her life as an 'exile' in a conservative England that was inhospitable to her ambitions and her intellect. Sir Timothy granted a repayable allowance for Percy Florence that carried with it serious restrictions for Mary Shelley. After the publication of her edition of P. B. Shelley's Posthumous Poems (1824), Sir Timothy withdrew the allowance, demanded the volume be withdrawn, and prohibited Mary Shelley from publishing P. B. Shelley's works or bringing the Shelley name to public attention. Two years later, he temporarily withheld the allowance when a critic cited her name in a review of The Last Man, which had been published as 'by the author of Frankenstein'. Despite his power over her, Mary Shelley over the years found a number of ways to circumvent his restriction just as she persistently negotiated for additional funds as Percy Florence's educational needs increased.

Over the next two decades Mary Shelley published several dozen reviews, short-stories, and poems, as well as some of P. B. Shelley's works, in prominent London journals and the then popular annuals. Her own ambitions, however, went far beyond the periodical press. As she announced to Leigh Hunt on 9 February 1824, 'I am going to plunge into a novel, and hope that its clear water will wash off the … mud of the magazines' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1.412). That novel was The Last Man (1826). Set in the twenty-first century, it focuses on six characters whose lives are dramatically interwoven with private and public issues of power when a cataclysmic plague seemingly destroys every person on earth except one, Lionel Verney, the narrator of the novel. This highly political work of fiction, with its graphic scenes of death and war, received almost universally scathing reviews. Dismissed as another end-of-the-world work of the kind then popular, with its fundamental thesis of the imagination as curative and its parable of personal and societal politics, the novel was alien to contemporary critics. Today, The Last Man is generally regarded as her second best novel.

Mary Shelley's next major work returned to the genre of the historical novel. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) is set in the fifteenth century, and presents a retelling of the events surrounding the struggles of Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, duke of York, to wrest the English throne from Henry VII. Although it portrays Henry as ruthless and manipulative and Richard as seemingly idealistic and caring, the novel enunciates her philosophy that, in the end, there is little difference between men who destroy nations in the interest of their own power. Lodore (1835), her fifth novel, and Falkner (1837), her sixth and final novel, were to continue this theme, but differ from her earlier work in their shift away from supernatural or historical settings to contemporary stories in which private politics metaphorically critique the limitations of the conventional Victorian class and legal systems. Between 1832 and 1839, while she was completing Lodore and Falkner, Mary Shelley also contributed the vast majority of the essays comprising the five volumes of the Revd Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet of biography: lives of the most eminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835–7) and Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (1838–9). Drawing on her past readings and current research, the Lives astutely profile a wide spectrum of figures within their historical context while continuing to reflect her reformist vision.

Mary Shelley's determination to reprint her husband's works had not waned during this time, and in 1839 Edward Moxon published her carefully edited collections: The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 vols.), and Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley (2 vols.). Her one-volume edition of his poetical works, also published by Moxon, is dated 1840. In order to circumvent Sir Timothy's restriction on biography, she included annotations that placed the works within their historical context. The edition is regarded as a turning point in the acceptance of P. B. Shelley as a major author, and despite their strategic reticence, her notes have proved an invaluable resource for future biographers and critics.

After her return to England in 1823, Mary Shelley had formed new friendships with a number of leading figures of the day, including Frances Wright, Prosper Mérimée, Thomas Moore, Lady Morgan, Caroline Norton, and John Howard Payne. She continued her friendship with the Lambs and Thomas Love Peacock and renewed her girlhood friendship with Isabella Baxter Booth. She also became a close friend of the Joshua Robinson and Beauclerk families, and played a major role in a transgender deception in which the writer Mary Diana Dods passed as 'Mr Sholto Douglas' and Isabella Robinson successfully passed as 'his wife' in an élite Anglo-French circle in Paris. Of her circle in Italy, she remained close friends only with Jane Williams and the Gisbornes. And almost until the end of her life, she and Claire Clairmont sparred, at times drawing together in mutual aid.

Although Mary Shelley at times found wanted comfort and companionship in male and female friendships, she never formed another relationship that approached the one she had shared with P. B. Shelley. She rejected offers of marriage from Payne and Edward John Trelawny, expressed interest in Washington Irving, and appears to have formed an intimacy with Aubrey Beauclerk, a Liberal MP, which ended in disappointment. As she wrote, 'I have always felt certain that I should never again change my name—& that is a comfort, it a pretty & a dear one' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2.204).

Always pressed for funds, Mary Shelley moved frequently, residing mainly in the area of greater London, but from 1833 until 1836 at Harrow on the Hill, in order for Percy Florence Shelley to attend Harrow School. Later, she would see that he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, as well, fulfilling P. B. Shelley's and her own educational aspirations for their son. Despite her own financial restrictions, she habitually aided her father, her widowed stepmother, and many others in her circle.

Final years, 1840–1851

With the impetus to provide funds for an Italian expatriate who would later try to blackmail her, Mary Shelley wrote the two-volume Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844), her last full-length work, based on letters written during two journeys that she had taken with Percy Florence and several of his friends. Unlike most other works in the popular genre of travel memoirs, Rambles interpolates a strong Romantic reformist perspective through its commentaries on war, national manners, historical perspectives, and politics.

In 1844 Sir Timothy Shelley's death left the encumbered part of the estate to Mary and Percy Florence Shelley, who also inherited the title. For the first time since P. B. Shelley's death, she knew financial security. But it would only be four years later, with the marriage of Percy Florence Shelley and the widowed Jane Gibson St John, that Mary Shelley again had a domestic circle in which she felt genuine love and contentment. Throughout the last decade of her life, she suffered from periods of intense headaches, as well as pain and paralysis in her arm. Nevertheless, she travelled, made changes to her editions of P. B. Shelley, and as late as 1848 returned to work again on the biography of her husband that she had begun years earlier. But illness, first that of her daughter-in-law, then her own, put an end to that plan. On 1 February 1851, already in a coma, Mary Shelley died of a brain tumour at her home at 24 Chester Square, London. The younger Shelleys fulfilled her wish of burial with her parents by removing Wollstonecraft's and Godwin's remains from the St Pancras churchyard and burying all three on 8 February in St Peter's Church, Bournemouth, near Boscombe, the Shelleys' home.


During her lifetime, Mary Shelley was celebrated as the author of the extraordinary Frankenstein and otherwise generally regarded as a gifted writer of romances. Since that time, her own accomplishments were subsumed under P. B. Shelley's, even to the extent of wrongly crediting Frankenstein in large measure to him rather than to the actual author. Critics continued to ignore Mary Shelley's vision, which depicted the limitations of conventional values through her metaphoric use of public and domestic abuse of power, advocating instead an egalitarian, humane system based on reason and universal love. Her own family abetted the depoliticization and domestication of Mary Shelley's works, which was not an unusual development within the context of Victorian conventional presumptions of women's ambitions, intellect, and concerns. Whatever her frustrations and occasional ambivalence in her struggle as a single, independent, intellectual woman, however, she had always held to the belief that it was her 'fate' to be a writer (Journals of Mary Shelley, 2.431–2, Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3.105).

Mary Shelley's unusual childhood prepared her for that destiny; her adult life fostered her aspiration with each major work to achieve more 'in the staircase I am climbing' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1.361). Reassessment of her works in the mid- to later twentieth century initially often depicted her as a victim of conventional expectations for women. Readers, however, spurred by the women's movement, began to recognize her as a Romantic whose inherent independence of vision and political dissonance required further reconsideration. The impetus for this change in perspective originated in renewed interest in Frankenstein, as the ethical dilemmas posed by technological and medical advances increasingly resonated with the novel's prescient examination of power and responsibility. As a result, in the closing quarter of the twentieth century, new editions of Mary Shelley's novels, short stories, letters, and journals were published that provided a wide opportunity to read her works unfiltered by nineteenth-century mores. In this period, upwards of 500 books and scholarly articles as well as countless review articles appeared that discuss Mary Shelley and her works.

Frankenstein also holds an enduring place within popular culture, quickly becoming a common, often misunderstood, metaphor. In 1824 George Canning in parliamentary debate argued that freeing the West Indian slave 'in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passion, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance' (Hansard 2, 10, 16 March 1824, 1103). Charles Sumner, an American statesman, during the American Civil War equated 'the Southern Confederacy with the soulless monster of Frankenstein. The wretched creation of a mortal science without God; endowed with life and nothing else' (R. Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein, 1999, 14). Some decades later, Sir John Lubbock argued in parliament that it 'would be impossible to control the Frankensteins we have ourselves created', the Frankensteins in this case being liberal reforms .

The story of the creature and the scientist has been drawn on as the basis of more than one hundred stage productions, beginning with Richard Brinsley Peake's 1823 Presumption in London, which inspired fourteen other dramatizations within three years in France and England (S. E. Forry, Hideous Progenies, ix). Frankenstein's film history began with Thomas Edison's 1910 production, but indisputably the most influential screen production was the 1931 version directed by James Whale, and starring Boris Karloff as the creature, a role that he reprised in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Karloff's presentation of the creature, with its halting movements and its prominent scars, has remained imprinted on the popular consciousness, a pervasive cultural icon with which every subsequent cinematic interpretation has had to deal. The numerous serious film versions that followed have, to date, failed to capture the complexities of the novel, or replace the Karloff image in the popular imagination. Persistent cinematic interest has also spawned comedic versions which helped to contribute to the popular dissemination and distortion of the original work; Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974) is the most famous and enduring of these satires, but also influential in this regard was the 1960s television series The Munsters. The creature and the scientist, in various incarnations, also appear commonly in cartoons, advertisements, comic books, toys, records, CD-ROMs, and on the internet.

Notwithstanding these numerous popular interpretations and adaptations of Frankenstein, the novel and Mary Shelley's other texts are increasingly the focus of scholarly interest and literary investigation. As a result, large numbers of readers have come to appreciate the complexities of the original novel that Mary Shelley referred to as her 'defence of Polypheme' (Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1.91). Mary Shelley's international significance was demonstrated in 1997, as bicentennial conferences and exhibits in Australia, the United States, and Europe celebrating her birth explored the meaning of her works and her philosophy. The unusual attention given the discovery of her lost children's story Maurice and its 1998 publication represent another marker of the recognition of Mary Shelley's increased stature. Re-evaluation of Mary Shelley's literary achievements is currently very much in process, and her overall significance is yet to be recognized. More than 245 editions of Frankenstein have been published, including translations in Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. If she had created only Frankenstein, her significance in literary history would be secure; but a full understanding of the import of all of her major works may change our understanding of literary history as well.


  • The journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–1844, ed. P. Feldman and D. Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (1987)
  • The letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. B. T. Bennett, 3 vols. (1980–88)
  • MSS of the Shelley–Godwin circle, Bodl. Oxf., MSS Abinger [on deposit]
  • W. Godwin, journals, 6 April 1788–26 March 1836, Bodl. Oxf., MSS Abinger
  • NYPL, Pforzheimer collection
  • B. T. Bennett, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: an introduction (1998)
  • The letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F. L. Jones, 2 vols. (1964)
  • W. H. Lyles, Mary Shelley: an annotated bibliography (1975)
  • A. Burr, The private journal of Aaron Burr, ed. M. L. Davis, 2 vols. (1838)
  • The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley, ed. N. Crook, P. Clemit, and B. T. Bennett, 8 vols. (1996)
  • The Clairmont correspondence: letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, ed. M. K. Stocking, 2 vols. (1995)
  • K. N. Cameron, D. H. Reiman, and D. D. Fischer, eds., Shelley and his circle, 1773–1822, 10 vols. (1961–2002)
  • W. St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys (1989)
  • E. Dowden, The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols. (1886)
  • C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: his friends and contemporaries, 2 vols. (1876)
  • R. G. Grylls, Mary Shelley (1938)
  • R. Ingpen, Shelley in England (1917)
  • J. Marshall, The life and letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2 vols. (1889)
  • Mary Shelley: collected tales and stories, ed. C. E. Robinson (1976)
  • Shelley and Mary, 4 vols. (privately printed, 1882)
  • W. R. Thurman, ‘Letters about Shelley from the Richard Garnett papers’, PhD diss., U. Texas,
  • N. I. White, Shelley, 2 vols. (1940)
  • S. Curran, Frankenstein: the Pennsylvania electronic edition (1999)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • BL, letters to Claire Clairmont, Ashley MSS 4020, 5023
  • BL, corresp. with Leigh Hunt, Add. MSS 38523–38524
  • BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund
  • Bodl. Oxf., Abinger MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Mary Peacock
  • Essex RO, letters to H. and E. Smith
  • Keats House, Hampstead, London, letters to John Murray and Leigh Hunt
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton


Wealth at Death

held funds and real estate in common with son

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State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, Sydney
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Trinity College, Cambridge
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Duke University, William R. Perkins Library, Durham, North Carolina
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British Library, London
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Huntington Library, San Marino, California
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Essex Record Office
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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New York Public Library
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
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Harvard University, Houghton Library
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New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library
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Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas