Sunday, 6 March 2011

Mary Shelley 30th Aug 1797 – 1st Feb 1851

Mary Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on 3oth Aug 1797, was a short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer and travel writer. Best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. After her mother’s death when she was just 11 days old, she and her sister were raised by their father until he remarried when Mary was 4yrs old. He married a woman described as quick tempered and quarrelsome – but the marriage was a success. Godwin provided his daughter with a rich, but informal education, encouraging her to embrace his liberal political theories. He took his children on educational outings, gave them full access to his library, encouraged Mary in her writing, and ensured they had access to the many intellectuals that visited him. Admitting he was not following their mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosophy as she had outlined in her works such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mary’s education was unusual and advanced for a girl at the time, and at 15yrs her father described her as “Singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible”.
            Mary’s father became acquainted with Percy Shelley in 1814, and after they fell out over money, Percy began secretly meeting Mary at her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard, where they fell in love. She was just 17 and he 22yrs old. Her father disapproved and tried to break up the relationship and save the “spotless fame” of his daughter. Against his wishes, in 1814 Mary began a more serious relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley. And together with her stepsister Claire Clairmont the pair left for France in July, and travelled through Europe; Leaving Percy’s pregnant wife behind. They read works by Mary’s mother and others, kept a joint journal and continued their own writing. Upon their return Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child.
            She was ostracised, the couple were in constant dept., and Mary’s father refused to have anything to do with them. Pregnant and ill, Mary had to cope with all this, as well as Percy’s joy at the birth of his son by wife Harriet; as well as his constant outings with her stepsister Claire. On 22nd Feb 1815 she gave birth to a premature baby girl, who did not survive long, being found by Mary in her crib. The loss of her child left Mary in acute depression, haunted by visions of the baby. By the summer she had conceived again, and recovered some of her former health. And in 1816 she gave birth to a second child, William, whom they nicknamed Willmouse. This was the year they famously spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polodori and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant by Byron, as well as others near Geneva. Where she first conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein, and where she first began to call herself ‘Mrs Shelley’. The philosophy and intellectual conversations of the group in Geneva, as well as the German ghost stories they told to entertain, suggesting the supernatural tale to her imagination.
            The couple actually married soon after their return from this trip, after the suicide of Harriet, who was discovered drowned in the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. When Percy was advised to remarry to strengthen his custody case, which Harriet’s family were obstructing. They married on 30th Dec 1816 at St Mildred’s Church. And Mary was already pregnant with their third child. Clara was born on 2nd Sept 1817, that same year that Frankenstein was published anonymously. Her first readers assumed that Percy was the author.
            A very young Clara died in Sept 1818, in Venice. And William in June of the same year, in Rome. These losses left Mary in a deep depression that isolated her from her husband. The birth of Percy Florence, her only surviving child, finally lifted her spirits. Though she always nursed the memory of her lost children and suffered always from further bouts of depression.
            In 1822 an again pregnant Mary moved, along with Percy, Claire and a group of friends, to the isolated Villa Magni, from where they didn’t intend on returning. Again, she lost the child. Suffering so badly, and losing so much blood, she nearly died. Depressed and debilitated, she had to look on as Percy spent more and more time with another woman. In this same year her husband, Percy, drowned when his sailing boat sank during a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici leaving her alone with her young son, and in poor. Some say under suspicious circumstances.  He was cremated on the beach by Byron, and Hunt at Viareggio.
Mary returned to England to devote herself to the upbringing of her son and her writing career. Her other works show she remained a political radical throughout her life. Often arguing through her writing that cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practised by women, was the way to reform civil society.
            The last decade of her life was dogged by illness; suffering from severe headaches and bouts of paralysis which prevented her reading and writing, and probably caused by the brain tumour that was to kill her at the age of 53 on 1st Feb 1851. She was buried at St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, near her son and daughter-in-law’s home. On the first anniversary of her death they opened her desk to find inside it locks of hair from each of her dead children, a notebook she had shared with Percy, and a copy of his poems, one page of which was folded around a silk parcel. The parcel contained some of her husband’s ashes and the remains of his heart, which she had saved from his cremation.
Portrait by Richard Rothwell – 1840
Source – Wikipedia 2011 and other various works.

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