Today I am sharing my talk from earlier this year: an introduction to Mary Shelley. Enjoy! (Apologies for the referencing being less robust than I’d usually endeavour to carry out – if you have questions you can always get in touch with me on Twitter, or send an email).
Beyond Frankenstein: the writings of Mary Shelley
A talk for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017, Humanities Research Centre, University of York
My aim with this talk is to give a run-through of the author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her life, and her writings. If I can do anything today I hope I can encourage some of you to go and read another MWS novel that isn’t about a reanimated corpse! I’d also like to focus on the fact that it is Frankenstein’s birthday in the years 2016-2017. Exactly 200 years ago MWS was writing her masterpiece, to be published on the 1st January 1818.
Some of the things I will discuss in this talk are as follows:
- What was MWS doing 200 years ago?
- Portraits of MWS
- Her literary family
- Brief timeline of her life and works, emphasising her complex and varied life after Frankenstein was published.
- Spotlight on Valperga: her second novel to be published in 1823
- The summer of 1816 and the composition of Frankenstein
- Relationship (literary and biographical) with Percy Bysshe Shelley
- A reading of one of her poems
200 years ago
But what was MWS doing on 8 March 1817, exactly 200 years ago today? Although we don’t have an entry for March 8th, she does write in her journal a few days later…
Monday [March 10] — I read the Rambler and Amadis. I go up to town the following day [March 11] — See Manuel— & the pictir picture of Brutus. I return Thursday [March 13] & the following week we enter our house [March 18] — Write every day — Read Waverly — Pliny’s letters — Political Justice & Miltons Tenure of Kings & Magistrates. Shelley reads Waverly — Tales of my Landlord — & several of the works of Plato. Godwin comes down [April 2] and we go on the water with him — Sunday [April 6] he returns — We go to Maidenhead with him — it is drearily cold. On In the evening the Hunts come. Mrs Hunt is very unwell — H A[lba] comes. C.[lare] has been with us a week before.
This entry summarises March 1817, in which the Shelleys were living in Marlow, just outside London. Some of the characters referred to here include her father William Godwin, her husband PBS, the literary couple of Leigh and Marianne Hunt, and her stepsister Claire. MWS would also have been pregnant at this time.
She’s also discussing going to the theatre (Manuel), an art exhibition on Piccadilly (Brutus), her reading such as the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Milton, and her father’s work. She notes PBS’s reading, including Plato. Most importantly she has put ‘write every day’. If we go to the next month, April, we can be clearer on what she was writing: on 10 April, she notes ‘Correct F’ meaning Frankenstein.
MWS also wrote the following letter around 200 years ago in March 1817 to Leigh Hunt:
I am now writing in the Library of our house in which we are to sleep tonight for the first time – It is very comfortable & expectant of its promised guests – The statues are arrived and everything is getting on [statues: Percy’s full-size casts of Apollo and Venus] – Come then, dear, good creatures, and let us enjoy with you the beauty of the Marlow sun and the pleasant walks that will give you all health spirits & industry
We can see a buzzing hive of literary activities, and it was 1817 that MWS published her first work: History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, and it was a jointly authored text with her husband PBS. Appearing in November 1817, and it included edited journal entries and letters by both authors, as well as a poem by PBS. It documented their travels in Europe in 1814 and 1816.
This neatly identifies what I am particularly interested in my own research, namely, the collaboration between these two authors. Today is about celebrating MWS, but I believe recognising her collaboration with her husband is also crucial to giving her the full credit she is due as a writer. This is because my main original contribution to this field as a PhD student at the University of York, is a demonstration of MWS’s involvement in the production of PBS’s writings.
I identify shared working spaces, and my analysis reveals the reciprocity of a relationship that in popular culture – including much of the discourse surrounding the Frankenstein manuscript – is often misrepresented as that of a patriarchal husband exerting intellectual dominance over his wife. More generally, the Shelleys’ interwoven works reveal the importance of social stimulation for the production of remarkable literature.
The most famous portrait of MWS is by Richard Rothwell. The painting was exhibited in 1840. By this time MWS had published all 6 of the novels that came to press in her lifetime. This is how the author of Frankenstein is so often represented – it is this portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London alongside her contemporaries, Lord Byron and PBS. She is wise and beautiful in this image:
However, at the time of her life which MWS is most famous for – the composition of Frankenstein, a book she began writing when she was just 18 years old – she was far less experienced.
This portrait is a posthumous miniature, supposedly based on a death-mask, and represents a younger MWS. Such an image is perhaps more appropriate to place alongside those most famous portraits of PBS and Byron, who died so young (aged 29 and 36 respectively).
We have no painted image of MWS when she was actually that age. In Rome in 1819 MWS sat for the same amateur artist that painted PBS’s likeness (above). It has not survived, and anyway, MWS disliked it, saying it made her ‘a great dowdy’. So she’d probably be glad we only have her approved image produced many years later!
A lack of a true image of the young MWS – the author of Frankenstein – makes her even more elusive. Her life was so carefully documented in writings including letters, journals, and her fictional works, which sometimes reflect her personal experiences.
The literary family
MWS came from a very literary family – sometimes described as England’s ‘first family of writers’. Her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were both political novelists and social commentators. Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to MWS.
Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was a treatise on the right to education and her understanding of women’s social status. As well as his other works such as Political Justice and Caleb Williams, William Godwin wrote a memoir of his wife after her death. The book was met with hostility because of its frank depiction of her unconventional life.
MWS’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, recalled her upbringing in the household of William Godwin as having high intellectual standards. She wrote, rather disdainfully:
if you cannot write an epic poem or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head , you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging.
After all, William Godwin knew pretty much everybody who as anyone in literary London, and MWS met many illustrious literary visitors as a child, including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
However, she was prone to seek solitude. Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave is in Old St Pancras Churchyard in London (you can visit it a short walk from the British Library). This is where the young MWS (then still called Mary Godwin) would go to read and meditate. When the young (and married) poet PBS, a disciple of her father, came into her life, it was at her mother’s graveside that they would meet and eventually declare their love for one another.
MWS was born in London, and eloped with PBS in 1814 when she was just 16. Claire went with them. In 1815 her premature baby dies and this was one of the many tragedies the Shelleys had to endure. It is in 1816 that they travelled to Geneva and MWS began writing Frankenstein. Just before this trip, Claire had become Lord Byron’s mistress.
1816 continued with more tragedy as MWS’s half-sister Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s other daughter, committed suicide, as did Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet. Claire would have a child by Byron the following year but this child would not make it to adulthood. In 1818 the Shelleys move to Italy. Not long after the deaths of two more of their children, PBS drowned off the coast of Tuscany in 1822. In her widowhood MWS returned to London and continuted to write. She died in 1851, aged 53 years old. It is suspected she died of a brain tumour of long standing.
MWS travelled to and lived in so many places, including…
- London, incl. Pimlico, Holburn, Regents Park
(Note that she was not a Lake District Romantic, and never visited there. Although her father was friends with the lake poet Coleridge, and PBS spent time there before he met her)
- France (e.g. Calais, Paris, Chamonix, Nice)
- Italy (e.g. Pisa, Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Lake Como, Tuscany countryside)
- & Germany, Switzerland, Holland
MWS was very well travelled and well read. From 1814 onwards she would record all the texts she had studied and enjoyed, as well as those read by PBS.
Here is a list of MWS’s publications, showing her considerable creative output. (This does not include her short stories, plays, or unpublished works including much of her poetry). This list is just to demonstrate the amount that she did publish, steadily across the years.
1817 History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (travelogue)
1818 Frankenstein 1st edn
1824 Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (editor)
1826 The Last Man
1830 The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck
1831 Frankenstein revised edition
1831 Proserpine (drama)
1839 Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (editor), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (editor)
1844 Rambles in Germany and Italy (travelogue)
I will come back to Frankenstein – but it might be worth explaining here what some of those other works contain. The Last Man is set in the future, and Lodore and Falkner are settled in MWS’s own time. But Valperga is a historical novel, and I’d like to do a spotlight on this book, her second novel to be published, which is very engaging read and well worth seeking out. Valperga was written a few years after the Shelleys’ first meeting, when they were married and living in Italy.
Valperga: a spotlight
This novel took a long time to write. Conceived in 1817, MWS began reading for the historical background of the novel in 1818, but did not start writing until 1820. The novel was completed and sent first to the publishers by PBS in 1821, and then to Godwin for publication in January 1822 under the name of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, but it was not actually published until 1823. MWS described the novel as ‘a child of mighty slow growth’. She explained in a letter ‘it has indeed been a work of some labour since I have read and consulted a great many books’.
But what is this novel about, and why should we read it? The tale is set in 14th century Italy and the protagonist Castruccio is a warrior and leader. He is based on a real historical figure, and her extensive research of Italian political history and literature is evident.
But the name Valperga comes from the Tuscan city of Valperga and the city’s countess, Euthanasia. The two characters, both powerful, are on opposing sides, and though they are in love they reject their feelings to follow their political allegiances. The female character is undoubtedly the main protagonist, as she becomes the one who comforts those hurt by Castruccio’s tyranny. One of the many reasons that I love this novel is another female character, Beatrice, who is also formidable, but in a completely different way.
Beatrice is an orphaned prophetess, young, beautiful and seduced by Castruccio. His desertion of her is the visceral revelation of his cruelty and selfishness. Her tragic end – this is not a comic novel, but a highly dramatic one – is the most powerful section of the book. The character of Beatrice, as described in the words of the Shelley critic Barbara Jane O’Sullivan, is ‘a religious prophetess who is hunted, haunted, raped, imprisoned, and deceived until she is utterly destroyed. Beatrice is an extraordinary character, whose very talents alienate her from the society in which she lives.’
In a letter of May 1822, just before his death, Percy Shelley explicitly states his affection for the character Beatrice in Valperga:
if [Godwin’s] objections relate to the character of Beatrice , I shall lament the deference which would be shewn by the sacrifize of any portion of it to feelings & ideas which are but for a day.
Overall, the two women in Valperga, as MWS writes in the novel, ‘were bound together, by their love for one who loved only himself’. The historical backdrop provides the epic tone, but it is the characters that make this novel worth reading. MWS’s talent in producing an engaging historical narrative is evident, as she humanises the chronicles of Castruccio’s life, and presents, as defined by the critic Anne Mellor, ‘a study of masculine egoism and female self-sacrifice’.
A contemporary review of the novel, musing on Euthanasia’s breaking her engagement with Castruccio, wrote that ‘it scarcely seems in women’s nature for patriotism to be a stronger feeling than love’. The great Shelley scholar Betty T. Bennett astutely noted that this ironically identifies ‘a significant sociopolitical subtext in Valperga […] the novel resists conventional notions of “women’s nature”’. In 1827 MWS writes in her journal in Italian how her period of writing Valperga, with PBS by her side, was a time of contentment: ‘Then I began Valperga – Then alone with my beloved I was happy’.
There are some wonderful descriptions in Valperga that correspond so powerfully to her husband’s verse. She describes Euthanasia:
[…] her eyes were blue; a blue that seemed to have drunk-in the depths of an Italian sky, and to reflect from their orbs the pure and unfathomable brilliance, which strikes the sight as darkness, of a Roman heaven; but these beauteous eyes were fringed by long, pointed lashes, which softened their fire, and added to their sweetness.
Compare this to the section in PBS’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), where the character Asia describes her sister’s eyes as follows:
Thine eyes are like the deep blue, boundless Heaven
Contracted to two circles underneath
Their long, fine lashes – dark, far, measureless, –
Orb within orb, and line through line inwoven. (II. i. 114-117)
PBS had started writing Prometheus Unbound in 1818 and it was completed by 1819. It is likely this is an example of MWS developing images from her husband’s poetry. She had already done this in Frankenstein, where she would quote specific verses of his poems (such as the short verses of PBS’s ‘Mutability’).
The Shelleys’ mutual love of Italy also extends to Italian literature. Valperga’s repeated references to Dante are not only a product of the early Italian setting of the novel, but also the Shelleys’ shared interest in Dante and what he represents. The opening lines of Valperga describe how ‘Dante had already given a permanent form to the language which was the offspring of this revolution’ (the ‘revolution’ being one of literature and science in Italy).
PBS’s later semi-autobiographical poem Epipsychidion (1821) was based on the Vita Nuova of Dante, and in his prose work A Defence of Poetry (1821) PBS writes that ‘The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and antient world’. Dante is associated with liberty and revolution. The prevalence of Dante may then also be relevant to any discussion about the Shelleys’ ideas of love; PBS comments in the Defence that ‘Dante understood the secret things of love’. He also once translated some lines by the poet replacing the name Beatrice with Mary.
The composition of Frankenstein
So what is MWS most famous for? As you all know, and as the title of my talk suggests, for creating Frankenstein. The conception around that novel is so famous, and so important regarding her collaboration with PBS, that I will briefly explain it here. Before Valperga, before Italy, even before their marriage, the Shelleys travelled to Switzerland in the summer of 1816. In May, the Shelleys and Claire arrived at the beautiful setting of Lake Geneva.
PBS had originally thought of leaving England for Italy, but Claire’s involvement with Byron led them to Switzerland instead. Byron and his companion Dr. John Polidori followed them a few days later. By June, both parties had taken residences close to each other on the shores of the lake; Byron stayed at the Villa Diodati. Incessant rain often prevented them from going out on the water in the evenings, and even stopped PBS, MWS and Claire from returning to their own lodgings. MWS would recall the evenings at the villa:
We often […] sat up in conversation till the morning light. There was never any lack of subjects, and, grave or gay, we were always interested.
1816 is now known as ‘the year without a summer’; the Shelleys could not have been aware of it, but a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 had devastated the weather across Europe (learn more about that here: Romantic Catastrophe). The Villa Diodati still stands, and its gardens are beautiful.
Much of what we now know of the composition of Frankenstein came from MWS’s 1831 Introduction to the novel. Composed many years later, she recalls Lord Byron’s proposal that each of the party in the Villa Diodati write a ghost story. The 18-year-old MWS for several days was unable to ‘think of a story’, but after a terrifying vision she was inspired to begin writing ‘with the words, It was on a dreary night of November’. She expanded this narrative (with encouragement and assistance from Percy) and it became Frankenstein.
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein MWS also writes:
And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several passages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.
At once the memory of the composition of Frankenstein evokes the intimate and personal recollection of her ‘companion’ (PBS), and ‘happy days’, but she concludes by directing her readers away from the personal as she introduces her novel. This now infamous introduction to MWS’s most enduring text gives a carefully constructed retrospective account of a ‘waking dream’ that inspired her to write in 1816.
MWS claimed that the idea for Frankenstein came to her in a nightmareish vision, prompted by PBS and Byron’s discussions on ‘the nature of the principle of life’ to which she ‘was a devout but nearly silent listener’. Despite PBS’s presence, it was her mind that was impelled to write a timeless story. Her silence is heavily overplayed here. She was a formidable character and a stimulating atmosphere of literary production existed in Geneva. Marilyn Butler has explained that the group present in 1816 (Byron, PBS, MWS, Claire and Polidori) were involved in a ‘genuinely collaborative’, sociable event, and the literature produced ‘represent variations on the same […] themes’. So, Polidori wrote a story called ‘The Vampyre’, Lord Byron wrote his apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, and PBS wrote his sublime poetic achievement entitled ‘Mont Blanc’. MWS wrote Frankenstein, and set herself up for a literary career.
MWS’s introduction also encourages us to consider just how PBS contributed to the novel, and how his writings were invoked. She writes:
At first I thought but of a few pages – of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.
In order to construct the myth that Frankenstein was inspired by a vision of horror, MWS defends the content as her own, emphasising her self-sufficiency as a writer. MWS’s indebtedness to PBS’s assistance is not disavowed, but she insists on the importance of the workings of her own mind, and her imaginative recital of the dream as an 18-year-old. This also emanated from a tradition of waking dream narratives prominent in the literature of that time.
MWS is at once acknowledging PBS’s influence, and increasing the drama surrounding the novel’s conception and composition. But she is claiming her own work too, in a way that shows the closeness of the Shelleys’ working and also their complex approach to creativity, generously sharing ideas and assisting one another, but not without identifying their individual voices. The creative set now referred to as ‘Shelley and his circle’ was eulogized by MWS in 1824 as she remembered ‘with fondness […] having made a part of the Elect’.
The composition of the novel was social, too, and you can see this when you look at the manuscript of Frankenstein (view the manuscript at the Shelley-Godwin Archive).
Above image: Shelfmark: MS. Abinger c. 56, fol. 58v
Historically, some critics have suggested that PBS’s patriarchal dominance corrupted his partner’s creative intentions, implying she was in some way subordinated to her husband. For example, in what is now Draft Notebook A of Frankenstein (c. 57, fol 9r) PBS corrects MWS’s incorrect spelling of ‘enigmatic’, and concludes this correction with the words ‘o you pretty Pecksie!’ Some critics (and even the presenter in a recent BBC4 documentary) have deemed this ‘patronising’.
However, as Nora Crook writes,
Whether, however, a young woman who at nineteen could read Tacitus in the original would have felt intimidated by this may be doubted, especially one who called her spouse her “Sweet Elf”’. […] We do not know […] whether “Pecksie” and “Elf” were pleasant banterings or counters in underground hostilities. It would seem wise to suspend judgement and use them as evidence neither of an unproblematically equal relationship nor of one in which Mary Shelley was subordinated [my emphasis].
Problematic and challenging: the Shelleys’ collaboration was intense and complex. In terms of the ‘Pecksie’ comment, there is a letter from 1815 (a year earlier) in which MWS uses this nickname to refer to PBS, thereby showing that this term represents the mutual teasing that existed in their relationship: ‘I shall think it un-Pecksie of you’ (read more).
The scandal surrounding PBS and MWS’s elopement is true, however. Here I am returning to 1814, when the young lovers disobeyed MWS’s father, and PBS abandoned his wife. They set off (with Claire) to the continent at 4am in the morning. The following letter from MWS’s father Godwin shows his ferocious anger at the actions of the two youngsters:
On Sunday June 26, he accompanied Mary, and her sister, [Claire] Clairmont, to the tomb of Mary’s mother, one mile distant from London; and there, it seems, the impious idea first occurred to him of seducing her, playing the traitor to me and deserting his wife. On Wednesday, the 6th of July, […] he had the madness to disclose his plans to me, and to ask my consent. I expostulated with him with all the energy of which I was master, and with so much effect that for the moment he promised to give up his licentious love, and return to virtue. I applied all my diligence to waken up a sense of honour and natural affection in the mind of Mary, and I seemed to have succeeded. They both deceived me.
Their union was unconventional, and had a tragic end. Constantly travelling and constantly writing, the Shelleys spent eight years together.
But what else did MWS actually write? Her most famous novel after Frankenstein is probably The Last Man. She was her husband’s editor and you can also read her more personal writings such as her journal. There is evidence to suggest MWS contributed to PBS’s poems when he was still alive. I have another article about this in the Keats-Shelley Review (read more). You can see from the manuscripts that MWS’s handwriting appears in PBS’s notebooks.
It wasn’t only her own compositions, but also her study, that remained a staple in MWS’s life. The critic Esther Schor succinctly explained that ‘Mary Shelley well knew that books can make good companions’. She was a woman of letters, a highly talented and educated pioneer that had no fear of leaving her family to live an unconventional life. She had personal trials and tribulations, and some of the tragedy she experienced is unspeakable (for example, only one of her children would survive into adulthood).
Her work stands as a complex reimagining of many aspects of her life. The later novels have been neglected, as if to suggest they lack a certain quality or philosophical depth, but as Bennett inquires: ‘was her place in Romanticism insufficiently recognized not because her works lacked a philosophic basis but because we had not noticed or understood it?’
In her life after the death of PBS, MWS was often impoverished and ostracized from society. Her late husband’s father would create many problems for her regarding her surviving son. But she continued to establish herself as a writer. She died on 1 February 1851 at the age of 53 – outliving PBS and Byron by decades.
I finish my talk here with a reading of one of her poems. She was a better novelist than a poet, I think, but she was talented in all her literary endeavours. MWS declared that this was her best poem. It was written to be set to music.
This morn thy gallant bark, Love,
Sailed on a sunny sea;
‘Tis noon, and tempests dark, Love,
Have wrecked it on the lee.
Ah Woe – ah woe – ah woe,
By spirits of the deep,
He’s cradled on the billow,
To his unwaking sleep!
Thou liest upon the shore, Love,
Beside the knelling surge,
But sea-nymphs ever more, Love
Shall sadly chaunt thy dirge.
O come, O come – O come!
Ye spirits of the deep!
While near his sea-weed pillow,
My lonely watch I keep.
From far across the sea, Love,
I hear a wild lament,
By Echo’s voice for thee, Love,
From Ocean’s caverns sent.
O list! O list! O list!
The Spirits of the deep –
Loud sounds their wail of sorrow –
While I for ever weep!
Lecture text (c) Anna Mercer, 2017
 Barbara Jane O’Sullivan, ‘Beatrice in Valperga: A New Cassanda’ in The Other Mary Shelley, ed. Audrey Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, Esther H. Schor (Oxford: OUP, 1992), 140.
 Anne K. Mellor, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’ in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature Vol IV, ed. David Scott Kastan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 523.
 Betty T Bennett, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
 Marilyn Butler (ed.), ‘Introduction’ in Frankenstein (1818) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxiv.
 Esther Schor (ed.), ‘Introduction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, 1.
 Bennett, ‘Finding Mary Shelley in her letters’ in Romantic Revisions ed. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 291.