Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797 - 1851) was a writer of novels, short stories, theatrical plays, essays, biographical works and travel books. Her best known work remains "Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus" (1818). She married Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet.
Mary was born to two famous political philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her father is chiefly remembered for his works on demography and to his fears of human overpopulation and its effects. Her mother was an influential figure in the women's right movement of the 1780s and 1790s. Her works "Thoughts on the Education of Daughters" (1787) and "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792) are considered founding stones for the feminist movement. Mary's namesake mother died ten days after giving birth. Mary never knew her mother but is considered to have hero-worshipped her, making the absent mother a very influential figure in Mary's life.
Mary was left living with her father and an older maternal half-sister, Fanny Implay (1794- 1816). Having trouble raising his daughter and stepdaughter by himself, Godwin remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary gained a new stepsister, Claire Clairmont (1798 - 1879), but had a less-than-friendly relationship with her stepmother. Mary Jane was educated and bright, but also sharp-tongued and short-tempered. Her favoritism towards Claire probably did not help matters.
All three girls were largely educated at home during their childhood and sent to boarding schools during their teenage years. Claire was the only one taught French, at the insistence of her mother. They were well-educated but rather unconventional for their time. Godwin supported his family through his earnings from a small publishing house. At times drops in sales would sink them in debt and having to rely on Godwin's literary admirers.
By 1814, teenaged Mary had started an affair with a married man, Percy Bysshe Shelley. A well known atheist and radical thinker, Percy was rather unhappily married to Harriet Westbrook . They had a daughter Ianthe Shelley (1813 - 1876). Percy spend much time away from either family member. He was one among the admirers of Godwin but soon became more interested in Godwin's teenaged daughters. In July, 1814. Percy, Mary and Claire run away from their respective households, moving together to continental Europe. Left behind was the pregnant and distraught Harriet, the underage Ianthe, and Fanny.
The new couple and Claire returned to England in September. Only to find their families rejecting them. The trio created a household of their own. Fanny remained the only liaison between the Godwin and the Shelley household. There are indications that Fanny was also attracted to Percy and would like to join her sisters. However she was typically left out. Mary already had to share Percy with Harriet and Claire. Adding a fourth woman was out of the question.
In 1816, Percy, Mary and Claire vacationed with Lord Byron in Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland. She was already calling herself Mrs. Shelley, a title legitimately belonging to Harriet at the time. Conversations considering Erasmus Darwin's supposed attempts to animate dead matter during the 18th century, galvanism and "the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life" would led to her authorship of Frankenstein (1818). It took two years to complete.
Their return to Great Britain was soured by two suicides. Fanny committed suicide in October, 1816 and Harriet in December of the same year. Percy and Mary strived to hush up both suicides and keep secret that Claire was pregnant by Byron. On 30 December, 1816 Percy and Mary were married. They were partly motivated in being only able to lay claim to Harriet's two surviving children as a married couple. Godwin and Mary Jane took the opportunity to reconcile with Mary.
Mary was able to complete Frankenstein and publish it by 1818. However contemporaries suspected Percy of being the actual author. Mary had only written a traveler's journal before while Percy was a reputable author. Financial problems forced the Shelleys to leave Britain that year again. They were trying to avoid ending up in a debtor's prison. They spend some time in Italy with Byron. There both of their infant children, Clara and William, succumbed to illnesses. She gave birth to a son, Percy Florence Shelley (1819 - 1889), but the loss of the others left her depressed. Percy did not share in her despair and started distancing himself from her.
Mary threw herself to her work. "Mathilda" (1820, a novel featuring the incestuous love of a father for his daughter) and "Valperga" (1823, an early historical novel) were works of this period. She also co-wrote the plays "Proserpine" and "Midas" with Percy. She suffered from periodic depressions and fits of ill health. Percy is known to have kept mistresses at the time. Mary formed emotional bonds with other men but whether they led to sexual affairs in uncertain.
In 1822, Percy was drowned while sailing a small ship during a storm. Mary resolved to rely on her own writing pen to survive and support her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, her father-in-law, did agree however to offer her a small annual allowance to take care of her expenses. She kept on writing and gained various friends, including Washington Irving. She rejected a marriage proposal by John Howard Payne, an American actor.
Between 1827 and 1840, Mary completed the novels "Perkin Warbeck" (1830), "Lodore" (1835) and "Falkner" (1837), contributed biographical articles in encyclopedias, short stories for ladies' magazines. She helped financially support her father and struggled to popularize the works of her husband. She promoted new publications of his old works. In 1838, she was payed to edit a collection of all his poetic works.
From 1840 to 1843, Mary traveled around Germany and Italy with her son. She collected material for travel narratives. In 1844, Timothy Shelley died and her son inherited his estate. Mary was financially independent for the first time in her life. She would not enjoy the experience much. In 1845, Mary was targeted by three separate blackmailers threatening to expose scandalous aspects of her own and deceased husband's lives. She was able to avoid paying any of them.
In 1848, her son married Jane Gibson St John. Mary was reportedly fond on her new daughter--in-law and joined the youngsters in new journeys. Her literary production suffered through the 1840s due to ill health, including recurring headaches and partial paralysis. She died in 1851 of a brain tumor. Her reputation suffered considerably following her death. At her time she was a respectable writer and editor. Victorian literary critics largely ignored her work and treated her merely as "Shelley's wife". In 1878, a work by Edward John Trelawny managed to not only question her literary skills and intellect. Trelawny even suggested Percy had written Frankenstein. By the end of the 19th century, all her works except the horror novel were out of print. She was also largely ignored through the 20th century. In the 1980s, the first serious scholarly biographies of Mary and studies of her work appeared. They renewed interest in the rest of her works and Mary herself as a person. By the start of the 21st century Mary was considered among the major literary figures of the Romantic movement, along with Percy and Byron.