Thanet Writers Spotlight Mary Shelley

Seb Reilly highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and author Mary Shelley, and spotlights her connection to Thanet.

Image Credit: 
Reginald Easton / Public Domain

Mary Shelley was born to be a writer and words were in her blood. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft—a writer, educator, and feminist philosopher—and William Godwin—a novelist, philosopher, and journalist—and she was initially raised in Somers Town, London, at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her mother died of puerperal fever eleven days after her birth, leaving Godwin to raise Mary and Fanny Imlay, her elder sister from her mother’s previous relationship with Gilbert Imlay and who, somewhat scandalously at the time, was born out of wedlock whilst Wollstonecraft was in Paris during the French Revolution.

As a child, Mary read her mother’s books, including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both of which controversially advocated the education of women. Wollstonecraft had also penned two novels criticising the patriarchy where the female protagonists found fulfilment in extra-marital affairs, which Mary also read. This connection to her mother was possibly enhanced by Godwin’s second wife, a woman whom Mary reportedly detested.

Mary received little formal education, however her father tutored her and took her and her sister on educational outings. She was encouraged to write letters and began crafting short stories from a young age. Mary also had access to her father’s extensive library, and would spend time with her father’s visitors, including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Mary also had a governess to teach her, and although her father did not educate her according to Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, he did support her in engaging with her mother’s writing.

“As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.’ Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air—the indulging in waking dreams—the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings.”

Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831

At the age of thirteen Mary suffered an outbreak of eczema, possibly compounded by stress from her fractured relationship with her stepmother. A doctor prescribed a six-month treatment of saltwater therapy. She was sent to Caroline Petman’s boarding school for the daughters of dissenters in Ramsgate in Thanet, adding formal schooling to her somewhat unconventional education thus far. The building at 92 High Street now displays historic signs as a tea, coffee, grocery and provision store. Mary spent seven months as a boarder at the school and was regularly sent for sea-bathing to treat the infection on her arm.

Upon returning from Thanet, Mary was sent to Scotland to stay with the family of radical William Baxter. Godwin advocated Mary engage with philosophy and politics, and whilst in Scotland she began to channel her education—both formal and informal—into her early writings.

Mary returned to London briefly, during which time she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet and radical philosopher. She visited the Baxter family a second time, then at sixteen returned again. Percy was involved with her father and had become estranged from his wife and family after attempting to donate much of their wealth to philanthropic schemes to help the disadvantaged. Percy had promised to assist Godwin with his debts, though he did not and the two fell out.

Mary and Percy began seeing each other in secret, meeting, in a typically gothic style, at her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard. They declared their love for each other in what Percy describes as a “sublime and rapturous moment” and, legend has it, Percy took Mary’s virginity at the side of Wollstonecraft’s grave.

“I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”

The Last Man, 1826

Godwin, upon discovering his daughter’s secret affair, was devastated. Mary learned of Percy’s failed promises to settle her father’s debts, and amidst confusing loyalties decided to follow her parents’ philosophies that marriage was a repressive monopoly. They eloped to France in early 1814, leaving Mary’s debt-ridden father and Percy’s pregnant wife behind, spending the journey reading works by Wollstonecraft, and exploring their own writing and each other. Accompanying them was Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister.

Later that year they returned to England, via Kent, however Mary had become pregnant. They moved in with Clairmont who, by this time, had become Percy’s other lover, much to Mary’s jealousy and disappointment. To compensate for his own polygamy, Percy encouraged Mary to take Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a barrister and writer, as a lover; an opportunity she declined despite her belief in free love. The following year Mary gave birth to a daughter two months prematurely, and after a month the baby died.

Mary suffered a deep depression during her late teens and was haunted by visions of her departed child. Percy, meanwhile, had a son from his wife to contend with. Meanwhile, in what is now Indonesia, Mount Tambora exploded. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and, as a result of the vast quantities of ash released into the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet slowly dropped by 3°C.

Unaware of the volcanic ash permeating the air, Percy had managed to regain control of his finances after the death of his grandfather and, after a holiday to Devon, the couple moved to a cottage a Bishopsgate by Windsor Great Park in Surrey. In early 1816, the eighteen-year-old Mary gave birth to her second child who she named after her father, William.

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”

Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831

A few months after his birth, William was taken by Mary and Percy on a trip to Geneva, accompanied by Clairmont, who was herself pregnant after engaging in an affair with the poet Lord Byron. Upon arriving at Geneva, Mary began referring to herself as Mrs Shelley, as her mother had done in Paris with her lover George Imlay. They intended to spend the summer with Byron and his personal physician, John William Polidori, for what should have been pleasant walks and boating trips. Unbeknownst to the group, Mount Tambora was about to change their lives.

1816 became known as the year without a summer. The volcanic ash and drop in the Earth’s temperature caused crop failures and weather changes that had catastrophic results. For the group of poets and philosophers holed up in Villa Diodati, however, the stormy summer would bring about a change in the course of literary history.

The wet, miserable days and long, thunderous nights meant the group had to occupy themselves with indoor activities, and being anarchic hedonists and philosophers this meant alcohol, laudanum, opiates and sex. They would sit and talk long into the darkness, crowding around a fire whilst sharing tales from Fantasmagoriana, a German collection of ghost stories. Inspired, Byron challenged each of his guests to write their own terrifying tale.

Whilst the others busied themselves with writing their dark stories, Mary faced down writers’ block. Then one night, after a conversation between Percy and Byron had led to the concept of experimenting with reanimating corpses, Mary had a nightmare.

“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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831

Mary began working on a short story, which she told to the other members of the group. With their encouragement, and some editorial help from Percy, she began expanding it into a full novel, published two years later as Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

Upon returning to England after that dark and stormy summer, Mary and Percy settled in Bath. Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, wrote letters to her, sharing her unhappiness, the last of which, sent on the 9th October 1816, was so alarming that Percy went in search of her, to no avail. The following day Fanny Imlay was found dead of a laudanum overdose, with a suicide note. Exactly two months later, Percy’s wife, Harriet, was discovered in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, where she had drowned herself. Both suicides were covered up.

To adopt Percy’s children, he and Mary needed to marry. They did a mere twenty days after Percy’s wife’s death, but a few months later Percy was ruled morally unfit to assume custody of his children by the Chancery Court, and they were placed with the family of a member of the clergy. Needing a fresh start, the newlyweds moved to Marlow in Buckinghamshire, where Mary gave birth to Clara and later finished her first novel.

“When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

Frankenstein was first published anonymously, with a dedication to Mary’s father William Godwin. Many assumed Percy had written the novel, and it was not until later editions that Mary’s authorship was revealed. Mary then edited a collective journal of her journey in 1814 with Percy and Clairmont, adding some material from Geneva, and published it as the History of a Six Weeks’ Tour in 1817. The following year, under threat from debts Percy had run up, they left the UK, as far as they were concerned, for good.

Over the next two years, whilst pursuing a nomadic existence across Europe, both surviving Shelley children died. Mary once again found herself in a deep depression and her only solace was in writing. She later gave birth to a fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one of her children to outlive her. A few years later, whilst on a sailing trip in Tuscany, her husband died at sea, and his body washed up on the coast near Viareggio. He was cremated on the beach.

After spending a further year in Europe, Mary Shelley returned to London and eventually settled in Kentish Town. Struggling financially due to her late husband’s indiscretions and her family’s refusal to support her, only her son, she engaged in editing and writing, and began working on her second novel, The Last Man, during which time her friend Lord Byron also passed away.

“The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.”

Journal Entry, 1824

Having seen death first-hand, Shelley took to exploring how a character would fare if humanity itself were to die out around them. Beginning in the garden-of-Eden-esque Windsor Great Park of her memory, she constructed one of the first ever post-apocalyptic narratives. As this plague spreads mercilessly across the world, the eponymous Last Man and his companions witness the breakdown of society as they travel through Europe. Shelley transformed her own grief and depression into the end of the world and started an entire genre.

Shelley continued writing, crafting other novels and many short stories, along with editing and publishing her late husband’s poetry. During her later years she suffered bouts of paralysis and headaches, and she died age fifty-three from a suspected brain tumour. She was buried in St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, and her parents were exhumed by her son and buried with her. A year after her death, her son and daughter-in-law opened her desk for the first time and found locks of hair from her other children, a notebook she had shared with her husband, and one of his poems wrapped around some of his ashes from the beach in Tuscany and the remains of his heart.

Whilst she became renowned as a writer and received critical acclaim during her lifetime, Shelley’s greatest impacts upon literature were posthumously from Frankenstein and The Last Man. Whilst the former was a huge success at the time, and incredibly influential in advancing science-fiction as a style both then and to this day, the latter was panned and, although introducing a new genre, was not praised as it should have been until many years later. It is only in retrospect one can see the enormous impact Mary Shelley had upon writing as, without her, science fiction as we know it would be lacking in so much.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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