mary shelley

Mary Shelley

Two hundred years ago this week, history was made with the birth of that filthiest creation of all, Frankenstein: one of the most influential Gothic and science fiction novels of all time; a book that inspired countless generations of writers, artists and filmmakers to go forth, continuously recycling the myth, under a myriad of grotesque and horrifying guises of their own making. And as all horror roads can be traced back to the inception of Gothic literature, in one way or another, the significance of this date should not be underestimated for a second.

When we look at modern discussion surrounding horror— the hows, whys, wheres — the topic of “women in horror” has evolved into one of the most provocative buzzwords of the 21st century. Genre debate has become a battleground in the fight for an end to inequality in the industry as it relates to gender. To add to this, Laura Mulvey’s coining of “the male gaze” in 1975 fueled feminist debate over the representation of female bodies in cinema; through this horror found itself looking down two barrels of the metaphorical shotgun, as the genre bowed under the weight of criticism surrounding the portrayal of women’s bodies as sexualised and victimised objects. While the war wages on and women seek to reclaim both body and voice, we need never lose focus of one fact: for a large part, women— and their fears, anxieties, and experiences— came to define the parameters of Gothic fiction; thus shaping horror as we know it today. In fact one voice, that of a nineteen year old Mary Shelley, has echoed so loudly throughout two hundred years, that if we can be sure of only one thing: horror would have been a very different beast without it. Because of this, women, like Mary Shelley, have provided some of the most potent and enduring narratives given to the genre; stories that couldn’t have been spoken in any other voice than one shaped by the experience of female suffering.

“Gothic feminism seeks to escape the female body through a dream of turning weakness into strength. By pretending that one is weak or a passive victim, one essentially camouflages oneself in a hostile terrain, diverting attention from one’s real identity. Mary Shelley knew that on some level she was no victim; she knew that her strength and intelligence were more than a match of anyone’s. “[1].

Ironically, just as Frankenstein became eclipsed by his monster— with many people mistakenly referring to the “filthy creation” by his creator’s name— so Mary Shelley has been, in a certain regard, marginalized by the hype surrounding the myth. On this note, as we stand in the midst of a bicentenary, it is perhaps pertinent that we take a moment to commemorate the significance of Shelley’s creation. To celebrate the core of horror, as rightfully owned by one of the most powerful voices of all: that of a mother grieving for her dead child.

In her groundbreaking essay “Female Gothic[2] Ellen Moers established Mary Shelley as one of the most important figures in Gothic literature; outlining how Shelley was not only a brilliant young woman, but her experience differed from most other female writers of the age in that she was a mother— most other female writers, as highlighted by Moers were spinsters or virgins. After citing a passage from Shelley’s text— that most infamous passage in which the moment of Frankenstein’s creation is described in gruesome detail— Moers goes on to explain…

“That is very good horror, but what follows is more horrid still: Frankenstein, the scientist, runs away and abandons the newborn monster, who is and remains nameless. Here, I think, is where Mary Shelley’s book is most interesting, most powerful, and most feminine: in the motif of revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences. Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon monster and creator for deficient infant care. Frankenstein seems to be distinctly a woman’s mythmaking on the subject of birth precisely because its emphasis is not upon what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the afterbirth”[3].

Although Shelley’s experiences could be defined as “typically female” — in their reference to pain, loss and anxiety surrounding childbirth and motherhood — Shelley herself was anything but “typical”. Gifted, cultured, and extremely well read, she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft; a leading voice in feminism of the age, and staunch advocate for education for women. Her father was William Godwin: anarchist, journalist, and influential writer. Wollstonecraft died from complications surrounding Mary’s birth; a factor which overshadowed Mary’s life and writing. Especially when her father, a cold man by all accounts, remarried, to a woman Mary would feel she had to fight against for her father’s attention. It is said that one of Mary’s favourite places for contemplation was her mother’s grave; it was where Mary first courted Percy Bysshe Shelley, and there she is said to have seduced him. Throughout her life and her work, the shadow of her lost mother lingered on, as did the fierce spirit of independence, and insatiable appetite to learn and expand, she had inherited through her birthright.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

At just sixteen years old, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, as she was still named, ran off with Percy Shelley— already married to Harriet Westbrook, who was carrying his child—  taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Claremont with them. The act was scandalous by nineteenth century standards— Shelley had previously hoped for William Godwin’s blessing given both Mary’s parents had fought against the institution of marriage and Godwin had previously advocated free love (backing down eventually to avoid their own social exile). But when Godwin objected strongly to the union, Shelley, Mary and Claire fled in the middle of the night, travelling around Europe, and living from hand to mouth given Shelley’s precarious financial situation. When they returned to England with Mary sick and pregnant, the trio found themselves living in poverty. Moving from place to place to avoid Shelley being arrested for bad debts, they could find no one to help them, not really so shocking considering the scandal they had caused in leaving together. When Mary finally gave birth, prematurely, the child didn’t live for more than a fortnight.

Death and birth were thus as hideously intermixed in the life of Mary Shelley as in Frankenstein’s “workshop of filthy creation.” Who can read without shuddering, and without remembering her myth of the birth of a nameless monster, Mary’s journal entry of March 19, 1815, which records the trauma of her loss, when she was just seventeen, of her first baby, the little girl who did not live long enough to be given a name. “Dream that my little baby came to life again” Mary wrote; “that it had only been cold, and think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits”. [4]

The events which followed this, leading to the creation of Frankenstein, are well documented, but nevertheless important to revisit, in order to establish just where Mary’s mind was when she set down the initial notes to her first novel. By January 1816, Mary had given birth to another child, William. Shelley was able to calm his financial issues somewhat— and had managed to reclaim some of the money his wife Harriet had cleared out of his bank account. Things were notably calmer, but after Shelley had spent much more time enjoying himself with stepsister Claire during Mary’s first pregnancy— with suspicions of an affair between the two— a sour aftertaste still lingered. Coupled with this was scandal and continuing social exile for Shelley and Mary, with Harriet still stoking the flames. During Mary’s first pregnancy, Shelley had exacerbated problems between the two by attempting to push the free love agenda forward, encouraging Mary to sleep with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. From her journal entries it is clear although Mary championed freedom, and was rebellious in her own romantic choices, her heart belonged to Shelley alone. This led her to resisting some of Shelley’s more libertine ideals.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

By May 1816, Claire had a new fancy, the infamous Lord Byron, managing to get herself ensconced as his on/off lover. Byron was not impressed by all accounts, but desperate to get his attention, Claire used Mary— as the legendary daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft— to pique Byron’s interest. A dinner party orchestrated by the stepsister introduced Mary, Shelley and Byron. But when Byron’s passion continued to run cold for his mistress— who by this time was pregnant with his child—  she took things up a notch; convincing Mary and Shelley to take baby William for some much needed respite at Lake Geneva, Switzerland: a place where Claire knew Byron was hiding out to avoid his own scandal cloud, taking his physician John Polidori for company. After an initial stay in the same hotel, annoyed by constant spying and gossip of tourists and locals— Byron was one of the first “rock star” personalities in history— the Shelley party rented the Maison Chapuis, with Byron and Polidori taking on a lease for the now infamous Villa Diodati.

Illustrated edition of The Vampyre, from The British Library

Illustrated edition of The Vampyre, from The British Library

Bonded by similar intellectual and philosophical ideals, and the same feeling of persecution and exile, it is not surprising friendship blossomed over the coming month. On the 16th of June 1816, during one of their soirees involving passionate discourse and a sharing of ideas, torrential rain hit, forcing the Shelleys to stay the night and ensuring the mood was perfect for ghost stories. As legend outlines, Byron challenged each of the party guests to invent their own— an evening gloriously fictionalised later on in Ken Russell’s flamboyant adaption Gothic (1986). Polidori would go on to write The Vampyre (published in 1819, two years before he took his own life). Mary Godwin’s tale is said to have been inspired by the sublime landscape of Switzerland and an earlier interest in Johann Conrad Dippel— theologian, alchemist and the original mad scientist, who apparently staged controversial experiments at Castle Frankenstein, Darmstadt, Germany, and who, according to Charlotte Gordon[5], was “obsessed with finding a cure for death”. Mary’s imagination was also sparked by what she called “a waking dream”. Writing in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein she said of this experience:

“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.”[6]

Villa Diodati

Villa Diodati

The book would not be finished until May 1817. In the intervening time, when Mary was busy writing, Harriet Westbrook took her own life; drowning in the Serpentine River, in December 1816. The Shelleys officially became man and wife shortly after, in a failed attempt to gain custody of Shelley and Harriet’s children. To add to the anguish, Mary’s sister, Fanny Imlay, who had been brought up to believe she was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, also committed suicide on discovering she was actually the child of one of Wollstonecraft’s lovers. Meanwhile Claire gave birth to Byron’s daughter, in secrecy, in January 1817. With birth and death so intermingled in the life of Mary Shelley, it is not surprising these became core themes of the book

When we look at the social, cultural landscape within which Mary Shelley was writing, it becomes apparent just how transgressive and forward thinking Frankenstein really was. Although female writers were already using the Gothic as a mode for exploring themes which impacted on their lives, Shelley upped the ante in her use of a male dominated narrative; something her contemporaries Radcliffe and the Bronte sisters resisted. The nineteenth century was a time of great change and upheaval, and one within which the rise of industrialization pushed a divide between genders. Women found themselves segregated into “private” domestic settings, where they were expected to become good wives and mothers, as men ventured out into the “public” world to act as breadwinners. As Hayden explains, “Women’s opportunity for intellectual enlightenment was significantly tied to changes in the social and economic construction of the family and the workplace— in other words public and private spheres”[7].

Moers in Traveling Heroism: Gothic for Heroines[8], used the work of Ann Radcliffe to explore how women trapped by position found escape through the Gothic imagination; travelling away from the mundane every day, through the medium of awesome landscapes, and the imagined bodies of travelling heroines— Radcliffe herself, according to Moers, had never stepped foot outside of Britain when she wrote her Gothic texts. Mary Shelley was able to incorporate some traditional Gothic elements into Frankenstein by way of sublime settings— inspired by her real experiences— yet, it is through the body of a male protagonist and that of the male “other” creature with which she makes her real escape.

Mary Shelley was fortunate in that she was encouraged to fuel her intellectual appetite from a very early age; throughout her childhood she was exposed to some of the greatest minds and philosophers of the generation; including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is reported to have had a great fondness for both Mary and her sister Fanny, visiting the family home, and reading to the girls when they were children. She read widely and with a ferocious appetite, including the works of her own mother; from which she gleaned a rebellious outlook and strong sense of independence that many other women of the era would never have known. Mary’s romantic attachments and friendships were no less enriching when it came to matters of the mind; especially Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, two of the most inspirational thinkers of the Romantic movement. It is said that Mary’s husband had a huge influence on her literary work. From this environment Mary Shelley was able to explore some of her deepest fears and darkest thoughts through the medium of Gothic and science fiction literature.

Although women were associated with the Gothic fiction movement at the time, Mary Shelley’s use of scientific formula for Frankenstein was a bold and daring move. As previously mentioned, women, by their position, and domestic function as wives and mothers, were denied access to the newly establishing scientific discourse. Even today, “science and technology” are typically associated with a male domain. Yet as Carter suggests[9], “Mary Shelley’s science fiction masterpiece is remarkable for her grasp of seventeenth century scientific advances and for her discerning observation of the inherent humanistic dangers of uncontrolled scientific investigations “against nature”.

From just one novel, Mary Shelley became the Mother of Science Fiction, and one of strongest, and most influential voices to arise within the Gothic movement. Although there is no doubt that she was influenced by her male peers, and husband Percy Shelley, it was through the words of a woman, with her own distinctly feminine perspective, her recent emotional turmoil, through the pain of loss as a mother and daughter, that she was able to take Gothic feminism to an entirely new level.

As Hoeveler summarizes[10], “Gothic feminism for Mary Shelley is embodied in the sense of herself and the female body as a void, an empty signifier, a lure into the cycle of painful birth and disappointing death […] she inhabited a female body; she bled and caused bleeding in others, and those unfortunate facts defined for her and her fiction the gothic feminist nightmare in its starkest terms”.

As we celebrate 200 years this week since that fateful meeting at Villa Diodati, it comes with the realization it may take another 200 years to really see the extent of the legacy. Frankenstein has impacted so many aspects of cinema and literature it is difficult to comprehend that the initial seed came from the imagination of a nineteen year old woman, suffering in the midst of personal loss. And because of this, and who Mary Shelley was, and how she lived her life, much of Gothic horror belongs to suffering of female experience. It belongs to the voice of Mary Shelley: Horror’s greatest mother. She gave the gift of life to her filthiest creation, and through the Gothic Imagination, it lives on.


[1] Hoeveler, Diane Long (1993) Gothic Feminism. (p.181)

[2] Moers, Ellen (1963) Female Gothic in Literary Women: The Great Writers.

[3] Ibid (p.96)

[4] Ibid (p.96)

[5] Gordon, Charlotte (2015) Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

[6] Shelley, Mary (1831) Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

[7] Hayden, Judy, A (2011) Women, Education and the Margins of Science in The New Science and Women’s Literary Discourse: Prefiguring Frankenstein. (p.5)

[8] Moers, Ellen (1963) Traveling Heroism: Gothic for Heroines in Literary Women: The Great Writers.

[9] Carter, Richard (1999) Mary Shelley’s Nightmare (1797-1851): Frankenstein: Her Life, Literary Legacy, and Last Illness in World Journal of Surgery

[10] Hoeveler, Diane Long (1995) Gothic Feminism