Mary Shelley: Biography And Works

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and biographer best known for her novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus . Her work is regarded as one of the earliest examples of science fiction, and the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster has inspired numerous adaptations over the years.

Shelley lived her life surrounded by books and began writing from an early age. Despite being known mainly as Frankenstein, various works by Shelley have resurfaced from the second half of the 20th century. His works that have recently gained popularity include Valperga , Falkner , Lodore, and The Last Man.

Mary Shelley was a controversial woman in her time and her liberal ideas offended both romantics and enlightened people. The English writer has been studied recently for the diversity of themes that her work covers over the years, varying from the spiritual to the visceral.


Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. The only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and author of Women’s Vindication Rights ; and William Godwin, political writer and novelist. Both were opposed to the institution of marriage.

Ten days after Mary’s birth, Wollstone Craft died of postpartum complications. Mary and Fanny Imlay, daughter of a previous Wollstonecraft relationship, were left in Godwin’s care.

Four years later Gowin married his neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont, who already had two children. The new Mrs. Godwin preferred her sons over the daughters of Wollstonecraft.

First training

Mary Shelley was a lonely and taciturn girl. She received no formal education, but young Mary spent most of her time in the library. There she read the books of her late mother and other intellectuals of her time. She also received visits from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friend of the family.

Wollstonecraft’s grave, located in the San Pancracio Cemetery, was one of Mary’s favorite sites: there she read, wrote, and eventually met Percy Shelley, her lover.

Stay in Scotland

Her relationship with her stepmother got complicated as Mary grew older. Eventually, the tension between the two led William Godwin to send her daughter to Scotland. She was welcomed by the Baxter family, who were friends of her father.

Mary stayed sporadically with the Baxters between 1812 and 1814. During her stays, she became close friends with Isabel Baxter. After returning from Scotland, she met Percy Shelley, an admirer of Godwin.

Relationship with Percy Shelley

When he met Mary, Percy Shelley was a 22-year-old poet from a wealthy family. He was with Harriet Westbrook, with whom he had a child and another on the way. This did not prevent Mary Godwin and Percy from falling in love.

Just a month before their 17th birthday, Mary and Percy fled to Europe. Claire, Mary’s stepsister, accompanied them on the trip. They spent the next several years traveling through Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Consequently, Timmothy Shelley stopped supporting her son financially.

In 1815 Mary suffered the loss of her first daughter. The following summer the Shelleys were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, John Polidori, and the romantic poet Lord Byron. On one afternoon they shared, Byron suggested a competition to see who would write the best horror story.

It was from that moment that Mary Shelley began to write the story of her famous novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus .

Later that year, Fanny — who was Mary’s half-sister — committed suicide. A short time later, Percy’s wife also drowned.

First publications

Mary was finally able to marry Percy Shelley in December 1816. A year later she published the journal of her trip to Europe, The Story of a Six-Week Voyage . Meanwhile, she continued with the writing of her horror story.

In 1818, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously. Many thought it was written by Percy, who wrote the intro to the horror novel. The book quickly gained fame and that same year the Shelleys moved to Italy.

The Shelleys’ marriage was difficult: Percy’s continued infidelities and the death of three children depressed Mary. Later, Shelley returned to writing and producing Matilda , a short novel. The birth of her fourth and final child, Percy Florence Shelley, made it difficult for Shelley to publish her latest work. Matilda was first printed in 1959.

Percy’s death

Research for a much longer novel began at this time: Valperga . Then another blow devastated her even more: in 1822, while sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia, Percy Shelley drowned.

Despite being devastated by the duel, she was able to publish Valperga in 1823. During this period she used her penalties to write in verse , a medium that she did not usually use. After spending a year in Italy, Mary returned to England.

At 24 years old and a widow, Mary found it difficult to support her son. Timothy Shelley offered to help her, but on the condition that she drop the Shelley surname. Meanwhile, Mary contributed by writing biographies for Chambers’ Cyclopedia , and also published short stories.

Mary Shelley also produced five more novels, all of which received poor reviews for their prose and story. The Last Man , published in 1826, is his best-known work after Frankenstein. This novel describes the destruction of the human race in the 21st century and is considered one of the first science fiction stories .

In that same year Charles Bysshe Shelley, son of the poet with his first wife and heir to the title of Sir, died. Just before he was seventeen, he became the sole heir to his grandfather’s title.

Other publications

The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck , published in 1830, is a historical novel by Shelley that received little critical attention. On the other hand, Lodore and Falkner, published in 1835 and 1837, are considered autobiographical works and full of clues about the life of the Shelleys and their circle.

The Shelleys’ situation improved when Sir Timothy Shelley increased the allowance for Percy Florence — Mary’s only son — in 1840. This increase enabled them to travel to Italy and Germany; his journey was recorded in Wanderings in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843 , a work published in 1844.

Extortion attempts

On April 24, 1844 Sir Timothy Shelley died; he left his property and title to his grandson, Florence Shelly. The following year, Mary Shelley suffered two extortion attempts that filled her with concerns.

The first attempt was in 1843, at the end of one of her excursions across the continent, when Mary Shelley befriended an Italian political exile, Ferdinando Gatteschi, for whom wrote his ramblings . She also sent her the proceeds of the book and continued to write to her.

The language of these letters was so sentimental that Gatteschi, realizing that their tone could be misinterpreted as an attempt at seduction, asked Mary Shelley for money to avoid exposing his correspondence to the press.

Mary Shelley was saved by an acquaintance from another of her trips, who managed to get the Paris police to seize Gatteschi’s letters and return them to Shelley.

The second extortion attempt was made by George Byron, who claimed to be the son of the famous poet; it was also a frustrated attempt.

Last years

During her last six years, Mary Shelley was able to live in peace; so much so that she was able to witness the marriage of her son, on June 22, 1848. 

Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, in London, England, at age 53. She was buried in St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth and her grave lies with the cremated remains of her husband’s heart.

After her death, her son Percy and daughter-in-law Jane exhumed the remains of Mary’s parents and transferred them to a grave in St. Peter’s Church.


The stories of Mary Shelley were published posthumously. The most recent has been Matilda , a short novel published in 1950. This novel tells of the attraction between a father and his daughter, and some critics consider that it tells elements of their relationship with Godwin.

The verse drama Proserpina y Midas , published in 1922, was written in accompaniment to Percy Shelley’s work. Likewise, Mary Shelley’s non-fiction is also applauded by critics: among these works are the essays she wrote for Chambers’ Cyclopedia ,  and her annotations on her husband’s poetry.


Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus was a book criticized in its early reviews for its grotesque details. However, many critics praised the author’s imagination and ability to describe. At the end of the 19th century, critics looked to Shelley’s novel for traces of Percy’s influence.


In this novel, Victor Frankenstein is a Genevan scientist who, after the death of his mother, decides to create a way to revive the dead. After looting graves for human remains, create a terrifyingly ugly creature. Seeing the appearance of his creation, Frankenstein flees.

In solitude, the creature manages to educate itself, becoming a very intelligent being. As a result of its abandonment, the creature resents its creator. Later, the monster takes revenge on Frankenstein, taking the life of his loved ones.

Criticisms and influences

While some applaud the structure of the novel, divided into three parts, others argue that its length minimizes the story. Godwin’s social stance has also been noted in Shellley’s book and some scholars say they see references in his work.

Mary Shelley’s diaries reveal that during 1816 and 1817, while Frankenstein was writing , she and her husband discussed work numerous times. She and Shelley are also known to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost .

Likewise, they were interested in Political Justice , by Godwin, and The Rights of Man , by Thomas Paine. Prometheus in Chains , written by Aeschylus, is also shown as being influenced by Shelley.

These writings were also read by the enlightened public of her time, but Mary Shelley knew how to interweave the ideas of each one to create her work. Without a doubt, the story of Frankenstein is the greatest legacy of the English writer.

Importance of Frankenstein

Frankenstein has not only been seen as a novel that criticizes the human hubris, but as a warning about the ways in which science can have dire consequences, even in its moments of greatest glory. Also its theme has been taken to debates on bioethics, technology and education.

The struggle of the misunderstood monster and its creator has become part of pop culture. In 1994 Kenneth Brannagh directed a film adaptation of Shelley’s novel.

The film starred Helena Bonham Carter, Robert De Niro and Tom Hulce. Additionally, it has also inspired stories like The Rocky Horror Picture Show , Young Frankenstein, and The Bride.

The last man

The Last Man , published in 1826, is considered Shelley’s second best-known work. 

Despite being a story that recounts the apocalypse, the inspiration for the novel is personal: at the time of its writing, Mary Shelley had suffered the death of three children. The death of her husband in 1824 and of her friend Lord Byron, just two years later, plunged her into mourning.

The death of these two men meant for Shelley the end of romanticism, a movement characterized by passion, intuition, greatness and integrity of the human spirit. It was a significant turn for English literature of the time, in which Shelley stood as one of the few survivors.

Set in the year 2090, The Last Man recounts the social and political outbreak in Great Britain and Greece before being invaded by the plague. The narrator, Lionel Verney, bases his features on Mary; two main characters, Alan and Lord Raymond, are based on her husband and Byron.

In this work romantic ideas are explored in contrast to a social change. The philosophical ideas of the characters are irrelevant as society falls apart, until only the narrator survives; this is considered the last man on Earth. Critics see Shelley’s duel in this novel, as well as some autobiographical data.


  1. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” at Poetry Foundation. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from the Poetry Foundation:
  2. Kuiper, K. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” (August 2018) in Britannica. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from Britannica:
  3. Brogan, J. “Why Frankenstein Is Still Relevant, Almost 200 Years After It Was Published” (January 2017) in Slate. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from Slate:
  4. Ty, E. ” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley ”at Brandeis University. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from Brandeis University:
  5. García, A. “In the mind of Mary Shelley” (2018) in Corporación de Radio y Televisión Española. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from the Spanish Radio and Television Corporation:

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