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Definition: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft from Philip's Encyclopedia

English novelist, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. She eloped with Percy Shelley in 1814, and married him in 1816. Her later works of fiction, which include The Last Man (1826) and Lodore (1835), have been eclipsed by her first novel, Frankenstein (1818).

Summary Article: Shelley, Mary
from Encyclopedia of Motherhood

Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft was a British Romantic novelist, poet, travel writer, and biographer whose most popular novel Frankenstein (1818) is credited with having pioneered the science fiction genre. In addition, the novel, as well as Shelley's oeuvre as a whole, is often read as a nightmare of procreation, constellated as it is by fears of childbirth and of death of family members, especially children.

Shelley was born in Somers Town, London, on August 30, 1797. She was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two of the most famous radical writers of the era and outspoken supporters of Enlightenment rationality. Mary's birth was the first instance of the many tragedies linked to motherhood that the author would encounter in her life or re-create in her fiction. When operated on to remove the placenta that had not been completely expelled, her mother contracted puerperal fever and died 11 days later. According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's feminist study The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Mary Wollstonecraft's “fearfully exemplary fate,” together with the readings of Milton's Paradise Lost, Coleridge's “male definition of deathly maternity” in “Christabel,” as well as Wollstonecraft's own “prophetically anxious writings” on giving birth instilled in Shelley “a keen sense of the agony of female sexuality, and specifically of the perils of motherhood.”

Tragedy, Depression, and Frankenstein

Shelley was educated at home and was then sent to school in Ramsgate. Her father remarried in 1801, but the relationship between Mary and her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont was never a happy one. Because of family tensions, Mary was sent to live in Dundee with friends in 1812. When she returned to England two years later, she fell in love with the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and the two eloped to France. After two years spent touring Europe, the couple married in London in 1816. Family tragedies, however, soon drew the Shelleys apart. In 1815, Mary had given birth to a daughter, Clara, who died only 12 days after birth.

William, the couple's son born in 1816, died three years later, and in 1822 Mary fell into a deep depression after miscarrying her third child. Alienated from his wife, Percy himself died drowning in the Gulf of La Spezia in a boating accident that same year. Mary spent her next 30 years working in England as a writer and living on the modest inheritance she received from Percy's estate. During these years, Shelley wrote several novels, including Valperga (1823); The Last Man (1826), a gloomy account of the destruction of humanity by a plague, often considered her best work; The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830); Lodore (1835); and Falkner (1837). However, these are overshadowed in popularity by Frankenstein, written in her 20s. In the last part of her life, Shelley traveled extensively throughout Europe with her only surviving son. She died from a brain tumor in London on February 1, 1851.

Feminist readings of Shelley's novel Frankenstein in the 1970s made it an important text in the literary canon. The novel, where a monster is created by a male inventor, can be interpreted as a commentary on the nurturing role of women in society. Famously defined by the author as “my hideous progeny,” the book, some feminists readers interpret, spells out the warning that a science based on masculinist assumptions is dangerously marginalizing the role of women as educators. In addition, through such a tragic act of reproduction that excludes women, the novel indicts this exclusion and critiques theories of nonsexual reproduction that had been put forth by the science of the day. In her critique, it is the scientist Victor, the perpetrator of such motherless reproduction, who becomes the true monster of the story.

See Also:

Depression, Dialectics of Reproduction, Ectogenesis, Grief, Loss of Child, Literature, Mothers in, Stepmothers, Wollstonecraft, Mary

  • Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.
  • Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Schor, Esther. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Prono, Luca
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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