On what would have been her 221st birthday, we pay homage to Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851), creator of one of the greatest horror stories ever told, who started writing her Frankenstein in 1816 at the age of 18. 2018 also marks the 200th anniversary of the first edition of Mary’s legendary novel. Here’s what you should know…
Aside from achieving literary greatness at such a young age, Mary Shelley comes from good WYSKy stock. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) was a British writer, philosopher, and pioneering advocate of women’s rights. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, circa 1792, Wollstonecraft argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education.
Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein was a bit circumstantial… the result of a friendly dare. As the story goes, she was among a group of guests staying at the villa of the famous poet Lord Byron (father of Ada Lovelace, yet another woman you should know) on Lake Geneva in Switzerland during the summer of 1816. Stormy weather kept the party indoors, so they entertained themselves by reading ghost stories. One evening, Byron challenged each of his guests to write a short ghost story of their own. Mary not only rose to the challenge, she crushed it.
“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Over the next year, Mary developed her fright inducing short story into a full length novel about a young scientist named Victor Frankenstein who discovers how to give life to inanimate bodies. Using parts from various, exhumed human cadavers, he creates a living, breathing creature that soon turns into a revenge seeking monster, after being rejected by its own creator and humankind. With that, Frankenstein – the book and monster – was born.
Frankenstein was finally published in 1818, when Mary was 21. According to one biography, the first edition of her book had a preface by Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, a famed Romantic poet. As a result, many assumed it was Percy’s book as it was hard for the folks of the early 1800s to believe that a young woman could write such a “hideous story”. Well, young Mary most certainly did and today her work is considered one of the greatest gothic novels and earliest examples of science fiction.
Editor’s Note: We have it on very good, scholarly authority that “the best version of how this book was written is told by Shelley herself in the 1831 introduction to the second edition.”
Image credit: Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840; PD-Art, this is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.