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Mary Shelley - The Formative Years

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Mary Shelley
The Formative Years | The Decadent Days | The Marriage | The Widow | Frankenstein - The Legacy

Some people believe that free love and unmarried mothers were popularised in the 1960s and 1970s, but the story of Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein, involves more than a smattering of each.

Trendy Parents

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London on 30 August, 1797. Her parents were both radical free-thinkers, but despite talking the talk and beginning to walk the walk, they decided for the sake of social respectability that they would marry some five months before her birth. They had met only 13 months earlier, but despite oft-stated ethical opposition to the institution of marriage, they felt their child would need the legitimacy of a church-sanctified union, even though both of them were atheists.

Both of Mary's parents were writers. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a well-known feminist writer, and her father William Godwin was a respected political journalist and philosopher. This would appear to have made for a very good start for the young Mary, but fate struck a cruel blow just ten days after her birth. Her mother died tragically of placental infection, following complications. This left Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay1 in the care of the bereft William Godwin.

Following his wife's death, Godwin published her life story, warts and all, in his book Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1798. He made no apologies for his late wife's lifestyle prior to their marriage, and while the book was tender but true, it was to result in her being branded licentious. It wasn't received well by an audience not yet ready for the feminist cause.

Godwin practised his late wife's childcare techniques and became both mother and father to the young Mary. She was precocious, sensitive, spirited and his favourite child of the two in his care. While he supervised the girls' schooling, he celebrated Mary's superior intelligence. He took both girls on regular excursions to the pantomime, various events, and dinners with his literary friends.

Enter the Evil Step-mother

Mary loved her father dearly, and her attachment to him was to last her entire life; for his part, he called her 'pretty little Mary' and was undoubtedly proud of her talents. Things did change in the Godwin household, however, when William took his second wife.

Mrs Mary Jane Clairmont was a self-styled 'widow' with two children; six-year-old Charles and four-year-old Jane2. She was, in reality, Miss Mary Jane Vial, spinster of the parish, having never quite made it up the aisle with dearly departed Mr Charles Clairmont.

A neighbour of the Godwins, with an eye for a good match, Ms Vial set her cap for William Godwin, and with copious flattery she won her man. Having said that, William was on the look-out for a wife to help him raise the two girls, so while Ms Vial was no Mary Wollstonecraft, she was, he felt, a suitable replacement. William and Mary were married in 1801.

Young Mary and her step-mother had a strained relationship from the outset. This was largely due to the new Mrs Godwin's jealousy of Mary's bond with her father. They had such an intense relationship that she had difficulty getting between them. When even family friends were enchanted by little Mary, she considered her options. The daughter of two such celebrated writers was a trophy that the intellectual, philosophical and literary circles were intrigued by, so her step-mother decided to do her best to break up the party.

In order to stifle the young Mary, Mrs Godwin began with subtlety and insisted that she do many of the household chores. She then progressed to reading her mail. Most painfully though, she attempted to limit Mary's access to her father and thus fell most definitely into the evil step-mother role. Discouraged but not beaten, Mary was again passed over when it came to her formal education: Mrs Godwin sent her own daughter Jane to boarding school, but kept Mary at home.

Fortunately for Mary, her lack of schooling had no adverse effect as she had access to her father's extensive library and his intellectual friends; thus Mary was more or less self-taught. She gleaned an education at home which money couldn't buy, introduced to the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake by the authors themselves. Humphry Davy and William Nicholson were also regular visitors3, lending some informal scientific education for Mary. Despite her step-mother's best efforts, Mary was growing up with a better education than most.

Mary was encouraged by her father to write stories and her 39 quatrain reworking of Charles Dibdin's five-stanza song Mounseer Nongtongpaw was published by her father's Godwin Juvenile Library in 1808. It was quite remarkable for a ten-year-old. Her version of the song was so popular that it was in its fourth edition by 1812, and was republished in 1830 with accompanying illustrations by Robert Cruikshank.

As Mary grew up, her relationship with Mrs Godwin continued to grate. The animosity between the two had reached such an intensity that her father thought it best to send her away in order to restore some harmony in the home.

In the summer of 1812, William sent the young Mary to stay with his friend William Baxter in Dundee, Scotland. There, Mary enjoyed participating in their normal, loving family life. Over the summer she grew attached to their daughters Christina and Isabel, and she recorded that time as one of the happiest in her life.

Delighted to Meet You

When Mary returned home in November 1812, she was introduced to one of her father's new friends: wealthy and engaging Percy Bysshe Shelley and, of course, his wife Harriet. There began one of the most exciting and heartbreaking chapters in her life.

1The illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay, an American Revolutionary Army Officer.2Jane was later to become known as Claire.3Both men were leading experts in galvanisation and other experiments with electricity.

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