The Tragic Life of the Feminist Writer of Frankenstein

On this day in 1818, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece “Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus” is published in England. The book by the 21-year-old is frequently called the world’s first science fiction novel wherein a scientist animates a creature constructed from dismembered corpses.

The work’s gentle, intellectually gifted creature is enormous and physically hideous. Cruelly rejected by its creator, it wanders, seeking companionship and becoming increasingly brutal as it fails to find a mate.

Mary Shelley created the story on a rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, where she was staying with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Romantic movement nobleman Lord Byron. Byron proposed they each write a Gothic ghost story, but only Mary Shelley completed hers. Although serving as the basis for the Western horror story and the inspiration for numerous movies in the 20th century, the book Frankenstein is much more than pop fiction. The story explores philosophical themes and challenges Romantic ideals about the beauty and goodness of nature.

The daughter of free-thinking philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley lost her mother days after her own birth. She clashed with her stepmother and was sent to Scotland to live with foster parents during her early teens, then eloped with the married poet Shelley when she was 17 after Shelley’s wife committed suicide in 1817; the couple married but spent much of their time abroad, fleeing Shelley’s creditors.

Mary Shelley gave birth to five children, with only one surviving to adulthood. Mary was only 24 years old when her husband drowned in a sailing accident; she went on to edit two volumes of his works. She lived on a small stipend from her father-in-law, Lord Shelley, until her surviving son inherited his fortune and title in 1844. She died at the age of 53. 

Although Mary Shelley was a respected writer for many years, only Frankenstein and her journals are still widely read. And it is here this particular installment endeth.

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