Since I’ve now written about her mother and her stepsister, it’s time to focus completely on Mary Shelley herself.
So. Mary Shelley’s mom, Mary Wollstonecraft, died eleven days after Mary Shelley was born in 1797. Enough reason right there to be pretty pissed off.
In some ways, Mary mourned her mother all her life, reading Wollstonecraft’s works many times, asking her father and her parents’ friends questions, and generally placing Wollstonecraft on a well-deserved pedestal. Mary’s eventual husband, Percy Shelley, worshipped Wollstonecraft, too, which may be what made him attractive to young Mary. (Also a smart move just in general, so make a note to worship your own mother-in-law at the next opportunity.)
Mary grew up hating her stepmother but loving her father, her half-sister Fanny, and stepsister, Claire. She also read as much as possible (not as easy as you’d think for a woman in the first decades of the 19th century) and paid careful attention when writers and philosophers visited to talk with her father, as they often did.
At sixteen years old, Mary met and ran away with Percy Shelley, who was about twenty-one years old and, inconveniently, married. They escaped into the night like thieves, leaving a note for Mary’s father and for reasons I may never figure out, taking Claire with them. Claire was ornery and smart in similar ways to Mary, so the two had an antagonistic relationship, and I imagine that when Mary looked back on her life, the choice to bring Claire along that night was frequently another reason to feel pretty pissed off.
Rules so far:
1. Worship your mother-in-law if at all possible. It makes you look really good.
2. If a wild romantic adventure comes your way, leave all siblings at home. It’s for the best.
Another reason Mary should be pretty pissed off: When literature scholars, teachers, students, and people in casual conversation at IHOP (which I suspect is a very literary place) refer to Shelley, they are generally referring to Percy, not Mary. Percy was (and still is) a very important poet and thinker whose work has influenced people like Oscar Wilde and Gandhi. But when he drowned at age twenty-nine, much of his work was unpublished. (Incidentally, being married to a man who couldn’t swim but insisted on spending considerable time in boats must have also cheesed Mary off fairly regularly.)
It was Mary who collected, edited, and made sure Percy’s work was published. And yet she has to be “Mary Shelley” while he gets to be just “Shelley.” Google “Shelley” and you’ll see what I mean. I like to think that if Mary were alive today she’d get back at us by insisting that we use all of her given and acquired names. Being Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley is a bit like being Mary Steinem Einstein Steinbeck—all names that are instantly recognizable and revered. (Also, I got on a roll with “stein” names, and was unreasonably excited about that fun connection before I even realized that I just gave three “stein” names to the author of FrankenSTEIN. Whoa. Why is it that when I amaze myself it’s almost always an accident?)
But Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley had more to concern herself with than names. By the time she was twenty-four years old, she was a widow who had buried three of her four children and her half-sister. Pretty. Pissed. Off.
Add to all of that the fact that Mary’s best-known work, Frankenstein, has been reduced to the image of a tall green man with bolts in his neck. Frankenstein is a brilliant work about science, playing God, human frailty, education, gender, the limits of knowledge, and so much more. I challenge you to read it and not be genuinely terrified when Dr. Frankenstein wakes to find the creature he’s sewn together from scratch standing over his bed, looking at him with yellow eyes.
That book is why Mary Shelley is considered the Mother of Science Fiction. Millions of people have read it, and yet every Halloween you hear the same silly mistake, so Mary must be screaming from the grave: “COME ON, PEOPLE! FRANKENSTEIN IS THE DOCTOR, NOT THE MONSTER!” Mary has probably been screaming this for nearly 200 years; this bizarre name-switching happened in her lifetime, when the novel was adapted for the stage. Anyway, if you’re looking for ways to be the life of your next party, be sure to notify everyone that the creature in Frankenstein actually never has a name. Fun will ensue.
You know I like to leave you with a cheery thought after all of this pissed-offedness, so consider my theory that if Jane Austen had lived to read Frankenstein (published only one year after Austen died) it would have changed her worldview and made her want to write about monsters. My fantasy is that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen would have become BFFs and spent the rest of their lives writing ironic love stories about scientific creations.