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Imagine you’ve gotten an AirBnB with your boyfriend and some friends. You were all planning to go on a hike, but it’s started to downpour rain because someone failed to check the weather. Instead, the guys decide to get high and set up a ghostwriting contest, inspired by the whole dark-and-stormy-night vibes. But at this point, you’re a bit fed up with your boyfriend, who might be sleeping with your sister. So what do you do?
Well, if you are Mary Shelley, you crush their pitiful attempts and win the writing contest. But this is an old story. We already know Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and inventor of the science-fiction genre at 19 years old—right? Actually, there is more to the woman than the monster she wrote.
Born as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, she was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—famous political philosophers. In fact, Wollstonecraft’s writings were central to the Revolution controversy, a discourse that broke out in response to the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft’s essay, A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, established her as “the mother of feminism in the English language.”
But Wollstonecraft died shortly after childbirth and, in true gothic fashion, Mary grew up learning to read and studying her mother’s work in the cemetery, tracing the letters of her name on her mother’s grave (it gets spookier). At 16 years old, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley, five years her senior, who had already made a name for himself as a poet and fanboy of her father’s political writings. According to biographer Martin Garrett, Percy would look for Mary who was usually hanging out in the cemetery—the same place where they would eventually hook up. Garrett writes, “Her mother’s grave: the setting seems an unusually grim, even ghoulish locale for reading, writing, or love-making.”
As a young couple believing in “free love,” Mary and Percy eloped in 1814 despite Percy already having a pregnant wife. It broke the families. Mary’s stepmother and half-sisters were devastated by Mary ruining the family name, and Harriet—Percy’s first wife—was heartbroken. In 1816, after the suicide of Harriet and Mary’s half-sister Fanny, the couple married. Despite the grim beginning, Mary and Percy were a literary power couple, traveling and writing alongside other authors and poets of the Romantic era. This included Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, John Keats, and William Wordsworth.
But she was plagued with misfortune. Already haunted by the death of her mother and sister, Mary also suffered the loss of two children and a near-deadly miscarriage. Eventually, Percy drowned in a sailing accident, widowing Mary at 24 years old. In her mourning, Mary wrote The Last Man, a novel about a dystopian universe where a pandemic sweeps across the earth, spreading through globalization and panic. It shakes the foundation of countries, stoking revolution and fear around the world. Sounds familiar, right?
Other than its eerie prediction of today’s world, The Last Man also reflected Shelley’s status as one of the last Romantic writers of her time. After the death of her husband, Mary kept his calcified heart as a paperweight on her desk until she died.
But her life didn’t end after Percy. American John Howard Payne (songwriter of “Home, Sweet Home!”) also pursued and proposed to her as well. But Mary crushed the man, by stating that having been married to one genius she wasn’t going to settle for anyone less. She remained friends with Payne, but he wasn’t the only one of her admirers after her husband’s death.
Mary was believed to have had relationships with women specifically Jane Williams, with who Percy also had an affair before his death. But Williams spread malicious rumors about Mary, ruining that relationship. Despite being burned by love herself, Mary upheld her status as a feminist, bisexual icon by helping another lesbian couple run away to Paris. The French writer Prosper Merimee and her old friend Edmund Trelawney also proposed marriage, with Mary turning them all down. She wrote in one of her letters, “Mary Shelley shall be written on my tomb, and why? I cannot tell, except that it is so pretty a name that though I were to preach to myself for years, I never should have the heart to get rid of it.”
Sure enough, Mary remained a widow until she died at 53 years old. She’d spend the rest of her life promoting her husband’s work and writing several more novels including Valperga, Lodore, Falkner: A Novel, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Mathilde, and History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. She was also a devoted mother to her only remaining child, Percy Florence Shelley.
As the daughter of a revolutionary feminist and one of the last Romantic writers of her time, Mary’s work remains relevant and almost prophetic through its ability to be a constant mirror to society. In discussions around Silicon Valley, revolution, Christianity, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves coming back to this woman who was surrounded by death and fearlessly wrote about life.
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