Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley
1797-1851

A number of feminist critics read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as an elaborate metaphor for childbirth. They draw on the links between creativity and birth that the novel suggests, but it is true that Shelley was physically concerned with birth during the year that Frankenstein was written: She gave birth to a son six months before she began the novel, and completed it four months before the birth of a daughter. Stories of the novel's origins are often rendered in terms of birth as well: Shelley "conceived" Frankenstein on a challenge from Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to tell the most frightening ghost story. What Mary Shelley produced was not so much a ghost story as a meditation on the dangers of genius and creativity, and of man's responsibility to his own creations, and to the world into which he introduces them.

Shelley was the daughter of the radicals William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both of whom sought to reform European society by means of ideas generated by the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, but the young Mary read all of her mother's writings by the age of 10. Her unorthodox upbringing owed much to the philosophy of Godwin (although he was at times a remote figure in her childhood), whose deeply held belief that the individual has "absolute sovereignty" over himself found numerous adherents among contemporary Romantics. In fact, it was through Percy Shelley's connection to Godwin that Mary met her future husband.

Frankenstein, with its mad genius and its sad monster, shows the marks of both the intellectual ferocity she grew up with and the losses she suffered in her early years. Mary Shelley's life with Percy Shelley, much of which was spent in Italy, was also marked by loss: Three of their four children died before the age of three, and Percy Shelley himself died in 1822, a month before his 30th birthday and after only six years of marriage. Frankenstein remained enormously popular for three decades, although none of the novels that followed were a success.

Shelley gave up writing novels in the late 1830s when the Victorian 'triple-decker' began to gain popularity. She continued to oversee the publication of Percy Shelley's poetry and letters and to publish travel narratives of her own until her death in 1851.