Monday, October 1, 2018

Women in Science Fiction – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Ruth de Jauregui

Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff as the monster, Colin Clive and Mae Clark
Known mainly for her 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's own life was complex. The only child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, she never knew her mother except through Wollstonecraft's feminist writings. Her mother died shortly after her birth. Though her father, a philosopher and political writer, tried to raise Mary and her half sister Fanny Imlay, he remarried when Mary was four. Mary's relationship with her stepmother, who had two children of her own, was not a happy one.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell
Her stepmother decided that her own child should go off to school, but she didn't feel that Mary should be formally educated. Despite her stepmother's decision, Mary was not uneducated. Her father tutored her in many subjects. She also had a governess and a tutor as well as access to her father's library.

When Mary was 16 and Percy Bysshe Shelley was 21, they began meeting secretly. Mary's father did not approve – Shelley was already married, though estranged from his wife. In 1814, Shelley, Mary and her stepsister Claire left for France. Two months later, the trio ran out of money and returned to England.

By the time the trio traveled to Geneva to meet Lord Byron in 1816, Mary had lost her first child and birthed her second child, William. Claire was pregnant by Byron. Later, Mary remembered that summer as: "a wet, ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house." Although they didn't know it at the time, this was "The Year Without a Summer," which was caused by the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the Pacific. It severely disrupted weather patterns in North America, Canada and Europe in 1816.

The draft of Frankenstein
It was during these long, dark days that Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story." Though Mary was at first unable to compose a story, after a discussion one night about galvanism she thought of the possibility of reanimating a corpse. Thus, the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein was born.

Between the first draft of Frankenstein and its publication, Shelley's wife died. In an effort to gain custody of his two children, Shelley and Mary were married on December 30, 1816. Though the marriage healed the rift between Mary and her father, the court ruled that Shelley was a morally unfit parent.

Based on scientific principles of the early 19th century, the story was expanded into a novel and published in 1818 as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (revised 1831). Shelley encouraged her writing and probably helped with editing the manuscript. While the story was thought of as a horror story, its basis in science makes it a science fiction story.

Frankenstein was not Mary's only contribution to science fiction. After the death of Shelley by drowning in 1822, she wrote the post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826). Though critics harshly reviewed it at the time, it was reprinted in 1965. With the modern knowledge of diseases and vaccines, the book revealed her understanding of the history of medicine and scientific inquiry.

Literary scholar Kari Lokke wrote of Mary's work, specifically The Last Man and Frankenstein, "in its refusal to place humanity at the center of the universe, its questioning of our privileged position in relation to nature...constitutes a profound and prophetic challenge to Western humanism."

The frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein
by Theodor von Holst 
Mary devoted herself to her fourth and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, and her writing career. They traveled for a time before he married. She spent much of her career publishing and promoting Shelley's works. She lived with her son and daughter-in-law until her untimely death in 1851.

Mary wrote several other novels, biographies, essays and short stories, but Frankenstein has remained her legacy to the speculative fiction world.

Amazon: Mary Shelley