A portrait identified as Mary Shelley and attributed to Richard Rothwell RHA, ca. 1843–5. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Miniature portrait on ivory of Mary Shelley, based on a death mask, by Reginald Easton, ca. 1851–93. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley’s joint journal entry, dated July 29, 1814 (but written several days later). Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Henry Cockburn, a drama student from Oxford University, reads an entry from the Shelleys’ journal. Courtesy Oxford, Bodleian Libraries

The first edition of Frankenstein, published by the London printers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones in 1818. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Mary’s journal laconically notes that “a marriage takes place on the 29th.” She and Shelley in fact wed on the 30th. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

An oil portrait of William Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

William Godwin’s draft letter to Mary Shelley, London, September 9, 1819. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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“Now I am alone! Oh, how alone!” — from Mary’s “Journal of Sorrow,” October 2, 1822. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Pages from a notebook of Shelley’s shorter lyrics and fragments, transcribed by Mary, including “To William Shelley.” Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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In the preface to the Posthumous Poems, Mary explains the inclusion of “imperfect” poems in her edition. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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Mary records Shelley’s actual translations of Plato in her copy of the prose (the printed “friend” is corrected to “lover”). Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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Mary Shelley: An Unconventional Visionary


Intellectually Lively and Politically Charged

Eloping with Shelley and a Third Wheel

Hard and Cruel

Chronicling Sorrow

Mary as a Writer and Editor

Mary Shelley (1797–1851) was born in London, the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to Mary, and the political philosopher William Godwin. Her childhood was an unconventional one. Four years after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin married a widow, Mary Jane Clairmont, who came with a son, Charles, and a daughter, Jane, who would later call herself Claire and play an important — if not always welcome — part in Mary’s life. Also growing up in the Godwin household were Fanny Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter by a previous relationship, and William Godwin, Jr., the son of William and Mary Jane Godwin.

Mary was educated mostly by her father, who encouraged her to write from an early age, and she became well versed in history, literature, the Bible, and the classics. Godwin was perpetually short of money, but the atmosphere at home was intellectually lively and politically charged. Although Mary never knew her remarkable mother, she revered her memory and her work. This reverence was shared by the young Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom Mary met in 1814 when she was a precocious 16 year old. Much of their subsequent courtship took place by Wollstonecraft's grave, in the churchyard at St. Pancras, London.

During the eight years the Shelleys spent together, they collaborated on a travel book, two mythological dramas, and a novel. After her husband’s death, Mary pursued her own writing career while also serving as Shelley's posthumous editor, advocate, and interpreter.

In one of fortune’s more ironic turnings, the most enduring and popular work of the Romantic period was written not by Percy Bysshe Shelley — or Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, or Coleridge, for that matter — but by Mary Shelley when she was just 18 years old: Frankenstein, a nightmare vision that evolved into the archetypal parable of modern civilization.

Shelley and Mary eloped at 4:15 a.m. on July 28, 1814, accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Jane Clairmont (who later that year began calling herself Clary or Clara, eventually settling on Claire). They were pursued by Claire’s mother, who caught up with the party the following day at Calais, but failed to persuade them to return to England. On August 2, Shelley, Mary, and Claire reached Paris, where they purchased a notebook, a page of which is featured in this section. Shelley wrote up their dramatic flight from England, the stormy crossing (during which he began “to reason upon death”), and their arrival in France. Mary makes her first contribution to the journal by completing a sentence in lighter ink (here, italicized): “Mary was there. Shelley was also with me.”

The Shelleys traveled throughout Europe on their honeymoon. They returned to the Continent in 1816, staying with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. It was there, during an uncharacteristically rainy summer — at the suggestion of Byron, who challenged his guests each to write a ghost story — that Mary began her most enduring work, the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Dedicated to Godwin, the novel was published anonymously in 1818.

As it happens, Mary was not Shelley’s first wife. The pair learned of the death of his first wife, Harriet Shelley, on December 15, 1816. Mary recorded the news in her journal in the briefest fashion — not, surely, out of indifference. She entered the date for the following day, December 16, but then broke off her journal for two weeks, until her wedding to Shelley on December 30. Again, that event gets only the most laconic of mentions; Mary even gets the date wrong. But to such things, she and Shelley were truly indifferent. Other than the practical advantages it promised, marriage and its formalities mattered very little to them.

The Shelleys traveled throughout Italy between 1818 and 1822. Tragically, while they were in Rome during the summer of 1819, their beloved three-year-old son William, or “Wilmouse,” fell ill and died, a victim of the notorious miasma that afflicted the city in the early 19th century and which led to epidemics of malaria and other diseases. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, not far from where his father’s ashes would later be interred, although the exact spot of his grave went unmarked. William’s portrait was made by Amelia Curran, a friend of both Shelleys, who also painted Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley, and the best-known portrait of Shelley.

Following William’s death, Godwin initially drafted a letter to Mary, seen here, that included words critical of Shelley, later deleted. He wrote as a philosopher as well as a father, adopting an impersonal tone that can seem brutal. Lady Shelley, Mary’s daughter-in-law, certainly thought so. “It was a hard, cruel letter,” she told her friend Maud Brooke. “Mary never got over that child’s death and even spoke of him just before her death. Godwin always thought of himself as an exalted being.”

While returning home from a visit to a village on the Gulf of Spezia, Percy Bysshe Shelley and a friend drowned when their boat sank during a storm, on July 8, 1822. For a few months after her husband’s death, Mary lived at Albaro, on the outskirts of Genoa. Her only regular companions were her toddler son, Percy Florence, and the “Journal of Sorrow,” which she began on October 2, 1822.

Mary confided her innermost thoughts to this journal, a page of which is seen in this section. She writes: “White paper — wilt thou be my confid[a]nt? I will trust thee fully, for none shall see what I write.” To be sure, Mary would not have wished to share the entries she wrote immediately after the death of her husband, in which her remorse and despair sometimes approach hysteria. But she left no instructions for the “Journal of Sorrow” to be destroyed after her own death and was perhaps reconciled to the idea that this, and her other journals, would eventually be seen by other eyes.

Although Mary’s one wish was to live quietly in Italy with her surviving son, lack of money forced her to return to England in 1823. She received a meager allowance from Shelley's father, Sir Timothy, who refused to meet her. Mary remained haunted by her eight years with Shelley: “I can never cease for a second to have him (Shelley) in my heart and brain with a clearness that mocks reality, interfering even by its force with the functions of life.”

On Shelley’s death, Mary was faced with the task of raising their surviving child, Percy Florence, on her own. She earned her living by the pen, as her parents had done before her, through a variety of literary pursuits: biographies, short stories, encyclopedia articles, book reviews, and five more novels, the most notable an apocalyptic account of the destruction of mankind, The Last Man (1826).

Mary also edited Shelley’s work, although she was much hampered by Sir Timothy Shelley, who wanted his son’s iconoclasm to be forgotten. Among the pieces, shown here, is her transcription of a poetry fragment from 1816, which she would publish as “To William Shelley.” The neatness of the transcription contradicts what Mary went through when editing this, and other poems; she found herself reliving old tragedies, which made the work exhausting.

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley was published in the summer of 1824. In an introduction, Mary recalled her husband’s love of nature and solitude, his fragile health, his goodness, and his intellectual brilliance. She next intended to publish an edition of his prose, but Sir Timothy threatened to withdraw her allowance if she did. It was not until the late 1830s that Shelley’s father, then approaching 90, relented. In December 1838, Mary agreed to sell the copyright of Shelley’s writings to the publisher Edward Moxon for £500, and to edit the poems in preparation for an edition of the complete works.

Mary produced a four-volume edition of Shelley’s poetry, with long biographical introductions, in 1839. Her two-volume edition of the prose, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, was published later that year (with an 1840 title page). Mary felt bound to work within the prejudices of the time, but in her copy of Shelley’s prose she interleaved blank pages on which she wrote parts of the original text. On the page shown here, Mary restored passages and wording — concerned with homosexual love — from Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium.


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