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Intellectually Lively and Politically Charged

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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.