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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) - original surname Godwin

 

English Romantic novelist, biographer and editor, best known as the writer of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Mary Shelley was 21 when the book was published; she completed her writing of the novel when she was 17. The story deals with an ambitious young scientist. He creates life but then rejects his creation, a monster.

"But success shall crown my endeavours. Wherefore not? Thus far I have gone, tracking a secure way over the pathless seas: the very stars themselves being witnesses and testimonies of my triumph. Why not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" (from Frankenstein)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in London. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of puerperal fever 10 days after giving birth to her daughter. Mary's labor lasted 18 hours and then it took four hours to remove the rest of the placenta. She was one of the first feminists, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and the novel The Wrongs of Woman, in which she wrote: "We cannot, without depraving our minds, endeavour to please a lover or husband, but in proportion as he pleases us." In the intellectual circles of London, her acquaintances included the painter Henry Fuseli, Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, and William Blake, who illustrated an edition of her book, Original Stories from Real Life. Fuseli showed her how to dress more fashionable; he eventually left her to marry one of his models.

Mary Shelley's father was the writer and political journalist William Godwin, who became famous with his work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin had revolutionary attitudes to most social institutions, including marriage. In feminism he found an "amazonian" element. Among his other books is Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794).

In her childhood Mary Shelley was left to educate herself amongst her father's intellectual circle, the critic Hazlitt, the essayist Lamb, the poet Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who came into Godwin's circle in 1812. Her first poem she published at the age of ten. Godwin remarried in 1801, but Mary never learned to like her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont. In 1812 she was sent to live in Dundee. At the age of 16 she ran away to France and Switzerland with Shelley; they had met at the end of 1812. Percy and Mary married in 1816 – Shelley's wife Harriet had committed suicide by drowning. Their first child, a daughter, died in Venice, Italy, a few years later. In History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817) the Shelleys jointly recorded their life. Thereafter they returned to England and Mary gave birth to a son, William.

The story of Frankenstein started in 1816, when Mary joined Lord Byron with Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont in the Villa Diodati, in Switzerland, on the shore of Lake Geneva. On a stormy night in June, she took a challenge, set by Byron, to write a ghost story. Byron was the most famous English poet of the time, while Shelley's work was not not known outside a small circle of literary friends. Also another myth emerged from the challenge, The Vampyre, written by Dr. Polidori, Byron's friend.  

With her husband's encouragement, Mary completed the novel within a year. At the Villa Diodati she had been a "silent listener" of her husband and Byron, who discussed about galvanism. At Eton College Shelley had become interested in Luigi Calvani's experiments with electric shocks to make dead frogs' muscles twitch. It is possible that his teacher, James Lind, had demonstrated the technique to Shelley. Byron and Shelley talked Dr Darwin's experiments with a piece of vermicelli. In her 'Introduction' to the 1831 edition Mary revealed that she got the story from a dream, in which she saw "the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with a uneasy, half vital motion."

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) The novel start with series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister. Walton is an English Arctic explorer who spots a strange creature on a dog-sled. The exhausted Victor Frankenstein arrives, in pursuit of the creature, and while recuperating tells his story. He has been born into a wealthy Geneva family. After his mother dies of scarlet fever he becomes a student of natural philosophy and medicine. Inspired by occult philosophy and the teaching of his mentor, Waldman, he builds a creature in the semblance of a man and gives it life. Its body is assembled from parts which Frankenstein has stolen from butcher shops, dissecting rooms, and charnel-houses. The creature is repeatedly rejected by those who see it, but proves to be intelligent, and later highly articulate and embittered with life. Frankenstein deserts his creation, who disappears. "I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I have deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I have finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." (from Frankenstein)

Frankenstein hears that his younger brother has been strangled, but Justine, his family's servant confesses the murder. However, later the monster tells that he murdered William and framed Justine. Frankenstein then agrees to make a mate for the monster so that it will not bother anyone again. A wave of remorse makes him destroy the female. The lone creature swears revenge. He kills Frankenstein's bride, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. The scientist becomes mad, but recovers and chases the creature across the world. The two confront in the Arctic wastes. Frankenstein dies. The creature describes eloquently to Walton his efforts to seek out beauty and how crime has degraded it beneath the meanest animal. "He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the wind play on my cheeks. Light, feeling, and sense will pass away; and in this condition must I find my happiness." The monster leaps from the ship on a ice-raft, disappearing again in the darkness.

The novel contains no supernatural elements; the creation of the monster is described in the third edition on a rational scientific basis. Frankenstein is a scientist who challenges the Creator of the world with the possibilities of modern science, but is destroyed because he cannot anticipate the outcomes of his own acts. The story has also been interpreted as an exploration of the artist's – creator's – relation to society.

The first edition of book, dedicated to Shelley's father William Godwin, had an unsigned preface by Percy Shelley. Many thought that it is also his novel, disbelieving that a young woman could write such horror story. However, when the book was published in 1818 by a small London publishing house, it became a huge success, although it received mixed reviews. John Wilson Croker wrote in Quaterly Review (January 1818) that "the dreams of insanity are embodied in the strong and striking language of the insane, and the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero." Walter Scott, on the other hand, noted that the work was "written in plain and forcible English, without exhibiting the mixture of hyperbolical Germanisms with which tales of wonder are usually told" (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, March 1818). The second edition, which came out in France in 1823, credited Mary Shelley as the author. Succumbing to the pressure of making the story more conservative, Shelley heavily revised the first "popular" edition, which appeared in one volume in  October 1831.

In 1818 the Shelleys left England for Italy, where they remained until Percy Shelley's death – he drowned during a heavy squall on July 28, 1822, in the Bay of Spezia near Livorno. The corpse of her husband was burned on the beach; Mary did not have the heart to witness the burning, so Shelley's friend Edward John Trelawny  took care of it. In letter to her friend Maria Gisborne she said that "Trelawny . . .  supported us in our miseries . . . – & when I shake his hand I feel to the depth of my soul that those hands collected those ashes – yes – for I saw saw them burned & scorched from the office – no fatigue – no sun – or nervous horrors deterred him, as one or the other of these causes deterred all others – he stood on the burning sand for many hours beside the pyre  . . . " 

In 1819 Mary suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of William, who died of malaria at the age of 3. Mary had also lost a daughter the previous year. In 1822 she had a dangerous miscarriage and she believed that she would die. Mary Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne about this loss and her husband's death, concluding the letter: "Well here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell – all that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled – I shall live to improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join him. soon my weary pilgrimage will begin – I rest now –  but soon I must leave Italy – ". Of their children only one, Percy Florence, survived infancy. In 1823 Mary returned with her son to England, determined not to-re-marry. She devoted herself to his welfare and education and continued her career as a professional writer. Sir Timothy Shelley, her father-in-law, was not eager to help her and her son Percy financially. Mary Shelley never married, but she flirted with the young French writer Prosper Merimee, and hoped to marry Maj. Aubrey Beauclerk.

None of Shelley's novels from this period matched the power of her first legendary achievement. Her later works include Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1937), both romantic pot-boilers, and unfinished Mathilda (1819, published 1959), which draws on her relations with Godwin and Shelley. Valperga (1823) is a romance set in the 14th-century, and The Last Man (1826), set in the 21st century republican England, depicts the end of human civilization. Its second part describes the gradual destruction of the human race by plague. The narrator is Lionel Verney, the last man of the title, living amidst the ruins of Rome. Feminist critics have paid attention to its fantasy of the total corrosion of patriarchal order.

Shelley gave up writing long fiction when realism started to gain popularity, exemplified in the works of Charles Dickens. She wrote a numerous short stories for popular periodicals, particularly The Keepsaker, produced several volumes of Lives for Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia, and the first authoritative edition of Shelley's poems (1839, 4 vols.). Shelley's well-received travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 came out in 1844. She also attempted a biography on Shelley but abandoned the work.

The story of Frankenstein's monster has inspired over 50 films. James Whale's version from 1931, starring Boris Karloff, is considered a classic, and became the major source for a number of other adaptations. The monster kills little Maria on the lake and is hunted down and destroyed. All reviews of the film were not positive: "I regret to report that it is just another movie, so thoroughly mixed with water as to have a horror content of about .0001 percent... The film differs greatly from the book and soon turns into a sort of comic opera with a range of cardboard mountains over which extras in French Revolution costumes dash about with flaming torches." (Creighton Peet in Outlook & Independent, December 9, 1931) Mel Brook's parody Young Frankenstein (1974), starring Gene Wilder in the role of the famous doctor, was beautifully photographed – Brooks used many archaic optical devices, including the old 1:85 aspect ratio for height and width of the frame. The film received an Academy Award nomination for its script. Among its highlights is the scene in which Peter Boyle as the monster visits a well-meaning, lonely blind man, Gene Hackman, who nearly manages to destroy his guest. Kenneth's Branagh's adaptation Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) was faithful to the book. The director himself was Frankenstein and Robert De Niro played the monster under a heavy mask.

For further reading: Mary Shelley: A Biography by R. Glynn Grylls (1938); Child of Light by Muriel Spark (1951); Mary Shelley by Eileen Bigland (1959); Ariel Like a Harpy by Christopher Small (1972); Mary Shelley by William Walling (1972); The Frankenstein Legend by Donald Glut (1973); The Annotated Frankenstein by Leonard Wolf (1977); Moon in Eclipse by Jane Dunn (1978); Mary Shelley by Harold Bloom (1985); Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Frankenstein, ed. by Stephen C. Behrendt, Anne Kostelanetz Mellor (1990); Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters by Anne K. Mellor (1990); Hideous Progenies by Steven Earl Forry (1990); Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Wedding Guest by Mary Lowe-Evans (1993); Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction by Betty, T. Bennett (1998); Frankenstein Creation and Monstrosity, ed. by Stephen Bann (1995); In Search of Frankenstein by Radu Florescu (1997); Mary Shelley: Frankenstein's Creator: First Science Fiction Writer by Joan Kane Nichols (1998); Frankenstein: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, ed by Johanna M. Smith (2000); Readings on Frankenstein, ed. by Don Nardo (2000); Mary Shelley: Bride of Frankenstein by Miranda Seymour (2001); The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (2007); A Life with Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson, Shoshana Felman and Judith Butler (2014)   - See also: Robert Louis Stevenson

Selected works:

  • History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, 1817 (with Percy Bysshe Shelley)
  • Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 (3 vols.)
    - Frankenstein: uusi Prometeus (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1973)
    - films: 1931, dir. by James Whale, starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke and Boris Karloff; sequel: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), dir. by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), dir. by Kenneth Branagh, starring Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter (see the film list below)
  • Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, 1823 (3 vols.)
  • Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1824 (editor) 
  • The Last Man, 1826 (3 vols.)
    - film 2008, prod. A.I.A. Productions, Halo One Productions, dir. James Arnett, starring Santiago Craig, Teresa Shade, Julio Garcia, Tom Rogers
  • The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck: A Romance, 1830 (3 vols.)
  • Lodore, 1835 (3 vols.)
  • Falkner, 1837 (3 vols.)
  • Essays: letters from abroad, translations and fragments, 1840 (ed. by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
  • Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843, 1844 (2 vols.)
  • The Choice: A Poem on Shelleys Death, 1876 (ed. H. Buxton Forman)
  • Tales and Short Stories, 1891 (ed. by Richard Garnett)
  • Letters of Mary W. Shelley: (Mostly Unpublished), 1918 (ed. by Henry H. Harper)
  • Proserpine and Midas, 1922 (ed. by André Henri Koszul)
  • Harriet and Mary, 1944 (ed. by Walter Sidney Scott)
  • Letters of Mary W. Shelley, 1944 (2 vols., ed. by Frederick L. Jones)
  • Mary Shelley's Journal, 1947 (ed. by Frederick L. Jones)
  • My Best Mary: The Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1953 (ed. by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford)
  • Mathilda, 1959 (ed. by Elizabeth Nitchie)
  • Collected Tales and Short Stories, 1976 (ed. by Charles E. Robinson)
  • The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1983 (3 vols., ed. by Betty T. Bennett)
  • The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, 1987 (2 vols., ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert)
  • The Mary Shelley Reader, 1990 (ed. by Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson)
  • Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1995 (edited by Betty T. Bennett)

Frankenstein films:

  • Life Withour Soul, 1915, dir. Joseph W. Smiley
  • Frankenstein, 1931, dir. James Whale
  • The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, dir. James Whale
  • The Son of Frankenstein, 1939, dir. Rowland W. Lee
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942, dir. Erle C. Kenton
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943, dir. Roy William Neill
  • House of Frankenstein, 1944, dir. Erle C. Kenton
  • House of Fracula, 1945, dir. Erle C. Kenton
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948, dir. Charles D. Barton
  • The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957, dir. Terence Fisher
  • I Was a Teen Age Frankenstein, 1957, dir. Herbert L. Strock
  • Frankenstein '70, 1958, dir. Howard W. Koch
  • The Evil of Frankenstein, 1964, dir. Freddie Francis
  • Furankenshutain tai chitei kaij Baragon, 1965, dir. Inoshiro Honda
  • Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, 1965, dir. Robert Gaffney
  • Furankenshutain no Kaiju, 1966, dir. Inoshiro Honda
  • Jesse James Meet's Frankenstein's Daughter, 1966, dir. William Beaudine
  • Frankenstein Created Woman, 1967, dir. Terence Fisher
  • Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, 1969, dir. Terence Fisher
  • The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970 dir. Jimmy Sangster
  • Dracula versus Frankenstein, 1971, dir. Al Adamson
  • Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, 1972, dir. Jesús Franco
  • Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, 1973, dir. Paul Morrissey, Antonio Margheriti
  • Blackenstein, 1973, dir. William A. Levey
  • Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, 1973, dir. Terence Fisher
  • Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, 1973, dir. Robert H. Oliver
  • Frankenstein: The True Story, 1973, dir, Jack Smight
  • Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks
  • Victor Frankenstein, 1975, dir. Calvin Floyd
  • Frankenstein's Island, 1982, dir. Jerry Warren
  • The Bride, 1985, dir. Franc Roddam
  • Gothic, 1986, dir. Ken Russel
  • Doctor Hackenstein, 1989, dir. Richard Clark
  • Frankenhooker, 1990, dir. Frank Henenlotter
  • Frankenstein Unbound, 1990, dir. Roger Corman
  • Frankenstein: The College Years, 1991, dir. Tom Shadyac
  • Frankenstein: The Real Story, 1992, dir. David Wickes
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994, dir. Kenneth Branagh
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein, 1999 (animation), dir. Kathi Castillo
  • La sangre de Frankenstein, 2002, dir. Germán Magariños
  • Frankenstein, 2004, TV mini-series, dir. Kevin Connor
  • Bikini Frankenstein, 2010, dir. Fred Olen Ray
  • Frankenstein Rising, 2010, dir. Eric Swelstad
  • Frankenstein, 2011, in National Theatre Live, dir. Danny Boyle


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