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Mary Shelley: Frankenstein’s Mother

Two hundred years ago, a young woman completed one of the most terrifying novels of all time. Mel Sherwood discovers the scandalous and tumultuous tale of Mary Shelley…
MAKING A MONSTER Eighteen-year-old Shelley was determined to prove to polite society that refined young ladies could also conjure twisted tales

“I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I 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 an uneasy, half-vital motion.”

This, in Mary Shelley’s own words, is how the idea of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus first came to her, her imagination “possessed” by the phantasm. Though historians question whether or not she really was struck, as if by lightning, with this vision, it certainly would be apt if she had been. In the summer of 1816, 18-year-old Mary penned her magnum opus while trapped in a storm-ravaged pocket of the Swiss Alps. As thunder crackled around her, she created one of the most original and enduring horror stories of all time. A genius piece of writing, Frankenstein pulled together all the most prominent scientific questions of Mary’s time, as well as overarching philosophical themes that endure today. But more than that, she also wove in personal woes that had haunted her – and would continue to haunt her – her whole life long.

It was when Mary was just ten days old that she suffered her first, haunting, tragedy; on 10 September 1797, her mother died of childbed, or puerperal, fever. With her mother gone, Mary was left with her father and her halfsister Fanny. Though born small and weak, the infant Mary soon developed lungs that cried out especially loud and strong. Even as a baby, Mary had a voice to be heard.

Theirs was an unconventional family, which is entirely because of Mary’s unconventional, but undeniably brilliant, parents. Her mother was the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, while her father was the radical writer and philosopher William Godwin. They were atheists, anarchists and vocal advocates for widespread social change. Their love a air had been suitably passionate for such radicals. Though William sought to bring down the institution of marriage, the pair were married within a year, by which time Mary was with child. A few short months later she bore Mary junior into this world and in doing so, lost her life. William mourned the loss for many years but, eventually, he felt his daughters needed a mother figure and, in 1801, he remarried.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"With the release of Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench, we uncover the story behind Queen Victoria's love affair with India. From the dawn of the British Empire to Indian Independence, follow the Crown's tumultuous rule of the subcontinent. Also inside, get a blow-by-blow of the first mass tank battle of World War I, and find out how these machines have developed over the last 100 years. You can also meet the real Prince of Persia, Xerxes, and find out what happened after his infamous fight against 300 Spartans."