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A History of the Mother of Science Fiction: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley created the science fiction genre with her magnum opus, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, towards the end of the Romantic Movement

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley knew what she was doing. I mean, how classy is a semi-colon in your books title? Before we dive into her tragic story, let me paint you a word picture of what led up to the Haunted Summer

Background on the Romantic Movement

Contrary to what you may believe, the Romantic Movement was not all love poems and sappy ballads. The Romantics did, above all, value beauty, but most recognizably embodied the sharpest wit and humor Europe had ever seen, as well as the inconceivable terror of the unknown. The Romantic movement of the late 18th century and early 19th century was centered in Germany and arose out of the artists longing to separate their minds from the industrial, efficient mindset that dominated the German Confederation. Initially, the German Romantics aspired to create a culture that combined art, philosophy, and science, but after growing tired of this monotony, they turned to the supernatural to fulfill their creative desires. Their obsession with death and magic grew alongside the interest in the sublime. The Romantic Sublime is a literary device repeated throughout Frankenstein: it is a descriptor of greatness so vast the human mind cannot conceive of it, and is instead plagued with awe, or terror. For example, in Frankenstein, lightning storms are often portrayed as sublime due natures’ indomitable power.  An interest in the concept of vastness beyond measure combined with ghosts and other terrors led to a thrilling new age for the German Romantics.

Before Villa Diodati

A marriage born of tragedy

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town, London in summer of 1797 to William and Mary Godwin, both intelligent philosophers. After her mother’s death only a month after giving birth to young Mary, William raised his daughter to value his politically liberal beliefs and her mother’s feminism.  Young Mary was lucky to be born into the Godwin family and to receive a rich education, as teaching young women to read and write and think for themselves wasn’t overwhelmingly common during the time period. At only 16, she fell in love with married poet Percy Shelley and became pregnant with his child. After the discovery of his infidelity, Shelley’s wife Harriet killed herself by jumping off of a bridge into a river, and shortly after, Mary and Percy were wed.

At Villa Diodati

mary shelley

A castle on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland | photo by Snapshotsofthepast

A cursed union gives birth to a monster

During the Romantic period, bohemians and artists of all talents and creeds flocked to Lake Geneva to be inspired by the jaw-dropping natural scenery and to find company in the liberally-minded community. Lord Byron, one such artist, a philandering poet with more than a few bad reputations trailing behind him, made a home for himself in the grandiose lakeside villa. The free-love promoting atheist had earned himself the nickname “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” from years of dramatic love affairs with men, women, and even relations. Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Claremont was a previous paramour of Lord Byron’s, and she organized the gathering that would inspire the tales of both Frankenstein and Dracula.

Mary was 19 when she and Percy traveled to Switzerland to spend the summer at the Villa Diodati (meaning God-given) with Lord Byron, John William Polidori (author of The Vampyre which would inspire Dracula), and Claire. One dark and stormy night, the group of artists gathered around a fire, drinking and relaxing beyond the reach of the rain and cold beating against the castle’s stone walls.

Lord Byron’s “Horror Story Challenge” led to the inception of the 2 biggest literary monsters ever

To entertain themselves, they each took turns reading traditional German ghost stories, the eerie shadows dancing over their faces by way of the flames. After exhausting Fantasmagoriana, a collection of horror stories, Lord Byron suggested they each write a ghost story and share it for fun, to maintain the chilling aura of the night. It was then that our Modern Prometheus rose from the operating table to a cruel world devoid of affection for monsters. “I busied myself to think of a story, a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Such was Mary Shelley’s hope for Frankenstein, and it would not go unrealized.

Though Romantic era paintings of Villa Diodati set it in beautiful moonlit blues and greens, nestled amongst lush trees and shrubs, Mary Shelley felt uneasy in the desolation of the countryside, as evidenced in her travel volume, A History of a Six Weeks Tour:

Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.

Her discomforting energy found its way into Frankenstein, rife with landscape scenes that mimic that isolation and sublimity of the overpowering landscape.

The irrational and the supernatural given life through visions

The German Romantics were no strangers to experimenting with drugs, and though it is never expressly stated, the poets and writers present at the Villa Diodati that fateful night were likely to have partaken. The already haunting aura perpetuated by the telling of ghost stories combined with alcohol and various opiates led for a sublime, life-changing experience. At one point, Percy Shelley ran screaming out of the room after being haunted by a vision of a naked woman with eyes in the place of nipples. In the preface of the 1831 release of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley recounts her own mental vision of a monster,

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the 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 waking nightmare would flourish into a 260-page story detailing the creation, and destruction of the monster among the gloomy snow-capped Alps. Shelley was inspired both by the atmosphere of horror the crew of artists created, and the talk of galvanism and other occult topics. Galvanism, the contraction of muscle when exposed to electricity, was fathomed to be able to restore life, by essentially “jump-starting” an animal’s heart and mind, and was a controversial and feared scientific theory at the time.

Thoughts of electric reanimation plagued Mary Shelley for days until, when combined with the nightmarish “phantasm of a man,” produced the wretch of Dr. Frankenstein.

After Villa Diodati

The birth of the Creature brought with it death and tragedy

After bringing to life the novel that would terrify readers for centuries (and has not yet gone out of print!), Mary and Percy Shelley ventured to Italy. Only 6 months after they arrived, the doomed couple was plagued by travesty. Their daughter Clara Everina was infected with dysentery and died. The very next year, their 3-year-old son died of malaria while Mary was pregnant with another child, the only one to survive past childhood. Following the birth of Percy Florence, their only surviving heir, Mary again became pregnant, only to painfully lose her child to miscarriage.

A dark cloud of depression settled over Mary, but the worst was still to come. Less than 2 years after the deaths of her children, Percy Shelley drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. After his body, and that of his sailing companion washed ashore, Mary had Percy cremated. Everything turned to ash… except his heart, which supposedly couldn’t burn due to its eternal love for Mary. That is surely a made-up romantic story, but modern doctors do believe the heart was unable to burn due to the calcification of the tissue caused by Percy’s battle with tuberculosis. The calcified heart was wrapped in a silk shroud, which Mary is said to have carried with her until her death.

The Internet Review of Science Fiction attempted, via an algorithm, to pin down the differences between male and female science fiction writers. They discovered, with nearly 90% accuracy, that, “Gender division in writing and reading thus comes down to tendencies, not absolutes. Men more often concern themselves with actions, ideas, and analysis. Women more often concern themselves with processes, perceptions, and implications.” That being said, it only makes sense that female science fiction writers devastate our perceptions of reality and [Click here to read more…]

The end of an era, the beginning of a genre

Mary Shelley’s impact on the new genre of science fiction wasn’t limited to mad scientists and depressed monsters. In 1826, Mary published the first ever post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man. The story follows Lionel Verney, a semi-autobiographical character stranded alone in a world ravaged by plague. The loneliness Mary felt after the death of the vast majority of her family was inescapable, and is embodied by Lionel in the novel. Mary eventually died of a slow and crippling illness that robbed her of her ability to read and write and plagued her with paralysis and migraines from 1839 onward. She died in February of 1851 from what doctors believe was a brain tumor.

In 1852, a year after Mary died, her daughter-in-law Jane and only living son Percy Florence opened her writing desk for the first time since her passing. Inside, they found locks of her dead children’s hair and a copy of her husband’s poem “Adonaïs,” folded around the silk parcel containing Percy’s calcified heart, proving the legends true.

The mother of science fiction lived her life inside a Gothic story even darker and more tragic than the novels that would carry on her legacy. Her first foray into horror and science fiction, the haunted summer at Villa Diodati that would inspire arguably the two biggest monsters of all time, permanently altered the mind of young Mary Shelley, as well as the sublime legacy she would leave behind.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Michael January, John Clute, and Peter Nicholls for their extensive knowledge of Mary Shelley, and a special thanks to the extremely talented Vlad D. for the featured image.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Carly, thanks for the mention. A nicely detailed article. One small correction “snow-capped German mountains” the snowy mountains in the novel are at Mont Blanc on the Switzerland border in the Swiss-French Alps. Mary could see Mont Blanc which stands at the far distant end of Lake Geneva from her window at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Secheron, on the Geneva side of the lake, before they moved lodgings to the Maison Chapuis within a short walk to Diodati. They later went there, which she and Shelley wrote of in their journal and formed a good portion of the Frankenstein novel. Also a curious note, you mention in Mary’s later years she suffered from paralysis. She actually had some paralysis when she was a young teenager, on one side hand and arm. This mostly went away on her trip to Scotland before meeting Percy, but returned later, and may have been recurrent through much of her life. This was part of her fascination with the idea of how the human body was animated because her own was troublesome. I put some of this in my book the “Secret Memoirs of Mary Shelley”.

    1. Carly Courtney

      Thank you Michael, I’ll correct those mistakes! I appreciate your feedback and insight.

      Also- I was unable to find any evidence corroborating your claim of Mary’s paralysis in her younger years. Each source I’ve come across states it began in 1839, when Mary would have been 42. I would love to learn more, however, if you could share with me where you found your information before I edit that part of my article?

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