It’s Women’s History month. This week, let’s explore Mary Shelley and her influence on literature.
When we think of authors who write stories about science gone wrong, we usually think of men like Michael Crichton. From Jurassic Park to Prey, his body of work is filled with warning of what can happen when science gets in the wrong hands. It may surprise you that while the genre of bad science is dominated by men, we have Mary Shelley to thank for starting it all.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Somers Town, London, in 1797. She was the second child of the feminist philosopher, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the first child of the philosopher, novelist, and journalist William Godwin. Though Mary Godwin received little formal education, her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects. He often took the children on educational outings, and they had access to his library Godwin admitted he was not educating the children according to Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy as outlined in works such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but Mary Godwin nonetheless received an unusual and advanced education for a girl of the time. She had a governess, a daily tutor, and read many of her father’s children’s books on Roman and Greek history in manuscript. Her father described her at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.
Mary and her father probably attended medical lectures that were all the rage in early 18th century Europe. Electric shock treatments on dead animals was a huge draw, as scientists thought they could harness its power to bring the dead back to life. Many feared this idea of “playing God”. In fact the Romantics, which Mary would come to belong to, had great distain for the industrial age.
Mary’s liberal upbringing had a profound effect on her psych. She was smart and inquisitive but pushed the boundaries of what was considered proper behavior for 18th century women. She fell in love with a very married Percy Shelley and ran off with him when she was only 17 and he was 22. They married only after Percy’s first wife committed suicide. Their life together was anything but idyllic .Two of Mary and Percy’s children would die in infancy, he cheated on her and they were often destitute and always staying with friends to make ends meet.
In the summer of 1816 the Shelleys visited the poet Lord Byron at his villa at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Bad weather frequently forced them indoors, where they and Byron’s other guests sometimes read ghost stories and spoke about new scientific developments. One evening, Byron challenged his guests to write a ghost story. Mary’s story became the novel Frankenstein. Published in 1818 under the title, Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, it was the first true science fiction novel. As a tale of science gone wrong, the novel was not well received by literary critics. The fact that the author was the daughter of a prominent and controversial author as well as a “fallen woman” living in a scandalous relationship raised critical hackles as well. Despite the criticism, Mary Shelley’s novel was an immediate success with numerous reprintings, foreign translations, and theatrical productions.
Mary never did come right out and talk about her reasons or influence for Frankenstein. She once wrote about John Milton’s influence; the fall of man was a topic she explored in Frankenstein and The Last Man. Surely the idea of bringing a man back to life must of come from at least talking and reading about the use of electricity. This was the topic of conversation for high society and the Romantics.
Whatever the influence, we have Mary Shelley to thank for the invention of the “mad scientist”, and for being the first to explore the horrors of science gone bad.