Women’s History Month – Mary Shelley

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.

A Course! A Course! My Kingdom for a Course! I Pick my Syllabus.

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Well it’s day four of my self-taught Shakespeare course so I thought I would report on my progress so far.  I have listened to five podcasts, almost finished two books and have a nice list of Netflix movies to watch.

As I cleaned my office on Saturday (found my desk by the way) I listened to two Oxford University lectures, both so dry and boring I cannot recall what they were about. Good thing I was moving about or I might have fallen asleep.  Unless you are completely obsessed with Shakespeare or are working on a PhD.D on him (yes there is a PhD.D offered on Shakespeare) I would stay away from Oxford U.  Then again if you can’t sleep, this may be your cure!

Next up was The Bardcast. This podcast has three hosts who all sound under 30. You know the old saying “never trust a person over 30”? Well, I have a secret, we over 40 don’t really trust anyone under 30.  it was odd listening to three kids talking in-depth about Shakespeare,  (how the hell do they know anything? )their assessment of the Bard is a little suspect. What I  mean by in- depth is that they try to break down the scenes and offer some insight, but what they offer is shallow and often argued against other scholars rather than offer  real food for thought.  Now, this may be good for those who are new to Shakespeare’s work, and I can see how some newbies may use some of their info on college papers, if only for filler.

As I am writing this I am trying yet another podcast, Chop Bard, and though the host sounds young, I am finding his take on Hamlet to be very informative. I may have finally found a podcast that is worth listening to.

Saturday afternoon I took a trip to my local library. What good is a college course without a syllabus and list of books to read?  For my syllabus I decided to break my studies down into lessons:

Study Elizabethan history in order to learn about the times and events that formed Shakespeare’s world

Study some guides to enjoying Shakespeare. We can all agree the plays are not the easiest works to read.

Read at least three plays and watch at least three movies based on the plays. For this I chose  Macbeth, Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  At the end of May I will also watch a really bad take on Hamlet as seen through the eyes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you owe it to yourself to find at least on episode (there are a lot on Netflix) to watch . If you love sarcastic humor you will love Mike and his robot friends. 

Back to the library. I found myself looking at shelf after shelf of books on Shakespeare. It would seem there are a lot of experts on the Bard. Some offer tomes (like Professor Harold Bloom) that seem all encompassing while others stick to particular topics.  After much debate (which including talking to myself as my beau wandered away to look at less daunting reading material)  I came up with this list:

How to Enjoy Shakespeare by Robert Thomas Fallon

Brush up on your Shakespeare by Michael Macrone

Shakespeare the invention of the Human by Harold Boom.

Here is what I have learned so far. Just because a guy is dating you and is willing to hang out in a library on a Saturday night, does not mean he will watch Shakespeare with  you. So much for a Saturday night movie date.

People in Elizabethan England did not talk like Shakespeare wrote. He wrote in rhyme (okay, I knew that already) and changed his word order (that I did not know).  His verbs and nouns are switched, very much like in the German language.  So, hey my two years of German may pay off!

I have learned more about the life and time of Shakespeare, but I will save this for my next post in which we explore the world of Shakespeare!