Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Tagged: Author

(1797-1851) UK writer, daughter of the philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836) [for entry on Godwin, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and of the feminist and educationist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who died eleven days after giving birth to her. Shelley married Percy Bysshe Shelley on 30 December 1816, two years after they had eloped to the Continent, and after his first wife had committed suicide. During 1816 the couple – by this point Mary Wollstonecraft was using the Shelley surname – spent much time with Lord Byron, whom they had recently met, and with whom they would spend much of the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, which he had rented. 1816 was the famous Year without Summer – only later was it confirmed that the enormous volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (Dutch East Indies) in 1815 had been a Disaster that, darkening the entire globe, caused a world-wide "Year Without Summer" – and this apocalyptic weather often forced the group, which included John Polidori, to stay indoors, where it was both dry and comparatively safe: weather-caused famine had had a destabilizing effect on Switzerland, leading to insurrectional violence and the declaration of a state of emergency. It seems fitting that perhaps the first climate crisis identified by contemporaries as being a planetary event should frame at least two of the texts central to the early shaping of the fantastic in general: Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale (April 1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap) as by the Right Honourable Lord Byron, which initiated the topos of the Byronic Vampire (see Decadence; Immortality; Superman; Supernatural Creatures), and Shelley's first novel.

On an evening in June 1816, the Year Without Summer having once again prevented outdoor activities, the entourage read aloud to one another some tales from (it is understood) the French translation of a German horror collection later released in English, Das Gespensterbuch ["The Ghost Book"] (coll 1811-1815 5vols) by Johann August Apel (1771-1816), and Friedrich August Schulze (1770-1849) writing as Friedrich Laun. The first two volumes, with cuts, appeared in French as Fantasmagoriana (coll trans Jean Baptise Benoit Eyries 1812), and this redaction, with further cuts and one added story, appeared as Tales of the Dead: Principally Translated from the French (coll trans Sarah Elizabeth Utterson 1813). It is understood the French text was used on the night in question. Seemingly inspired by the Club Story frame of this collection, Byron suggested that each of the participants write a similar ghost story to be read aloud on a subsequent evening. Percy Shelley seems to have written nothing; Byron's contribution, "Fragment of a Novel" (in Mazeppa, coll 1819), remained incomplete; Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and later wrote Ernestus Berchtold; Or, the Modern Oedipus: A Tale (1819), a Gothic novel involving incest and Doppelgangers and with roman à clef links to the events of 1816; and Mary Shelley began the tale which eventually became Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). Films about or referring directly to the Villa Diodati events include The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Gothic (1986) directed by Ken Russell, Haunted Summer (1988) directed by Ivan Passer (1933-    ) and Remando al viento [Rowing with the Wind] (1988) directed by Gonzalo Suárez (1934-    ).

Frankenstein is the most famous English Horror novel, and was initially understood as a particularly intense and argued example of the Gothic tale, a form that in English reached its late climax in Charles R Maturin' s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Brian W Aldiss's argument that it is in fact the first sf novel (see Gothic SF) – a deliberately transgressive argument that first appeared as "The Origin of the Species: Mary Shelley", the opening chapter of his Billion Year Spree (1973; much exp vt Trillion Year Spree 1986 with David Wingrove) – may go too far in effectively treating all previous texts as examples of Proto SF, but does cogently highlight the Promethean newness of the book, its rendering of a deep intuition that with the creation of the Frankenstein Monster the world had changed. This is particularly evident in the 1818 text (see two paragraphs below). The structure and telling of the tale may seem difficult to modern readers, most of whom will be more familiar with the numerous film, television and other spin-offs (see Frankenstein) than they will be with the original tale. But Shelley's use of some Gothic conventions – stories within stories, all framed within a seemingly extraneous and clearly estranging epistolary "over-frame"; florid rhetoric and sophomoric philosophizing; elaborate recourse to the conventions of the Bildungsroman – may also have proved hard for some contemporary readers to handle: because the difficulty of Frankenstein does not prelude a lifting of the veil so that sensations can be felt and the guilty punished; the difficulty of the book seems more related to the genuine difficulty of Shelley's subject matter, and to a genuinely alarming sense that in the closing pages of the tale – if the narrative within its framing devices is properly understood – we are meant to realize that a Pandora's Box has been opened; and that it has not been shut.

The epistolary frame that surrounds the tale comprises its chronological conclusion; a young explorer named Walton, who has been searching for a warm region surrounding the North Pole, describes in letters to his sister his meeting, north of the Arctic Circle, with the deathly-ill Baron Victor Frankenstein, in pursuit of a Monster whom he describes vividly in the course of recounting his life story: a narrative that covers his childhood; his childhood sweetheart; his scientific ambitions to create life through his mastery of chemistry and his interest in galvanism, which may be the "spark" of life; the creation of the giant Golem-like figure who becomes his Thing, his Twin, his Nemesis, the eagle that eats his guts; and his shocked (but to later eyes unmistakably pious and self-serving) refusal to "compassionate" this creature, whom he subsequently abandons, arguing that his ugliness and demeanour are against nature. After the monster has caused the death of some of his relatives, the Baron tracks him down, but is confronted by the "daemon", who mounts a wholly articulate, scathing indictment of his creator, ending eloquently:

"Remember that I am thy creature – I ought to be thy Adam – but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed; every where I see bliss from which I alone am irrecoverably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

"Begone!" replied I [that is, the Baron] – "I will not hear you."

The "fiend" then forces the Baron to listen to the story of his life after he came to consciousness in the laboratory; this story echoes and amplifies the Baron's own earlier narrative, within which it is nestled, and is rendered in the first person, in the monster's own voice, with Club-Story vividness. He describes himself as a tabula rasa open to the fullest of educations – significantly, among his reading matter is Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – and as such he learns how to be a philosopher by listening in secret to an exiled noble family, the blind paterfamilias of which is teaching an Arabian maid named Safie (or Sophia, which is to say Wisdom) to speak his language; it is to this patriarch that the Monster finally utters his first words: "Pardon this intrusion." Unfortunately, there are misunderstandings, dismay, horror, and melodrama, and his narrative concludes as – taking his cue (which is to say this part of his education) from the revulsion of his maker – he learns how to be a monster. The Baron's own narrative resumes: after he reneges on his promise to create a female partner for his monster, the frustrated Twin wreaks havoc on the Frankenstein family, and the Baron tracks him back and forth through an increasingly desolate world, with the intention of killing him, until both are found north of the Arctic Circle. But Frankenstein commits suicide in despair, and Walton is left to confront the "monster", who declares his intention to continue into the furthest north of the planet, where he intends (he states) to immolate himself. The text gives no surety, however, that he does so; indeed, the last paragraph of the novel constitutes a Slingshot Ending, with the monster disappearing into "the darkness and distance", and the fire next time.

The evolution of the final text(s) of Frankenstein is fairly complex – the Checklist (see below) lists four primary states in order of composition – but it can be described fairly clearly in terms of chronology (note that several editions of the 1818 and 1831 versions of the tale have been produced, usually with arguments advocating the text chosen). After the issue of The Frankenstein Notebooks (1996 2vols) edited by Charles E Robinson, which gives an extensively annotated transcript and facsimile of the original 1816-1817 manuscript of the novel, the same editor has published a relatively straightforward transcript of Shelley's original manuscript (plus a version of that manuscript with her husband's revisions) as The Original Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus: The Original Two-Volume Novel of 1816-1817 from the Bodleian Library Manuscripts (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Bodleian Library/University of Oxford, 2008) as by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (with Percy Bysshe Shelley). Comparison of the two texts confirms that Percy Shelley gave his wife's manuscript a fairly heavy edit, adding about 4000 words to the 72,000 word total; these edits run a gamut from the obvious and necessary to the detrimental. Robinson's title-page insertion of Percy Shelley's name as a secondary author of the text, though perhaps innocent of malice, does sadly echo attempts that began while both Shelley and her husband were alive to cast doubt on her authorship, usually implicitly or explicitly because of her sex. Robinson's own evidence makes it clear that Percy Shelley's interventions came at an "intermediate stage" of the writing of the novel, and that they resembled the kind of edits a competent publisher's editor would plausibly suggest. To put his name on the title page is as vulgar, and provincial, as it would be to give Max Perkins title-credit as co-author of Thomas Wolfe's far more radically modified You Can't Go Home Again (1940).

More important to an evaluation of Mary Shelley's intent – as regards a text so ransacked for meanings that it is probably impossible to create a full conspectus of the varying interpretations on offer – is a recent consensus that the 1818 text should be read as more important than the 1831 version. Any critic sensitive to the transgressiveness of Frankenstein in the unsettled period following the end of the Napoleonic Wars (the Villa Diodati event occurred one year after the Battle of Waterloo) – and to the taxing ambivalence of the Frankenstein Monster (or "creature") as he declares himself – will find the 1818 text particularly rewarding. The 1831 version can be read as attempting to normalize precisely that transgressiveness and that ambivalence, mainly by treating the monster more clearly as an abomination, as a figure less easily identified as a kind of Doppelganger of Baron Frankenstein himself. It is the 1818 text in particular that makes it possible to suggest a reading where the subtitle – The Modern Prometheus – refers not solely to the Baron Frankenstein and his hubristic attempt to gain knowledge that should be "forbidden", and to dramatize to an astonished world his gift of knowledge by creating life; but also by transference to his dark twin, the "Promethean" Hero/Antihero who offers to the world a Pandora's Box of "gifts": knowledge; power; replicability (for he is half a Golem and half an assembly-line worker); educability (for if the tabula rasa Frankenstein Monster can become a philosopher through a process of eavesdropping, then there is no excuse for refusing education and concomitant social mobility to anyone outside the walls, whatever their gender or race); and revolutionary turmoil (for he is an untermensch come to claim his place at the shaken table of civilization).

After that one, endlessly interpretable tale, Shelley wrote several novels, including two Gothic romances of some interest, and a further sf tale, The Last Man (1826), set at the end of the twenty-first century, during the course of which a plague decimates humanity. The surviving Americans invade Europe but, although war ends before the extinction of humanity, the remaining British are soon reduced through strife until the Last Man of the title, whose situation reflects Shelley's own sense of isolation, but who also resembles her late husband, ends the novel in a small boat sailing off to the Eastern Isles: one secular survivor on a dying planet. Though preceded by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville' s Le Dernier Homme (1805; first proper trans I F Clarke and Margaret Clarke as The Last Man 2002), Shelley's significantly more dramatic narrative served as a model for much subsequent work. The story of greatest interest assembled by Richard Garnett in Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (coll 1891) is The Mortal Immortal (in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXXIV, anth 1833, as "The Mortal Immortal: A Tale"; circa 1910 chap), dealing with Drug-produced Immortality; stories omitted from (or unavailable for) Garnett's volume include "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" (written 1826; in Yesterday and Today, anth 1863, edited by Cyrus Redding) and "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" (written circa 1819; in Collected Tales and Stories; With Original Engravings, coll 1976, edited by Charles E Robinson), in each of which a Reincarnated protagonist compares his new circumstances with those of his original existence (see Ruins and Futurity). Shelley's shorter works have been variously assembled; the most authoritative is the Robinson collection cited above. Several are given in the Checklist below. She was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. [JC]

see also: Androids; Anonymous SF Authors; Biology; Conceptual Breakthrough; Critical and Historical Works About SF; End of the World; Fantastic Voyages; Gods and Demons; History of SF; Holocaust; Invention; Medicine; Power Sources; Religion; Scientists; Sex; Technofantasy; Theatre; Women SF Writers.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley

born London: 30 August 1797

died London: 1 February 1851



For clarity, we list here the four substantively differing texts in order of composition, not of original publication; in each case, the first published version of each state is listed, plus a selection of critical editions where applicable.

other titles

Posthumous collections are highly selected.

about the author

There is much criticism; we give only a brief, selected list.


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.