12 Unusual Facts About Mary Shelley

Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

In 1818, Mary Shelley published her first major work, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. More than 200 years later, the novel is still popular among gothic horror fans. Not only has it sparked numerous movie adaptations, but the monster of the narrative has been the inspiration behind Halloween costumes, haunts and a Frankenstein-themed bar in the UK. The author also continues to be a prominent literary figure today, inspiring countless contemporary horror writers. There’s even an annual holiday commemorating her birthday and notorious book, Frankenstein Day on August 30th. To pay homage to the author, here are 12 interesting facts about Mary Shelley that may surprise you.

Note: Top image is an illustration by Theodor von Holst for the cover of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

1. Written in the Stars

Mary Shelley was born on August 30th, 1797, in London, and was destined to become a great writer. It was literally in her blood. Her father was philosopher and political writer William Godwin, and her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, who was known for being a feminist and wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Sadly, her mother died when she was only 10 years old.

2. Childhood Dreams

Mary was a very imaginative child and enjoyed crafting short stories. Suffice it to say, she caught the writing bug at an early age and was largely self-taught. She would sometimes read by her mother’s grave and loved to while away the time daydreaming. She also grew up surrounded by her father’s friends, who were literary greats, such as Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Her first published work was a poem at the ripe age of 10.

3. Star-Crossed Lovers

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran circa 1819
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran circa 1819

Mary was around 17 when she became romantically involved with famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who happened to be another literary friend of her father’s. He was married and so they had an affair, which resulted in Percy eventually leaving his wife. This did not bode well for Mary’s reputation, and the couple, along with her stepsister, escaped England for a while. 

4. Tragedy Strikes

Mary lost three children. She only had one son who survived into adulthood named after his father, Percy Florence. Her first born, a daughter, lived only a few days. Her second child was a son who died young, and the third pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. Some sources say the initial tragedy is what started her wheels turning about writing a story that had to do with resurrecting the dead. 

5. Death Follows

Engraving by George Stodart inspired by the Mary and Percy Shelley Memorial monument by Henry Weekes circa 1853
Engraving by George Stodart inspired by the Mary and Percy Shelley Memorial monument by Henry Weekes circa 1853

Unfortunately, death continued to follow Mary throughout her life. Her half-sister, Fanny, committed suicide and not too long after, Percy’s wife, Harriet, took her own life as well. Mary and Percy married after the death of his wife, but the author would become a widow at the ripe age of 24. In 1822, while out sailing, there was a storm and her husband drowned. Percy’s body washed up on the shore days later.

6. Heartbreak

This next fact ties into Percy’s untimely passing. He was cremated, but his heart wouldn’t burn, so Mary kept his calcified organ, wrapped within the parchment of one of his poems on her desk. The gesture was quite a gothic way to express her devotion and showed that despite the heartache Percy caused by the affairs he had during their marriage, she loved him deeply. The keepsake was found by her son after Mary died in 1851. 

7. A Monster Is Born

Photo by Laura Chouette via Unsplash
Photo by Laura Chouette via Unsplash

While many circumstances no doubt influenced the narrative of Frankenstein, the widely held belief is during the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy took a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, to visit their friend Lord Byron at his villa. The entire party consisted of Mary, Percy, Byron, John William Polidori, and possibly a few other guests. On a dark and stormy night, Lord Byron came up with the idea of a horror writing contest. They each had to write a ghostly tale, and it’s believed that is the evening Mary began penning her notorious gothic novel. I’ve also read the story was inspired by a terrifying nightmare she had during her stay in Geneva.

On a side note, Polidori, who was in attendance, is the author of The Vampyre, which is the novella attributed to inspiring Bram Stoker to write Dracula. Many people claim it was also the night Polidori started drafting his vampiric narrative. One can’t help but wonder what creative energy was permeating the air during those dark hours.

8. By, Anonymous

When Frankenstein was published in 1818, Mary Shelley chose to do so anonymously. She was worried that because she was a woman, the book wouldn’t profit. Many people attributed the work to Percy Shelley because he wrote the preface. Although her identity as the author went unknown for a time, her work was well-received. There were some critics who delivered nasty reviews, but the admirers outnumbered the detractors, and the tale’s success motivated Mary to continue writing. The novel was republished in 1823 under her name.

9. Frankenstein Revisions

Frankenstein books (Photo by Laura Chouette via Unsplash)
Frankenstein books (Photo by Laura Chouette via Unsplash)

Did you know the version of Frankenstein commonly read today differs from the original manuscript first published? Mary revisited the story in 1831 and altered certain details to make it less controversial and more palatable to a mainstream, Victorian audience. I believe I’ve read the latter version, so I can’t speak to the changes made, but sources say there’s more introspection that happens with the characters in the revised edition.

However, the most significant alteration was making the characters a victim of fate and not free will. The original storyline placed fault on Victor for neglecting his creation, and his monster is portrayed as a hero. In the updated narrative, Victor was a victim of parental neglect when he was a child, and that is why he dared to “play God” when he performed his scientific experiment. He’s not held responsible for abandoning his creature.

10. The Dawn of Sci-Fi

While Frankenstein is categorized as a gothic horror story, it’s also viewed as the novel that gave birth to the science fiction genre. And if you’re familiar with the storyline, this makes total sense. A mad scientist and his monstrous creation are at the center of a plot that explores scientific experimentation and begs fascinating questions about human existence, dominance and power.

11. More Creations

Although Mary Shelley is most recognized for Frankenstein, she wrote and published other novels. They are Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Falkner, and Mathilda. That last one wasn’t published until 1959, over a century after her death. She had actually worked on Mathilda after the release of Frankenstein, between 1819 and 1820. The storyline’s a bit controversial and centers on a father who has an incestuous obsession with his daughter. She sent the final draft to her father, hoping he would think it was good enough for publication, but he was completely aghast at the narrative and refused to have anything to do with it. However, the novella’s widely available now for readers to dig into. 

12. An Immortal Icon

The final fact I have is one, I think, none of us can deny or argue against. It’s that Mary Shelley remains a tremendously influential figure today. She made a name for herself in an industry dominated by men and paved the way for future female-identifying writers. She pushed the boundaries when it came to the ideas she was writing about and left behind an amazing legacy.

18 thoughts on “12 Unusual Facts About Mary Shelley

  1. Plenty of fascinating details, Jenn! Thanks for researching all of this.

    It is noteworthy that, even in an era in which premature death was much more common than it is now, Mary Shelley’s life was unusually afflicted. It certainly explains her writing about a doctor striving to cheat Death of its quarry.

    Also interesting, her father’s striking refusal to publish Mathilda. Have you read the novella? Does it too deal with darker subject matter, in common with Frankenstein, or are the incestuous overtones shocking enough?

    Anyway, great timing, releasing a detailed analysis of one of the first horror novelists, as Halloween’s draw becomes irresistible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a 1971 movie made called Frankenstein: The True Story in which James Mason plays Dr. John Polidori who serves as Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s mentor.

    A young and very beautiful Jane Seymour appears as a beautiful version of the Bride of Frankenstein in one of her first movie roles.

    Liked by 1 person

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