“We are tomorrow’s past.”
–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on this day in London, England in 1797. This is the 215th anniversary of her birth.
She was born into a family of “intellectual rebels.” Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft…
“the celebrated author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), died of puerperal fever, leaving Godwin, [her father, William Godwin] the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), to care for Mary and her three-year-old half-sister, Fanny Imlay.”[Eleanor Ty, Wilfrid Laurier University]
For four years Godwin raised “Pretty Little Mary” and her half-sister Fanny with the help of a governess. Mary thrived under her father’s affectionate care and grew into a “precocious, sensitive and spirited” little girl. But in 1801 he married Mary Jane Clairmont. Little Mary did not get on well with her new “mother.” She grew up…
with a cruel step mother and emotionally distant father; she consoled herself at her mother’s graveside and spent periods of time in Scotland with friends of the family. [the Literary Network]
She was close to her half-sister Fanny and especially her step-sister Claire. But, while Claire was sent away to a boarding school to learn, Mary was left a home to learn what she could from the family library. Fortunately the library was well stocked, and her Father hosted a stream of literary visitors who sparked the girls’ imaginations. (Claire and Mary snuck into one such meeting and hid under a sofa so they could listen to Coleridge recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” [the Literary Network has a more detailed account of Mary’s early life and the strife between the girl and Mrs. Godwin.]
At 16, after a return from a very happy holiday with her friends the Baxters in Scotland, she met Percy Bysshe Shelly. Percy was 5 years her senior and established writer and rich. He came to the Godwin’s to talk to her father about politics and his philosophy. Mary and Percy fell in love with each other. Unfortunately Percy was already married (unhappily) to Harriet Westbrook. Regardless of his marital status Mary and Percy ran off to Europe with Claire in tow. Her father, who believed in free love for other people, was against it for his daughter, he refused to talk to Mary until she and Percy married several years later.
The eight years Mary and Percy Shelley spent together were indeed characterized by romance and melodrama. During this period Mary and Percy, both extremely idealistic, lived on love–because of extended negotiations over the disposition of the estate of Percy’s grandfather–without money, constantly moving from one placed to another. Mary gave birth to four children, only one of whom survived to adulthood… [Eleanor Ty, Wilfrid Laurier University]
While at Lake Geneva they met Lord Byron. Byron and Claire became lovers and had a child of their own, Allegra. Mary started work on Frankenstein while they were in Switzerland. It was inspired after a night of telling ghost stories.
As December 1816 loomed Harriet Westbrook Shelly committed suicide by walking into the Serpentine River near her home in Hyde Park. Unlike his relationship with Harriet, Percy found Mary an intellectual and romantic partner. With in the month Mary and Percy were married in London. They continued to travel, often with Byron, Claire and Allegra.
In 1822 Mary had a serious miscarriage and almost died. Later that year Percy was out sailing on the schooner “Don Juan’ when the boat sank in a sudden storm. Mary, devastated, returned to England with her only surviving son, Percy Florence.
She died in 1851 at the age of 54. Romantic legend has it that when her son and daughter-in-law opened her box desk they found locks of hair from her long dead children and a silk envelope containing the ashes of Percy’s “heart”.
Books by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly include:
History of Six Weeks’ Tour though a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland
Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus
Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca
The Last Man
the Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck
Rambles in Germany and Italy
and collections of poems of Percy Bysshe Shelly