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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mary Shelley Born, August 30, 1797

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Mary Wollstonecraft, known to the world as Mary Shelley was born August 30th, 1797 to William Godwin, a leading reformer and radical philosopher & Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. When Mary was 16, she met the 21-year-old married poet, Percy Shelley, a close friend of her father’s. During an estrangement from Harriet, his wife, the young poet and Mary Wollstonecraft fell in love and within a few months, they were expecting a child. The couple ran off to Europe along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. The couple’s aimless wandering is described in Mary’s first book, History of a Six Weeks' Tour.

Mary & Percy finally married in late 1816, after Percy's wife Harriet committed suicide. By 1818 the Shelleys had buried three infants and it was not until the birth of their son Percy Florence in 1819 that they had a child who lived to adulthood. Tragedy was a constant theme that occurred throughout the Shelleys marriage. The loss of their infant children and a terrible miscarriage by the time Mary was 23 weighed heavily on her and re-enforced the belief that she had failed her husband, who drowned in 1822.

While traveling Europe before their marriage, Mary’s stepsister Claire met and had a brief affair with Lord Byron which resulted in a daughter, Allegra. At Byron’s insistence, the child was removed from Clairmont and sent to an Italian convent to be raised a Catholic. Allegra died at the tender age of five from an infectious fever. The decisions taken regarding the child ultimately destroyed the close-knit friendship that existed between the Shelleys & Lord Byron. But before this came to pass, the three were frequent companions. It was during one of their visits that the genesis of Mary Shelley’s most popular story, Frankenstein, was born. During the summer of 1816 while Percy, Mary, Byron and Byron's personal physician, John Polidori, were traveling near Lake Geneva, Switzerland a challenge was issued by Lord Byron to create the scariest story possible. Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein after a nightmare which she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." Interestingly enough, Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans. Polidori finished the tale, which led to the creation of the romantic vampire literary genre that is so familiar to us today. Thus, the Frankenstein and vampire themes were created from that single challenge among friends. One must wonder if the world would know of them without Lord Byron's desire to travel around Europe.

During Mary’s widowhood, she craved social acceptance and even though she retained her liberal principles, tried hard to adapt to more conventional standards in her writings to further distance herself from what was viewed as the scandelous careers of her mother, father & husband. But time was not on her side. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died from brain cancer on Febuary 1, 1851 at the age of 53 in London. The following exceprt is from her journal dated October 21st, 1838 and helps to illustrate her troubled feelings over having been raised by and married to people who were considered "controversial" in their day.

“In the first place, with regard to “the good cause”-the cause of the advancement of freedom and knowledge, of the rights of women, etc.-I am not a person of opinions…Some have a passion for reforming the world; others do not cling to particular opinions. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class, makes me respect it…For myself, I earnestly desire the good and enlightenment of my fellow creatures, and see all, in the present course, tending to the same, and rejoice; but I am not for violent extremes, which only brings on an injurious reaction…

To hand back, as I do, brings a penalty. I was nursed and fed with a love of glory. To be something great and good was the precept given me by my father; Shelley reiterated it…But Shelley died, and I was alone…My total friendlessness, my horror of pushing, and inability to put myself forward unless led, cherished and supported-all this has sunk me in a state of loneliness no other human being ever before, I believed endured…"

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