Born on August 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of two of the most radical thinkers in England at the end of the eighteenth century: William Godwin, a political philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and author of one of the foundational works of feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Raised in a household frequented by many of the major literary, philosophical, and scientific authors of the day, she was heavily influenced by the intellectual ideas of the Romantic movement. At the age of 16 she fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and eloped with him to Europe. It was there, on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, that they spent the summer of 1816 with his close friend, George Gordon, Lord Byron. On a rainy evening in June, as they were spending the evening reading ghost stories, Byron challenged each of them to write a ghost story themselves. Mary responded by writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which she completed at the age of 19. She went on to write six more novels, as well as dramas, stories, articles, and travel books, establishing a reputation as a significant author in her own right, not just as the wife of her famous husband. She died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, and was buried with her mother and father in Bournemouth.
To learn more about Mary Shelley, the following books are a good place to start:
Frankenstein introduced a new literary theme to Western culture -- the mad scientist who tampers with the workings of nature, attempts to play God by creating life, and in the end creates a monster that destroys him and all he holds dear. Its initial reception by literary critics, who deplored its "horrible and disgusting absurdity," was mixed, though Walter Scott, whose evaluation would be the most influential, praised its "uncommon powers of poetic imagination" and concluded that "the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression" and pronounced it "a novel which excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion." Many of its themes, reflecting ideas central to the Romantic movement, resonated with readers of its time: the power of the irrational over the rational, the limits of science and reason to effect human happiness, the dark power of the supernatural, and the dangers of selfish obsession. Subsequent generations of readers have continued to find lessons in the novel that speak strongly to them. Today, in a time when scientists have cloned mammals and genetic engineering is a growing practice that has raised widespread ethical concerns, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale relevant in ways that it could not have been 200 years ago. "How dare you sport thus with life?" Frankenstein's monster asks his creator. It is a question with an urgency today that Mary Shelley would have understood.
This is the frontispiece from Mary Shelley's 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein, the first edition with illustrations. A copy can be found in the library's Archives & Special Collections Department: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.
Following its original publication in 1818, Frankenstein was modestly successful, doing as well as could be hoped for the first work of an anonymous author. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's name did not appear on the title page until the book's second edition in 1823. In that year, five years after the novel's first publication, the first adaptation for the stage appeared. A huge success, it turned the novel into a popular sensation. After going to see the play for herself in the fourth week of its run, Mary Shelley wrote, "But lo and behold! I found myself famous!" Other staged versions soon followed, and within three years, serious dramatic productions, melodramas, and burlesques could be seen not only in London, but throughout Europe and in New York. By 1851, the year of Mary Shelley's death, the novel had sold far more copies than all the volumes of her husband Percy Shelley's poetry combined. It is estimated that she earned more money from its first printing alone than he ever did from his writing. By the year 2000, over 280 editions of the novel were known to have been published in all formats worldwide, and many more have been published since then. With the advent of motion pictures, filmed versions of the story soon appeared. The first, Thomas Edison's 1910 Frankenstein, is said to be the first monster movie ever made. Since then, over 140 films have appeared with the name Frankenstein in the title. The most influential was Universal Studios' 1931 version starring Boris Karloff, who fixed his interpretation and appearance indelibly as the image of the monster that most people have to this day. Frankenstein's monster has permeated popular culture throughout the world -- in television comedies, cartoons, comic books, advertisements, action figures, even breakfast cereals. It is fair to say that Mary Shelley's "hideous progeny" is alive and well in contemporary culture and will go on to exercise its fascination upon the popular imagination for many years to come.
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