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A biography of the nineteenth-century English writer who at the age of nineteen wrote the classic horror novel "Frankenstein."
A biography of the nineteenth-century English writer who at the age of nineteen wrote the classic horror novel "Frankenstein."
I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams.... I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A dreadful creature, still reeking of the graveyard parts from which he was assembled, opens his dull yellow eyes and breathes. Cowering before him is a pale-faced young scientist, horror-struck by what he has brought to life. In that moment Dr. Victor Frankenstein became the father of a monster who has haunted the world's imagination ever since.
The true mother of Frankenstein and his monster, however, was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, who conceived them both when she was nineteen years old.
Even as a young girl, Mary had a taste for graveyards. Her slender figure in its loose muslin dress and flat-heeled shoes could often be seen threading its way through the streets of early nineteenth-century London toward old St. Pancras churchyard, the site of her mother's grave.
It was a long walk to the outskirts of the city, but Mary didn't mind. In her early teens, pale and pretty with delicate features and almond-shaped eyes that changed from gray to hazel under a cloud of light reddish-brown hair, she looked more fragile than she was. Besides, no matter how long the walk, it was worth it to get away from her large, mismatched (five children, no two parents in common), and often irritating family.
Leaving behind the schoolroom she shared with her half-sister Fanny and her stepsister Jane, and the sound of young William's boots thumping and clattering through the rickety five-story house, Mary pattered down the stump-a-stump staircase, past the study where her father spent his days writing and receiving callers under the watchful eyes of the portrait of his first wife. Down another flight of stairs and she was in the bookshop. She slipped past her stepmother, busy with customers, and emerged from under the carved figure of Aesop that hung above the door of M. J. Godwin & Co. Displayed in the corner shop's curved window were the children's books her father and stepmother published and sold.
She walked west along Skinner Street, past milliners, furriers, coffee dealers, oil shops, and warehouses. Like most streets in nineteenth-century London, Skinner Street was noisy with the clatter of horses' hooves and iron-wheeled carts careening over cobblestones, smelly and dirty with the contents of chamber pots flung from upper windows and running through the open sewers of the streets, cruel with rowdies like the gangs around the corner on Snow Hill who were known to shove old women into barrels and roll them downhill.
A few blocks to the northeast, live cattle jostled down St. John's Street to Smithfield Market every morning to be sold and slaughtered. One block to the southeast, near Newgate Prison, huge crowds gathered outside the Old Bailey courthouse on hanging days to watch the fun before adjourning to the Magpie and Stump for a pint of ale. Turning her back on these killing fields, Mary continued west along Holborn and then north.
The crowded, dirty, noisy, smelly life of the streets buzzed around her. Playbills plastered shop windows, drunks reeled from beer pubs and gin palaces, peddlers cried their wares, shouts rose from back-alley dogfights and cockfights, ballad singers bawled the story of the latest sensational crime, and eager customers bought cheap broadsheets filled with tales of murder and doomed criminals' last confessions.
As she reached the neighborhood of St. Pancras, the noise and filth fell away. Here, within sight of the green fields of Camden Town, Mary was born and had lived until she was ten years old. Reaching the old church and the peaceful tree-shaded churchyard beside it, she settled down, as always, on her favorite bench next to her mother's tomb.
It was here she came to daydream, to make up stories that would ward off the loneliness she often felt despite her large family and her friends. Something was missing in her life—some beloved companion with whom she could share her innermost hopes and dreams. "Loneliness has been the curse of my life," she later wrote. "What should I have done if my imagination had not been my companion? I must have groveled on the earth—I must have died—O but my dreams my darling sun bright dreams! They peopled the churchyard I was doomed so young to wander in."
Graveyards could be pleasant places in those days; people often treated them like parks, quiet spots of shade and green away from the glare and noise of the city. At night, lovers met and made love among the gravestones. But Mary knew what lay beneath the earth. In some parts of London, burial grounds were so full that from time to time corpses piled on top of each other would break through the surface, emitting a poisonous stench.
At night in St. Sepulchre's churchyard, a few blocks from where Mary lived, grave robbers dug bodies from fresh graves, then sold their gruesome harvest to the surgeons at nearby St. Bartholemew's Hospital, who had few legal ways to get the bodies they needed to dissect and study except from these "resurrection men." Most of the time, Mary was able to keep the two realities separate—the pleasant trees and grass, the old stone church aboveground, the rotting bodies, including her mother's, below.
Mary had been coming to her mother's grave ever since she was a little girl, her hand clasped in her father's. She always recognized it by the two weeping willow trees her father had planted on either side. Sometimes he would take her finger and help her trace the letters carved on the stone: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, she would repeat after him, her tongue stumbling over the hard words as her finger followed the sharp edges of the stone. Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759/Died 10th September 1797. They were the first words she learned to read. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was her name too, the same name as belonged to the woman who had died giving her daughter life. She'd heard the story many times.
During the summer of 1797, immense storms had ravaged England. Tidal floods and whirling waterspouts struck the coast. Floods lay waste large parts of the country. Frightening electrical storms rife with fireballs and lightning ripped across the skies. A freak hailstorm killed birds by the score.
At No. 29, the Polygon, one of a ring of connected houses on the outskirts of London, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the famous author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, awaited the birth of her second child. As the rains beat down on the fields of Somers Town, lashed the windows, roared about the roof, she worked on her latest novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Throughout the day, she sent and received notes from her husband, William Godwin, like herself a famous radical writer, where he worked in his rooms at No. 17, Evesham Buildings, some twenty doors away. And she looked after her little daughter, three-year-old Fanny, who loved to romp with her adored mama, especially on the mornings she stayed in her room and breakfasted in bed.
On August 14, the weather calmed. Amazed Londoners saw a circle of glowing light appear in the night sky. For eleven days, the unexpected comet shone above the city. Mary and William Godwin called it their unborn baby's lucky star.
Mary wasn't one to make a fuss about the difficulties of childbirth. She looked forward to her upcoming delivery without fear. Despite her age, she was in good health and had delivered Fanny easily. She would have the baby at home, she decided, attended by a midwife. Midwives and male doctors had fought for control of childbirth for more than a century: Doctors claimed that midwives were ignorant; midwives said that doctors were jargon spouting quacks too quick to use instruments. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of feminism, had faith in her own sex. On Wednesday, August 30, when she went into labor, she called in Mrs. Blenkinsop, matron and midwife to the Westminster Lying-In Hospital.
Mary's attitude was lighthearted but impatient. "I have no doubt of seeing the animal today," she wrote Godwin. "Pray send me the newspaper. I wish I had a novel or some book of sheer amusement to excite curiosity and while away the time."
And later, "Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me I am in the most natural state, and can promise me a safe delivery, but that I must have a little patience."
Eight hours later, her patience was rewarded. Just before midnight, a healthy baby girl was born. Godwin recorded the event in his diary: "Birth of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night."
Although the birth was normal, the placenta, usually expelled a few minutes after birth, failed to appear. Dr. Poignard, a physician at the Westminster Hospital, came to remove it by hand—a long, painful, bloody process. It was 8 A.M. before he was done. Mary was weak but otherwise had come through her ordeal in fine shape. Her friend, Dr. Fordyce, also a believer in midwives, stopped in to see her. Later that day, he told a friend, "Mary had had a woman, and was doing extremely well."
But despite appearances, she was not doing well. And it wasn't Mrs. Blenkinsop who was to blame. Doctors at the time, knowing nothing of the causes of infection, didn't sterilize their hands or their instruments. During the long hours Dr. Poignard had spent removing the placenta, he had introduced infection into Mary's body. In attempting to save her life, he had unknowingly caused her death.
For the next two days, however, Mary seemed fine. She gained strength; friends came to visit. She and Godwin cooed over the new baby. But on Saturday evening, she felt ill and woke on Sunday with violent shivering fits. Septicemia, or blood poisoning, had set in. This serious, even fatal, condition is caused by harmful bacteria entering the bloodstream, often after a surgical procedure. The bacteria multiply and invade other organs, causing fever, chills, and sweating and infecting the lungs, kidneys, and brain. Antibiotics would have cured it, but in 1797 they didn't exist.
Doctors came and went, but Mary only grew worse. Fanny and the new baby were sent to a friend's house. Godwin sat by his wife's bedside, offering her sips of wine to take the edge off her pain. By Thursday, it was clear that she was dying. During the next two days, husband and wife talked quietly of her death and of the children she was leaving behind. Her last words were of her husband: "He is the kindest, best man in the world."
On Sunday morning, September 10, Mary Wollstonecraft died. Godwin, who recorded everything in his diary, wrote only "20 minutes before 8" followed by three blank lines. He was too grief-stricken to attend her funeral. On Friday, she was buried in St. Pancras churchyard in the company of a few close friends.
Her daughter Mary, eleven days old when her mother died, had begun her life shadowed by death, a shadow that would loom again and again. A major theme of Mary Shelley's life story is the death of those she most loved. Perhaps it's not surprising that she grew up to create a hero who snatched dead bodies from the grave and made them live.
Nobody's Girl but Papa's
And thou, strange star! ascendant at my birth Which rained, they said, kind influence on the earth So from great parents sprung, I dared boast Fortune my friend....
—from The Choice by Mary Shelley
The little fair-haired girl, only two and a half years old, strained and stretched to see across the fields to the trees at Camden Town. Papa was gone. He'd been away for days and days, and though Mary had watched across the fields she hadn't seen him come striding up. Papa hadn't left her alone, of course. She had Fanny, her big sister, for company, and as always Mrs. Jones looked after her; other nice ladies, friends of Papa's, also came and made a fuss. And when Papa left, he invited his friend Mr. Marshall, who was a very nice man, to come and stay. But Papa had been away so long. What if he was never coming back? Perhaps he had given her to Mr. Marshall to be his little girl. She was very much afraid.
Now Mr. Marshall said he had a letter from Papa and in it was a message for Mary. Papa hadn't forgotten her. Somehow he knew what she had feared. Mr. Marshall read aloud the comforting words: "Tell Mary, I will not give her away, and she shall be nobody's little girl but Papa's. Papa is gone away, but Papa will very soon come back again, and see the Polygon across two fields from the trunks of the trees at Camden Town."
Mary adored her father. Her love for him was the earliest feeling she could remember. Until she was sixteen, she said, "I may justly say that he was my God." As a little girl, being allowed to leave her nurse to be with Papa filled her with pride. She'd sit and stare at him, waiting for the look or gesture that said she could come near. He was the fixed point in her life, the one she could rely on. When she was naughty, all he had to do was look at her with silent disapproval, and she would cry.
Her father's fixed point, however, was gone. William Godwin had grieved for months after his wife's death. Nowhere, he told a friend, was there a woman who had combined such a clear and deep intelligence "with so much goodness of heart and sweetness of manners" as his late wife. Her equal didn't exist. He would never get over his loss. "I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again."
He turned her bedroom into his study. Here he devoted himself to editing her works and writing her life story, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He hung her portrait, painted a few months before she died, where he could see it as he worked. Every day when Mary visited him, she saw her mother's serene and beautiful face gazing dreamily into the distance. A portrait of her father hung facing it across the room, just as her parents might have faced each other across a table, if her mother were still alive.
Mary Wollstonecraft had cut a wide swath through her times, scandalizing people right and left, even her radical friends. In a time when most women were raised to be husband catchers, she had struggled to earn her own living and make a name for herself. She had felt the wrongs done to women on her own skin. In 1792, when she was in her early thirties, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a fervent defense of women's equality. It brought instant fame and guaranteed her immortality. She was a woman of great mind and great heart; when she gave, she gave all and was shocked and dismayed when her generosity wasn't returned. Independent and intellectual, witty and warm, tender yet passionate, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a hard act to follow.
She had been part of a circle of English freethinkers who sympathized with the aims and spirit of the French Revolution. When an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, she had been thrilled and inspired. Fierce for the rights of man and woman, she'd sped across the English Channel to Paris to get a look at events for herself. There she'd fallen in love with an American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, the great passion of her life, and bore his child, her daughter Fanny.
Her passionate nature and generosity of spirit served her poorly in dealing with Imlay, who never regarded their affair as seriously as she did. When he took another mistress, she fell into despair and tried to kill herself, not once, but twice.
By the mid-1790s, the ideals of the French Revolution had disintegrated into the blood and gore of the Reign of Terror. Mary Wollstonecraft heard the rumbles of the cart carrying King Louis XVI to the guillotine. Soon hundreds of men and women were having their heads chopped off every week. France had decided to carry its revolution to the rest of Europe. By 1793, it was at war with many countries, including Great Britain.
In 1794, Mary returned to an England full of frightened middle- and upper-class people, sure their own lower classes were about to turn on them. Newspapers were full of rumors of bloodthirsty revolutionaries out to destroy society. Cartoonists drew huge guillotines dripping with blood. Because of the war, prices rose. Poor people couldn't get food to eat. As King George III drove through the streets, a crowd of perhaps 200,000 pressed against his coach, shouting, "No king! Give us peace and bread."
For the first time, the British government set agents to spy on its own people. Censorship increased. The "Gagging Acts" of November 1795 restricted public meetings and speechmaking. Anyone who favored progressive or radical ideas was identified with the "republican, regicidal, atheistic French."
Excerpted from MARY SHELLEY, Frankenstein's Creator by Joan Kane Nichols. Copyright © 1998 Joan Kane Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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ONE Frankenstein's Mother
TWO Nobody's Girl but Papa's
FOUR The Mother Tree
FIVE Prince Charming
NINE Byron and Claire
TEN Conceiving Frankenstein
ELEVEN Fanny and Harriet
TWELVE The Monster and His Maker
THIRTEEN Dead Children
FOURTEEN A Sea-Change
FIFTEEN Going Home
SIXTEEN A Late Flowering
SEVENTEEN The Graveyard
Epilogue: "My Hideous Progeny"
Chronology of Mary Shelley's Life