Time Traveling: Who was Mary Shelley?

Mary Shelley Steampunk authors Steampunk history Steampunk writers

Five fun facts about Mary Shelley

When online forums, books, and Steampunk blogs discuss the “origins” of the culture, the names H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne are almost always mentioned. These writers took the sprouting interest that readers in the 19th and early 20th centuries had with science fiction themes and expanded on them in brilliant ways. Having few literary sources to use as inspiration, these writers built a foundation for what would become a thriving genre and culture. As a woman and the earliest of the genre’s writers, Mary Shelley is a particularly fascinating character.

One of the goals that we have for the Steampunk Threads blog is to explore the lives of the various Steampunk “celebrities” from history and to tell their stories. We are beginning with Mary Shelley as a natural starting point and welcome you to comment on this post or be in touch to let us know other historical figures you would like us to feature.

Mary Shelley: One of Steampunk’s founding mothers?

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797 in London. The daughter of two famous writers and philosophers, she was seemingly born a radical and eccentric. She was a passionate, inquisitive girl and young woman. When she was 17 years old she began an affair with one of the most well-known poets of the time still to date, Percy Shelley. This romance is one of the most fascinating of all time and the topic for an entirely other post.

Many consider her to be one of the founders of the Steampunk culture because of the event that came a couple of years into her relationship with Percy Shelley. The summer of 1816 found the couple in Switzerland, still trying to figure out how to settle into a normal life after their elopement the year before. The pair had, by this time, become close with another literary celebrity, Lord Byron, who was carrying on a less-than-loving relationship with Mary’s half-sister, Claire (more about that below). A challenge was brought before the group at one point: they should each write a ghost story to tell to each other. The result? Frankenstein, Mary’s contribution.

While it is one of the most notable novels of the 19th century, many feel that Mary Shelley has been less studied and appreciated because of her ties to such famous male writers. My opinion is that she has been underappreciated because of the success of the novel, causing many to overlook the incredible, radical, and progressive life that she led. Here are five of my favorite facts about her life.

What do you love about Mary Shelley? Let me know and I may include it in a second post about this intriguing woman.

  • Her mother was the Mother of Feminism

Mary’s mother, and namesake, was a pioneering philosopher and feminist by the name of Mary Wollstonecraft. She was so pioneering, in fact, that she is now referred to by many scholars as the Mother of Feminism. While she still holds some name recognition today, she was a full-blown celebrity in her day due to her radical ideas that she very publically espoused. In short, Mary Wollstonecraft was letting her feminist freak flag fly well before it was even remotely acceptable to do so. Her most famous work, A Vindication on the Rights of Women, was published in 1792.

The first of many tragedies in Mary Shelley’s life was that she never knew her mother. Wollstonecraft passed away just 11 days after giving birth due to unsanitary practices employed by her attending physician. Mary Shelley’s father went out of his way to tell her about her mother, however. Mary felt such a connection to her that she spent regular time at her gravesite as a young woman. Legend, backed up by many scholars, has it that Wollstonecraft’s gravesite was the location young Mary Shelley chose to declare her love to Percy Shelley, and even where the couple first consummated their relationship.

  • She had some VERY radical views for her time

Mary Shelley was an early abolitionist and radically progressive in her perspective on the issue. Her parents had been even earlier abolitionists and passed the passion for equality onto their daughter. So enlightened on the issue was she, that along with Percy Shelley, they were known to refuse to eat sugar because of its production being so closely tied to slave labor. Given the popularity of tea in England at the time, this was a move that was considered highly political in the early 1800s. One interpretation of Frankenstein is that it is a commentary on the poor treatment of slaves and the poor plight of newly freed slaves. That, however, is a topic for another time.

Mary Shelley was also an early animal rights activist and vegetarian. Here again, we see references to her politics show up in Frankenstein, as she clearly states in the novel that the creature is vegetarian, and only kills when forced to by his master.

If being an abolitionist and vegetarian sound radical for the time period, imagine how bold Mary Shelley must have been to also be a supporter of same-sex relationships. There is some evidence from her letters that she may have engaged in or entertained thoughts of romance with other women, but more direct proof exists. In 1827 she assisted a close friend of hers, Isabel Robinson, to flee to France with her lover, Mary Diana Dods. Mary Shelley even helped Dods to obtain a passport enabling her to travel to France disguised as a man so that the couple could travel together as man and wife. (Isn’t that awesome?!)

  • She wrote one of the first post-apocalyptic disaster novels

Steampunk fans will be delighted to know that in addition to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote a number of other science-fiction novels. One of these books is one of the first known post-apocalyptic novels, The Last Man. While set in a plague-ravaged society and covering the years 2073-2100, it contains mostly 19th-century elements, making it almost by definition a Steampunk novel.

Those curious about Mary Shelley will be interested to know that she modeled the main characters of the three-volume novel after three of the main characters in her life: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and herself. While the novel was dismissed by critics at the time of its publication (1826), it has enjoyed a renewed interest in the last decades and can easily be purchased online.

  • She published her book anonymously - partially out of fear that the content would lead to her losing custody of her children.

Do you need another reason to love Frankenstein (or read it for the first time)? Did you know that it was originally published anonymously? When it went to press in 1818 the cover was simply absent an author (funky!). It did include a forward by the already famous Percy Shelley, and to this day some people believe that he was the true author. While it was not unusual for female authors to publish their works anonymously in the 19th century, there is evidence that Percy and Mary were concerned that its outrageous content could be used against them in custody issues. Percy had already had the custody of his children from his first marriage taken away due to his radical lifestyle (it probably didn’t help that he left the mother to run away with Mary) and the couple was actively trying to have a child at the time.

The pair must have grown increasingly bold over time, as by its second publication Mary was named as the author. However, speculation on the true creator of the already famous book quickly spread.

Debate raged on between scholars for decades, mostly about Percy Shelley’s contributions and whether or not he should be included in the publication of the novel as a contributor. While some discussion still takes place on the subject, in 1996 academic Charles E. Robinson published copies of the book’s original manuscripts, proving once and for all that Mary Shelley was indeed the author and mind behind the story.

  • Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley: two degrees of separation

One of my favorite things about the fascinating and entangled life of Mary Shelley is her Ada Lovelace connection. Steampunk fans, in particular, may enjoy this two-degrees of separation between two popular women of the culture. Let me break it down for you:

-When Mary Shelley and her lover Percy ran away together, her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, ran away with them.

-Shortly after the trio settled into their European adventure, Claire convinced Mary and Percy to head to Switzerland. The reason? Her lover (or her obsession, depending on who you ask), a man by the name of Lord Byron, was there.

-Why was Lord Byron there? His wife, expecting that he was of less than sound mind, had left him following the birth of their child. Her motivation for doing so was a deep fear that her child would also turn out to be insane.

-The child’s name was Augusta Ada Byron, who would go on to become known as one of the most educated and brilliant women of her time. She would later be known as Ada Lovelace.

-Byron would also have a daughter with Claire, making the two girls half-sisters and Mary Shelley some sort of step-aunt.

We will explore the fascinating life of Ada Lovelace in an upcoming post.

 

Some fun further reading:

 

The Strange and Twisted Life of Frankenstein

 

Mary Shelley’s Obsession With the Cemetery

 

The Treacherous Start to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Marriage

 


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