Frankenstein author Mary Shelley lived a vibrant, controversial life nearly as dramatic as one of her books.
From falling in love and leaving home at age 16 to writing one of the most influential sci-fi novels ever, Shelley defied expectations for the women of her time. Just as her work continues to compel readers, her life continues to fascinate as well—so much so that an upcoming movie will even focus on her tempestuous private life and the struggles she faced as a female writer in the early 19th century.
Below are 11 fascinating facts about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.
She came from a family of intellectuals
Mary was born into a family of thinkers. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft—who died less than a month after her daughter was born—was one of history’s first feminist writers. Wollstonecraft was a prominent revolutionary voice pushing for social reform; her 1792 text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argues for women's education and equality of the genders.
Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, was a philosopher—one Mary’s future husband would admire greatly. Godwin was considered controversial both for his radical, anarchist views, and for the biography he wrote of his wife after her death from childbirth complications.
Mary may have made love on her mother's grave
Mary spent a lot of time at her mother's grave in the cemetery of St. Pancras Old Church in London, and is said to have learned the alphabet by tracing the letters on the gravestone.
Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, says Shelley learned more than just letters at the gravesite: she also confessed her love to her future husband, Percy Shelley, while the two visited her mother's grave.
According to Gordon, "That’s where we think she had sex for the first time, on her mother’s grave. We can’t prove that they actually had sex, but they certainly declared their love and became intimate. It was a really dangerous thing to do."
Her father disowned her ... but might have committed murder on her behalf
At 16, Mary met her future husband, 21-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was then working as an apprentice to her father. The two took to each other quickly, and ran away together to Paris. At the time, Shelley was already married, and consequently Mary's father disowned her.
However angry Mary’s father may have been, some believe he may have committed murder to save her reputation. In 1816, two years after Shelley and Mary first ran away together, Shelley's pregnant wife Harriet Westbrook (who was going by the last name 'Smith' at the time) was found dead in a Hyde Park river.
Officially, her death was ruled a suicide by drowning, but stories that Godwin murdered her to protect his daughter’s name never ceased. Mary and Shelley married at Godwin's suggestion mere weeks after Harriet was found dead, thereby making their relationship legitimate and easing the estrangement between Mary and her family. Some believe Shelley may have even been responsible for the death of his first wife.
However, there's no evidence that Harriet's death was anything but a suicide. The coroner handling the case issued a statement clarifying that “Harriet Smith had no marks of violence appearing on her body."
Mary felt great grief and guilt throughout her life over Harriet's sad fate. In an 1839 journal entry, Mary wrote that she believed "so many of my own heavy sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death.”
Mary was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein
Late one night while Mary, Shelley, Lord Byron, and Byron’s close friend John Polidori were stranded by a storm in their villa in Geneva, Switzerland, Byron challenged the group to write a horror story. Mary started writing the story that would evolve into Frankenstein.
Dr. Frankenstein came to her in a dream
Shortly after the writing challenge was first proposed, Mary said she had a nightmare that helped her flesh out the concept behind Frankenstein.
In a preface to the novel written for the third edition, she wrote that she "saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision [...] the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together."
Mary Shelley may have had a personal connection to corpse reanimation
Reanimation was a surprisingly popular subject in the early nineteenth century, and Mary's own life was heavily influenced by the then-controversial practice of resuscitation.
Resuscitation was heavily endorsed by the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned (now called The Royal Humane Society), an organization founded in 1774 to decrease drownings in London. When Mary's mother attempted suicide by jumping into the Thames River, it's believed she was revived using practices endorsed by the Society.
Some saw the practice of resuscitation as unnatural, or, as Wollstonecraft herself called it, other than human: '‘I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery." The Society also organized an annual procession of those who had appeared dead but were revived via resuscitation — a somewhat grim celebration.
Given this personal connection to a drowning victim who was resuscitated, it's not surprising that Mary had a strong interest in the boundary between life and death, which for Londoners at this time seemed particularly blurry.
She was first published in 1807
While Frankenstein is what Mary is most known for, it was not her only piece of writing that was published. She went on to write other sci-fi stories including her 1826 short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman about a man frozen in ice, and The Last Man, about a man alone in the world after surviving a plague that wiped out the rest of the human race.
She was published for the first time in 1807, when her poem Mounseer Nongtongpaw was published through the children's imprint Juvenile Library with the help of her father.
Mary didn’t put her name on the first publication of Frankenstein
Most likely a result of the time in which she was writing, and the controversial content of her story, Mary first published Frankenstein under “anonymous.” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was published in 1818, but didn’t have Mary’s name on it until 1831—because of this, many at first assumed her husband Percy Shelley wrote it.
She might have drawn inspiration from the real-life Frankenstein castle
Mary Shelley's novel has the same name as Frankenstein Castle in Germany, in which real-life alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel was rumored to have experimented with human and animal parts.
Because of the castle's name and the apparent similarities between Dippel and the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, some say Mary must have learned of the castle during an 1814 trip to Germany in which she briefly visited a town close to the castle. However, there's no mention of the castle in her journals.
Tragedies plagued her life
Mary's life was marked by death and disaster. Her mother died from complications of childbirth just a few weeks after Mary was born. Fanny, Mary’s half-sister, committed suicide when Mary was in her teens. Her first son with Shelley died 12 days after birth and her second son died when he was three years old; only one of her four children survived to adulthood. Her husband Percy Shelley drowned in the Mediterranean Sea just a year later in 1822. Two years later, Mary and Shelley’s closest friend, the poet Lord Byron, died.
These deaths eventually took a major toll on Mary, forcing her into a severe depression. Mary herself died from a brain tumor when she was 53.
She is said to have carried her late husband's heart around with her
Following Shelley's death from drowning at age 29, his remains were buried in a Roman Protestant cemetery. But Mary held onto his heart, protecting it in a silken shroud. A year after she passed away, the heart was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of Shelley's poem Adonais.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons