Becoming Mary

mary shelley
Having celebrities for parents is often regarded as an advantage both social and economical, but it cannot be denied that sometimes the load of that popularity is so suffocating to make arduous find the necessary room to develop your true self: expectations are high and the oppressive ghosts of parents’ personalities or even faults shadow your being at the eyes of people. It’s like living unseen under a veil of opinions and prejudices, hence you must be endowed with a great temper if you want to tear it, otherwise the chances of prevailing as an individual in order to determine your fate will be just a few.
“Pray,who is that handsome young lady ?”
“Oh, don’t you know? She is Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft. Her mother is the famous Mary Wollstonecraft . Poor child, she didn’t even know her; she died few days after her birth!”
“And why is she famous?”
“Don’t you know? She wrote a pamphlet or something in support for the rights of women!”
“The rights of women! And which are these rights, pray?”
“Oh, she maintains that girls should have the same education as boys in order to achieve, listen carefully, women’s independence, can you believe it?”
“Women’s independence?”
“Indeed, she dared say that “to marry for a support is legal prostitution“, SHE, talking about prostitution.”
“I know why she pleads for independence: to be free to give public scandal as she always did! The father of the young lady is an anarchist, William Godwin, and…. I’ve been told that he and her mother didn’t even live under the same roof!”
“Indeed, they seem to have shared the same bed at least.”
“Her mother had also had another daughter from an American man. Unmarried!!”
“Poor child, with such a family she will never be admitted in society.”
“No, she won’t, to be sure.”
Women’s independence! AH!”
Despite their flaunted anti-matrimonialism, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin had tried to preserve their daughter’s respectability at the eyes of people resolving upon marrying; nonetheless the shadow of her controversial origin was to be a permanent fault in her life. Yet, even if good society seemed to be proof against the tremendous winds of a revolutionary age, William and Mary had succeeded in inflaming with their radical, outrageous ideals the minds of an entire generation and Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of their most fervent admirer. So when Shelley, who had soon joined Godwin’s circle of intellectuals, met Mary the first time, what exactly did he see? A charming young lady of sixteen or the perfect, fascinating synthesis of the ideals of such incredible reformers? The answer is in his dedicatory stanza to The Revolt to Islam (1817) where he writes : “They saw that thou wert lovely from thy birth, / Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child” , hence she had been singled out by birth for great literary accomplishments and at the same time had to be the perfect product of her parents’ theories : a free cultivated young girl devoid of that prudery that characterized the customs of the age, therefore emancipated enough to accept him as her lover even he was already married with children. Shelley was so obsessed by the memory of her mother that took Mary almost daily to St. Pancras Church to visit Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave and It’s there that he and Mary, rumors whisper, had their first intimate encounter. When William Godwin, who had become much more conservative in time, discovered the liaison, forbade her to see him and virtually kept her under house arrest (having a teenage daughter meant trouble even in the early nineteenth century). After a lot of drama and also Shelley’s attempt to suicide, she eloped with him and we know well, as dear Jane told us, what were the consequences of an elopement in society and with a married man. In fact the life of these free spirits wasn’t to be that simple. The eight years Mary and Percy spent together were characterized by romance and a lot of melodrama: travels, love, free love  but also poverty, births, miscarriages, deaths, suicides and even matrimony to grant legitimacy to their union and offspring, just like what her parents had done. In the introduction to 1831 edition of Frankenstein Mary Shelley  goes back to those times and in particularly to 1816, when she moved into a chalet on the banks of Lake Geneva, near Villa Diodati, where Byron and his physician, William Polidori, were staying to tell “How (…) a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea” . Indeed, she was a reckless young girl when she conceived her novel, but this introduction was written by mature woman of about forty hardened by the events of life, who could see better the contradictions of her past. She could see how abruptly her choices had turned her world of childish fiction into a harsh reality and in this world Shelley was a husband above all anxious to see her “worthy of (her) parentage” in order to “enrol (her)self on the page of fame”. He had incited her to write “not so much with the idea that (she) could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far (she) possessed the promise of better things hereafter“. That’s why she had been unable to produce anything and felt that “blank capability of invention”. She had worshipped his mind, which she believed, was “far more cultivated” than hers and this sense of inferiority surfaces every time she refers to her husband or Byron. They were “noble”, “illustrious”, with a” brilliant imagery” more fit for poetry than prose, therefore she took part to their conversations “as a devout but nearly silent listener“. When they all decided to write a ghost story, she experienced once again the frustration for her husband’s expectations: “Have you thought of a story?”I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”  But one day the subject of one of those discussions among men, where Mary again was merely a silent spectator, touched her mind: scientific experiments, galvanism, Erasmus Darwin’s success in causing a piece of a vermicello to move voluntarily. That very night she dreamt of a ” pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” ,who had dared “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” giving “spark of life” to a “hideous corpse”: she had her story, she had her chance to be seen. Her veil in a night had been torn away and Mary the authoress of Frankenstein, ready to gain everlasting fame, had materialized. When she died in 1851, she had established a reputation as a celebrated author independent of her famous husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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21 thoughts on “Becoming Mary

  1. I did a term paper on Mary Wollenstonecraft and thoroughly hated her before it was over. I couldn’t decide whether she truly and fervently believed what she was spouting or just wanted to be outrageous for the fun of shocking people, because her walk certainly didn’t follow her talk. – at least not in my humble opinion. After the research was over, I thought her life could be turned into a romantic comedy where she ran around telling everyone else how to live their lives independent of men, while she clung to one man after another for support.

    • I don’t think she really clung for men’s support. Those ideals,whether sincere or not, couldn’t be accepted at that age and I guess that when her responsibilities increased, she just became more inclined to compromise. Thanks for commenting. Cheers. Stefy.

  2. Hm…interesting thoughts but I will say that I think you villianize P. Shelley unfairly. If he truly did only see Mary as an idealized version of the offspring of two of his greatest literary “heroes” then I think his relationship with Mary would have been rather fleeting as many of his other “crushes” were (*cough*Tereasa Viviani*cough* haha!). I agree with you that, in the beginning, I’m sure part of her allure for him was her parentage; however, I really think that was just a piece of the initial attraction. Also, as far as their visits to her mother’s grave, I think Mary was just as instrumental in wanting those visits as Shelley. She mentions wanting to feel closer to her mother and she did that by making these visits to her grave at St. Pancras.

    I also don’t see Shelley as the literary slave driver, constantly pushing Mary into writing. Certainly, he was avidly interested in her literary pursuits, but I think Mary, herself, had that drive first. Yes, it does seem like part of her drive was in hopes of impressing Shelley or “making him proud”, etc, but I don’t see it as Shelley standing over her should making her feel as if she had to do it in order to be important or to fulfil some literary legacy. You know? I think she, herself, may have felt that way but I think that was her mentality outside of Shelley’s influence. Mary writes, in her journals, of feeling the weight of having such legendary parents but she writes about this well before she was involved with Shelley as well.

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling here! I do love a good debate and discussing ideas, so I hope you don’t mind my thoughts on the subject! 🙂 Cheers!

    PS – I should say that I am a Shelleyan scholar so I’ll admit to some bias for the fellow!

    • Your ideas are truly appreciated. You understood well, I don’t like the man much,and maybe I “villainized” him a bit; but I was really struck by the words Mary Shelley used in this introduction. Her maturity makes her look to past events with a more detached point view and her despondendy in a world of illustrious,arrogant men is palpable. At least this is what saw. Cheers. Stefy.

  3. A fine literary post, as always, but can I make a small suggestion? Breaking up the text into paragraphs would help this reader at least navigate his way round your very valid points.

  4. I am a big fan of the novel “Frankenstein” although I don’t know much about its author and her husband. All I know is they are both highly creative, original, and talented writers. It’s been said Mary Shelley’s masterpiece is one of the most beautifully written stories of all time. It’s good to learn there’s more to her than her wonderful writings.
    Thank you for sharing this post to us your readers.

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