Mary Shelley Biography: The Intriguing Layers of Mary Shelley’s Story

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, was born on August 30, 1797 in London, England. She was the daughter of philosopher and political writer William Godwin and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft passed away due to complications from childbirth just 10 days after Mary was born.

As a child, Mary received an unconventional, but rich education from her father. He emphasized self-directed learning and exposure to the intellectual ideas of the Enlightenment. William Godwin hosted many leading literary and political figures of the day in his home. Mary absorbed their conversations and developed an interest in these topics from a young age.

In 1801, William Godwin married his neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont. She brought two children from a previous marriage into the household, Charles and Claire Clairmont. This formed a blended family and Mary grew up alongside her half-siblings. The family dynamic was often tense, as finances were frequently tight.

Year Key Event
1797 Mary born to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft
1801 Godwin marries Mary Jane Clairmont, forming a blended family

Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1812, Mary Godwin met the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was married at the time, but grew infatuated with the intelligent and thoughtful Mary. In July of 1814, the pair eloped to France along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. Mary was just 16 years old.

This began a period of wanderings and travels across Europe. Mary and Percy were penniless and often had to rely on financial help from friends and family. It was also during this time that Mary lost her first baby to premature birth.

In December 1816, Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide. This loss, combined with the 1814 suicide of Shelley’s first wife Harriet surely placed emotional strains on the young couple. Mary turned to writing during difficult times as she crafted the story that would become Frankenstein at just 18 years of age.

Year Key Event
1814 Elopes with Percy Shelley & travels Europe
1815 Gives premature birth to first child
1816 Half-sister Fanny dies by suicide

Writing Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy traveled to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They settled near the poet Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori. That year, Europe experienced unusually cold and rainy summer weather due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. This led the group, which also included Mary’s step-sister Claire, to spend much time indoors discussing ideas from science and the occult.

To stave off boredom, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. During this time, Mary had a waking dream or nightmare where she saw a pale student kneeling beside a hideous corpse he had created. This vision formed the foundation for what would become her most famous novel, Frankenstein. Over the next nine months she crafted this story into the book that was finally published anonymously in 1818.

Initially, many critics assumed the gothic tale had been written by Percy Shelley. But soon his encouragement of Mary’s writing ability overcame prejudice towards female authors. The 1823 edition published her name on the cover. Mary’s identity as the author of Frankenstein was firmly established.

Year Key Event
1816 Conceives Frankenstein story at Lake Geneva
1818 Frankenstein published anonymously
1823 2nd edition published with Mary Shelley as named author

Later Career as an Author

Following the success of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley went on to have a writing career spanning over two more decades. She wrote several more novels, including Valperga (1823) and The Last Man (1826). In addition to fiction, she contributed to literary annual gift books and magazines with travelogues, reviews, and biographical sketches.

Shelley needed to write to support herself financially, especially after Percy Shelley drowned in a sailing accident in 1822. She also edited new editions of Percy’s poems for publication after his death. These demands made her a professional and prolific writer, even as she raised their son Percy Florence alone.

Mary traveled extensively across Europe as part of her research and writing process. She also campaigned tirelessly to secure Percy’s literary reputation and gain financial security for her only surviving child. Her resolve and principles earned much respect over time. When Mary Shelley died in 1851 at age 53, she was rightly acknowledged as an important author in the Romantic tradition.

Year Key Event
1822 Percy Shelley dies, leaving Mary widowed
1823 Publishes 2nd novel, Valperga
1826 Publishes The Last Man novel
1851 Dies at age 53

Impact and Legacy

As the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley made a lasting impact on gothic and science fiction literature. Modern scholarship has also reevaluated her breadth and depth as a woman writer in the 19th century literary scene.

The key themes in Frankenstein – ethical issues regarding science, harsh society treatment of outsiders, search for identity and belonging – still resonate strongly today. Generations of readers have felt a connection to the Creature and understood the dangers of prejudice.

Additionally, Mary broke barriers as one of the first widely-read female authors in a male dominated field. Her determination provides inspiration. She forged her own path by following intellectual interests spurred by her unconventional upbringing and great conversational partners who visited her father.

Mary Shelley presented a woman’s point of view and participated actively in important discussions occurring during her lifetime. Her legacy lies in cautionary tales warning what can happen when ambition outweighs morality and relationships are severed. She remains fascinating as someone ahead of her time.

When and where was Mary Shelley born?

Mary Shelley was born on August 30, 1797 in London, England. She was the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, her mother passed away shortly after Mary’s birth due to complications from childbirth. Her unusual literary upbringing contributed to Mary Shelley’s future aspirations as an author.

What family tragedy occurred when Mary was an adolescent?

When Mary Shelley was 16 years old in 1814, she fell in love with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley even though he was married. They eloped to Europe with Mary’s step-sister Claire which alienated Mary from her family for awhile.

Then in December 1816, Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay died by suicide which caused both grief and emotional strain. This loss may have contributed to some of the dark themes regarding abandoned creatures and outcasts explored in her famous novel Frankenstein.


Mary Shelley lived a remarkable life filled with both triumphs and tragedies. She channeled her intellectual upbringing and personal losses into an enduring masterpiece of gothic science fiction with Frankenstein. This novel explored timeless themes of morality within scientific advancement and society’s marginalization of outsiders.

Shelley overcame barriers to establish herself as a professional woman writer in the 19th century, supporting herself and her only surviving child through her craft. She published several more novels and contributed extensively to periodicals. The breadth of her travels, research interests, and friendships influenced a varied writing career.

As the author of Frankenstein when just a teenager, Mary Shelley demonstrated precocious talents. She also edited and promoted her late husband’s poetry to cement his literary reputation after his untimely drowning. Shelley combined principle and pragmatism to forge her own way as both a woman and author ahead of her time.

Her cautionary tales ring true even today. Shelley’s determination in the face of prejudice and loss continues to inspire new generations. Two centuries after writing Frankenstein, she remains one of the most fascinating authors of the Romantic era. Shelley’s intimate perspective and active participation in the literary and scientific debates of her age created an enduring legacy.


What were some of Mary Shelley’s major later works?

Some of Mary Shelley’s important later works included her novels Valperga (1823) and The Last Man (1826). She also published a novella called The Fields of Fancy in 1823 and wrote many biographical essays, travelogues, literary reviews, and magazine articles over her two decade career that formed important parts of her writing output.

How did Mary Shelley die?

Mary Shelley died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851 at age 53 in London, England. Towards the end of her life she experienced temporary paralysis and severe headaches. She was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her brain which claimed her life shortly thereafter.

What recognition did Mary Shelley receive during her lifetime?

During Mary Shelley’s lifetime, she did achieve some literary recognition and respect especially in later years. Initial praise went to her husband Percy as the assumed author of Frankenstein, but eventually her identity became widely known.

Some contemporary critics saw promise in her work, though she longed for more fame. By the late 1840s, she interacted in literary circles with admiration for her presence and principles. Sadly her failing health cut short this higher profile by the end of her life.

Did Mary Shelley have any children? What became of them?

Yes, Mary Shelley had a total of four children, though only one survived past early childhood. In 1815 she gave birth prematurely to a girl, Clara, who sadly only lived a few days. Two years later she lost her first son, William, to malaria at age 3 during a trip to Italy.

Her third child and second son, Percy Florence Shelley, was her only child that made it to adulthood. He eventually inherited the estate of his grandfather and namesake to become secure in middle age before dying without issue.

What modern day adaptations or popular culture examples showcase Mary Shelley’s influence?

As the pioneering author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s monster and the novel itself have endured as major pop culture figures and subjects of fascination over 200 years later.