Mother of Frankenstein - Mary Shelley and the Modern Prometheus

30 August 1797, the author Mary Shelley, still best known, unjustly, for being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her novel “Frankenstein”, was born in London.

“The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.” (Mary Shelley)

 Reginald Easton’s miniature of Mary Shelley (1857), based on her death-mask.

If modern fantastic and speculative literature has a tangible point of origin, it is probably that night in the “year without summer”, 1816, at the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, when Lord Byron encouraged the Shelleys and his factotum Dr Polidori to write a ghost story. And while the two geniuses present, Byron and Shelley, somehow preferred laudanum to spinning a good yarn, Polidori wrote the primal father of all Vampire fiction and Mary Shelley came up with her epoch making Gothic science fiction tale of “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”.

Villa Diodati, in the dramatic lighting of the year without summer and Byron lounging quite picturesquely in the foreground

Her role that night remained significant for the receptional history of her life and works, even though her books, those she wrote and those she edited and published, sold quite a lot better than the controversial writings of her husband, who died in 1821. Having lived a life that resembles a tragic novel all in itself, being the daughter of the philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died just 11 days after her birth, and the political philosopher William Godwin, growing up in a household full of radicals and an uncaring stepmother, eloping to the continent with a famous Romantic poet, returning pregnant to be disowned by her father, living penniless in England with her poet, relocating to Italy to meet with other poets, losing three of her four children and finally her husband in an accident and returning back home to be a famous author on her own and dying of a brain tumour at the age of 54.

Theodor von Holst's frontispiece of the 1831 edition of "Frankenstein"

It took more than a hundred years to dissolve the impression that she was a mere appendix and her husband’s literary executor with a single own success under the heavy influence of Byron and Shelley. The publication of her letters and rediscovery of her other works, among them such gems as “The Last Man” (1826) and “Lodore” (1833), finally brought her out of the role of a dead man’s homemaker to which she had been domesticated in literary history and into the limelight as being the Romantic writer and poet full of her own controversial ideas and talent as one of the foremost writers of the Romantic Age – and a trailblazer of fantastic (science) fiction.

And more on: