Mary Shelley and Her Monster

by Lindsey A.

2018 marks the two hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. With this book, the science fiction genre was spearheaded by a teenage girl.

Many associate Frankenstein with this guy, or this guy, or maybe even this guy. As a student of literary studies (i.e., English), I spent a lot of time reading about the authors behind great works of literature: Renaissance playwrights, the American Transcendentalists, and the Romantics. Though I am intimately familiar with the book, my first association is Mary herself.

Mary was raised in a literary household, frequently host to a rotating coterie of intellectuals. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her father was political philosopher and novelist William Godwin. Wollstonecraft died ten days after Mary’s birth. Raised to think freely, Mary nurtured her love of reading and writing. Godwin eventually remarried, bringing home a disagreeable step-mother and two step-siblings. Mary escaped her unhappy home life by spending time in the graveyard where her mother was buried.

When poet Percy Shelley came into her life, everything changed. He fell in love with Mary, despite already having a wife and daughter. Against Godwin’s wishes, they eloped to the continent, but their marriage was not without complications. They struggled financially, lost a number of children, and Percy carried on liaisons with other women (including Mary’s step-sister). They supported each other as writers, though, and even met Lord Byron, who invited them to his home on Lake Geneva. It was here, on a stormy night, that they famously challenged each other to write ghost stories. This challenge, and her personal demons, inspired the birth of Mary’s monster.

There is so much to say about Mary Shelley but I recommend looking into her for yourself, whether in our library databases (e.g., Biography in Context), or in one of the books below.

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon is a thick but excellent biography about Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Though they never met, their lives shared many parallels, and they were both fascinating women ahead of their time. The narrative moves back and forth between the two Marys, but if the style doesn’t bother you, this book is well worth the read. A more recent biography is In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson.

Mary’s Monster is a gorgeous graphic biography for teen readers and anyone who enjoys young adult literature. Lita Judge conveys so much emotion with her black and white illustrations, and there’s a great deal of emotion in the story of Mary’s life. True to its audience, the book focuses on her teenage years, namely her relationships with her family and Percy Shelley. It also delves into her creation of a literary “monster” that still haunts us. A more traditional biography for teens is Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator by Catherine Reef.

Want to introduce a younger reader to Mary Shelley who isn’t quite ready for the full text of Frankenstein? Try the accessible nonfiction picture book, Mary, Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, with bold, dramatic illustrations by Júlia Sardà. Bailey manages to capture the essence of Mary’s life and works while writing directly to an audience of children. This book is so gorgeous it gave me goosebumps! Another wonderful picture book biography is She Made a Monster by Lynn Fulton and Felicita Sala.

Check out more titles in the list I created!

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2 responses to “Mary Shelley and Her Monster”

  1. Lois Haight says:

    I’m so excited to see this list and blog post! Mary Shelley is the ultimate Goth Queen of Sci-Fi and I’ve been noticing more biographies and retellings being published recently. Love that there are some Mary Shelley picture books too!

    • Lindsey A. says:

      Me, too! Many kids are familiar with Frankenstein, so why not its creator? Not that I want to encourage saturation, but I hope they keep coming!

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