Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein at age 18 and published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus when she was 20.
Let’s rephrase that.
Mary Shelley won a horror story contest against already published, famous, male authors of the misogynistic 19th century with her first draft of Frankenstein when she was 18 and published it at the young age of 20, remaining the anonymous author (the patriarchy and whatnot) until Lord Byron himself demanded that she receive credit five years later.
When I was 18, I could barely boil an egg.
It’s been a decade, I’m almost 30, and (don’t let my adulting skills damage your self-esteem) I can strain and poach them fancy-pants, fry and flip them in the pan like a TV chef, quiche them, scramble them, and even make a mean eggy-salsa microwave mug breakfast of champions.
Nice skills, Mallory, but what’s this got to do with Mary Shelley?
When I was 18, I had such a shallow pool of experience to draw on that most of my ideas were regurgitations. My short stories from this period of time are cringy and amble along, unburdened by tangible genre and clearly ignorant of 95% of the world. With an additional decade’s life experience, like my cooking skills, I can now put some scary words down with a complexity of emotion and characters that’ll blow your balls off (literally) that are occasionally read with wide-eyed “what did I just read?!” expressions of horror and delight. Or so I hope. I imagine another decade will bring another layer of complexity and skill to my writing.
But, if I live to be 118, I will never write anything on par with Frankenstein. Neither will you.
And how old was Mary Shelley when she wrote it? Eighteen!
Not impressed? Maybe you wrote a book at 18 that wasn’t a murky hodge-podge like my earliest stories (that wouldn’t be too hard) and, anyway, the publishing climate in 2020 is more challenging than 200 years ago, so really Mary wasn’t that great. Maybe she was lucky.
Frankenstein is the horror equivalent of cracking open your first egg and having a gold-leafed five-tier wedding cake emerge that can feed more people than the loaves of Jesus.
Let’s take a look at Halloween. What are the spooky staples? Ghosts. Witches. Demons. And Frankenstein’s monster. The difference between these icons of horror is that ghosts, witches, and demons have existed for millennia in the collective subconscious of virtually every culture in the world, whereas Frankenstein’s monster was invented by one mind, in one night, based on one 18-year-old woman’s “waking dream”.
Take that, anything any other horror author has ever written! If you’re not fascinated by Mary Shelley yet, two things: what’s wrong with you? Second, just wait, there’s more.
A frightful start to life
Mary was the daughter of the macabre author William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, authoress of the controversial The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her mother died just eleven days after Mary’s birth.
Mary read her mother’s books as she grew, often while sitting beside her mother’s grave. In fact, her first practice at writing the alphabet was by tracing the words on her mother’s tombstone. Picture that little girl and that tombstone. Conflate that to the rest of Mary’s life and you won’t be far off.
Mary’s father remarried when Mary was four, and it was a classic “wicked step-mother” situation. Step-mom sent her own daughter, Jane, away to school for a proper education but saw no need to formally educate Mary. The joke here is on the wicked step-mother, for by staying home, Mary was familiarized with the philosophers and authors of the day that came to William Godwin for mentorship. Among these talents were Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy was a dashing, Romantic poet. He swept Mary off her feet when she was 16, eloping to France and leaving his inconvenient first wife behind in London.
“‘I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.’” – Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein pg. 203
A life marked by death
In addition to the tragic death of her mother, Mary gave birth to her first child with Percy at 18 while they were “touring” France—a polite way to say they were running away from Percy’s bad marriage in London. The baby girl lived for only a few days, and while she was still grieving, Mary received notice of her beloved half-sister Fanny’s suicide.
It is no wonder that later this same sad year, Mary, while staying with Lord Byron and participating in his horror story contest, would experience the “waking dream” of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together…”
“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” – “Frankenstein Chronology”
Shortly after her first draft of Frankenstein and her winning Byron’s contest, Mary and Percy received news of Percy’s wife’s suicide. Harriett Shelley walked into the Serpentine River in London and drowned herself. Just two weeks later, Percy and Mary wed, and one can’t help but wonder how the guilt of Harriett’s death hung over the wedding day.
“Then the appearance of death was distant, although the wish was ever present to my thoughts; and I often sat for hours motionless and speechless, wishing for some mighty revolution that might bury me and my destroyer in its ruins.” – Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein pg. 168
In the next six years, Mary would lose two more children and her husband. Percy drowned in 1822, leaving Mary a widow at 24 with their two-year-old son, Percy, to raise alone.
After a life marred by painful deaths, it should please lovers of horror to know that Mary acted accordingly, keeping Percy’s cremated heart so that it could be buried with her after her death from brain cancer in 1851. She was 53.
“My life, as it passed thus, was indeed hateful to me, and it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy… for in sleep I saw my friends, my wife, and my beloved country… What agonising fondness did I feel for them! how did I cling to their dear forms, as sometimes they haunted even my waking hours, and persuade myself that they still lived!” – Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein, pg. 188
Like many publishers before and since, choices were made, publishers dragged their feet around the masterpiece, and Frankenstein was rejected.
In the length of time it took Percy to advocate for the anonymously authored manuscript, Mary completed and published a non-fiction chronicle of her time traveling Europe with Percy, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour.
First, Percy Shelley had interposed on Mary’s behalf with their friend Lord Byron’s publisher, John Murray, who took less than a month in 1817 to reject the novel. I wonder how he felt sitting in a London audience in 1823, watching the successful story’s stage adaptation. Take heart, rejected artists of the world, for Frankenstein was adapted for the stage five times during Mary’s lifetime, and countless times after her death.
“‘No sympathy may I ever find.’” – Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein pg. 202
After Murray’s refusal, another publisher had the manuscript for three days before rejecting it, and yet another publisher required extensive negotiation with Percy Shelley before agreeing to print the book with only ⅓ profits going to the mysterious author.
The publisher, Lackington & Co., ran its first proofs of Frankenstein in September 1817, while Mary was “confined”, having just given birth to their second daughter (who would tragically join Mary’s first daughter in death only a year later).
On Jan. 1, 1818, five hundred copies of Frankenstein, split into three volumes, were published to mixed reviews.
The genres of horror and science fiction were never the same.
Mary Shelley went on to write six more novels, though none left a cultural impression on par with Frankenstein:
Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca
A historical novel based on the life of Castruccio Castracanai, the lord of Lucca and conqueror of Florence. In a veiled criticism of imperialistic encroachment, Castruccio’s love interest, the Countess Euthanasia, governor of the fictional fortress Valperga, sails off, choosing liberty in death.
The Last Man
A post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel set in 2073-2100 in which Lionel, the last man on earth, relates his tragic life and the collapse of mankind. In a fascinating contrast to her moral questioning of the irresponsible advancement of science and medicine discussed in Frankenstein, Mary suggests in The Last Man that science hadn’t come far enough to save mankind from the devastating plague.
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance
Another historical fiction, Perkin Warbeck follows the adventures of a pretender to the throne of King Henry VII in 1485.
Also published under the title The Beautiful Widow, Lodore is a female-led story about the struggles of Lord Lodore’s family in the wake of his death by dueling. Mary had no shortage of experiences to draw on from her own life to illuminate this novel.
Falkner. A Novel
Another story which may have stemmed from the uneasy relationship between Mary’s husband, Percy, and her father, William Godwin, who naturally disapproved of Percy eloping with Mary while still married to Harriett. Falkner is the story of the orphan girl Elizabeth attempting to reconcile her new husband to her adopted father.
Mathilda was written soon after Frankenstein but was published posthumously in 1959, over a hundred years after Mary’s death. She had sent the manuscript to her father, William Godwin, hoping for his help in finding a publisher, but he refused to return the manuscript to her, calling it “detestable”. The story sheds light on Mary’s emotional state following the deaths of her children in their infancy. It is narrated by Mathilda, discussing the painful suicides of her loved ones, her loneliness and depression, and ends with her own suicide. Bleak, and revelatory.
The common theme throughout all of Mary’s stories is the failure of human nature in the face of temptation, often leaving widespread devastation in its wake. Many of her works were semi-autobiographical, and all dealt with loss. She continues as a keystone horror author because of the deeply internal fears her stories ignite in each reader.
Frankenstein endures, in all of his iterations from the intelligent, rage-filled abomination of Mary’s book to the mindless, bolt-in-neck monster of children’s imaginations.
Frankenstein will continue to endure because of the question it forces us all to ask ourselves: how far is too far, and is it worth it?
“Like one, on a lonesome road who,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful friend
Doth close behind him tread.”
– Frankenstein, pg. 50
“Frankenstein Chronology.” The Shelley-Godwin Archive. www.shelleygodwinarchive.org/contents/frankenstein/frankenstein-chronology/. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.
Fulton, Lynn. She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
“Mary Shelley Biography.” Biography. www.biography.com/writer/mary-shelley. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Arcturus, 2016.
Mallory Kelly is the author of the serial-killer thriller series Clown Conspiracy and the Contest Organizer for WriteHive 2020’s Horror Writing Contest. She maintains a blog about odd things she discovers during her horror and science-fiction writing research (really, FBI, it’s just writing research). You can find her on Twitter @author_mkelly and on Facebook, or email her at email@example.com.