1902 Encyclopedia > Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
English novelist

SHELLEY, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1797-1851), the second wife of the poet SHELLEY (q.v.), born in London, August 30, 1797 (see vol. x. p. 717), deserves some notice on her own account, as a writer of romance, chiefly imaginative.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley portrait

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

When she was in Switzerland with Shelley and Byron in 1816 (see below), a proposal was made that various members of the party should write a romance or tale dealing with the supernatural. The result of this project was that Mrs Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Byron the beginning of a narrative about a vampyre [vampire], and Dr Polidori, Byron’s physician, a tale named The Vampyre, the authorship of which used frequently in past years to be attributed to Byron himself. Frankenstein, published in 1818, when Mrs Shelley was at the utmost twenty-one years old, is a very remarkable performance for so young and inexperienced a writer; its main idea is that of the formation and vitalization, by a deep student of the secrets of nature, of an adult man, who, entering the world thus under unnatural conditions, becomes the terror of his species, a half-involuntary criminal, and finally an outcast whose sole resource is self-immolation. This romance was followed by others: Valperga, or the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823), an historical tale written a good deal of spirit, and readable enough even now; The Last Man (1826), a fiction of the final agonies of human society owing to the universal spread of a pestilence, -- this is written in a very stilted style, but bears some traces of the imagination which fashioned Frankenstein; The fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830); Ladore (1835); and Falkner (1837). Besides these novels there was the Journal of a Six Week’s Tour (the tour of 1814 mentioned below), which is published in conjunction with Shelley’s prose-writings; also Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840-42-43 (which shows an observant spirit, capable of making some true forecasts of the future), and various miscellaneous writings.

After the death of Shelley, for whom she had a deep and even enthusiastic affection, marred at times by defects of temper, Mrs Shelley in the autumn of 1823 returned to London. At first the earnings of her pen were her only sustenance; but after a while Sir Timothy Shelley made her an allowance, which would have been withdrawn if she had persisted in a project of writing a full biography of her husband. She was a loving and careful mother, and shared the prosperous fortunes of her son, when, upon the death of Sir Timothy in 1844, he succeeded to the baronetcy. She died in February 1851.

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