16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley

Natasha sheldon - October 15, 2018

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, 1819. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

8. Mary and Shelley only married so that Shelley could claim custody of his children from his first marriage.

Sometime in late November or early December 1816, the body of Harriet, Shelley’s first wife was found in the Serpentine River. It seems that the deserted twenty-two year old had killed herself after becoming pregnant by another man, leaving behind her two children by Shelley, Ianthe, and Charles. According to the laws of nineteenth-century society, the children had always been within Shelley’s control and but for his irregular way of life, Shelley could have claimed custody of them sooner. However, on their mother’s death, he decided the time had come to take responsibility for them.

Mary had a new child of her own, William. However, she was more than happy to take on her lover’s offspring. “I long more than ever that our house should be quickly ready for the reception of those dear children whom I love so tenderly then there will be a sweet brother and sister for my William, ” she wrote to Shelley. However, there was a problem. Harriet’s parents, the Westbrookes were claiming Shelley was an unfit father. Not only was he living with a woman who was not his wife, but also he was an atheist to boot. So, the Westbrookes appealed for custody because Shelley was no moral example for his children.

Shelley could do nothing about his atheism, although he and Mary did have William baptized as a matter of show. However, he could mend his marital status. So, on December 30, 1816, he and Mary were married at St Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London in an attempt to convince the court to award him custody. Mary was well aware of his intentions and regarded the marriage pragmatically, writing to Shelley to tell her the date and place, her only request being that they married in London.

Mary had her own reasons for this location. For if Shelley hoped the marriage would reconcile him with his children, Mary also hoped it would mend things with her father. For her at least, the ruse succeeded for the Godwins were present to witness the marriage. However, things did not work out so well for Shelley. For in early 1817, the Lord Chancellor decided neither Shelley nor the Westbrookes were fit guardians for the children- and passed them into the custody of a respectable Kent clergyman instead.


16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
William Shelley by Amelia Curran, 1819. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

9. Mary lost all but one of her children. These deaths provoked a pre-existing propensity towards depression.

In all, Mary and Shelley had four children. Sadly, they lost all but the youngest, Percy Florence at a young age. Although each new birth rallied Mary’s spirits, each death pushed her further into despair. By the time of Percy Florence’s birth in November 1819, the Shelley’s had lost not only their first, unnamed daughter but William, who died aged three from a malarial fever which he contracted in Rome. Clara, their second daughter, had died two years earlier, of dysentery just after her first birthday.

After the death of William in 1819, Mary appears to have cut herself off entirely from the world, seeking refuge in her own mind. “After my Williams death, ‘ Mary wrote, “This world seemed only a quicksand beneath my feet.” She was later to tell a friend in Rome, the artist Amelia Curran that “everything on earth has lost its interest to me.” Although he grieved too, Mary’s withdrawal perplexed Shelley. Shortly after William’s death, he wrote the following bewildered poem in response to his wife’s condition:

“My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

They form is here indeed- a lovely on

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road.”

Mary’s response to so much loss was a natural one. However, it may have been exacerbated by a family propensity towards depression. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft had exhibited symptoms of the disease and even tried to take her own life when her lover, Gilbert Imlay, deserted her. Mary Wollstonecraft was saved in time, but nothing could save her daughter, Mary’s half-sister Fanny who in November 1816, took her life in a Welsh inn after suffering in silence from melancholia.

Although Mary was never tempted to go down this road, she recognized she tended towards depression. Towards the end of her life, she admitted in a letter to Claire Clairmont that she had ” been pursued all my life by a lowness of spirits which superinduces a certain irritability which often spoils me as a companion.

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
The Cremation of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

10. Both Shelley and Mary had premonitions of his death- however, Shelley saved Mary’s life shortly before he lost his own.

By 1821, Mary’s low spirits seemed to have driven her and Shelley apart. Rumors of Shelley’s infidelity had begun in 1819 after Shelley registered the birth of a little girl named Elena Adelaide Shelley in Naples. Shelley had named him and Mary as the parents. Mary, however, was not the mother- leading some to speculate that the child, who was fostered out and died in 1820 was his child by Claire Clairmont.

By the time the couple had settled in Northern Italy, Shelley was indulging in poetic flirtations with Teresa Emilia Viviani, the daughter of the governor of Pisa and Jane Williams, the wife of one of his friends, complaining to each of Mary’s coldness towards him. However, there must have been a thaw in Mary and Shelley’s relationship because in summer 1821, when the couple was living with the Williams’ in Lerici, Mary found herself pregnant again.

However, the pregnancy was not to be. In May 1821, Mary became convinced that something dreadful would happen if she and Shelley remained in Lerici. When Shelley took delivery of a 24-meter boat, the Don Juan, Mary’s contained exterior cracked, and she became hysterical. Shelley too began to be plagued with disturbing dreams of doppelgangers and death. So it is no surprise that in such a stressful and charged atmosphere, Mary lost the baby. On June 16, she began to bleed- severely. A doctor was summoned. In the meantime, the Williams and Claire Clairmont looked on helplessly as Mary bled out.

However, Shelley saved his wife’s life. The poet filled a tub of ice water and made Mary sit in it until the doctor arrived. By this time, the bleeding had subsided. Mary was weak, but her life was saved. The couple may have been forgiven for thinking that this was the bad luck Mary had dreaded. Indeed, they seemed to grow close again, going out sailing together, with Mary leaning against Shelley for support and from closeness. However, on July 8, 1821, their mutual premonitions were fulfilled when Shelley drowned at sea.

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
Leigh Hunt. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

11. After Shelley’s death, many of their mutual friends turned against Mary

After Shelley’s death, Mary and her son continued to live in Italy for some time, with Marianne and Leigh Hunt, mutual friends of her and Shelley. However, Mary noticed a change in Leigh Hunt’s attitude towards her. Firstly, he refused to give her the cremated remains of Shelley’s heart. Although he had eventually relented, she noticed that he continued to be very cold towards her.

Eventually, Mary found out that Hunt had learned that, because of her depressive withdrawal, Shelley believed she no longer loved him and had accused her of coldness. The revelation at least allowed them to clear the air. However, the idea that a friend- and worst still Shelley could have believed her to be cold hurt Mary deeply. “A cold heart! Have I a cold heart? God knows! But none need envy the icy region this heart encircles- And at least the tears are hot…” Mary noted in her journal on November 17th, 1822.

Eventually, Mary moved back to England where she found some comfort at least in the company of Jane Williams, whose lover Edward Williams had also drown with Shelley. However, she quickly found out that Jane was not a friend to be trusted. In 1827, Mary discovered that Jane had been boasting about Shelley’s affection for her- and the fact he had also confided in her about Mary being an insufficient wife. ” My friend has proved false and treacherous!” Mary noted in her journal entry of July 13th, 1827, “Miserable discovery. For four years I was devoted to her & I earned only ingratitude.”

Although she maintained a friendship with Jane after these revelations, Mary never wholly trusted her again. However, it was not until 1839 that she finally reconciled herself to the fact that the friends of Shelley’s were no friends of hers. While editing Shelley’s Queen Mab for publication, she was advised to omit Part VI of the poem by the publisher- only to be vilified once again by those once so close.

In so arduous a task others might hope for encouragement from their friends- I know mine better…” Mary noted in her journal on February 12th, “I am unstable, sometimes melancholy and have been called on some occasions imperious but never did an ungenerous act in my life. I sympathize warmly with others; I have wasted my heart in their love and service.

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
Lord Byron on his deathbed by Joseph-Denis Odevaere. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

12. However, Lord Byron remained her supporter- and Mary immortalized him in one of her books.

One person did not turn his back on Mary. To her surprise, that person was Lord Byron. Mary and Byron had never been friends, but she found that in the wake of Shelley’s death, he could be relied upon to support her. It was Byron who forced Leigh Hunt to return Shelley’s heart to her and Byron who helped her take her mind off her grief by employing her to copy out some of his poems. Byron also negotiated with her antagonistic father in law, Sir Timothy Shelley to gain her financial support. In the meantime, Mary had Byron’s promise of financial help. “I will be your banker until this state of things is cleared up,” he assured her in October 1822.

Mary never forgot Byron’s generosity. After his death, she immortalized him in her novel “The Last Man.” Written in 1826, the novel was set in the twenty-first century in a world where humanity was being wiped out by a mysterious disease. In the book, Byron became Lord Raymond, the elected ruler of England. Lord Raymond was “Supremely handsome.” “Everyone admired him, of women he was the idol. He was courteous, honey-tongued- an adept in fascinating arts”. To complete this idealized picture of Byron, Mary had Lord Raymond resign his position before his death to go and fight for Greek independence- just like Byron.


16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
Miniature of Mary Shelley painted by Reginald Easton. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

13. Mary was disfigured by Smallpox in Paris

In April 1828, Mary went to Paris to visit a friend. However, she soon found herself feeling unwell. The illness turned out to be no trivial matter but smallpox. For three weeks, Mary lay ill with the disease. Then, finally, she recovered. However, smallpox had left its mark. Mary was only in her twenties and remained good-looking despite her grief and losses. However, on her recovery, she found that her illness had ravaged her appearance.

Many women would have hidden from society. However, Mary did not. Instead, she made the best of things and accepted social invitations- despite the scars on her face. Mary even managed to maintain a sense of humor- especially since her smallpox scars did not seem to have deterred admirers. “What will you say also to the imagination of one of the cleverest men in France, young and a poet, who could be interested in me in spite of the mask I wore, ” wrote Mary about her meeting with the poet Prosper Merimee with whom she was to strike up a close friendship. “It was rather droll to play the part of an ugly person for the first time in my life, yet it was very amusing to be told- or rather not to be told but to find that my face was not my fortune.”

Unlike many sufferers of smallpox, Mary’s scars were not permanent. However, while the marks faded, her complexion never fully recovered and the famous pale luminosity so many had remarked up was gone forever.

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
“Illustration of Juliet for Mary Shelley’s story “Transformation” in The Keepsake” (1830). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain Image.

14. Despite Frankenstein’s success, Mary gained very little financially. However, she kept on writing.

On Mary’s return to England, she was pleased to discover Frankenstein was a great success. The book had been well received by the press and public. It had even been turned into a play: Presumption or The Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake. In total, Mary’s profits from the early editions of the book amounted to forty-one pounds, thirteen shillings, and ten pence. However, as Mary gave most of her earnings from Frankenstein to her father- as well as the proceeds from her novel Valperga, she did not make much money from her creation’s success.

Valperga was just one of the many novels and stories Mary wrote in Italy before Shelley’s death. The novel, which centered on Casruccio Casttracani, an Italian soldier of fortune was Mary’s way of capturing the Italian landscape in words instead of images. Others stories included Valerius the Reanimated Roman, a tale of a Roman brought back to life in Mary’s day and Mathilda, a novel about a young woman with a troubled relationship with her father.

However, once back in England, Mary’s writing was essential to her and young Percy’s economic survival. Sir Timothy, Shelley’s father, had finally, grudgingly given her an allowance of £200 a year- to be paid back to his estate after his death. So Mary had no choice but to supplement this money by writing articles for periodicals such as The Westminster Review and short stories for an annual called The Keepsake. Mary also continued to write novels. After The last Man, Mary she published three: The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck in 1830, Lodore in 1835 and finally Falkner.


16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
John Howard Payne, c 1890. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

15. After Shelley’s death, Mary could have Mary married American songwriter Howard Payne.

In 1824, after her return to England, Mary was introduced to American songwriter and actor Howard Payne. Payne was the writer of the popular song “Home, Sweet Home.” Six years older than Mary, he was instantly smitten by her and attempted to woo her with books and theatre tickets. Mary enjoyed Payne’s company. However, she wasn’t interested in him romantically.

In 1825, Payne plucked up the courage to declare his feelings and propose. ” You are perpetually in my presence,” he told her, “If I close my eyes you are still there and if I cross my arms over them and try to wave you away, still you will not be gone.” Despite Payne’s poetic words, Mary declined. However, she let him down gently, by claiming that the woman he loved was nothing but an illusion. Payne accepted his rejection with good grace. The couple remained friends even after he returned to America in 1832.

Mary was however interested in another American, the American writer Washington Irving. Nothing came of this fancy, for in truth, Mary was not interested in marrying again. As she explained to her old friend from her days in Italy, Edward Trelawney: “Mary Shelley shall be written on my tomb- and why? I cannot tell, except that it is so pretty a name that though I were to preach to myself for years, I never should have the heart to get rid of it.”

16 Amazing Facts in the Life of Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Stipple engraving. 1853. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

16. After Mary’s death, her son found she had kept a strange memento of his father in her writing desk.

In 1826, Percy Florence’s half-brother, Charles died of tuberculosis. Percy was now Sir Timothy Shelley’s heir- and inherited the baronetcy from him in 1844. Mary had the satisfaction of seeing her son married and settled comfortably. The last years of her life were spent living in comfort at Field Place, The Shelley’s ancestral home. Those last years, were, however, plagued with illness. Finally, in February 1851, Mary died at the age of 53. She was buried with her mother and father who were moved from St Pancras graveyard to St Peters church in Bournemouth, so they were near to Sir Percy and his wife’s new home.

After his mother had been dead for a year, Percy Florence finally decided to open her portable writing desk. Inside he found various sentimental mementos of Mary’s life. There were locks of her dead children’s hair, one of the notebooks she had shared with Shelley and a copy of his poem Adonais. One of the pages of the verse was wrapped around a silk parcel. When he opened the package, Percy Florence found he was holding the charred remains of his father’s heart.


Where Do we get This Stuff? Here are our Sources:

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Magnus Magnusson, Chambers, 1990

Shelley, The Pursuit, Richard Holmes, Harper perennial 2005

Mary Shelley, Muriel Spar, Carcanet, 2013

The Strange, True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator Mary Shelley, Catherine Reef, Clarion Books, 2018

Germany’s Most Monstrous Castle, Lindsey Galloway, BBC Travel, October 29, 2016