8. Mary Shelly was the daughter of a famous feminist and a radical philosopher but made a name for herself as an independent woman of letters
The author of the iconic gothic novel Frankenstein had unbeatable feminist credentials: her father, William Galdwin, was a pioneering philosopher and leading advocate for women’s rights; her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the founders of modern feminism. How could their daughter not be a feminist? But she was more than just the daughter of an 18th century ‘power couple’. She was a fiercely independent woman in her own right. Plus, of course, she was one of the finest writers of her generation.
Born Mary Goodwin in 1797, her mother died when she was just an infant. As such, she was raised by Goodwin. He was wealthy enough to provide her with an education, and enlightened enough to ensure that she learned much more than the average girl of the time. Later she would marry eloped to Europe with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, an acquaintance of her father, even though he was a married man. They eventually married in 1816 and, despite near constant debt and social ostracism, they settled down to raise a family and concentrate on their literary careers.
After Percy’s accidental death by drowning, Shelley returned to England and, from 1822 onwards, devoted herself to her children and to her writing. She was fiercely independent and her writing often tackled the theme of gender equality – in every respect. Much of her poetry was passionate, sexual even, and it’s now recognized that, contrary to the gender norms of the time, it was she who seduced her late husband rather than the other way around. Later in life, she was one of the few women in the whole of Europe who managed to make a living from the arts.
At the same time, however, her status as an early feminist is not so clear-cut. Some argue that she wasn’t as radical as her mother. While Wollstonecraft advocated free love and relationship anarchy, her daughter couldn’t wait to get married to Percy. What’s more, some biographers have argued she had a troubling relationship with other women, including her own step-sister. Ultimately, however, she is remembered as one of the literary greats, outdoing almost all of her male contemporaries.