Shelley and the Quest for Knowledge
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was the daughter of the radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the political philosopher, William Godwin, and the wife of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through these familial affiliations, she was also acquainted with Lord Byron, Samuel T. Coleridge, and other literary figures such as Charles and Mary Lamb. Surrounded by such influential literary and political figures of the Romantic Age, it is not surprising that as an adolescent, at the age of 19, she wrote Frankenstein. Though critically a failure, (British Critic,1818 and Monthly Review, 1818) the novel has never been out of print and has been translated into numerous languages. What is surprising, however, is the enormous body of knowledge contained in the novel. The novel contains references to the fields of literature, poetry, science, education, politics, history, and mythology. How did such a young girl, living a life considered morally objectionable to society and harassed by family and financial burdens, acquire such a vast amount of knowledge in all fields of study that encompassed the important issues of her day? Through examination of biographical information and Mary Shelley's journal entries, we will be able to answer this question. Following, I also plan to highlight Mary Shelley's knowledge of literature with primary emphasis on the works studied by the monster in relation to his origins as well as Mary Shelley's.
Mary Shelley was born with notoriety simply by being named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Her parents were well known and somewhat suspect individuals due to their radical political beliefs and writings, such as Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women and Godwin's Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice. Mary Shelley's mother died from complications shortly after giving birth to Mary. The infamy of her existence was heightened by her father's subsequent publication of Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women. In this work, William Godwin described many aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's existence in great detail such as; her relationship with an American and subsequent birth of an illegitimate daughter, her suicide attempts, and the fact that she was already pregnant with Mary when William Godwin married her. To our late 20th Century sensibilities we may not approve of these behaviors but we certainly don't consider then shocking or extraordinary. The above mentioned events, however, occurred in the late 1700's and were not morally acceptable, were abhorrent to the conventions of society, and were certainly not to be discussed or published in a memoir. William Godwin's publication of this memoir, more than any other event, created an air of societal stigma around Mary Shelley almost from the moment of her birth.
Mary Shelley increased her already infamous existence by running off with Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 17 in 1814. Percy Shelley was already married and abandoned his pregnant wife and his daughter to live with Mary Shelley. They lived together and had two illegitimate children prior to getting married in December 1816. They married a couple of weeks after Percy's wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine. Mary Shelley became a societal outcast for these actions and had few friends. "Within days she discovered that all of her old circle shunned her, intimates who had cherished her and friends who professed the most liberal principles" (Sunstein 88). Her own father, hypocritically enough, who lived with Mary Wollstonecraft without being married, would not speak to Mary until she and Percy were legally married. Godwin publicly stated, "Mary has committed a crime against hallowed social arrangements, morality, her family, and Harriet Shelley"(Sunstein 89).
Mary and Percy also had numerous other family and financial problems. Even though Percy was to eventually...
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