Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
In the summer of 1816, a young, well-educated woman from England traveled with her lover to the Swiss Alps. Unseasonable rain kept them trapped inside their lodgings, where they entertained themselves by reading ghost stories. At the urging of renowned poet Lord Byron, a friend and neighbor, they set their own pens to paper, competing to see who could write the best ghost story. The young woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, took the prize, having composed a story creepy enough not only to take its place alongside the old German tales that she and her Alpine companions had been reading, but also to become a bestseller in her time and a Gothic classic that still resonates with readers almost two centuries later.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on August 30, 1797, in London, of prime literary stock. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a feminist tract encouraging women to think and act for themselves. Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary, leaving her daughter in the care of her husband, William Godwin, a member of a circle of radical thinkers in England that counted Thomas Paine and William Blake among its ranks. Mary’s upbringing in this rarefied atmosphere exposed her at an early age to cutting-edge ideas, and it forged useful connections for her to such notables as Lord Byron.
Another of the literary types that Mary met as a teenager was Percy Bysshe Shelley, a dashing young poet. Sparks flew, and, in 1814, they ran away together for a tour of France, Switzerland, and Germany—Mary escaping her family and Percy his wife. At first blissful, their affair soon came under strain. Percy’s relationship with Mary waxed and waned with the demands of his wife, Harriet; meanwhile, Mary busied herself with another man. Despite these distractions, the relationship endured and was eventually formalized under scandalous circumstances: Harriet, pregnant with Percy’s child, drowned herself in London in November of 1816; Mary and Percy were married weeks later.
The union between Mary and Percy was not only romantic but also literary. Percy edited Mary’s manuscript for Frankenstein and is commonly supposed to have written the preface under her name. Frankenstein was published on January 1, 1818, and became an immediate bestseller. Unfortunately for Mary, this success was a single bright spot amid a series of tragedies. From 1815 to 1819, three of her four children died in infancy; in 1822, Percy drowned off the shore of Tuscany, leaving Mary a widow and single mother. Mary turned to her husband’s poetry and prose, editing and publishing his Posthumous Poems in 1824 and his Poetical Works and Letters in 1839. She spent the rest of her time on her own writing, publishing Valperga in 1823, The Last Man in 1826, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck in 1830, Lodore in 1835, and Falkner in 1837. Serious illness plagued Mary, and she died in London in February 1851.