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 avant garde intellectual ideas, and it allowed her to forge useful connections 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. In 1814, the two 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 began a relationship with another man. Despite these hurdles, 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.