The Life and Times of Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

-Mary Shelley, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the author behind one of the most iconic Gothic novels ever written - The Modern Prometheus, or Frankenstein. The novel is considered one of the earliest examples of modern science fiction and is one of the first non-religious creation myths ever written. While Frankenstein is certainly her best-known work, Mary Shelley lived a fascinating life and wrote many other novels, and is remembered as a brilliant woman whose influence on the Gothic and Romantic horror genres is still felt to this day. 

Mary was born in Somers Town, London in 1797. She was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Wollstonecraft was a prominent feminist philosopher of the age and her influence lives on to this day. Unfortunately, she died of puerperal fever only a month after Mary was born. Despite this, Mary read all of her mother’s books, as well as her father’s memoirs about her while growing up, and came to treasure her memory. William Godwin was also a philosopher, but he specialized in anarchist politics and worked as a journalist. 

William Godwin (left) and Mary Wollstonecraft

While Mary’s early childhood is described as happy by Louisa Jones, Godwin’s housekeeper and nurse, William Godwin was constantly in debt. He began to feel like he couldn’t hack it as a single father and began searching for a second wife. In December 1801, when Mary was 4, he married a well-educated woman named Mary Jane Clairmont, who went by Jane. She brought two children from a previous marriage with her, whose names were Charles and Claire. She is often described as “quick-tempered and quarrelsome”, and many of William’s friends didn’t like her. Mary was no different; she grew up hating her stepmother. William Godwin’s biographer, Charles Kegan Paul, would later suggest that the hatred came from the fact that Jane favoured Charles and Claire over Mary. 

Mary grew up with an eclectic and unusual education. Rather than receiving formal schooling, her father tutored her in subjects ranging from his beloved philosophy to Greek and Roman history. He often took Mary and his other three children on educational outings and introduced them to his wide circle of intellectual friends, which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr. Godwin would later admit that he still wasn’t educating them according to the philosophy outlined by Mary Wollstonecraft before her death, but Mary still received an education that was very advanced for a girl at the time. William Godwin described a 15-year-old Mary as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

Godwin was desperate for his daughter to be raised into a formidable philosopher, and to fulfill this purpose, he sent her to live with the family of William Baxter, another radical political philosopher, near Dundee, Scotland in June 1812. Scholars on Mary’s life now speculate that there were other reasons for sending her to Baxter - for her health, or perhaps to shield her from some shady business. According to all reports, Mary delighted in the Scottish hills surrounding Baxter’s house and made fast friends with his four daughters. 

It’s uncertain when exactly Mary met the radical philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, but it’s assumed that she met him in London sometime in between her two stays in Scotland with the Baxter family. By the time she came back to London in March of 1814, Percy was estranged from his wife and was regularly visiting William Godwin, whom he was bailing out of debt at the time. 

Percy’s brand of radicalism about economics, in particular, estranged him from his family, who were wealthy aristocrats. He was known for donating large sums of the family’s wealth to various social justice schemes to help the less fortunate and thus was cut off from the family money until it came time for his inheritance. All of this made it so that, even though he’d promised to do so, he couldn’t pay all of William Godwin’s debts.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Despite her father’s ire against him, Mary was intrigued by the handsome young philosopher, and they began meeting in secret. The venue for these meetings was macabre and unusual - they met at her mother’s grave in St. Pancras Churchyard. Mary was 16, and Percy was 21 - not to mention, he was still married to his estranged wife Harriet. The two fell in love with each other anyway, confessing their passions in June of 1814. Soon after this confession, Mary lost her virginity to Percy Bysshe Shelley - many claim that this happened in the St. Pancras cemetery, with some reports even going so far as to state that she lost her virginity on top of her mother’s grave. 

Mary was head-over-heels in love with Shelley; she described him as “wild, intellectual, and unearthly.” Unfortunately, William Godwin did not approve of this relationship and attempted to break the young couple up. According to Godwin, he wanted to salvage his daughter’s “spotless fame”, but many scholars believe that his displeasure had more to do with Shelley being unable to pay his debts for him. Mary was confused; she believed that Shelley was the embodiment of her parents’ radical, reformist ideas and that they were a perfect match for each other.

William Godwin couldn’t keep the young lovers away from each other; on July 28, 1814, they eloped and secretly ran off to France, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. Notably, they left Percy’s pregnant wife behind. Jane Godwin pursued them as far as the city of Calais, but they managed to convince her that they didn’t want to return to London. 

Mary, Percy, and Claire travelled by donkey, mule, carriage, and on foot through France’s war-torn countryside to Switzerland. According to Mary’s recollections, it was quite the adventure for the young couple: “It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance.” Mary and Percy were reported to have kept a joint journal and written their own projects on this journey as well.

When the trio reached Lucerne, a city in central Switzerland, they ran out of money and were forced to return to London. When they got there, Mary was blindsided; her father refused to have anything to do with the young couple. On top of that, she had fallen pregnant with Percy’s child on their travels, and they were completely broke. They moved into lodgings with Claire Clairmont and seemed to spend most of their time reading, writing and entertaining Percy’s friends, such as the writers Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Thomas Love Peacock. Percy would occasionally leave home and go into hiding to avoid his creditors; letters between the couple during these periods show that they were distraught at being separated from each other.

However, things weren’t all love and champagne within their relationship. Percy was almost certainly having an affair with Claire, and his wife Harriet had recently given birth to his son in late 1814. Mary’s principles did condone a form of free love, but Shelley’s affairs with other women still made her incredibly jealous. On top of this, Percy and Mary disagreed on many matters of propriety; there is a story of Percy suggesting that they both swim in a stream naked while on a walk in the French countryside, offending Mary greatly.

On February 22, 1815, Mary gave birth to a baby girl, who was two months premature and not expected to survive. The baby lived until March 6, when, according to a letter Mary wrote to Hogg, it died in its crib during the night. The loss of her baby pushed Mary into a deep depression, and she was haunted by visions of the child. However, Percy received a financial windfall after his grandfather passed away and treated the couple to a holiday in Torquay, a seaside town in Devon. They then began renting a two-story cottage in Bishopsgate. Mary fell pregnant again during this period, and her depression from the loss of her first child seemed to ease. However, little is known about her mental state that this time, because her journal from May 1815 to July 1816 no longer exists.

The couple seemed happy while living in Bishopsgate - Percy wrote his poem Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. Mary gave birth to her son William on January 24, 1816. The child was named after her father, and soon gained the nickname “Willmouse.” Mary imagined Windsor Great Park, which was close to the Bishopsgate cottage, as the Garden of Eden in her novel, The Last Man.

In May 1816, Mary, Percy, and their young son travelled to Geneva with Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant at the time. They were planning on spending that summer with Lord Byron, who had fathered Claire’s baby. They arrived in Geneva on May 14 and were joined by Byron on May 25. He brought John William Polidori, his physician, along with him, and the pair rented the Villa Diodati in Cologny. Percy and Mary rented a smaller cottage called Maison Chapuis nearby, but they spent most of their time at the Villa, writing, boating, and having philosophical chats.

Several portraits of Lord Byron painted throughout his life.

Mary remembered that summer as “wet [and] ungenial”, with incessant rain that kept the group confined indoors for most of their stay. At some point, talk turned to German ghost stories, and from there, Byron proposed a competition in which they all wrote a ghost story.

A screencap from Mary Shelley (2017), depicting the night that the contest was proposed. From left to right: Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), John Polidori (Ben Hardy) and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth).

Initially, Mary couldn’t come up with a story and became increasingly anxious: 

‘Have you thought of a story?’ I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” - Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

In mid-June, the evening discussion turned to the nature and properties of life, and particularly to the practice of galvanism, in which dead creatures were electrocuted so that they would jump about, restoring “signs of life.” The group didn’t retire until after midnight, but Mary couldn’t sleep at all. Her imagination drove her to write her “waking dream” - her ghost story, which would later become Frankenstein. An astronomer named Donald Olson visited Villa Diodati in 2011 and, using diary entries and data about the position of celestial bodies that night, he came to the conclusion that Mary’s “waking dream” began between 2 AM and 3 AM on June 16, 1816. 

She initially only intended to write a short story, but Percy encouraged her to expand it until it became her first novel. Mary would later describe that dreary summer in Switzerland as when she “first stepped out from childhood into life.”

Percy, Mary, and Claire returned to England in September 1816, moving to Bath in order to keep Claire’s pregnancy a secret. Mary was concerned for her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who had sent her letters while she was in Switzerland alluding to unhappiness and depression. On October 9, Fanny wrote an “alarming” letter to Mary that spurred Percy to race off to locate her, without success. She was found the next morning in a room at the Swansea Inn, dead next to a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note. 

This was not to be the last suicide that plagued the Shelleys that year - on December 10, Harriet, Percy’s wife, was found drowned in a lake in Hyde Park in London. Despite Mary fully supporting Percy’s attempts to get custody of him and Harriet’s two children, Harriet’s family blocked them. His lawyers suggested marriage as a way to improve his custody case, spurring him to finally marry Mary on December 30, 1816, at St. Mildred’s Church in London. William and Mary Jane Godwin were present at this ceremony, and the marriage seemed to repair the rift between the families. Mary was pregnant with her third child at the time.

In March of 1817, the Chancery Court ruled that Percy Bysshe Shelley was “morally unfit” to assume custody of his children by Harriet; the children were later adopted by the family of a clergyman. The Shelleys moved to Albion House in Buckinghamshire with Claire Clairmont and her newborn baby girl, Alba (who would be renamed Allegra in 1818). There, Mary gave birth to her third child, a baby girl they named Clara, on September 2, 1817. While living in Buckinghamshire, the Shelleys continued life as they always had - writing furiously, entertaining friends, and discussing politics. 

Early that summer, Mary finished Frankenstein, publishing it anonymously in January 1818. Many initial reviewers and readers assumed that Percy was the author, considering that the book was published with his preface and dedicated to William Godwin, his philosophical hero. It’s unknown how Mary reacted to these initial assumptions. Mary was also hard at work editing the joint journal she and Percy had kept when they had left for France in 1814. She added material that they had written while in Switzerland, as well as Percy’s poem, Mont Blanc. The resulting manuscript was titled “History of a Six Weeks’ Tour” and was published in November of 1817. 

The Shelleys had fallen on hard times again that year - they were both suffering from bouts of ill health, and Percy lived away from home quite often to avoid his creditors. He was worried about being thrown into debtor’s prison, and the couple feared that they could lose custody of their children as well. All of these factors combined into their decision to flee England in March of 1818, running to Italy with Claire Clairmont and Alba in tow. According to their journals, they never intended to return to England.

Their first action upon arriving in Italy was handing Alba over to Lord Byron, who was living in Venice at the time. He’d agreed to raise Alba as long as Claire didn’t have anything to do with her, and Claire agreed. The Shelleys wandered Italy, never settling in one place for long. They acquired a sort of following of friends and acquaintances that occasionally moved around with them. The Shelleys devoted their time to sightseeing, socializing, and engaging in their ever-present reading and writing pursuits. 

While Italy was supposed to be a new adventure for the Shelley’s, Mary soon took a blow that was almost too much to bear. Clara, who was only just shy of her first birthday, died in Venice in September 1818. William followed her shortly after, dying at the age of 3 of malaria in June of 1819, while the couple was in Rome.

A portrait of William "Willmouse" Shelley shortly before his death.

Mary was inconsolable and spiralled into a deep depression that isolated her from everyone, even her beloved Percy. Percy seemed to feel her loss as well as the children’s, writing this short poem in his notebook: 

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone, 

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed - a lovely one - 

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.

For a time, Mary only found comfort in writing - her depression seems to have remained until she gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley, on November 12, 1819. The loss of her children in Italy would follow her for the rest of her days. 

Despite being painted with deep personal loss, the Shelleys found certain political freedom and a wealth of like-minded thinkers while in Italy. They were both intensely active in their creative pursuits during this period. While Percy immersed himself in writing his signature poetry, Mary completed two novels and co-wrote two plays with Percy: Matilda, a tale of incestuous love between a father and daughter that wasn’t published until after her death, Valperga, a historical novel set in the wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, Proserpine, a verse drama written for children, and Midas, a blank verse drama. According to her journals, Mary specifically wrote Valperga to try and assist her father with his financial difficulties.

Despite her fruitful creative activities, Mary was often ill during this time, and prone to depression. She was also dealing with Percy’s constant affairs with other women, which still bothered her despite their sharing a philosophy of free love. She was known to form deep emotional ties with others in their circle, including Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, but there is little to no evidence of any physical affairs on Mary’s part.

In 1820, the Shelleys were entangled in a bit of scandal while in Naples. They had travelled there with Claire Clairmont in December of 1818 and had remained there for several months. During this time, the pair uncharacteristically never received any visitors other than a physician. In 1820, a pair of former servants named Paolo and Elise Foggi accused the Shelleys of claiming a baby girl, Elena Adelaide Shelley, as their own on February 27, 1819. They claimed that the baby was not Mary’s child, but that she was Claire’s baby. 

The entire affair remains mysterious to this day. The only certainty is that Mary was not the child’s mother. Several theories abound: 

  1. The child was Percy’s daughter by Claire Clairmont, Elise Foggi, or another unknown woman with whom he’d had an affair, 
  2. The baby was Elise’s daughter that she had conceived with Lord Byron, or
  3. The child was a local that the Shelleys had decided to simply adopt. 

Mary’s only comment on this whole thing was that she would have known if Claire was pregnant, but it’s unclear how much she really knew about the child or its parentage. In any case, Elena Adelaide Shelley died on June 9, 1820, at just under a year old.

In 1822, the Shelleys, alongside Claire Clairmont and their friends Edward and Jane Williams, moved to an isolated spot called Villa Magni, which was near the hamlet of San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. Mary, by all accounts, hated living there, coming to regard it as a dungeon. She was pregnant at the time, but miscarried on June 16, nearly dying from blood loss as a result. Percy sat her in an ice bath to staunch the bleeding, which was the only thing that saved her life. Percy was again engaged in an affair, however - he was spending nearly all of his time with Jane Williams, and most of the poems he wrote while living at Villa Magni were addressed to Jane, rather than his wife.

Moving to the coast offered Percy and Edward Williams a chance to take advantage of their new sailing boat. Percy, Edward, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed down to Livorno on July 1, 1822, with the intent of discussing launching a radical magazine with Lord Byron and another associate. A week later, on July 8, Percy and Edward embarked on their return journey back to Lerici with an eighteen-year-old boat boy named Charles Vivian. 

They never made it home. A few days later, a letter arrived at Villa Magni addressed to Percy from Leigh Hunt, one of the men he’d been with in Livorno. It was dated July 8 and asked that Percy write to them to tell them that they’d made it back to Lerici safely, as the weather had been bad when they’d set sail initially. Mary and Jane Williams rushed down to Livorno, and then further on to Pisa, searching for their husbands and hoping desperately that they’d survived. Tragically, three bodies washed up on the coast in between Livorno and Lerici ten days after the men disappeared. They were identified as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian. Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and another associate opted to cremate Percy Shelley’s body on the beach where it had been found.

A bust of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Mary suffered greatly from her husband’s death, but she resolved to keep going, living by her pen for her surviving son. She lived with Leigh Hunt and his family in Genoa for a year, often entertaining Byron and transcribing his poems for him. Even so, Percy’s death had launched her into a precarious financial state, and in July of 1823, she decided to return to England. She stayed with her father and stepmother, waiting for a small advance from her father in law to let her get a place of her own.

The situation between Mary and her in-laws was tense - initially, Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy’s father, only agreed to support his surviving grandson (Percy Florence, who was 3 at the time) if Mary gave him up to an appointed guardian. Mary fiercely rejected this demand and negotiated instead a small annual allowance that she would have to repay once Percy Florence inherited the Shelley estate. Sir Timothy refused to ever meet Mary in person, communicating with her only through his lawyers. On top of his difficult attitude about his grandson, Sir Timothy regularly threatened to stop the allowance if Mary ever attempted to publish a biography of her beloved husband. The allowance was originally £100 per year (just under £12 000 in today’s money) but Sir Timothy was convinced to increase it to £250 per year (just under £30 000 in today’s money) after Percy Florence became the legal heir to the Shelley estate following the death of his half-brother Charles (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son by his first wife, Harriet) in 1826.

Now back in England, Mary enjoyed the stimulating social circle of her father, but living in poverty made it difficult to socialize as she had while married to Percy. She was also ostracized by those who disapproved of her unconventional relationship with Percy. In the summer of 1824, she moved to Kentish Town to be closer to Jane Williams. However, it appears that Jane did not return Mary’s friendship, because she was known to gossip that Percy Bysshe Shelley had always favoured her over Mary and that it was because Mary had been an inadequate wife to him.

Despite her social issues, Mary was still engaged in the intensive reading and writing that she had done while in her relationship with Percy. She was working on her novel The Last Man and collaborating with a series of friends who were writing memoirs of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, even against her father-in-law’s wishes. She would spend a good part of the rest of her life attempting to immortalize Percy. 

Around this time, she met a pair of intriguing Americans: actor John Howard Payne and writer Washington Irving. Payne was attracted to her and asked her to marry him later that year. Mary declined, stating that she had already been married to one genius, and could only marry another. Payne seems to have accepted this rejection without too much fuss, and even tried to convince Washington Irving to propose to her instead - he was unsuccessful, and it's unknown whether Mary would have accepted this proposal anyway. 

John Howard Payne

Washington Irving

Between 1827 and 1840, Mary was a prolific writer and editor. She wrote three novels: The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). She also contributed five of the ten volumes of The Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote various stories for ladies’ magazines. She was helping to support her father during this period, and they always looked out for publishers for each other. 

In 1830, she sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein to Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley for £60; the pair intended to include it in their Standard Novels series. However, her focus was about to be turned from novels for a while - upon her father’s death in 1836, she began assembling his letters and papers to prepare a memoir for publication, as his will requested. Unfortunately, she abandoned this project after two years of work for unknown reasons. She was also still championing Percy’s poetry, promoting publications that included it and quoting it in her own work. Due to her support and the support of other friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley was becoming increasingly well-known by 1837. In 1838, Edward Moxon, Alfred Tennyson’s publisher, proposed the creation of a “collected works” of Percy Shelley’s poetry. Mary was paid £500 (almost £60 000 in today’s money) to edit the resulting Poetical Works. Of course, Sir Timothy Shelley insisted that a biography should not be included in this manuscript, so Mary found a way to tell Percy’s life story anyway. She included extensive biographical notes alongside her husband’s poems.

Ever her mother’s daughter, Mary continued to walk in her footsteps and extended aid to women who society cast aside or disapproved of. In 1827, she hatched a scheme to help her friend Isabel Robinson run away with her lover, Mary Diana Dods, to run away to France and live as husband and wife. Mary obtained false passports for the couple (with the help of Payne, who she managed to keep ignorant of the details) and gave Mary Diana Dods a new identity as Walter Sholto Douglas. In 1828, she visited her friends in Paris where they’d settled - she fell ill with smallpox during the trip but recovered.

She also assisted a woman named Georgiana Paul, who had been disallowed by her husband for allegations of adultery. Shelley wrote in her diary about this situation: “I do not make a boast - I do not say aloud - behold my generosity and greatness of mind - for in truth it is simple justice I perform - and so I am still reviled for being worldly.”

Throughout all of this, Mary’s first and foremost concern was the welfare of her only remaining son, Percy Florence. She honoured her late husband’s wishes that Percy Florence be educated in a public school (in the English school system, a public school is a prestigious school that charges fees for attendance) and, with begrudging help from Sir Timothy Shelley, she had the boy educated at Harrow. She moved to Harrow on the Hill herself to avoid boarding fees. The boy was bright and went on to Trinity College at Cambridge, but he showed no sign of inheriting the literary genius from either of his parents. After leaving university in 1841, he returned to live with Mary, and he’s reported to have been devoted to her entirely. 

In between 1840 and 1842, Mary and Percy Florence travelled around the European continent - Mary recorded these journeys in a book called Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 that was published in 1844. At around the same time, Sir Timothy Shelley finally died at the age of 90 - or, as Mary put it, “[fell] from the stalk like an overblown flower.” With Percy Florence inheriting the estate, the Shelleys were financially independent for the first time, even if the estate wasn’t quite as valuable as they’d initially hoped.

In the mid-1840s, Mary was plagued by blackmailers, apparently attempting to get their hands on a portion of Percy Florence’s new inheritance. In 1845, an Italian man in political exile named Gatteschi threatened to publish letters that she had sent him (the contents of these letters is unknown). A friend of Percy Florence managed to bribe someone in law enforcement to seize and destroy these papers. Later, Mary encountered a man calling himself G. Byron who claimed to be the late Lord Byron’s illegitimate son. Mary bought letters that she and Percy Shelley had written from this man. And later that year, Percy Shelley’s cousin, Thomas Medwin, came to her claiming that he had written a damaging biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley and that if she wanted to suppress its publication, she would have to pay him £250. She refused, and the apparent biography never materialized. 

Mary was plagued by physical illness in the last years of her life. She suffered headaches and periods of paralysis in various parts of her body from 1839 onward - these episodes would even prevent her from reading and writing in some cases. On February 1, 1851, she died at the family home in Chester Square, London. She was fifty-three years old. Her physician suspected that her death was caused by a brain tumour, but this claim has never been properly verified.

Mary had requested to be buried with her parents in the graveyard at St. Pancras, but Percy Florence and his wife Jane thought that the churchyard was “dreadful” and chose to bury her at St. Peter’s Church near their home in Boscombe instead. In order to ensure that her wishes were still fulfilled, Percy Florence opted to exhume Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and William Godwin and bury them next to Mary at St. Peter’s Church. 

On the first anniversary of her death, Percy Florence opened Mary’s box desk, which had since remained untouched. Inside, they found a number of personal items - locks of hair from her children who had passed away, a notebook that she had shared with Percy Shelley, and a copy of Percy’s poem Adonais. One page of this poem was folded around a small silk parcel; this parcel was found to contain some of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ashes and remains of his heart that had calcified. 

The remains of Percy Shelley's heart, kept by Mary until her death.

While Shelley’s other novels gained her a semblance of popularity at the time, it’s Frankenstein that has remained in the public zeitgeist for over 200 years. Partially, the novel’s success is due to its striking Gothic style that echoes many other works produced in this period. The style uses visceral, horrifying, and in some ways unimaginable subject matter to present philosophical, thought-provoking themes. What separates Frankenstein from a lot of other Gothic works is Mary’s own style of Romanticism - she was critical of the individualized, egotistical nature of Romantic works at the time, and uses Romantic themes with a distinctly politicized flair to push back. Her focus on the moral issues and mental health struggles of Victor Frankenstein also differs greatly from the treatment of other Gothic protagonists. 

While the novel is often considered a cornerstone of the horror genre, it also has a claim to laying the groundwork for modern science fiction. Brian Aldiss, a British writer and anthology editor, argues that Frankenstein sits apart from previous stories that contain fantastical details that resemble science fiction because of Victor’s deliberateness in creating the monster and his use of known scientific theories and methods to achieve a fantastical result.

Readers and critics of Frankenstein have long argued over how extensive Percy Bysshe Shelley’s contributions to the novel were. Percy most definitely encouraged Mary to write the novel, but many believe that he was, at the least, a collaborator in the entire project. Mary herself stated, “I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.” She did note that the preface to the first edition of the novel was Percy’s work. Many scholars believe that the differences between the 1818, 1823, and 1831 editions of Frankenstein can be attributed to Percy’s editing of the manuscript - the academic community differs widely on whether these edits were technical in nature or more geared towards manufacturing the tale itself.

The novel has inspired no less than 29 plays, films, or TV shows; the earliest was called Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, a play that was adapted from the novel in 1823 by Richard Brinsley Peake. In the 1930s, over 100 years after Frankenstein was published, the creature came to life on the silver screen in its most recognizable form - Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankstein (1935). This is the image that has influenced most other pop culture portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster to this day. 

The novel has spurred many parodies and satirical works - notably, H.P. Lovecraft’s serial novel “Herbert West Reanimator”(1922) is meant as a satire to Shelley’s original work. A version of Frankenstein’s monster (usually modelled after Karloff) has appeared in Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film (1968), as a mascot for the General Mills “Franken Berry” breakfast cereal, and of course, serves as the inspiration behind the iconic Halloween cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). There have been hundreds of spinoffs, reinterpretations, cameos, and spoofs in the 200 years since the novel’s publication, and the image has burned itself into our collective consciousness. 

A Wikipedia page that catalogues every pop culture mention of Frankenstein in recent memory


Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Oxford World Classics Edition)

The Last Man by Mary Shelley (Wordsworth Classics edition)

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon (2015)

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge (2018)

Mathilda: Mary Shelley's Classic Novella Following Frankenstein, Aka Matilda (2010)

Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley by Kathleen Williams Renk, Ph.D. (2020)

The Invisible Girl & Other Tales by Mary Shelley (2020 edition)

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup (2019)

Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator by Catherine Reef (2018)

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley (Illustrated) (2020)

The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume 1 by Florence A. Thomas Marshall (2016)

Dean Koontz's Frankenstein series

Frankenstein in Baghdad: A Novel by Ahmed Saadawi (2018)

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White (2019)

Artificial Life After Frankenstein by Eileen Hunt Botting (2020)


Frankenstein (1931) starring Boris Karloff

Mary Shelley (2017) film depicting Mary's life

I, Frankenstein (2014) film

Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein double feature

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - A Documentary (2007)

Victor Frankenstein (2015) film

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Frankenstein (2016)

The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

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