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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Entry updated 25 June 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1797-1851) UK author, daughter of the philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836) [for entry on Godwin, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and of the feminist and educationist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) (see Feminism), who died eleven days after giving birth to her. Shelley married Percy Bysshe Shelley on 30 December 1816, two years after they had eloped to the Continent, and after his first wife had committed suicide. During 1816 the couple – by this point Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was using the Shelley surname – had become friends with Lord Byron, whom they had recently met, and whom they would visit frequently at the nearby Villa Diodati on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, which he had rented. 1816 was the famous Year without Summer, soon confirmed as having been caused by the enormous volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (Dutch East Indies) in 1815, a Disaster whose dust cloud eventually darkened the entire globe, an event with no known predecessor context to allay fears that it might never end. This apocalyptic weather often forced the group, which included John Polidori, to stay indoors, where it was both dry and comparatively safe: weather-caused famine had already had a destabilizing effect on Switzerland, leading to insurrectional violence and the declaration of a state of emergency. It seems fitting that this first climate crisis to be identified as a planetary event should frame at least two of the texts central to the early shaping of the fantastic in general (see Fantastika): Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale (April 1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap) as by the Right Honourable Lord Byron, which initiated the topos of the Byronic Vampire (see Decadence; Immortality; Superman; Supernatural Creatures), and Shelley's first novel.

On an evening in June 1816, the Year Without Summer continuing to discourage outdoor activities, the entourage read aloud to one another some tales originally from a German horror collection, Das Gespensterbuch ["The Ghost Book"] (coll 1811-1815 5vols) by Johann August Apel (1771-1816), and Friedrich August Schulze (1770-1849) writing as Friedrich Laun. The first two volumes, with cuts, had appeared in French as Fantasmagoriana (coll trans Jean Baptise Benoit Eyries 1812); this redaction, with further cuts and one added story, appeared as Tales of the Dead: Principally Translated from the French (coll trans Sarah Elizabeth Utterson 1813), though it is understood that the French version was used on the night in question. Seemingly inspired by the Club Story frame of this collection, Byron suggested that each of those foregathered that evening write a similar ghost story to be read aloud on a subsequent evening. Percy Shelley seems to have written nothing; Byron's contribution, "Fragment of a Novel" (in Mazeppa, coll 1819), remained incomplete, though he did compose "Darkness" (in the Prisoner of Chillon coll 1816) at around this time; Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and later wrote Ernestus Berchtold; Or, the Modern Oedipus: A Tale (1819), a Gothic novel involving incest and Doppelgangers and with roman à clef links to the events of 1816; and Mary Shelley began the tale which eventually became Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). Novels about or referring directly to the Villa Diodati events include Bravoure (1984; trans Lanie Goodman as Gothic Romance 1990) by Emmanuel Carrère, Gideon Defoe's The Pirates!: In an Adventure with the Romantics (2012), and Marcus Sedgwick's The Monsters We Deserve (2018); films about or referring directly to the Villa Diodati events include The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale, Gothic (1986) directed by Ken Russell, Haunted Summer (1988) directed by Ivan Passer (1933-    ) and Remando al viento [Rowing with the Wind] (1988) directed by Gonzalo Suárez (1934-    ).

Frankenstein is the most famous English Horror novel, and was initially understood as a particularly intense and argued example of the Gothic tale, a form that in English reached its late climax in Charles R Maturin' s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Brian W Aldiss's argument that it is in fact the first sf novel (see Definitions of SF; Gothic SF) constitutes a deliberately transgressive cocking of the snook at (mostly) American assumptions about the etiology of Genre SF. It first appeared as "The Origin of the Species: Mary Shelley", the opening chapter of his Billion Year Spree (1973; much exp vt Trillion Year Spree 1986 with David Wingrove), and may be understood to (exaggeratedly) treat all previous examples of Proto SF as inconsequential till later; its coronation of Shelley as the first woman writer of either proto sf or sf "itself" seems to have been announced in ignorance of Margaret Cavendish and her seminal tale The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666) (she is mentioned only in the 1986 revision). But Aldiss does cogently highlight the Promethean newness of Frankenstein, eloquently expressing an intuition that with the creation of the Frankenstein Monster the world had been seen anew (for a very partial precursor tale, see François-Félix Nogaret).

It should perhaps be asserted here that, in this encyclopedia, Aldiss's thrust has been understood to be most useful if it is possible in this context to sidebar various "essentialist" readings of sf history, according to which the existence of a particular sf content – Utopia; Fantastic Voyage; Invention; Space Flight to the Moon, and so on – may justify the designation of virtually any chosen Proto SF text to be the first work of genuine "science fiction"; in terms of this essentialist frame, Aldiss's claim is clearly wrong. On the other hand, a definition of the whole of Fantastika as a "field of awareness" – one that (perhaps paradoxically) only "really" exists when there is some hint of a field to be aware of – may be useful in this context. For it is certainly arguable that Frankenstein may be the first Proto SF text to beget progeny (mostly stage versions) as famous (certainly in the short term) as the original text. Frankenstein, specifically the Iconic Frankenstein Monster, made a stir. That stir – the tale itself and the swarm of responses accompanying it – comprise a central node of activity in the jostle of Memes and stories over the early decades of the nineteenth century that became what, in retrospect, may be called Fantastika. The nearly simultaneous "media" interest in John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale. By Lord Byron (1819 chap) might also be registered as a marker of a cultural readiness, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, to loosen the stays of Culture. Fifteen years later, Charles Dickens was becoming a public figure.

This grounds for this success are particularly evident in the 1818 text of the novel (see two paragraphs below), the version which inspired the first of the many dramatizations, Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein (performed 28 July 1823 Lyceum Theatre, London; 1824) by Richard Brinsley Peake (1792-1847). The structure and telling of the tale may seem difficult to modern readers, most of whom will be more familiar with the numerous film, television and other spin-offs (see Frankenstein) than they will be with the original. But Shelley's use of some now unfamiliar Gothic conventions – stories within stories, all framed within a seemingly extraneous and clearly estranging epistolary "over-frame"; florid rhetoric and sophomoric philosophizing; elaborate recourse to the conventions of the Bildungsroman – may also have proved hard for some of its original readers to handle: because the difficulty of Frankenstein does not prelude a lifting of the veil so that sensations can be felt and the guilty punished; the difficulty of the book seems more related to the genuine difficulty of Shelley's subject matter, and to a genuinely alarming sense that in the closing pages of the tale –if both the framing device and the narrative within it are properly understood – we are meant to realize that a Pandora's Box has been opened; and that it has not been shut. What should be kept in mind is that Frankenstein's setting at an undefined point in the Gothic Ago of the eighteenth century observed a long-lasting convention that (in the absence of any specific dating) tales took place perceptibly before the time of their publication. Frankenstein's retroactive dating had a different impact than would be the case with stories written only a few years or decades later, when (see in particular Ruins and Futurity) the future was beginning to take "shape" as a point narratives could be told from, or aspire to. It seems likely that, for its early readers, Frankenstein was not noticed as being set in the past; anymore, perhaps, than they would notice he was unnamed.

The epistolary frame that surrounds the tale is narrated after the events unpacked within; in this frame a young explorer named Walton, who has been searching for a warm region surrounding the North Pole, describes in letters to his sister his meeting, north of the Arctic Circle, with the deathly-ill Baron Victor Frankenstein, who is in pursuit of a Monster he describes vividly in the course of recounting his life story. Taking up much of the book itself, this narrative describes – with what modern readers might deem narcissistic exactitude – the Baron's Swiss childhood; his childhood sweetheart; his scientific ambitions to create life through his mastery of chemistry and his interest in galvanism, which may be the "spark" of life; the creation of the giant Golem-like figure who becomes his Thing, his Twin, his Nemesis, the eagle that eats his guts; and his shocked – but to later eyes revealingly pious and self-serving – refusal to "compassionate" this "Creature", whom he subsequently abandons, arguing that his ugliness and demeanour are against nature. After the monster has taken his vengeance by causing the death of some of his relatives, the Baron tracks him down, but is confronted by the "daemon", who mounts a wholly articulate, scathing indictment of his "Creator's" behaviour, a defence (in terms not then so used) of nurture over nature, ending eloquently:

"Remember that I am thy creature – I ought to be thy Adam – but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed; every where I see bliss from which I alone am irrecoverably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

"Begone!" replied I [that is, the Baron] – "I will not hear you."

The "fiend" then forces the Baron to listen to the story of his life after he came to consciousness in the laboratory; this story echoes and amplifies the Baron's own earlier narrative, within which it is nestled, and is rendered in the first person, in the monster's own voice, with Club-Story vividness. He describes himself as a tabula rasa open to the fullest of educations – significantly, among his reading matter is Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), whose last word, "Farewell", he echoes at the end, and M Volney's The Ruins (1791) (see Education in SF) – and in this imprintable state he learns how to be a philosopher by listening in secret to an exiled noble family, whose blind paterfamilias is teaching an Arabian maid named Safie (or Sophia, which is to say Wisdom) to speak his language; it is to this patriarch that the Monster finally utters his very first words: "Pardon this intrusion."

Unfortunately, there are misunderstandings, dismay, horror, and melodrama, and his narrative concludes as – taking his cue (which is to say continuing his education) from the revulsion of his maker – he learns how to be a monster. The Baron's own narrative now resumes: he reneges on his promise to create a female partner for his monster; the frustrated Twin wreaks further havoc on the Frankenstein family; and the Baron tracks him back and forth through an increasingly desolate world, with the intention of killing him, until both are found north of the Arctic Circle, at which point the frame story resumes. But Frankenstein commits Suicide in despair, and Walton is left to confront the "monster", who declares his intention to continue into the furthest north of the planet, where he intends (he states) to immolate himself, clearly echoing the Baron's suicide. The text gives no surety, however, that he does so; indeed, the last paragraph of the novel constitutes a Slingshot Ending, with the monster disappearing into "the darkness and distance", into a region that Shelley herself thought, consistently with scientific speculations then current, might be a haven of Hyperborean clemency capping the planet (see again Fantastika).

The evolution of the final text(s) of Frankenstein is fairly complex – the Checklist (see below) lists four primary states in order of composition – but it can be described fairly clearly in terms of chronology (note that several editions of the 1818 and 1831 versions of the tale have been produced, usually with arguments advocating the text chosen). After the issue of The Frankenstein Notebooks (1996 2vols) edited by Charles E Robinson (1941-2016) which gives an extensively annotated transcript and facsimile of the original 1816-1817 manuscript of the novel, the same editor has published a relatively straightforward transcript of Shelley's original manuscript (plus a version of that manuscript with her husband's revisions) as The Original Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus: The Original Two-Volume Novel of 1816-1817 from the Bodleian Library Manuscripts (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Bodleian Library/University of Oxford, 2008) as by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (with Percy Bysshe Shelley). Comparison of the two texts confirms that Percy Shelley gave his wife's manuscript a fairly heavy edit, adding about 4000 words to the 72,000 word total; these edits run a gamut from the obvious and necessary to the detrimental. Robinson's title-page insertion of Percy Shelley's name as a secondary author of the text, though perhaps innocent of malice, does sadly echo attempts that began while both Shelley and her husband were alive to cast doubt on her authorship, usually implicitly or explicitly because of her sex (see Women SF Writers). Robinson's own evidence makes it clear that Percy Shelley's interventions came at an "intermediate stage" of the writing of the novel, and that they resembled the kind of edits a competent publisher's editor would plausibly suggest. To put his name on the title page might seem as inappropriate as to give Max Perkins title-credit as co-author of Thomas Wolfe's far more radically modified You Can't Go Home Again (1940).

More important to an evaluation of Mary Shelley's intent – as regards a text so ransacked for meanings that it is probably impossible to create a full conspectus of the varying interpretations on offer – is a growing consensus that the 1818 text should be taken as more important than either the 1823 version, which was never much considered, or the 1831 version, the latter more far-reaching in its changes. The increasing number of critics and readers who focus on the transgressiveness of Frankenstein in the unsettled period following the end of the Napoleonic Wars (the Villa Diodati event occurred one year after the Battle of Waterloo) – and upon the taxing ambivalence of the Frankenstein Monster (or "creature") as he declares himself – have found the 1818 text particularly rewarding. The 1831 version can be read as attempting to normalize precisely that transgressiveness and that ambivalence, mainly by treating the monster more clearly as an abominable Invention, as a figure less easily identified as a kind of Doppelganger of Baron Frankenstein himself, and by imposing a sanitizing Christian gloss on the meaning of the tale through the insertion of homiletic tags. It is the 1818 text in particular that makes it possible to suggest a reading where the subtitle – The Modern Prometheus – refers not solely to the Baron Frankenstein and his hubristic attempt to gain knowledge that should be "forbidden", and to dramatize to an astonished world his gift of knowledge by creating life out of clay; but also by transference to his dark twin, a very early and paradigmatically-intense Icon of Romantic solitude, a "Promethean" Hero/Antihero who offers to the world a Pandora's Box of "gifts", though challengingly unwaged (see Slavery), deprived of anything resembling an affectionate family, and "ugly" in a way that manifestly carries on from the challenges to classical canons of beauty mounted by early Romantic late-eighteenth-century painters like Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).

These gifts include: knowledge; power; replicability (for he is half Golem and half assembly-line Automaton-like "hand"); iconicity as a figure easily typed with Adam (as he says himself) (see Adam and Eve; Icons); and educability including language (see Linguistics) (for if the primal-child tabula rasa Frankenstein Monster can learn to speak and to become a philosopher through a process of eavesdropping, then there is no excuse for refusing education and concomitant social mobility to anyone outside the walls, whatever their class or gender or race); and revolutionary turmoil, for he is an untermensch come to claim his place at the shaken table of civilization, another Mysterious Stranger (in Gray's version a woman) invading the mansions of the West to demand his birthright. The Europe of 1816, still feverishly unsettled after the Napoleonic years, had not in fact fully absorbed – or properly established a system of denial to dodge the implications of – the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), which had specifically threatened the racist prescriptions that justified the rapacious growth of European empires (see Imperialism). In this context, it is hard not to read Shelley's "Monster" as echoing and/or embodying that threat (see Race in SF). (Nineteenth-century stage productions often featured an unmistakably non-white Monster.)

What almost certainly should be kept in mind in any recounting, as above, of the "Monster's" initial impact is that the threat he represents is spoken, all the more threatening in that it is couched as a story spoken aloud to a witness. This mesmerizing articulacy, especially vivid in the 1818 version, may be the most radical aspect of his being; it is this inescapably heard revolutionary voice that most threatens his readers and the world of 1818, a world as latent with apprehensions of change and usurpation as the aftermath culture that succeeded World War One. Unsurprisingly, this voice was soon obliterated; on the nineteenth-century stage and in twentieth-century Cinema, the "Monster" is presented as essentially incapable of speech, though he is permitted to stir our emotions with pantomime moues and groanings. He has become a toothless thespian of affect horror, not an augur of terror of times to come, no longer threatening to force us to listen to the truth, or to detect vastation in the clarity of his depiction of the malice of the world. It is useful to note, however, that, marking a change for the good a century on, Philip Pullman's Frankenstein (1990 chap) gives the "Monster" his voice back, in long eloquent speeches that, as Pullman says of this version, "should be spoken clearly and passionately and powerfully, as a brilliant lawyer speaks in court." A few years later the hortatory eloquence of the "monster" in Alistair Gray's Poor Things (1992), which is if anything intensified in Yorgos Lanthimos's film version Poor Things (2023), unmistakably reinvokes the specific threats posed by Shelley's original [for further comments see the film entry]. And the Baseball player in Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings (1994; rev 2012) is in fact the monster himself, who has never died, who deprecates the stage and film travesties of his nature, but who does not challenge the world with his articulacy.

After that one, endlessly interpretable tale, Shelley wrote several novels, including two Gothic romances of some interest, and a further sf tale, The Last Man (1826), which consists of the memoir of its protagonist, the Last Man Lionel Verney, depicting events beginning in 2073, as set down around 2100 CE in Rome in total solitude, at the end of history. Shelley herself, we learn in a prologue, has discovered this manuscript on an 1818 visit to the cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl, in a previous unknown alcove Underground; the manuscript that we are about to read, the unnamed Shelley asserts – whose seeming passage backwards through time she does not "explain" – is manifestly genuine. Verney begins by describing his own tangled life in roman à clef terms that clearly refract Shelley's own intricate relations with Lord Byron (here the mover-and-shaker Lord Raymond) and Percy Shelley (here the clean-souled idealist Adrian, Earl of Windsor); en passant we learn that Britain has become a republic, with Raymond as its elected Lord Protector, and that Europe remains in turmoil, a distressed civilization that proves incapable of coping with the plague or Pandemic – Shelley does not use the term, though "pandemic" as a noun was coming into use around the time of publication – which invades Europe from Constantinople and parts East, slowly decimating humanity. Despite warnings, the British government is unprepared. Gangs of temporarily surviving Americans invade Europe but, although this War ends before the coming extinction of humanity, the remaining British soon die off, except for the protagonist and a few intimates (the plot makes heavy weather of roman à clef dramatics), who set sail in a small boat through the Mediterranean and past the Pillars of Hercules, expecting ultimately to visit "the whole extent of earth". But only Verney escapes the plague, one secular survivor on a dying planet as the End of the World approaches. He hikes alone to Rome, an "unkempt half-naked savage", and finishes his memoir, which he hopes a theoretical future generation will read (see Ruins and Futurity). As with Frankenstein six years earlier, there are hints of a Slingshot Ending here, as well as a clear representation of The Last Man as occupying the world as a whole (see Fantastika), making it almost certainly the first significant tale to portray plagues, here heralded by a solar eclipse, as planetary (for further discussion see again Pandemic). Though preceded by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville' s Le Dernier Homme (1805; first proper trans I F Clarke and Margaret Clarke as The Last Man 2002), Shelley's significantly more dramatic narrative served as a model for much subsequent work.

The story of greatest interest assembled by Richard Garnett in Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (coll 1891) is The Mortal Immortal (in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXXIV, anth 1833, as "The Mortal Immortal: A Tale"; circa 1910 chap), dealing with Drug-produced Immortality. Stories omitted from (or unavailable for) Garnett's volume include "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" (written 1826; as chapter head "Godwin – Story of Dodsworth, by Mrs. Shelley" with running head "Story of Mr. Dodsworth" in Yesterday and To-day, coll 1863, the literary reminiscences of Cyrus Redding; original title restored in Collected Tales and Stories; With Original Engravings, coll 1976, edited by Charles E Robinson); and "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" (written circa 1819; in Collected Tales and Stories; With Original Engravings, coll 1976, edited by Charles E Robinson). The former begins with the thawing and revival of Dodsworth after many decades of Suspended Animation in a glacier, based on a real-life newspaper account which was undoubtedly a hoax: in the story he compares his new circumstances with those of his original existence (see Ruins and Futurity), as does the second tale's Reincarnated protagonist Valerius. Shelley's shorter works have been variously assembled; the most authoritative is the Robinson collection cited above. Several are given in the Checklist below.

Shelley was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. [JC]

see also: Androids; Anonymous SF Authors; Biology; Conceptual Breakthrough; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Fantastic Voyages; Gods and Demons; History of SF; Holocaust; Medicine; Power Sources; Religion; Scientists; Sex; Technofantasy; Theatre.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley

born London: 30 August 1797

died London: 1 February 1851



For clarity, we list here the four substantively differing texts in order of composition, not of original publication; in each case, the first published version of each state is listed, plus a selection of critical editions where applicable.

other titles

Nonfantastic novels are not listed. Posthumous collections are highly selected.

about the author

There is much criticism; we give a selected list, weighted towards recent readings.


previous versions of this entry

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