Mary Shelley's Haunted Life

Mary Shelley’s Haunted Life
By Caroline Macon Fleischer

 This article was originally written for Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in 1797 to two exceptional writers. Her father, William Godwin, was an acclaimed journalist and political philosopher. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the author of the radical book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, among other celebrated works.

Mary’s mother developed an infection during childbirth. She survived the birth, but tragically died ten days after. The death of Mary’s mother left a profound impact on her life—as she grew up, she was frequently compared to her in beauty and personality.

When Mary was four years old, her father remarried a woman who was not fond of Mary. The woman, Jane Clairmont, moved in with her two children. When she gave birth to a third child in 1803, Mary’s alienation became amplified. She felt removed from her family and from her father’s affection.

When Mary grew into a teenager—and began to act and look more like her mother—Jane became fed up and sent her away for two years to Scotland. In her later writing, Mary described Scotland as a “blank and dreary” time of her childhood, but the bleak and boring days allowed her to begin creating fictional tales. In spite of her own lack of excitement, she started to explore other identities in her imagination.

In 1812, Mary returned to England to visit her father. During the trip, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a young poet her father had befriended and mentored. During this stay in England, Percy was accompanied by his wife, Harriet Westbrook. Despite Percy’s marriage, he and Mary had an obvious interest in one another.

When Mary returned to England in 1814 and saw Percy again, they swiftly fell in love. They ran away together to travel around Europe, leaving Harriet, Percy’s wife, heartbroken. Mary’s father adamantly disapproved of their union, and it wounded his life-long, tumultuous relationship with Mary.

Mary and Percy believed in the concept of free-love, which in the Romantic era was specifically anti-marriage. Followers of free-love believed that anyone should be allowed to love anyone, even outside legal and societal constraints. Although idealistically on board, this put some strains on their relationship. For instance, it was suspected that Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont and Percy had a child together.

Besides the calamity that surrounded their relationship, Mary and Percy felt passionately for one another. Percy was a Romantic poet who encouraged Mary to write.

In 1815, Mary gave birth to her first daughter prematurely. The girl only lived two weeks before she died. Stricken with grief, the Shelleys moved to Bishopsgate, but Mary soon became pregnant again. In 1816, she gave birth to a son, William, who she named after her father.

1816 was called “The Year Without a Summer.” The eruption of Mount Tambora caused a global catastrophe. Heavy smoke and volcanic ash disrupted the stratosphere, blocking sunlight. The loss of sun caused cold temperatures, darkness, and a food shortage around the world.

During this gloomy season, the Shelleys traveled for a vacation in Lake Geneva. There, they stayed with their friends—Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. (These five make up the characters of our play). During their trip to Geneva, the group resided in the Villa Diodati, and stayed up late discussing scary German ghost stories. At Lord Byron’s suggestion, the friends competed in a competition of original ghost stories.

In the end, Mary’s was the most hauntingly successful, and grew into the tale we now know as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. But as Mary set off to continue working on the novel, she received the news that her half-sister, Fanny, had committed suicide. Then, just one month later, the Shelleys heard that Harriet, Percy’s former wife, drowned herself at age 21.

Notwithstanding her grief, Mary worked on the book for two more years. Frankenstein was published on New Year's Day in 1818. Though it should have been a happy time, death continued to follow Mary. In September, her youngest daughter died at one year old, and the following year, her son William died as well.

All told, Mary had five children with only one surviving—Percy Florence, named after her beloved and the city he was born. Despite his love for Percy Florence, Percy Shelley experienced chronic nervousness and panic attacks due to all the death in his life. During a dark spell in 1822, he traveled out on a sailboat and drowned to death in a storm. After his death, Mary tried to continue to write, but cycles of depression and sorrow kept her from it.

From 1827—1840, Mary was able to write prolifically again. She worked as both a writer and editor. She published several original works in those years, and edited the writings of Percy Shelley and her father. In the 1840s, Percy Florence married a woman who Mary adored, so she was surrounded by loved ones as she aged.

In 1851, Mary died of a brain tumor. After she died, her family cleared the contents of her writing desk. In it, they found locks of her dead children’s hair, as well as a parcel of Percy’s cremated heart, wrapped in one of his last poems, Adonais.

NOW – NOVEMBER 3, 2019

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Written & Directed by David Catlin

An eerie evening of ghost stories crackles to life as Mary Shelley spins her tale of love, horror, power, and unholy experimentation. Chicago audiences and critics raved about this visceral, original retelling of Frankenstein.  Experience this monster of a play and shocking latest invention from Lookingglass Theatre Company.