How Mary Shelley Battled Depression with her Pen
Although Mary Godwin Shelley lived during an age when a women’s place was in the home, tending to husband and children, she paved an unconventional path through life. She established a substantive literary career while contending with the obstacles of single parenthood and depression.
The origins of Mary Godwin Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein, are well known. Uncharacteristic and unrelenting June rain confined Mary and her friends – including her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron – indoors. To escape the boredom, they dreamt up a competition: each would try to outdo the other in the creation of a new ghost story. Inspired by a nightmare, Mary conceived of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she writes about the genesis,
“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantom 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.”
After Mary shared the start of her story with the group, they encouraged her to develop it further, and less than two years later, Mary published Frankenstein anonymously. At that time, it was not unusual for a woman writer to publish anonymously, for many believed that female authors would not be accepted by the public. In 1823, the second edition revealed Mary was the true author, and critics panned the work. A rumor caught fire and spread that Percy, not Mary, wrote Frankenstein. This falsehood persists today, though contemporary scholars admit it is untrue and unjust. Percy Shelley may have helped with the editorial process, but this romantic gothic tale, often cited as an early work of science fiction, is the work of Mary’s imagination and is a product of her life experiences.
Mary Godwin Shelley was extraordinarily well educated for a 19th century woman. The daughter of two well-known philosophers: radical William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of puerperal infection ten days after Mary was born. Mary and her older half-sister Fanny were raised by her father in a house of books and lively conversation with intellectuals often visiting Godwin and his family in his home. Under her father’s tutelage, Mary cultivated a lifelong love of learning. As an adult, she continued a strict habit of daily study in Greek, Latin, and Italian languages, literature, art and music.
Mary Godwin Shelley endured tremendous tragedy and tumult that further connects her to her lonely, monstrous creation, Frankenstein, who questions beauty and the inherent goodness of human nature. When she was still a young girl, her father remarried his next door neighbor, a widow named Mary-Jane, who also had two young children, Jane and Charles. The blended family was not a happy one; jealousy and competition for William Godwin’s attention and affection emerged between Mary, Jane and Mary-Jane. Hostilities between the women grew to such a state that Mary developed terrible eczema. When Mary was thirteen, her father decided to sent her to boarding school, and when that didn’t work out, he shipped her off to Scotland , where she lived away from home for the following two years. The distance from her stepmother and stepsister did finally restore Mary’s health.
Not long after she returned home, at the age of sixteen, Mary met and ran away with a married man, Percy Shelley. Their life together was fraught with financial and emotional insecurities. Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet committed suicide a year after Percy and Mary eloped, and in that same year, Mary’s half-sister Fanny also committed suicide. Mary felt deep sorrow for the death of her sister and tremendous guilt for the death of Harriet. Between 1817 and 1823, Mary gave birth to five children, but only one survived to adulthood. Her first two babies died soon after birth. The death of her third child, William, affectionately called Wilmouse, at the age of three sent Mary into a serious depression.
Mary’s step sister, Jane, was a constant and mostly unwelcome addition to her and Percy Shelley’s bohemian entourage, which only served to increase Mary’s negative feelings of self-doubt and jealousy. The women never resolved their childhood issues and transferred their competition for William Godwin’s attention to Percy Shelley. Though unsubstantiated, many believe that Percy and Jane, who as an adult went by the name Claire, were romantically involved on and off throughout Mary and Percy’s marriage. Claire was also romantically linked to Lord Byron, and they conceived a little girl named Allegra, who tragically died when she was only five. Because Mary intimately understood grief and loss, in the aftermath of Allegra’s death, Mary and Claire’s relationship softened.
In the months that followed, Mary endured two more devastating blows. First, she lost her fourth child to miscarriage, and very soon after, Percy Shelley died in a sailboat accident. In her journals, Mary blames her youthful transgressions for the tragedies of her adulthood. “Poor Harriet,” she writes in an 1839 journal entry about Percy Shelley’s first wife, “to whose sad fate I attribute so many of my own heavy sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death.”
Throughout her adult life, Mary leaned on writing to help her battle depression. Not only was she an avid journaler, she also authored seven novels — Frankenstein, Mathilda, Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and Falkner. Many biographers and critics have linked Mary’s journal writings to her fiction writing proving not only her authorship but a tendency to work out life issues through the act of writing. One recurring theme in her novels is the challenges of the parent-child relationship, and one cannot help but connect the fiction she concocts with her own complicated relationship with her aloof father and the mother she never knew.
After Percy Shelley’s death, twenty-six year old Mary dedicated herself to publishing her late husband’s posthumous works, which elevated his public persona. In life, he ran from debtors and other responsibilities often traveling with a gang of poets who were labeled the “league of incest,” but in death, Mary Shelley made him into a romantic and Christian hero. Just as she altered her own personal narrative, reworking life into fiction, she reframed the persona of her deceased husband.
In her thirties, Mary extensively researched and wrote more than fifty detailed biographies of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French men for Dionysius Lardner’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men. Her contribution to these biographies is significant, though Lardner did not always credit Mary as an author. Modern scholars now recognize her writing as “uncluttered, clear, and forceful” and “compelling.” The final book that Mary Shelley published in 1844, a travelogue titled Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843, chronicled her trip with her only child to survive infancy, Percy Florence.
At the age of fifty-three, Mary Shelley died of a brain tumor and her literary accomplishments seemed to die along with her. However, in the middle 20th century Mary Shelley’s unconventional life became more widely known, and scholars began reexamining her journals, letters and books discovering connections between her real life traumas and fictive creations. Mary Shelley grappled with the profound struggles she experienced in her life by putting pen to paper and writing. Today she is praised for her sophisticated, philosophical, and artful works.
A version of this article first appeared at SheroesofHistory.