Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Shelley, Mary

(1797-1851) UK writer, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831; vt Frankenstein 1897) cited by Brian W Aldiss and others as the first Science-Fiction novel, although this is not a universal view (see Technofantasy). The novel is associated with the Horror genre; though its structure derives from the form of Gothic Fantasy, it contains no supernatural elements. The creation of the Monster, left to the reader's imagination in the first edition, is described on a more rational scientific basis in the third edition. The origins of the novel are well documented. It grew from a challenge set by Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley during their sojourn in Switzerland to see who could write the most frightening Ghost Story. MS's idea came to her in a dream. The first edition had an unsigned preface by Percy Shelley, and many thought the novel to be his, disbelieving that MS, only 19 and a mere woman, could have produced such a work of profound horror.

In fact, she had a strong literary background. Her mother, the renowned pioneer of women's liberation, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), died in childbirth. Her father was the writer and publisher William Godwin. Her stepmother was Mary Jane Godwin (née Clairmont, 1766-1841), who went into partnership with William in publishing children's books. MS's first published work was a poem, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw", written when she was 10, which she contributed to her father's Juvenile Library in 1808. She had contact during childhood with many important writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and Percy Shelley, whom Mary married in 1816. After he drowned in 1822, MS returned to England, where she continued to write for another 30 years, though she never repeated the success of Frankenstein. Her best-known other novel is The Last Man (1826) where a plague destroys mankind and a survivor travels south from Europe like some Byronic Accursed Wanderer. The novel contains no supernatural elements, and reads more like a projection of the Byron-Shelley fraternity into the future, with MS using the novel as therapy for her own grief. Of her other novels, Valperga, or The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823) is an historical Gothic romance set in 14th-century Italy, and Falkner (1837), her last completed novel and modelled on her father's Caleb Williams (1794), is a rather lacklustre romance.

MS did utilize the supernatural in her short fiction, much of which appeared in the prestigious Annuals of the day, such as The Keepsake. All these stories have a melancholy air. The most effective is "The Mortal Immortal" (1833 Keepsake), in which a magician's assistant drinks half of an Elixir of Life but regrets his Immortality and seeks death. The story is a powerful expression of loss. Other stories deal, like Frankenstein, with the restoration of life, including "Roger Dodsworth: The Re-animated Englishman" (written 1826; 1863), which retells a popular hoax of the day about an Englishman found frozen in a glacier and resuscitated. "Transformation" (1830 Keepsake) tells of an Identity Exchange between a vindictive youth and a vengeful Dwarf. The best of MS's short fiction was collected as Tales and Stories (coll 1891) ed Richard Garnett, although the texts were altered; a more definitive edition is Collected Tales and Stories (coll 1976 US) ed Charles E Robinson, which includes further fragments. [MA]

further reading: Not all books about MS are reliable. Most relevant are: Mary Shelley: A Biography (1938) by R Glynn Grylls; Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1951; rev vt Mary Shelley: A Biography 1987) by Muriel Spark; Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein (1953) by Elizabeth Nitchie; Mary Shelley (1959) by Eileen Bigland; Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (1972; vt Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth 1973 US) by Christopher Small; Mary Shelley (1972) by William A Walling; Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley (1978) by Jane Dunn; Mary Shelley (1985) by Harold Bloom; Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1988) by Emily W Sunstein; Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1988) by Anne K Mellor. The most complete bibliography is Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography (1975) by W H Lyles.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.