Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813. National Portrait Gallery.
We have no painted image of MWS when she was actually that age. In Rome in 1819 MWS sat for the same amateur artist that painted PBS’s likeness (above). It has not survived, and anyway, MWS disliked it, saying it made her ‘a great dowdy’. So she’d probably be glad we only have her approved image produced many years later!
A lack of a true image of the young MWS – the author of Frankenstein – makes her even more elusive. Her life was so carefully documented in writings including letters, journals, and her fictional works, which sometimes reflect her personal experiences.
The literary family
MWS came from a very literary family – sometimes described as England’s ‘first family of writers’. Her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were both political novelists and social commentators. Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to MWS.
Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was a treatise on the right to education and her understanding of women’s social status. As well as his other works such as Political Justice and Caleb Williams, William Godwin wrote a memoir of his wife after her death. The book was met with hostility because of its frank depiction of her unconventional life.
MWS’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, recalled her upbringing in the household of William Godwin as having high intellectual standards. She wrote, rather disdainfully:
if you cannot write an epic poem or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head , you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging.
Claire Clairmont, image based on portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819. Newstead Abbey.
After all, William Godwin knew pretty much everybody who as anyone in literary London, and MWS met many illustrious literary visitors as a child, including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
However, she was prone to seek solitude. Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave is in Old St Pancras Churchyard in London (you can visit it a short walk from the British Library). This is where the young MWS (then still called Mary Godwin) would go to read and meditate. When the young (and married) poet PBS, a disciple of her father, came into her life, it was at her mother’s graveside that they would meet and eventually declare their love for one another.
MWS was born in London, and eloped with PBS in 1814 when she was just 16. Claire went with them. In 1815 her premature baby dies and this was one of the many tragedies the Shelleys had to endure. It is in 1816 that they travelled to Geneva and MWS began writing Frankenstein. Just before this trip, Claire had become Lord Byron’s mistress.
1816 continued with more tragedy as MWS’s half-sister Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s other daughter, committed suicide, as did Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet. Claire would have a child by Byron the following year but this child would not make it to adulthood. In 1818 the Shelleys move to Italy. Not long after the deaths of two more of their children, PBS drowned off the coast of Tuscany in 1822. In her widowhood MWS returned to London and continuted to write. She died in 1851, aged 53 years old. It is suspected she died of a brain tumour of long standing.
MWS travelled to and lived in so many places, including…
- France (e.g. Calais, Paris, Chamonix, Nice)
- Italy (e.g. Pisa, Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Lake Como, Tuscany countryside)
- & Germany, Switzerland, Holland
MWS was very well travelled and well read. From 1814 onwards she would record all the texts she had studied and enjoyed, as well as those read by PBS.
Here is a list of MWS’s publications, showing her considerable creative output. (This does not include her short stories, plays, or unpublished works including much of her poetry). This list is just to demonstrate the amount that she did publish, steadily across the years.
1817 History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (travelogue)
1818 Frankenstein 1st edn
1824 Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (editor)
1826 The Last Man
1830 The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck
1831 Frankenstein revised edition
1831 Proserpine (drama)
1839 Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (editor), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (editor)
1844 Rambles in Germany and Italy (travelogue)
I will come back to Frankenstein – but it might be worth explaining here what some of those other works contain. The Last Man is set in the future, and Lodore and Falkner are settled in MWS’s own time. But Valperga is a historical novel, and I’d like to do a spotlight on this book, her second novel to be published, which is very engaging read and well worth seeking out. Valperga was written a few years after the Shelleys’ first meeting, when they were married and living in Italy.
Valperga: a spotlight
This novel took a long time to write. Conceived in 1817, MWS began reading for the historical background of the novel in 1818, but did not start writing until 1820. The novel was completed and sent first to the publishers by PBS in 1821, and then to Godwin for publication in January 1822 under the name of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, but it was not actually published until 1823. MWS described the novel as ‘a child of mighty slow growth’. She explained in a letter ‘it has indeed been a work of some labour since I have read and consulted a great many books’.
But what is this novel about, and why should we read it? The tale is set in 14th century Italy and the protagonist Castruccio is a warrior and leader. He is based on a real historical figure, and her extensive research of Italian political history and literature is evident.
But the name Valperga comes from the Tuscan city of Valperga and the city’s countess, Euthanasia. The two characters, both powerful, are on opposing sides, and though they are in love they reject their feelings to follow their political allegiances. The female character is undoubtedly the main protagonist, as she becomes the one who comforts those hurt by Castruccio’s tyranny. One of the many reasons that I love this novel is another female character, Beatrice, who is also formidable, but in a completely different way.
Beatrice is an orphaned prophetess, young, beautiful and seduced by Castruccio. His desertion of her is the visceral revelation of his cruelty and selfishness. Her tragic end – this is not a comic novel, but a highly dramatic one – is the most powerful section of the book. The character of Beatrice, as described in the words of the Shelley critic Barbara Jane O’Sullivan, is ‘a religious prophetess who is hunted, haunted, raped, imprisoned, and deceived until she is utterly destroyed. Beatrice is an extraordinary character, whose very talents alienate her from the society in which she lives.’