Mistake Frankenstein for the monster, but don’t mistake his writer for just a wife

Ellen Kenny reflects on Mary Shelley’s work, life and contributions to literature

March 8 marked International Women’s Day, and I believe we can all look around in appreciation at the plethora of inspirational women of the 21st century; Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are among my personal favourites. Thinking about the iconic women of the present has made me consider the women of the past. Women have been denied opportunities and rights for years, and while it’s important to recognise the barriers they did – and do – face, it’s worth celebrating achievements that were secured in spite of those challenges. For those who might manage to wriggle through a few cracks in the glass ceiling, we can’t let them slip down again without receiving the recognition they deserve.

As someone who loves to write, or at least someone who loves to talk about writing, I find myself drawn to historical female figures in fields like literature; our history books and syllabi are laden with old men who were considered visionaries, while also believing that “blue and pink brains” were scientific fact. The novels I grew up reading, brilliant ones like Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye, are certainly not the bastion of female representation. We as young women should look back on our place in the scholarly world, to remind ourselves that we have always belonged here. 

“It was a nice change of pace to learn that not only can women write fantastic stories, but they can spearhead genres and influence culture for centuries.”

I want to focus specifically on the woman that inspired me to write this, a woman who was remarkably both revered and overlooked, living and dead in the arts today: Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. When I first learned that a woman wrote the benchmark for horror and science fiction, I was even more surprised than discovering that the Frankenstein character was actually the scientist and not the monster. Bogeymen and mad scientists always seemed to belong to male creators, so it was a nice change of pace to learn that not only can women write fantastic stories, but they can spearhead genres and influence culture for centuries.

Of course, for those who know Shelley’s background, her talent with a pen comes as no surprise. Her inner circle was a “who’s who” of 18th century culture. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, popularly known as one of the first feminist philosophers, who had an illustrious literary career and was even branded a “prostitute” for her Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Despite Wollstonecraft dying shortly after her daughter’s birth, her progressive views on women’s right to education is largely credited by scholars for Mary Shelley’s later talents.

So too was Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, recognised as one of the metaphorical creators of Mary Shelley. As one of the finest poets of the Romantic era, many historians find it difficult not to attribute Mary Shelley’s successes to the successes of her husband, especially considering the melodramatic, story-like nature of their relationship. You think you’re quirky? Come back to me when you elope with your secret boyfriend to Europe and there’s rumours of you having sex for the first time on your mother’s grave. When it came to Percy, Mary had a few skeletons in her closet- or rather, hearts in her desk. Following her husband’s death at the age of 29, Shelley did what any good wife would do; she wrapped his heart in a silk shroud and kept it in her desk, possibly even carrying it with her for some years. It was only found in 1853 a year after Shelley’s death, wrapped in the last love poem Percy Shelley wrote. Don’t deny you’re already half in-love with Mary Shelley.

“Shelley was fascinated by the growing scientific advancements of her time, including the concept of bodily reanimation and the implications of such an invention.”

Of course, Shelley’s relationships are incredibly fascinating, and it is the overemphasis on these relationships that had Mary Shelley labelled as a creation of others’ talents, rather than the creator herself. We cannot forget that Shelley played a huge role in the free-thinking Romantic era. She spent her younger years like most of us probably dream of: exploring Europe with friends in pure, poetic, pretentious bliss. It was on her travels that Shelley wrote her masterpiece at the age of eighteen (great to learn as a nineteen year old who continues to mix up the words cinnamon and synonym). On a rather apt, dark and stormy night in Switzerland, the young woman was challenged by the poet Lord Byron to write a ghost story. Byron saw this challenge as a way to entertain his friend’s wife while boosting his own ego as a writer, but he, like many others have, underestimated Mary Shelley. Shelley was fascinated by the growing scientific advancements of her time, including the concept of bodily reanimation and the implications of such an invention. She drew from her own tragedy of losing her first child and meditated on life, death and loneliness, to write a novel that was one-part revolutionary Gothic horror, one-part haunting philosophical musing.

However, it took years for her recognition as a genius. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, was published anonymously in 1818 since women were still a new, exotic concept at the time. Even when her name was added to the book in 1823, her authorship was doubted and many believed her husband wrote the novel, despite the fact that Percy’s contributions amounted to less than the average editor contributes today. Just like we now mistake Frankenstein for the monster and not the scientist, many often misconstrue Shelley as simply, the wife and not the writer.

“Shelley made a name for herself as a political commentator, travel writer, and skilled editor, pursuits that are still underappreciated today.”

In her later years, Shelley made a name for herself as a political commentator, travel writer, and skilled editor, pursuits that are still under appreciated today. She wrote several more novels, including The Last Man, a dystopian novel, chronicling the remains of humanity after a mysterious disease swept the world. I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t got your full dose of pandemics yet.

Despite a relatively successful career in life, Shelley has been posthumously treated as an off-shoot of those around her. Up until the late 20th century, she was less considered a talented author, and more predominantly Percy Shelley’s wife. Many scholars and historians ignore the literary pioneer and fantastic woman Shelley was in her own right. The lack of recognition Shelley received is still seen in society today; the gender pay-gap, and the catch-up game that women must play just to get a foot in the door. There are so many women like her in every academic field you can imagine. Mary Shelley connected with me, but there’s a plethora of feminist icons who deserve a seat at your table: Katherine Johnson as a critical figure in space travel and Ada Lovelace as the queen of computer science, to name just two. As the leaders of tomorrow, it’s important for young students to look to our past to ensure our future is bright. The body of  women’s contribution to arts and culture must be remembered and kept alive in the public imagination before it can be revived.

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Politics, Philosophy, and Sociology.