Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in London in 1797 to radical philosopher, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth, and young Mary was educated in the intellectual circles of her father's contemporaries. In 1814, at the age of seventeen, Mary met and fell in love with poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She ran away with him to France and they were married in 1816 after Shelley's wife committed suicide.
Percy Shelley was a prominent poet of the Romantic Movement along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Shelley's friend, Lord Byron. As his wife and companion, Mary Shelley was exposed to the same influences as her husband, and this Romanticism influenced her work. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after Byron introduced a challenge to discern whom among the three writers --- Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron himself -- could write the best ghost story.
The tumultuous French Revolution, which began before her birth, but had far-reaching echoes in society and literature, as well as the Industrial Revolution of England in the 18th Century, were influences on Mary Shelley's life and work. The mass production and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution posed a threat to the Romantic ideals of the importance of the individual, the beauty of nature, and the emotional and free spirit. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, can be seen as a protest against this scientific revolution.
Scientific progress was a large part of this century of discovery. Darwin, a leading scientific figure with his theories of evolution, was a personal friend of Shelley's husband, so science was not an ignored topic in her life. Advances in medicine and the need for cadavers also figured into the time in which Mary Shelley lived. At this time in London grave robbing was a common occurrence because men dubbed "the resurrection men" would sell the stolen bodies to teaching hospitals so that medical students could dissect and study them. This knowledge makes the idea of Victor Frankenstein scavenging graveyards for parts seem less shocking.
Frankenstein addresses common Romantic themes of isolation and the beauty of nature, but it also deals with loss, which Mary Shelley knew a great deal about. Growing up motherless, Mary also lost her sister to suicide, as well as losing three of her own children to miscarriage and early childhood deaths. In 1822 her husband drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia, and she was left, twenty-five years old, with only one remaining son. She remained unmarried and died in London in 1851.
Although she wrote several other books, including Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837), Frankenstein is her most well known work. "The critics greeted Mary Shelley's novel with a combination of praise and disdain" (Moss and Wilson). The unorthodox studies of Frankenstein were shocking to critics, but "[d]espite the critical attacks, Frankenstein caused a literary sensation in London. The novel fit smoothly into the popular gothic genre" (Moss and Wilson). But more than just a popular culture novel, Frankenstein has lasted over time. "[T]he novel became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement due to its themes of alienation and isolation and its warning about the destructive power that can result when human creativity is unfettered by moral and social concerns" (Moss and Wilson).
"Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft." The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. New York: Prentince Hall General Reference, 1992.
Foglesong, Marilee, ed. Lives and Works: Young Adult Authors. Vol. 7. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Educational, 1999.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Vol. 1. New York: Gale, 1997.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.