A capsule account of Shelley’s life around the time she wrote Frankenstein

I think Ellen Moer’s quick description in her essay Female Gothic gives a vivid picture of the kind of life and death that Shelley brought to Frankenstein:

As far as I can figure out, she was pregnant, barely pregnant but aware of the fact, when at the age of sixteen she ran off with Shelley in July 1814. Also pregnant at the same time was Shelley’s legal wife Harriet, who gave birth in November “to a son and possible heir,” as Mary noted in her journal. In February 1815 Mary gave birth to a daughter, illegitimate, premature, and sickly. There is nothing in the journal about domestic help or a nurse in attendance. Mary notes that she breast-fed the baby; that Fanny, her half sister, came to call; that Claire Clairmont, her stepsister, who had run off with Mary, kept Shelley amused. Bonaparte invaded France, the journal tells us, and Mary took up her incessant reading {96} program: this time, Mme de Staël’s Corinne. The baby died in March. “Find my baby dead,” Mary wrote. “A miserable day.”In April 1815 she was pregnant again, about eight weeks after the birth of her first child. In January 1816 she gave birth to a son: more breastfeeding, more reading. In March, Claire Clairmont sought out Lord Byron and managed to get herself pregnant by him within a couple of weeks. This pregnancy would be a subject of embarrassment and strain to Mary and Shelley, and it immediately changed their lives, for Byron left England in April, and Claire, Shelley, Mary, and her infant pursued him to Switzerland in May. There is nothing yet in Mary’s journal about a servant, but a good deal about mule travel in the mountains. In June they all settled near Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva.

In June 1816, also, Mary began Frankenstein. And during the year of its writing, the following events ran their swift and sinister course: in October Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half sister, committed suicide after discovering that she was not Godwin’s daughter but Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter by her American lover. (The suicide was not only a tragedy but an embarrassment to all. Godwin refused even to claim Fanny’s body, which was thrown nameless into a pauper’s grave.) In early December Mary was pregnant again, as she seems to have sensed almost the day it happened. (See her letter to Shelley of December 5, in which she also announced completion of Chapter 4 of her novel.) In mid-December Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine; she was pregnant by someone other than Shelley. In late December Mary married Shelley. In January 1817 Mary wrote Byron that Claire had borne him a daughter. In May she finished Frankenstein, published the following year.

Death and birth were thus as hideously intermixed in the life of Mary Shelley as in Frankenstein’s “workshop of filthy creation.” Who can read without shuddering, and without remembering her myth of the birth of a nameless monster, Mary’s journal entry of March 19, 1815, which records the trauma of her loss, when she was seventeen, of her first baby, the little girl who did not live long enough to be given a name. “Dream that my little baby came to life again,” Mary wrote; “that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.” (“I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”)

Moer’s whole essay, Female Gothic, is worth a read.

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