The Father of Science Fiction was too Late
Section: Historical Rewinds
At the age of 17, things were going well for Mary Wollencraft, who was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollencraft. She fell in love and ran away with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was the son of Sir Bysshe Shelley—heir to first Baronet of Castle Goring. He was also a wonderful romantic lyric poet who wrote love poems to her. They had two children and he wrote poems about their happy life together. The couple spent a summer with friends including the poet Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. Mary later recalled that the conversation turned to reanimating the dead and Lord Byron suggested that everyone write their own horror story. Shortly thereafter, in a waking dream, Mary wrote:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”1
With Percy’s encouragement, Mary Shelley began work on her first novel. She wrote and Percy was her editor(see left with Percy’s notes in the margins). In addition, they published travel novels in order to supplement their income. Percy began writing the long verse drama Prometheus Unbound while the working title of Mary’s book was The Modern Prometheus or Frankenstein.
As happy as this time was for Mary, the next few years of Mary’s life were horrific. In 1818 and 1819, the Shelley’s two children died which sent Mary into a depression. Mary described herself as “on the hearth of pale despair.” A passage of Frankenstein reads,
“The agony of my feelings allowed me no respite: no incident occurred from which my rage and misery could not extract its food.”
Mary continued her work on her first novel and at the age of 20 she published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818. Initially, criticism of her book was unfavorable and focused on uninformed speculation as to the identity of the author. However, the book was an immediate popular success. The Shelley’s had another child and things began to look up. In Frankstein she wrote
“The very winds whispered in soothing accents, maternal Nature bade me weep no more.
In 1822 after only six years of marriage, Percy claimed a Doppelgänger had informed him that he would soon die. Shortly thereafter, Percy and Edward Williams died in a boating accident. Mary was devastated! Their friend Edward Trelawny snatched Percy’s heart from the funeral pyre and gave it to Mary. Henry Weekes, a famous artist, sculpted a monument that memorializes the great poet’s tragic death and her grieving widow Mary’s suffering (see left). Percy’s grave bears the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium (Heart of Hearts).
Mary continued to publish other books and Percy’s poetry. She is credited with popularizing his works which were not popular during his short life. Percy was eventually memorialized at the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, along with his old friends, Lord Byron and John Keats.
In 1826, Mary met the American actor John Howard Payne (see left) and the American writer Washington Irving Payne who fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She refused, saying that after being married to one genius, she could only marry another. Payne accepted the rejection and tried without success to talk his friend Irving into proposing to her. Mary never remarried again. In the same year, she published the The Last Man about a future world that has been ravaged by a plague that included characters similar to Percy and Lord Byron. In 1828, the French writer Prosper Mérimée declared his love for her but she eventually rejected him as well(see left). She was delighted when Edward Trelawny (see right), returned to England and they joked about marriage in their letters.
With her flourishing career, an increased recognition for her late husband and her devotion to her one living son, perhaps there just wasn’t enough time for marriage. Mary’s father wrote Frankenstein is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of. You are now five and twenty. And, most fortunately, you have pursued a course of reading, and cultivated your mind in a manner the most admirably adapted to make you a great and successful author. If you cannot be independent, who should be? Four years later, she wrote, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck: A Romance. The theme was that an idealistic political system is impossible without an improvement in human (or male) nature. She offers a female alternative to the male power politics that destroy the hero who is similar to Percy. She later published other works including The Beautiful Widow and Faulkner. During this period, there has been speculation that she may have had feelings for a member of parliament (Major Aubrey Beauclerk).
Jules Verne and H. G. Wells have been credited with being the “Father” of Science Fiction. Jules Verne published his first novel in 1863 forty five years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and he often receives credit for creating the tenth genre of Fiction—Science Fiction. However, Science Fiction Writer Brian Aldriss has argued that Mary Shelley’s first novel Frankenstein and subsequent novels such as the Last Man were the first science fiction novels.
Without Mary Shelley’s Frankstein, we wouldn’t have the endless series of movies and stories about someone inventing a robot, a new lifeform or a computer that almost destroys the world and does destroy it’s maker. Although she was highly regarded as a writer during her lifetime, only Frankenstein remained in continuous publication after her death. During the last thirty years as her books were republished, scholars reexamined her works and many have come to believe that she was the major feminist romantic literary figure of her era. Frankenstein also was the first novel in the category of Monster Literature. She has also been credited with inventing the subgenre of Apocalyptic Science Fiction (e.g., The Last Man). All of her works are also considered to be Political Fiction.
Frankenstein continues to be a part of popular culture today. Every year the media reintroduces the public to new versions of Frankenstein’s monster (e.g., The Munsters 1960s TV show; Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein; 1974; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh; 1994; Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein books (Prodigal Son, City of Night, Dead and Alive,Lost Souls, The Dead Town; six books are planned in all; 2004-2012); A Danny Boyle play that premiered at the Royal National Theatre; 2011 which featured a soundtrack from Underworld ) and a seemingly endless series of sequels such as Frankstein’s Bride. The Frankenstein monster remains one of the most recognized icons in the world today.
Mary Shelley quotes
“It is justice, not charity that is wanting in the world.”
“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”
“I do not want women to have power over men; but over themselves”
Her son( Sir Percy Florence Shelley, 3rd Baronet), deeply loved her and after he graduated from college in 1841, he lived with her until her death at age 53. On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death he and his wife opened her box-desk and found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy, a copy of Percy’s poem Adonaïs with one page folded round a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart. The poem is about the Shelley’s friend, the great poet John Keats and his death.
Excerpts from "The Revolt of Islam" by Percy Shelley to Mary Shelley thou Child of love and light. ... But beside thee, where still my heart has ever been. ... Hard hearts, and cold, like weights of icy stone Which crushed and withered mine, that could not be Aught but a lifeless clod, until revived by thee.... How beautiful and calm and free thou wert In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain, And walked as free as light the clouds among, ... And from thy side two gentle babes are born To fill our home with smiles, and thus are we Most fortunate beneath life's beaming morn; And these delights, and thou, have been to me The parents of the Song I consecrate to thee... Yet in the paleness of thy thoughtful cheek, And in the light thine ample forehead wears, And in thy sweetest smiles, and in thy tears, And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears: And through thine eyes, even in thy soul I see A lamp of vestal fire burning internally. They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,...
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein’s Creator: The First Science Fiction Writer (Barnard Biography Series) by Joan Kane Nichols 2010 ""