Mary Shelley: Queen of Goth

The first time I met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was in 1800. She was tracing the letters on her mother’s headstone to learn to spell her name. Her mother, who bore the same name, was a celebrated politician and feminist, and had passed away merely ten days after her birth. As expected from a child of politicians and philosophers, she was a prodigy. I would always find her in the bookstore of her father – William Godwin. Sometimes she would ask me to narrate a ghost story to her. She believed everyone could do with some ghosts in their life.

The next time I met her, she was 16. Just back from Scotland, and irrevocably in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley. She secretly met him near her mother’s grave each night. She lost her virginity to him on her mother’s grave on one such night. Disapproving of his daughter’s will to live out of wedlock with a married man, her father ostracised her. That night, not caring about her reputation, and in search of a ‘happily ever after’, she eloped with Shelley. Her stepsister, Claire, accompanied them in hopes of an adventure. This was the last time I saw her happy. On looking back, I realise she was never happy. For she was constantly at battle with everyone and everything, her heart always defiant. Her young soul knew that there were a million ways of loving and living, and everyone had a right to their own way.

Mary Shelley

At 18, Mary knew more about death than life. Her mother, other step sister Fanny, Percy’s wife Harriet, and Mary’s three children had all left her alone in this world. Thus, it was not a surprise that I found her heartbroken next year in Lord Byron’s estate. Lord Byron, famous British poet and Claire’s lover, had invited them over as Claire was pregnant with his child. Mary survived all this only to learn about the affair between Percy and Claire which was what finally broke her. More than the deaths, it was the abandonment. In company of DudeBro™, and in grief of her children, she decided to write a ghost story in which the dead were reanimated. The idea of Frankenstein took shape. To write about a monster whose misery made him a fiend, who needed happiness to be human again. Someone who desired love and was instead abandoned. And about an overreaching scientist who didn’t realise that hubris and failure were two sides of the same coin. A human whose narcissism made him a monster.

Back at her shambled home, she wrote tirelessly for months in spite of being pregnant. She hadn’t seen Percy for months now. Later she realised that finding a publisher for her book was more difficult than writing it. A 19-year old woman writing a book on themes like death, loss and betrayal was looked down upon. Much like now, underestimating the misery of a woman was a common fault among men even then (and it will continue to be so). Finally, a publisher agreed to publish the book anonymously if Shelley wrote a foreword for it. The book was published. Ironically, Percy, the scientist of her life, got credit for the work until the later editions with her name were published. Mary invented the genre of modern sci-fi and was never given the respect she deserved due to her gender. At that time, people viewed her simply as Shelley’s muse.

Frankenstein, as created by Mary Shelley

Mary was born with a fire inside her. She was a woman of opinion. She dared, and lived with the consequences of her actions. In her later years, she obtained false passports for her friend, Isabel and her lover, Mary Diana, under the name of man and wife. She wrote many more novels and plays and worked as an editor after the success of ‘Frankenstein’.

She married Percy, and her fourth child lived. But the marriage was short-lived. When Mary was 25, Percy drowned in a boating incident. His body washed on the shore and was identified by a volume of Keats’ poems found in his pocket. I was present at the funeral. During his cremation, his friend took out Percy’s calcified heart, known as Cor Cordium, and presented it to her. Till death, Mary Shelley carried her beloved’s heart, wrapped in poem about love and immortality.


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