Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was an English writer, best known for Frankenstein, a disturbing novel many readers found difficult to believe was the work of a young woman.
No stranger to tragedy, Mary entered the world only days before her mother left it. Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist philosopher and passionate advocate of education for women, died of infection shortly after giving birth. Although she never knew her mother in person, the younger Mary—who learned her letters by tracing the epitaph on her mother’s gravestone—had the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft inscribed in her consciousness through reading her mother’s writings and by listening in on discussions between her father (the philosopher William Godwin) and intellectuals who visited their home.
One such visitor was the handsome young poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even the radical William Godwin disapproved when Percy and Mary ran off together to Europe (accompanied, oddly enough, by Mary’s step-sister, Claire), undeterred by the fact that Shelley was leaving behind his pregnant wife. Her unconventional life with Shelley brought Mary considerable sorrow (including the deaths of three of their four children), but it also ensured she continued to move in intellectual circles, surrounded by conversations about the latest developments in science—especially chemistry and electricity—and the philosophical questions arising from them: Is there a life force distinct from the physical body? Where does it come from? Do human beings have the wisdom to manage their growing technological powers?
Steeped in such an atmosphere, Mary had plenty of raw material at hand when, on a dark and stormy night on the shores of Lake Geneva, prompted by a challenge from the notorious Lord Byron, she got the spark of an idea which eventually took form as Frankenstein. Although popular culture has turned Dr. Frankenstein’s creation into a villain, he is actually a tragic and sympathetic character—despised by his maker and repeatedly rejected, he becomes monstrous becomes he is not loved. Far from being a simple gothic horror story, or polemic against science, Frankenstein is a parable about human arrogance and ambition, and the devastation they can cause when our creative powers are not tempered by compassion.
Laura Alary is a writer, reader, and all-round curious person. She has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps to the bookmobile that rolled into her Halifax neighborhood once a week. At school, she made her own books out of manila paper, mucilage and crayons. The first story she can remember writing was about a little girl who kept spilling paint and having to figure out how to turn the messes into pictures (a good rule for life).
These days, Laura considers herself very lucky to work in a beautiful library and write her own
books. Her latest is What Grew in Larry’s Garden (Kids Can Press, 2020), and she is anticipating the publication of two new picture book biographies about Maria Mitchell and Cecilia Payne. You can find Laura and her books online at www.lauraalary.ca (Twitter@LauraAlary1).
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