Curators' Blog

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley nee Godwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin, was born in 1797 in London. She is most famous for her novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, written at the tender age of 18. Mary’s mother was the famous women’s rights advocate and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley’s radical, intellectual pedigree was visible from an early age and she was described by her father as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind”.

The original image is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collections

Mary was a strong minded and confident women, and at the age of 16 eloped with the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They married in 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s wife, Harriet.

Mary and Percy Shelley moved in rather impressive literary circles. During the summer of 1816 they spent six weeks touring Europe. One stormy night in Italy at the Villa Diodati in the company of the poet Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori whose novel The Vampyre inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, her step-sister (and ex-lover of Lord Byron) Claire Clairmont, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary took part in a ghostly storytelling game.

The thundery weather that night, the tense and dramatic atmosphere of so many creative minds in one space, and an awareness of the contemporary scientific investigations into electricity, anatomy and the spark of life seem to have taken root in Mary’s imagination. One night, following the storytelling game, Mary had a vivid and terrifying dream that inspired her to write Frankenstein, published in 1818.

Mary’s novel was inspired by the scientific and medical experiments of the early 19th century that saw scientists and doctors of the time investigating methods for bringing people back from the dead. There was thought to be a distinction between “incomplete” and “absolute” death. In the case of “incomplete” death, scientists believed that revival might be possible by using the spark of electricity. Luigi Galvini’s experiments during the late 18th century had successfully used electrical currents to animate the limbs of dead animals.

In 1803 Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, attempted to revive a man who had been hanged for the murder of his wife and child. It was reported that the man’s eyes opened and that his hands and legs moved. Experiments such as these provoked a great deal of discussion at the time, and the nature of life itself was hotly debated. It is easy to see how Mary might have been inspired to write her novel about a reanimated creature.

Although not immediately obvious, Mary Shelley does have a connection to Horsham. Her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Warnham and his father Sir Timothy Shelley was MP for Horsham from 1790-92. Mary herself spent little time here although she lived for a while at Castle Goring, and for around six months at Field Place, Horsham with her son Percy Florence. Due to the town’s strong connection to Mary’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Horsham Museum & Art Gallery has one of the finest collections of Shelley items in the country, along with two letters written by Mary herself. The Museum also houses a rare copy of the 3rd edition of Frankenstein, the frontispiece of which has the earliest depictions of Shelley’s monster.

The museum is launching a new temporary exhibition looking at Mary Shelley’s novel and her monster this summer. Please keep an eye on the website for more information.

Horsham Museum & Art Gallery Collections

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