Thursday, August 30, 2012

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Mary Shelley

215 years ago today, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was born. 19 years later she’d give birth to horror’s most notorious or should I say beloved? monster. We all know that much, but here are twenty other things you may not have known about Mary Shelley.

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1. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an extremely early pioneer of the feminist movement, publishing the key text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

2. The second edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s children’s book Original Stories was illustrated by a little-known artist named William Blake, who would eventually gain much greater fame as the poet behind such major works as Songs of Innocence and Experience. Some conspiratorial readers have noted the similarity between one of Blake’s illustrations in Original Stories and a certain yet-to-be-created monster:
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3. Mary Shelley had a lifelong love of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

4. Percy Bysshe Shelley met his future wife after writing a mash note to her father, William Godwin, whose book Political Justice impressed the young poet profoundly. Godwin gladly became mentor to Shelley. Shelley agreed to financially support the struggling Godwin.

5. Percy’s pet names for Mary: Maie, Pecksie (possibly inspired by a character in Sarah Trimmer’s History of the Robins), and Dormouse (inspired by Mary’s weakness during a difficult pregnancy).

6. On July 22, 1816, Mary, her step sister Claire Clairmont, and Percy were exploring the Alps when they got sight of the vast glacier Mary would later use as a pivotal location in Frankenstein. At that moment, an avalanche tore away part of the mountain they were scaling.

7. As a lead in to the ghost-story writing contest that would birth Frankenstein, Lord Byron read a bit of Coleridge’s “Christabel” aloud. As Byron read of a witch revealing her breasts, Percy, who’d long harbored a bizarre obsession with those particular parts of the anatomy, fixed his eyes on Mary. Imagining she had eyes where her nipples should be, he became overcome with horror, screamed, and fled the room. Percy was so disturbed by the image that he had to be calmed with ether.

8. The Frankenstein Monster and the vampire have long shared pride of place as the twin rulers of the horror genre. The connection between the two dates back to the very inception of the Monster. Not only did Mary Shelley conceive her creature the same night John Polidori created his influential story “The Vampyre”, but she actually links the two in her novel. In chapter 7, Victor Frankenstein describes his science project as “my own vampire.”

9. Mary chose not to give her creation a name, instead referring to him as a monster, a fiend, a daemon, a creature, a wretch, a devil, a being, an ogre, and as noted above, a vampire. One thing she never calls him is Frankenstein.

10. Mary settled on the epistolary format as a way to pad out the exceedingly brief first draft of Frankenstein.

11. While claims that Percy Shelley was the true author of Frankenstein are unfounded and more than a little sexist, he did, however, impersonate his wife to pen the novel’s introduction.

12. Percy also played a key role as editor of the book. Mary earlier did the same for him by editing his poems to make them fit for publication.

13. Frankenstein was met with harsh criticism, moving novelist William Beckford to denounce it as “the foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.” Of course, ensuing time has been much kinder to Shelley’s novel than Beckford’s body of work. Who still remembers Vathek?

14. In their book The Monsters, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler point out that the position of Frankenstein’s murdered bride is identical to that of the woman in Henry Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare. Fuseli had been Mary Wollstonecraft’s lover.
15. In 1823, Richard Brinsley Peake staged the first adaptation of Frankenstein. Mary attended Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein with her family, finding the acting to her liking but concluding, “the story was not well managed.”

16. Drownings haunted both Mary Shelley’s life and legacy. Mary Wollstonecraft attempted to drown herself in the Thames but was rescued by a passing man. Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned herself when the poet left her for Mary. Percy met his end in a shipwreck on the Mediterranean. A century later, Mary’s monster would accidentally drown a little girl in a controversial scene devised for James Whale’s Frankenstein. The director, too, would drown himself in his swimming pool in 1957.

17. In a ghoulish stroke worthy of her novel, Mary Shelley was buried alongside Percy’s disembodied heart, which was the only part of his body that resisted cremation.

18. In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester revealed that “It took seventeen Mexican ladies twelve weeks” to make the “fairy-like” gown she wore as Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein.
19. Bride of Frankenstein editor Ted Kent was eager to cut the Mary Shelley prologue because “it was a horror picture and I wanted to get to the Monster.” Although Whale insisted the sequence remain, television stations short on time would often fulfill Kent’s wish in later years.

20. Lanchester theorized that James Whale selected her to play both Mary and The Bride because the director “felt that if this beautiful and innocent Mary Shelley could write such a horror story as Frankenstein, then somewhere she must have had a fiend within, dominating a part of her thoughts and spirit…”

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