Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was headstrong, brilliant, and inventive. Though she was married to a famous Romantic poet, she was very much her own person, and the creator of one of the most famous monsters of all time: Frankenstein. The Sunday Edition recently devoted an hour to Shelley's fascinating and tumultuous life, and the legacy of Dr. Frankenstein's memorable monster, which continues to live on in literature, film, and even cartoons.
Shelley's life story inspired playwright Helen Edmunsen to write Mary Shelley, a play that examines Shelley's relationship with her father, William Godwin, a radical journalist and philosopher. "I was looking for fantastic, huge stories that I might be able to adapt for the stage," Edmunsen told Michael Enright. Frankenstein seemed to fit the bill, but while Edmundsen was reading it she found herself more and more fascinated in the 19-year-old girl who had written it. "I was bowled over by the ideas and the intelligence and the courageousness of it as a piece of writing...The more I began to read about her and understand what equipped her to write that amazing piece of work, the more obsessed I got with her and thought 'ok, what I want to write about is her, not Frankenstein.'"
Mary Shelley was born to the 18th century writer and women's rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth. At 16, young Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, much to the dismay of her father, who disowned her. She lost three of her four children, her husband died in a sailing accident, and Shelley herself died of a brain tumour at only 53.
Edmundsen describes Shelley's life as "operatic in scale." One might think that all of Shelley's real-life drama would make for easy translation to onstage drama, but Edmundsen worried. "I did start to think 'oh gosh, people are just going to think I'm making this up'...if I were writing an original play, I'd never put those kind of events on top of each other one after another!"
The story behind Frankenstein is almost as interesting as the book itself. The Shelleys were at a weekend party at Lord Byron's villa, and after a great deal of carousing into the night, Byron demanded that everyone present must write the beginning of a ghost story by the next morning. "Mary was despairing of being able to think of anything at first, but in the small ours of the night this image came to her of a man resurrecting a strange creature on a table using electricity," says Edmunsen.
This image is now one of the most recognizable in popular culture. But when Frankenstein was first published, the novel was panned, with critics calling its anonymous author "diseased in the heart and in the head." The novel clearly hit a nerve; the story was an uncomfortable reflection of the times, with its themes of medical experimentation, and the terrifying question of what happens when man plays God.