Sixteen year old Mary lives in England with her father (William Godwin), stepmother, stepsister Jane, and half-sister Fanny. Her mother died a few days after giving birth to her. Mary meets her future husband Shelley in her father’s bookstore. Shelley, a follower of Godwin's radical ideas, courts Mary. Mary’s stepmother is aware that Shelley has a child and a wife who is pregnant and asks him about it in from of Mary. Shelley answers politely. Mary, rather than becoming upset, rationalizes that he still wants to court her even though he is married. She imagines that he will find a way to marry her and he will reconcile with his wealthy family.
Mary’s parents confront her about her relationship with Shelley, of which they do not approve. Mary and Shelley “elope” to Calais, though they cannot legally marry. Jane accompanies them. Mary becomes suspicious that Shelley is in love with Jane as well as with her. She also believes that Jane is trying to seduce Shelley. When she confronts her about this, Jane agrees to abandon her attempt. When the group returns home Mary and Shelley find their own place to live and are shortly joined by Jane. During this time, Jane decides to change her name to Claire. Mary and Shelley’s first child is born, which Mary sees as redemption for her own mother dying shortly after giving birth to her. Fanny visits, but brings the message that Mary’s father and stepmother will not acknowledge the child. The child dies in her sleep shortly after her birth. Mary is devastated but soon Mary and Shelley have another child, a son named William. Mary watches him constantly because she fears he too will die. Mary admits that she is unhappy and she feels that Shelley has taken her childhood and her family away from her.
Claire meets Lord Byron, the author, and he invites the group to Switzerland for the summer. They are not invited to stay in Lord Byron’s home as he is already hosting his friend Dr. Polidori. Claire falls in love with Lord Byron, who she called by his first name George, upon their first meeting. Mary suspects that Claire is purposefully mimicking her own life. The group becomes close and Mary, Claire, and Shelley spend a lot of time at George’s villa discussing gothic novels and science. It soon becomes clear to Mary that Claire is pregnant. She feels as though this is her fault because she set a bad example.
At the end of the summer, Mary, Shelley, and Claire return to England. Both Fanny and Harriet kill themselves. Mary and Shelley both feel guilty about these deaths. Now that they are able, Mary and Shelley legally marry. Their third child Clara is born. They decide to move to Italy to escape the rumors and gossip surrounding them. Shelley and Claire become close again. They tell Mary they need to go to Lord Byron’s home because Claire’s daughter Allegra is ill. Mary stays home, but later Shelley orders her to join them. She is hesitant because Clara is ill, but Shelley insists. Mary and her daughter go, but Clara dies soon after their arrival. Mary suspects that Claire and Shelley left to have time alone and summoned her there because they did not want Byron to find out about their relationship. She blames Shelley for Clara’s death and it upset with Claire, too. Mary and Shelley’s son William dies in Rome and the couple is left childless.
Mary gives birth to another child, Percy, and Claire’s daughter Allegra dies. This softens Mary to both Claire and Shelley. The couple moves in with their neighbors Jane and Edward Williams in the city of Lerici on the coast. They get along well with the Williams because they have had similar life experiences; Jane and Edward are not really married and came to Italy to escape scandal, too.
Mary has a miscarriage that almost kills her. It is Shelley who saves her by applying ice while they wait for the doctor to arrive. Shelley, Edward, and Byron’s son Charles leave to visit Lord Byron. On their way home, a storm causes the ship to capsize. Though Mary is upset at the death of her husband, she says that she will not miss the “sorrow, passion, and estrangement” (228) of their relationship. Mary expresses concern that she will die before she leaves her mark on the world. She symbolically writes her name under the title of her completed novel Frankenstein.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Jane and Mary talk about the evening Samuel Coleridge visited Mary’s father and recited the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to Mary, though Jane had fallen asleep. Mary, like the mariner, feels compelled to tell the story of Frankenstein. This is based on a true event (Hoobler 43).
Pride and Prejudice
At the beginning of the novel, we see Jane reading Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen. Jane asserts that Mary’s new relationship with Shelley is more interesting than that novel. Both young women are interested in non-traditional relationships. Later in the book, Mary’s family discusses how much they admire the poet John Keats. They hear the news of his death not soon after, but note that he was buried in the same cemetery as their son, William, which is true (Hoobler 254). Shelley has a copy of Keats’s poem “Adonis” in his pocket when he dies, which includes imagery of a ship wreck. Percy Shelley had a book of Keats’s poetry in his pocket at the time of his death (Hoobler 274).
References/ Suggestions for Further Reading
Bennett, Veronica. AngelMonster. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006. Print.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. Print.