The Life of Mary Shelley

The Life of Mary Shelley

"The Life of Mary Shelley" video. Source:

Mary Shelley by format proceeds chronologically, beginning with Mary’s early life and proceeding to her elopement to Europe with Percy Shelley and the 1816 Geneva period; her first three novels, which Walling considers of greater significance than the subsequent ones; later novels; short fiction, travel literature, and poetry; and, finally, her editorial work on Percy’s writings. Walling addresses the impact of different figures in Mary’s life, such as Percy and Byron, even those less-often considered by scholars: her stepmother and Claire Clairmont. Later, Shelley probes the psychological motivations and disturbances after Percy’s death that influenced her work; Walling tells us that Mary suffered isolation and loneliness as a widow and guilt and remorse for her treatment of Percy while he lived, leading her to idealize and apotheosize him as an act of penance. Finally, the work attempts a balanced and sometimes lenient view of her post-Last Man work, usually dismissed by scholarship as inferior, and her work as an editor, which scholarship normally judges harshly by modern standards. My choice of this work came from a desire to understand the psychological motivations that drove Mary in her work.

Following a brief introduction that outlines Shelley’s life, Walling treats her first three novels, Frankenstein, Valperga, and The Last Man, separately and in depth. Later chapters address post-Last Man fiction; verse; and nonfiction, in particular the Rambles and biographical work.



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Walling approaches Shelley almost as a psychiatrist encounters a patient: facing her as she sits on the couch in the privacy of the office. Shelley analyzes her through two interconnected lenses, biographical and psychoanalytic. Observing that nobody ever saw Mary Shelley “plain,”  Walling remarks that “in her smaller way, the contradictions elicited by her personality have been almost as noticeably diverse as those generated by [Percy] Shelley himself” (142). Her first three novels, he asserts, were her best work; much of this he lays to the memory of Percy Shelley and a small amount to Byron; to this pair Walling adds the influences of other figures on Shelley’s life and work, including Clair Clairmont and stepmother Mary Jane Godwin. To Walling, Percy blessed Mary’s work either because of the inspiration resulting from his physical presence or because Mary used her early efforts to work out and resolve psychological issues over her relationship with Percy while he still lived. For this reason, Walling actually divides her life into sections that emphasize her husband’s presence or absence as the catalyst for inspiration or lack thereof. In fact, Percy’s absence as a guiding light moves Walling to remark that “any study of Mary Shelley must end on a note of regret for her failure to fulfill her early promise” (142). Guilt, remorse, isolation, and disenchantment later in life with republican ideals underlay these novels. Walling’s work takes the reader through the deep recesses of Mary’s mind to find out how her emotions informed her work.


Unexplored Areas

Shelley possesses a number of strengths which render this work a valuable resource of scholarship for the serious researcher who desires to know more than the usual body of scholarship offers, and to explore Mary with some depth and in areas that scholars might not usually explore. Walling is willing to address issues and reasons, even to the point of speculation, for aspects of Mary’s life and work that others usually seem neither to treat or even willing to treat. Often, Shelley scholarship focuses more on themes to the neglect of certain events in Shelley’s life that shaped her. It is unusual, for example, to discuss young Mary’s time of “exile” in Scotland; Walling notes Mary’s attribution of that period as the one that gave birth to her literary spirit. Life-incidents take on new perspective. The elopement with Percy Shelley was beneficial as a liberating move: “With it, at one stroke, she passed from a teen-aged dependence in a home hopelessly burdened with financial worries to a full-fledged participation in a much larger life. With it, too, her uncertain early efforts were given a powerful push forward” because of Percy’s recognition of her gifts" (15).

Shelley also takes the unusual step of observing the influence of certain personages from Mary’s life on her characters, even those often overlooked by scholars. Stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont may have been the inspiration for the unflattering portrayal of Mrs. Derham in Lodore. Normally ignored by scholars, stepsister Claire Clairmont earns Walling’s attention as a crucial player in Mary’s drama. Without her, the elopement might not have succeeded: “In a sense, the true origin of Frankenstein begins not with Mary” (24), but with Claire because the lovers used her as a “blind” to disguise their intimacy from the Godwins. Lord Byron, too, figures in the novel’s background as an “extraordinarily fascinating man” who “appears to have turned Mary’s head for the moment almost as intoxicatingly as he had Claire’s” (27) by removing her writer’s block and providing her inspiration for the story. Even her father’s three novels receive credit for their influence on Frankenstein, an aspect usually unaddressed, and we discover that Samuel Richardson’s novels, such as Pamela and Clarissa, sparked Mary’s interest in the epistolary approach to narrative structure, for Walling asserts that it is “reasonable to conclude … that Mary’s interest in the epistolary novel at this time was closely related to the portions of the novel she herself was then writing” (32).

Other neglected items in Shellyiana garner Walling’s effort. Valperga, normally ignored, despite its faults is one of Shelley’s more “readable” novels and Mary reaches her “highest achievement” in the novel’s characterizations (51). Notable are his extended treatments both of the often-neglected “Promethean” motif in Frankenstein and its complex “point of view” theme that Walling asserts “contributes inevitably to meaning” and serves as “a valuable index” to the concepts of ambition and its dehumanizing impact even on the noble character (35).

Psychology Behind the Works

Walling’s work often dares to explore some of the deep psychological motivations that fed Mary’s creative efforts and influenced her emotional structure. From start to finish, Shelley interweaves its inquiry and speculations into Mary’s thought in what reads sometimes as a scholarly psychoanalytic study. As a work, it provides the serious researcher a solid and intriguing investigation into the emotions that plagued Mary through most of her tragic life.

Nowhere is this aspect perhaps more pronounced than in Walling’s extended treatment of the profound sense of guilt and remorse that Mary experienced after her husband’s death. Physically and emotionally cold and distant toward him in the weeks and months preceding his demise, Mary, Walling implies, sought to commemorate Percy somehow in her work as an act of penance and used literature as a way to atone for her conduct toward him while he was alive. According to Walling, Mary experienced an “instinctive attempt to turn Shelley into a demi-god within her own mind” (77) and “her most obvious resource was to make every restitution that she could to the eidolon of his memory” (77). There were six false starts in her attempting his biography.

Shelley treats in substantial depth how Mary as widow worked out her feelings in The Last Man. While scholars might focus more attention on Frankenstein, Walling discusses Mary’s deep sense of isolation and loneliness as a widow, her feeling as a “last man” in a society that shunned her for her marriage to a controversial figure. For Walling, The Last Man figures as a vital work in which Mary comes to grips with psychological issues that bedeviled her. Mary desired to embody Percy’s memory and his liberal views in Adrian, yet with conservatism and pessimism depicts the failure of republicanism and liberty (an ideal which, interestingly enough, Walling pinpoints as the true “plague” of the novel) and human hopes. Walling attempts to answer the mystery of this ambivalence toward Percy with an explanation of misanthropy in her fiber and of an awareness of humanity’s limitations as well as of resentment towards Percy’s ideas of free love. Furthermore, Shelley intriguingly explores the possibility that Last was Mary’s attempt to resolve an unsettled issue in Valperga, namely, “a conflict between the desire for political power and the demands of [the] emotional nature” (84). Walling projects the question into a larger emotional context: “Mary … by anticipation explores the actual “solution” of Victorian England—and finds it wanting: domesticity is not enough to contain the psychic energies of the aspiring mind” (85).

Balanced Criticism

As a sometime apologist, he is even willing at times to offer balanced criticism and even some defense and justification in areas where critics have misunderstood Mary and judged her harshly. Walling balances the “near unanimity of [the] negative verdict in contemporary appraisals” of Valperga with assertions of its readability and superior characterization (51).

While scholars usually assert that Mary exerted lesser efforts in and attention to The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Falkner, and Lodore, Walling counters this misconception with observations that she conducted extensive research for Perkin and went through a “rigorous revision” of its manuscript (101). Perkin, although “lifeless,” has “superior cohesiveness of plot” and “deserves our respect for the quality of the intelligence which is intermittently displayed in it” (102). Falkner, too, is flawed, but Walling accords it with the commendation that it “easily surpasses Lodore in readability and coherence” (108).

Mary’s short stories also earn some forbearance; although Walling agrees with the consensus of scholarship that Mary’s later work indicated a general decline in demonstrated ability, he is willing to speculate that the short stories might have been better had the gift books that served as her medium been larger: “Mary, aside from any question of the kind of market she had, was hopelessly handicapped within a brief number of pages. Quite clearly, she needed much more space than the short story provided to develop adequately the themes and subjects which were most congenial to her talent” (115).

Walling treats not only Mary’s works, but her role as an editor; while scholarship has tended to judge her harshly in this area, particularly her manipulations of her deceased husband’s work, Shelley balances this trend with “something more positive” in its evaluation and with arguments that shed light on this aspect of her labors that help us to understand more leniently the historical context in which her editoralship operated (134). It is “unrealistic,” he asserts, to judge Mary by modern standards (134). Textual manipulation was common in the nineteenth century, and Mary wanted to counter society’s unfavorable opinion of Percy. Furthermore, Mary faced the daunting task of working with multiple scraps of paper on which Percy wrote and which fragmented his verse, rendering it difficult at minimum for her to make any sense or coherence of his labors. During her work, she had to contend with emotional turbulence that included guilt, grief, financial worries, the ill-treatment of Percy’s father, and society’s treatment of her. Walling concludes with a judgment more forgiving than what he sees most scholars afford her:

Mary should not be judged as an editor by a standard somewhat broader than that of

today’s academic “perfection.” By her own lights—and the editorial lights of her

generation—she was often conscientious to a praiseworthy degree. … [W]hen read with a

willingness to allow Mary her liabilities, she emerges in the notes as a generous, often

passionately sincere, and occasionally quite perceptive commentator on her husband’s

poetry. (137, 141)

While Walling does have his negative criticism for Mary at times, he is willing to offset unfavorable comments with positive criticism, even to the point of forgiving Mary her deficiencies and countering some of general scholarship’s tendency to dismiss and condemn her work as an author.

Wollstonecraft Missing

Despite its strong content and solid value as a resource, Shelley contains several deficiencies that detract from its otherwise meritorious position as a scholarly work. First, Walling as a scholar takes the unusual step to explore the influence of her father, William Godwin, on his daughter’s work, particularly Frankenstein. While most researchers might neglect Godwin’s presence in Mary’s work and career, Walling demonstrates or at least speculates how such works as Caleb Williams, Political Justice, and St. Leon may have provided “a number of probable influences” on the motifs of Frankenstein (49).

However, there is absolutely no mention anywhere in the work of potential feminine influence from her deceased mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Growing up in the household of a man who took pains to commemorate his wife and who espoused liberal, even radical, ideals, Mary would plausibly have been exposed to her mother’s works and ideas. Given the current interest in women’s studies and the position that these studies occupy in the academy, it would seem vital that Shelley address any influence that Wollstonecraft’s works might have exerted from beyond the grave.

In Shelley's Shadow

An additional weakness exhibits itself in Walling’s facile attempt to divide Mary’s life into three parts: pre-Shelley, with Shelley, and post-Shelley. This willingness to make neat divisions moves him to “conveniently divide” her life into parts that focus more on Shelley’s presence and absence in her life as a driving or animating force than empowering her with the image of a woman who can live in her own right, autonomous, independent, free of any simplistic compartmentalization (16). Ironically, while Walling describes and desires to counter previous scholars’ and critics’ dismissal and discounting of much of her work as worthless (Preface), this division of her life draws away from her position as an important woman and makes the driving purpose, the reason for her existence and any worth or value she has a writer, dependent on her husband and not on any effort of her own. Mary’s post-Last Man work is “undermined by a pervasive emotional and intellectual incoherence … unvivified by Shelley’s actual presence” (99). Essentially, any categorization of and value in understanding Mary rests not on her own merits, but must rely on the ever-present shadow of Percy.


Finally, Walling demonstrates some inconsistency in his attitude toward Mary’s post-Last Man work. While his Preface notes a bias in the scholarly corpus which treats post-Frankenstein work as “a tiresome mass of wasted effort,” he himself later asserts that “[a]side from her first three novels, little of Mary’s fiction repays detailed attention” (101) because Shelley was not present to ignite her with the inspiring fire of creativity. Later, however, he is willing to afford Mathilda with a “partial exception” to “the absence of emotional and intellectual significance” in Mary’s late work (109). However, even this moderate praise he is quick to diminish in explaining Mathilda as a product of Percy Shelley’s presence, with the inspiration that it gave Mary’s early efforts (109). Moreover, Walling appears to contradict himself in his assertion that none of her short stories “possesses much intrinsic interest for the modern reader,” while “[o]ccasionally, it is true, a successful effect is achieved” (113). On the one hand, Walling appears through his work to try to defend and reclaim Mary’s reputation, while on the other at times seems to dismiss or even belittle her later contributions.


For the scholar that desires a greater and deeper understanding of Mary Shelley not only as a writer, but as a person, William Walling’s Mary Shelley stands out as a work not only of depth, but also of willingness to accord her a certain amount of leniency in attempting not so much to judge, but to understand and comprehend the psychological motivations behind Mary’s efforts as an author. Shelley is willing to explore areas that scholars either do not or will not. While scholarship and the public image may be tempted to treat Shelley one-dimensionally as only the author of Frankenstein, what he calls “not an entirely isolated phenomenon” (143), Walling attempts to portray her as psychologically complex, a complicated author whose emotional turbulence found its way richly into her work, particularly The Last Man, what he asserts has “its own independent significance” (143). In so doing, his work is willing to treat the influences of certain personages as well as events on Mary’s efforts; Walling addresses with especially admirable depth her attempts to cope with conflicting feelings about Percy and how this struggle played out in her career, although he oversimplifies the significance of Percy by limiting any categorization of the phases of Mary’s life through the lens of Percy’s presence or absence in that life. Mary should be understood, at times forgiven; as such, more than often with an attempt at fairness and balance, Walling at times exhibits generosity in defending and even justifying Mary in the face of censure and dismissive attitudes. Twice he notes her “significance as a writer” (Preface, 142). Mary Shelley provides that portrait with great depth and generosity.

Further Reading

Grylls, R. G. Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1938.

The Letters of Mary W. Shelley. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946.

Marshall, Mrs. Julian. The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1889.

Mary Shelley’s Journal. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947.

Nitchie, Elizabeth. Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1953.

Norman, Sylvia. The Flight of the Skylark: The Development of Shelley’s Reputation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Spark, Muriel. Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Hadleigh: Essex, England: Tower Bridge Publications, 1951.

Contributed by Garrett Jeter