This year, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s pioneering novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, turns 203 years old.
Here are 5 reasons why we should remember and celebrate Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her work.
Mary’s father was the pioneering anarchist philosopher William Godwin, the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, among many other works. He also effectively showed how an author could use fiction to explore his political and social concerns, yielding the first English-language mystery novel, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams.
Mary’s mother was the path-breaking, classical-liberal feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for her A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft also explored her philosophical ideas through fiction; in fact, Charlotte Gordon’s 2015 dual biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, convincingly argues that Wollstonecraft’s ideas and works had a profound impact on her daughter, an influence that critics largely have overlooked. You can read my thoughts on the book here: “Feminism, Frankenstein, and Freedom.”
Proto-science fiction is as old as antiquity. In the Gothic literature that preceded modern science fiction, authors such as Ann Radcliffe perfected the technique of “the Gothic explained.” They depicted sensational, apparently supernatural events, played on readers’ emotions, and waited until the end to explain how every seemingly fantastic twist and turn had a rational explanation.
Mary Shelley neatly flipped that formula and prefaced Frankenstein by noting that the “event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.”
In establishing that her fictional extrapolations about galvanism and the spark of life rested on firm scientific foundations, and then going on to explore in depth what it means to be human — because you and I are Frankenstein’s Creature, dear readers — Shelley gave birth to modern science fiction.
Eight years after Frankenstein, Mary published the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel The Last Man (1826). While its fame pales in comparison with Frankenstein, its substance is comparably rich.
This novel casts the author herself as the sole survivor of a worldwide plague left to clean up the mess of the brilliant but reckless Romantics, who ultimately had found liberty far more to their taste than the responsibility that should go along with it.
Mary metaphorically kills off Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the world she had known as a young woman in the process of considering which people, institutions, and ideas bend in the face of crisis and which break.
Shelley’s works of historical fiction also include significant philosophical content. Valperga (1823), for example, provides a feminist response to Walter Scott’s male-centric narratives.
Perkin Warbeck (1830) offers a gender-inclusive narrative that defies the masculine perspective on power politics.
Readers and critics today who praise the likes of novelist Philippa Gregory for her innovation in restoring women’s voices to our understanding of history don’t mention that Mary Shelley was doing the very same thing a century and a half ago.
The other great cornerstone figures of modern science fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells all owe a debt to Mary Shelley. You can see her influence today in films like 2015’s Ex Machina and fiction such as 2016’s Frankenstein-inspired story collections.
But Shelley was inspiring others even during her lifetime. For example, Jane C. Webb Loudon penned another early work of science fiction, 1827’s The Mummy! or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, specifically as an answer to Frankenstein. I recount the story of this work in my “Looking Back on Genre History” segment on Episode 258 of the StarShipSofa podcast.
In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s appropriate to close with this quote from The Last Man:
“Life is before me and I rush into possession. Hope, glory, love, and blameless ambition are my guides, and my soul knows no dread. What has been, though sweet, is gone; the present is good only because it is about to change, and the to come is all my own.”
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This article was originally published on the Learn Liberty blog.
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