Frankenstein, Death & the Tragic Life of Mary Shelley (Anniversary Series #5)
Frankenstein is all about death. Death is embodied not only in the creature, composed of dead human and animal body parts, scientifically brought to life, but especially in the many deaths this creature brings about – from Frankenstein’s child brother William (and indirectly, Justine, who the monster frames for the crime), to Frankenstein’s closest friend Henry Clerval, and even his new bride Elizabeth Lavenza. Deaths are also present in other ways: just before Frankenstein leaves for Ingolstadt to complete his education, his mother dies from illness, and his father later dies of grief and shock after Elizabeth’s death and the harrowing incidents haunting Frankenstein’s life. Indeed, death begins to stalk Frankenstein in ever greater measure until his own final moments, which leads Frankenstein to assume that he lives a cursed life – a wretch, doomed to wander the earth alone, in the company only of his departed loved ones who people his dreams (his waking life has become a living nightmare). This may sound like a tragic, gothic plot, but did you know that Mary Shelley’s life was itself even more tragic, and that it even began to eerily resemble, in many ways, the cursed fate of her eponymous character?
The previous post in this Anniversary Series explored Mary Shelley’s early loss of her mother when she was only 10 days old, and the ways that she lived with a sense of the ghostly at her mother’s grave to feel connected to this most important figure in her life. Her early familiarity with death created a keen awareness of the devastating effects of loss and tragedy – a feeling that Shelley would only experience more frequently, and in greater measure, as her life went on. Just 16 years after the publication of Frankenstein, she would feel like her life was doomed to the lonely sadness of one who has lost, one after the other, nearly every one closest to her. On the 2 Dec 1834, in language that strongly recalls Frankenstein’s habitation in his dreams where he finds the only solace from his death-stalked life, Mary Shelley wrote of her own life in her journal:
“Loneliness has been the curse of my life – What should I have done if my Imagination had not been my companion? I must have grovelled on the earth – I must have died – O but my dreams my darling sun bright dreams! They peopled the Churchyard I was doomed so young to wander in.”
After her half sister Fanny, and Percy Shelley’s pregnant first wife Harriet both took their lives within months of each other – both of which would haunt Mary’s conscience – some of the most significant, crippling and lasting losses that Mary Shelley endured were those of her infant children. After suffering the loss of her own mother after childbirth, Mary herself would struggle with pregnancy illness, premature births, a near miscarriage in which she would have died had her husband Percy not thought to sit her in a tub of ice to stem the bleeding until help could be sought, and most tragically, despite her five pregnancies, only one child would survive past infancy. Her first child was a daughter, Clara, born two months premature when Mary was just 17. The attending physician wasn’t hopeful about the baby’s survival, but Mary was determined. She managed to get the infant to nurse, after which the physician admitted more hope for the child. However, mere weeks after her birth, Mary’s daughter died, not waking from her sleep. Mary wrote to a friend, “I am no longer a mother now.”
This first loss of a child had a devastating and lasting effect on Mary. She wrote in another journal entry of a dream she had that would profoundly impact her ideas of rejuvenating life in Frankenstein:
“Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.” (19 March 1815).
It was unfortunately an experience that would recur with haunting frequency in her life. Her next child, a son named William (after her father and brother, but in eerie likeness to the murdered boy of her novel), and the daughter, Clara Everina, that followed, would both die in short succession. William was three years old when he died, the darling of both his father and mother. Mary Shelley would later write in a letter that she “ought to have died on the 7th of June” with William. Another letter records her “wretchedness and despair” at having lost “two only and lovely children in one year – to watch their dying moments.” She felt she was “not fit for anything and therefore not fit to live.”
As if these tragedies weren’t enough, Mary would also suffer the death of her husband Percy when she was only 24 years old, and after only 8 years together. While they were abroad, Percy had taken his boat out for a sailing trip, but it was caught in a storm. When he didn’t return from his trip, Mary spent days anxiously awaiting news, until finally Percy’s drowned body was discovered washed ashore, identifiable only by his clothes and the book he was carrying in his pocket. His body was temporarily buried on the beach, before being exhumed and then cremated on the shore. During the cremation, an attending friend noticed something refusing to burn, and he plucked what was thought to be Percy’s heart (possibly calcified from earlier bouts of tuberculosis) from the flames. It was eventually given to Mary, who kept it with her for her remaining days.
Mary’s resilience in the face of the many tragedies in her life can partly be put down to the way she turned to her imagination, creativity and writing, but though she would continue to support herself and her surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley, with her writing, Mary would never quite recover from these losses. Three months after her husband’s death, she wrote: “Tell me the truth, Beloved, where are you? And when shall I join you? They are all gone & I live—if it be life to be as I am.” Years later she wrote: “instead of the cheerful voices of the living, I have dwelt among the early tombs of those I loved.” When Mary herself died in 1851, Percy’s heart was found in her desk drawer, wrapped in a sheet of his poetry, along with locks of Clara’s and William’s hair.
What do you think of Mary Shelley’s tragic story? Share your thoughts in the comments below.