by Terry Prue
“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
This is Mary Shelley’s description of how she imagined the creation of a living being, Frankenstein. She was just 18 and taking part in a ghost-story contest in June 1816 at the Villa Diodati at Geneva. Her life was as eventful as the gothic novels she would become famous for writing and included a short episode in Ramsgate.
Her mother was the pre-eminent feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father, William Godwin, a leading English theorist of the French Revolution. The ‘Godwins’ had married just in time to legitimise the birth of Mary on 30th August 1797. Tragedy then struck as birth complications lead to her mother’s death just 10 days later. When William Godwin married again Mary and her stepmother never bonded and emotional stress probably contributed to an outbreak of eczema. Their doctor prescribed a 6-month treatment of salt-water therapy and in May 1811 Mary was placed in Caroline Petman’s school for the daughters of dissenters at 92 High Street, Ramsgate.
She remained as a boarder, and perhaps as a pupil, until 19th December 1811 but she was not cured until 1814 when she was described as “… a very different person from the little Mary who went to Ramsgate in 1811. Although only sixteen and a half she was in the bloom of her girlhood, very pretty, very interesting in appearance, thoughtful and intelligent beyond her years” (*)
Mary was clearly advanced in other ways too as she was still sixteen when she fell in love with Percy Shelley. One year later in 1816 Mary twice gave birth to children by Shelley (although the first died within days), conceived the Frankenstein story, mourned the suicide of her step-sister, Fanny, and married Percy on December 30th less than three weeks after his previous wife’s pregnant body was found in the Serpentine.
Tragedy continued to revisit her life and her husband also died by drowning in1822 when Mary was only 25. She herself died of brain cancer in 1851, aged 53, and is buried in Bournemouth alongside her father and mother and the cremated remains of Percy Shelley’s heart. (*)
‘The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume 1” by Florence A. Thomas Marshall 1889.