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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan

Mary Shelley - Part One


Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century a new style of writing developed – the Gothic Novel. The hallmarks of this type of fiction were strange, mysterious and disturbing locations such as decaying mansions or haunted castles. There is often a supernatural element, either claimed to be real or merely suggested. The first true Gothic novel was “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) published anonymously by Horace Walpole who was an MP at the time. The novel was well-received at first as Walpole claimed he had been simply the translator of an ancient manuscript. When he revealed himself as the actual author in the 2nd edition, critical estimation plummeted—a fate that has befallen many works of Speculative Fiction. The next milestone was the 1794 publication of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe. In this, the supernatural element played a greater part and the work became extremely popular—so much so that Jane Austen was moved to satirise it in her “Northanger Abbey”. However, the Gothic novel refused to die and can be found today in the foundations of both Horror and Science Fiction. It was into this literary milieu that Mary Shelley found herself drawn. She was the daughter of the political theorist William Godwin and the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft; her mother died shortly after giving birth to Mary. Her father was a political radical and attracted many like minds to his circle; one of whom was the even more radical and shockingly atheist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He and Mary eloped, even though Shelley was still married at the time. He married Mary after his first wife committed suicide. She had four children with Shelley although only one survived. The first had died not long before she wrote her famous novel. In 1816 she, Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and a few others spent some time near Geneva. The weather was atrocious and the group was forced to spend many days indoors. Mary was interested in the scientific developments of the day and especially the burgeoning interest in electrical phenomena. Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani in the preceding century had performed experiments on “animal electricity” and Galvani is famous for making a dead frog’s legs jump by the application of an electrical current. Mary stated that his findings were among the works that she read on the stormy days of their stay at Geneva. These ideas were to play a large part in the development of her novel.

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