Like the adult I am today, I was a shy child who easily developed obsessive tendencies to watch my favorite films and documentaries over and over again. Unlike today, as a child I did not have YouTube or the incredibly fast Internet to quench my near-hysterical preoccupations with actors, films, books, TV shows, etc. The only things I did have were the family VCR and a set of parents who were willing to tape-record anything on TV that related to my passions. That’s how I first fell in love with Mary Shelley.
In the mid-90s, A&E still produced works that were actually related to arts and entertainment, and in 1994, they released the documentary It's Alive: The True Story of Frankenstein. My parents, kind-hearted and anxious to encourage my interests, recorded it on a blank VHS, which I watched and re-watched religiously. In an effort to frighten and entertain their young children (the reason why they wanted to scare us is now lost to time), my parents also had my sister and I watch a great deal of classic Universal Studios monster movies, and of course, nothing frightened me or broke my heart quite like Frankenstein. Soon though, the eerily human and abandoned creature was replaced by someone even more intriguing and occasionally tragic: his creator, Mary Shelley.
It was while watching the above documentary that I first learned the now famous and romantic tale of the birth of Mary’s novel: a ghost story contest dreamed up by Lord Byron (who else would come up with such a deliciously sinister activity?) to pass the time as he, Mary, Percy Shelley, Percy’s doctor, John William Polidori and Mary’s stepsister, Claire (pregnant by Lord Byron — again, who else?) waited out the “wet, ungenial summer” of 1816 on Lake Geneva. Out of this rather innocuous suggestion, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was born and a teenaged girl helped create and perfect an entirely new genre of fiction.
There was, and still is, something thrilling for me, a young, awkward girl who loved Star Wars and ghost stories, to know that another young girl, not much older than me, all but invented science fiction as we know it today. I was also pleased that a 19-year-old woman essentially out-wrote both Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, an act that would’ve definitely made her feminist mother, the late Mary Wollstonecraft, very proud.
I spent hours watching and rewinding that documentary, desperate to catch every little tidbit of information I could about this teenager. The paintings the documentary used to illustrate her showed a pale and rather severe-looking woman, one who looked almost reluctant to admit that she had written such a moving, deeply layered novel which focused on science and its relation to humanity. It’s no wonder, therefore, that I preferred watching the opening to the Universal film, The Bride of Frankenstein, in which Elsa Lanchester played a coy and elfin-like Mary Shelley being teased by a prissy Lord Byron. Though this Mary Shelley was frightened by lightning, she also believed wholeheartedly in her work and was proud of what she had written. She was also capable of great and somewhat disturbing depths: When Lord Byron declares her “an angel,” Mary looks up from her needlework, smiles coquettishly and questions (as a roll of thunder symbolically sounds), “You think so?”
Later in that scene, in a moment that both calls back to Mary’s own familial background in feminism and is strangely modern in thought, Lord Byron expresses amazement at Mary’s entry in the ghost story contest:
Lord Byron: Look at her, Shelley. Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein, a monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves? Isn't it astonishing?
Mary: I don't know why you should think so. What do you expect? Such an audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn't I write of monsters?
That final (and fictional) question posited by Mary has inspired me more than most historical feminist quotes. As a young girl, it was thrilling to see a pretty woman capable of crafting something horrifying and challenging.
Though the real Mary Shelley never asked that and though none of her later books reached the critical or popular acclaim as Frankenstein, she still inspires me to this day. After all, she wrote prolifically, promoted the work of her late husband and raised a well-adjusted son by herself, even when suffering from ill health (nearly dying at least once from a miscarriage) and while being pursued by unwanted romantic admirers and blackmailers. Mary Wollstonecraft may have been the more ardent feminist, but it’s her daughter who owns a great deal of my heart.
For Mary Shelley’s birthday, you can celebrate it any number of ways: checking out the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein films (still the best versions, though completely inaccurate) or picking up one of her lesser-known works, like The Last Man. Or, like me, you could simply take the time to recognize and respect the fact that a teenaged girl changed literary history forever and helped craft a new genre that is unfairly viewed as masculine. And you can promise to never belittle the work of teenaged girls again because, as Mary showed us, they have depths of passion and reflection the likes of which Romantic poets only wish they could express.
Kerry Fiallo is a New York native and a freelance writer afflicted with an overwhelming love for books and black tea. She is currently in the process of attaining a Doctorate in Women’s and Gender Studies and has her Master’s in English Literature. Along with contributing here, she is an editor and writer for The Geekiary. Follow along with her adventures through fandom and feminism on Twitter: @FangirlingDaily
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