Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft née Godwin, 1797—1851
by Benjamin Colbert
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was born in London, only daughter of the radical authors William Godwin (1756-1836; ODNB) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797; ODNB). Her mother died within days of her birth, leaving her and an older natural daughter, Fanny Imlay Godwin (1794–1816; ODNB) to be raised by Godwin. In December 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Vial Clairmont (1766—1841; ODNB) who brought three additional children into the family: Charles Gaulis Clairmont, Clara Mary Jane (later Claire) Clairmont (1798-1879; ODNB)), both children of previous liaisons, and William Godwin, Jr.
With her family home frequented by leading intellectuals and authors, Mary Godwin’s education was unorthodox but comprehensive, including the study of French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. In 1811, she continued her education in a boarding school at the sea resort, Ramsgate, and the following year travelled to Dundee where she resided with friends until March 1814, returning to London. It was at that time that she met and fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822; ODNB) who had become a frequent visitor at the Godwin house. Though Percy Shelley was already married, Mary Godwin ‘eloped’ with him (accompanied by her half sister Claire Clairmont), and fled to France and Switzerland, returning by the Rhine, six weeks later.
In 1816, the year after Waterloo, the trio returned to the Continent residing near Lake Geneva. The experiences of the 1814 and 1816 tours form the substance of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley's jointly written travelogue, History of a Six Weeks Tour, revised and edited by Mary in 1817, as well as the Alpine scenes in her first novel Frankenstein (1818). The Shelleys returned to the continent in 1818, touring Italy extensively before settling near Pisa. A year after Shelley's untimely death in 1822, Mary Shelley returned to England where she devoted herself to raising her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, and to literary pursuits with which she supplemented the financial support rendered to her son, heir to the Shelley estate, by Shelley’s father.
After 1823 Mary Shelley resided in England. However, she visited Paris in April-May 1828 and, in June 1840, undertook a tour of Germany, Switzerland, and Northern Italy with her son and several of his Cambridge friends during the university summer holidays, outstaying them and residing at Paris from September to January. A second tour followed in June 1842 to August 1843 which included Germany and Italy (including Venice, Florence, and Rome). An account of the two tours appeared as Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (2 vols, 1844). She left England once more in July-September 1846 to visit the Spa of Baden-Baden hoping to recover from a persistent illness. She died of a brain tumour on 1 February 1851.
Bennett, Betty T. 'Shelley [née Godwin], Mary Wollstonecraft (1797–1851), writer'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 29 May 2014. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 July 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/25311
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980-88. Print.
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