Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851) is best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and the wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But that does not begin to describe the full and unconventional life she led.
Mary’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author, philosopher, educationist, and “considered the first feminist”. Mary’s father was William Godwin, author, publisher, and considered the “first modern anarchist philosopher”. Mary’s mother died soon after Mary was born leaving William Godwin to raise his daughter Mary and Mary’s older half-sister. A few years later, William Godwin married again to a neighbor lady with two children of her own. Mary detested her new step-mother but came to love her step-sister Claire.
William Godwin’s renown did not provide much income and the family was often only one step away from debtor’s prison. Godwin often depended on his students to support him and one such aristocratic student was Percy Bysshe Shelley.
When Mary was nearly 17 and Percy nearly 22 – but already married – Mary and Percy fell in love and began secretly meeting at Mary’s mother’s grave site. When Godwin discovered the relationship, he furiously disapproved. As much as he needed Percy’s money, Godwin wanted to preserve his daughter’s “spotless fame.” So, on July 28, 1814, Percy and Mary and Mary’s stepsister Claire eloped to France leaving behind Percy’s pregnant wife and their angry families.
They did not have an easy time. Percy’s family had cut off his money because they were worried he would squander it supporting people and schemes they thought were radical. Eventually Mary and Percy ran out of money and had to return to England. Mary was surprised to discover that her disapproving father would have nothing to do with them. Mary was also pregnant but had to deal with the fact that Percy’s legal wife had just had a son and Percy was happy and proud of his new fatherhood. Then Mary had a premature baby girl who lived less than two weeks. Mary fell into a deep depression that lasted until her second child, a boy nicknamed Willmouse was born in January 1816.
Later in 1816, Mary and her small family left England form Switzerland. Mary’s step-sister Claire was pregnant by their friend and fellow author Lord Byron and Claire wanted to hide the pregnancy from society and to rekindle her relationship with Byron. One evening while the group was in the Villa Diodati on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and entertaining themselves by reading ghost stories, Lord Byron proposed they all try their hands at writing similar horror stories. Percy apparently wrote nothing and Lord Bryon started but never finished a story. But two very famous stories did come out of the evening. Bryon’s physician, John Pollidori, wrote The Vampyre: A Tale. And Mary began a story, based in part on a dream she had had after her first child died, that became Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. She was only 19 years old.
Mary, Percy, and Claire returned to England in 1816 and in short order their lives descended into total chaos. Mary’s half-sister committed suicide on October 10 and Percy’s wife drowned herself in a lake in the very famous Hyde Park in London. His dead wife’s family contested Percy’s custody of his own children so Percy and Mary married to help improve his case. But Percy was found “morally unfit” and his children were given to a clergyman to raise in 1817. And later in 1817, Mary had a third child, Clara.
Mary, Percy, and Claire and their children (Claire had had a daughter) fled England in 1818. Mary was in ill health and they were in deep debt again and also worried that the courts might take away Mary’s two children. But their problems did not improve in Europe. Lord Byron took Claire’s child to raise but put the child in a convent where she eventually fell ill and died. Mary’s two children also died. Clara in Venice in September 1818 and Willmouse in Rome in June 1819. Mary again fell into deep depression until November 1819 when her fourth child, Percy Florence, was born.
The little group moved to Italy but their fortunes still did not improve. Mary was often ill and depressed and Percy was showing interest in other women. (He may have had a child by another woman, possibly Mary’s step-sister Claire, in Naples). In June 1822, a once again pregnant Mary miscarried and almost bled to death. She was saved only because a desperate Percy put her in an ice bath to try to stop the bleeding. Then on July 1, 1822. Percy and a friend took a new sailing boat down the Italian coast to visit Lord Byron. They left to return home on July 8 but ran into a storm. Lord Byron and other friends searched for them to no avail. Their dead bodies washed ashore ten days later and Lord Byron and the others cremated Percy, his friend, and their sailor on the beach where they were found.
Mary returned to England a year later with a mission. She needed to provide for herself and her son, Percy Florence, and she wanted to give her beloved dead husband the fame she felt he deserved. Mary did receive a small allowance from her father-in-law, especially after her husband’s legal son by his long dead wife died and Percy Florence became the legal heir to the Shelley estate, but mostly she supported her family by her writings. In the 1820s and 1830s, Mary often wrote short stories for gift books and annuals which was a profitable marketplace for her and other authors of the day. She wrote 21 short stories between 1823 and 1839. Mary also wrote several novels and worked to see her husband’s writings published although she was often hampered by her father-in-law who did not want to see his son’s name in print. Mary was proud of her ability to support her family and considered herself an author and novelist. She is quoted as saying:
“I think that I can maintain myself, and there is something inspiriting in the idea.”
Mary’s son, Percy Florence, inherited the Shelley estate in 1844 and married in 1848. In her later years, Mary Shelley suffered headaches and bouts of paralysis (they began in 1839). Mary died on February 1, 1851 at age 53 of a suspected brain tumor.
Our story, The Invisible Girl, was originally published in the November / December 1832 edition of The Keepsake for MDCCCXXX111. This was one of the profitable annuals that many leading authors of the day wrote for. These annuals were aimed at middle-class women and were bound in silk with gilt-edged pages.
Mary Shelley’s short stories were often concerned with the female identity and “the way a person’s role in the world can be cataclysmically altered either by an internal emotional upheaval, or by some supernatural occurrence that mirrors an internal schism.” Most of Mary’s short fiction “have a melancholy air” and she often utilized the supernatural. Even though our story, The Invisible Girl, is very short (only about 36 pages long) it touches a bit on all those points in the character of sweet Rosina and her position, or lack thereof, in the family that raised her.
The Invisible Girl is a story of forbidden love. A wealthy gentleman brings an orphan, Rosina, into his house and raises her with his own son, Henry. Henry and Rosina grow up and fall in love. The wealthy gentleman, Sir Peter, does not notice the romance in his household until his venomous sister comes to live with him and discovers the young lovers. Sir Peter then does his best to break the lovers apart. Will Rosina and Henry be separated forever? Read The Invisible Girl to find out.
Normally I am not a big fan of Gothic Romance, which The Invisible Girl definitely is. I prefer more action and a lot less hand wringing, more succinct writing and a lot less florid and over-wrought meanderings. But The Invisible Girl is so short that I was able to breeze through it without falling prey to Gothic Romance overkill. There is still all the emotion, atmosphere, and hints of the supernatural common to the Gothic Romance but it is in small manageable doses and does not slow down the pacing of the story.
Among some of my favorite line:
- “The deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled – as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally.”
- “Night came on pitchy dark and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury.”
- ” ‘Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,’ muttered Vernon.”
- “A widowed sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof.”
- “When the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail.”
- “Night was her dearest time, for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness.”
There are some things in the story that do fall prey to the over-wrought imagination, some things that really don’t hold up to the light of day (Where exactly was Rosina when the men were in the tower? Why exactly can the mysterious light be seen then not seen?). But that’s sort of what can be expected in a Gothic Romance. The story itself is very simple: Boy and Girl fall in love, evil relatives try to separate them. Rosina is a bit of a dishrag (but then, remember, I prefer more action from my heroines) and Henry is a stalwart and devoted lover (I liked that he never really bowed to his family). The shortness of the story means I was able to read it quickly in about an hour one evening which meant it was a quick, enjoyable read.
Overall, The Invisible Girl is short and sweet. It has some Gothic Romance elements, including spooky and brooding atmosphere and a hint of the supernatural, but those elements do not bury the story. Is Rosina alive? Do Rosina and Henry ever find each other again? You’ll have to read The Invisible Girl to find out.
Of course, the best thing about The Invisible Girl by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is that it is FREE in the Public Domain.
Please click this link and go to LibriVox and listen to or download a short story collection. The Invisible Girl is story #10.
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