Monday, March 1, 2010

From Mary Shelley's Journal, Winter 1815 (note: ECU has multiple copies of the Journals)

(at right: a miniature portrait of Mary Shelley as a young woman, part of the collection of her relics at the Bodleian Library, at the University of Oxford)

From a biographical point of view, it is important to consider what Mary Shelley saw and experienced between 1814 (her elopement with Shelley) and 1818, the first publication of Frankenstein. In this relatively short period of time, she traveled throughout Europe, gave birth to and lost several children, met some of the great writers of the age, and read widely in many languages. Yet perhaps most significant to the novel is the experience of losing young children—devastating to any mother, much less a woman barely out of her teens. The following excerpts from her Journal, though fragmentary, suggest a uniquely feminine perspective on the origin of Frankenstein…

Thursday, February 23-24, 1815: [Percy Shelley writing] Mary quite well: the child, unexpectedly, alive, but still not expected to live…Dr. Clarke calls; confirms out hopes of the child. Shelley [himself, speaking in the third person] very unwell…The child very well; Marie very well also; drawing milk all day. Shelley is very unwell.

Monday, March 6: Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg. Talk. A miserable day. In the evening read “Fall of the Jesuits.” Hogg sleeps here.

Thursday, March 9. Read and talk. Still think about my little baby—‘tis hard, indeed, for a mother to lose a child. Hogg and Charles Clairmont come in the evening…

Monday, March 13: Shelley and Clara go to town. Stay at home; net, and think of my little dead baby. This is foolish, I suppose; yet, whenever I am left alone to my own thoughts, and do not read to divert then, they always come back to the same point—that I was a mother, and am so no longer.

Sunday, March 19. Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits. Shelley is very unwell…

Monday, March 20. Dream again about my baby…

Compare to this to the following passage in Frankenstein, Chapter III, page 50:

“I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil; the void that presents itself to the soul; and the despair that is exhibited on the countenance. It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed forever—that the brightness of a beloved eye can have been extinguished, and the sound of a voice so familiar, and dear to the ear, can be hushed, never more to be heard. These are the reflections of the first days; but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences. Yet from who has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? and why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel? The time at length arrives, when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished. My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform; we must continue our course with the rest, and learn to think ourselves fortunate, whilst one remains whom the spoiler has not seized.”


  1. When I was reading in Chapter III, I found myself reading this paragraph more than once. I related to it so deeply--particularly the point at which she writes "but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences."
    This has been (in my experience) so very, very true. There is something to be said for the numbing that happens and the defenses that take shape at the onset and in the early days of a tragedy like child-loss. However, there is nothing more brutal than the point in time at which the numbness stops and the days stretch on and there's no way to get away from the grief that is choking you.

    One of the things that would most certainly bear noting is that in both the Chapter III excerpt and in Mary's journal entries--she seems apologetic for feeling the grief, as if her grieving was something indulgent and not well done of her.
    Perhaps it was the time period or perhaps it is the notion that mother's must go forward--but it is a sad thing (but one that I have found as well) that we apologize for our tears, for feeling, questioning if we feel too much (or not enough) too often (or not often enough).. as if there is some rule book somewhere that says "here is how it's done".
    Always the proprieties...

  2. Thank you for responding to this! Sorry to relive the pain and torment you experienced, but you do bring a very useful perspective to this reading. What you say is very to the point: Shelley, as a woman, could not "indulge" herself in grief. She is apologetic both in Frankenstein and in her diary (one work which was anonymous, the other totally private), which shows the profound depth of propriety in the early 19th century. This is what Wollstonecraft was fighting against--this ephemeral ideal for a woman who cannot truly feel or know her own mind, and must censure herself at every opportunity less she be judged "uncivil" or "unsexed." Even in the depths of her loss, she still had to be Shelley's wife, still had to recieve vistitors, take walks, pay visits, etc. Life could not stop for even the death of a child. That she wrote about it at all reveals the profound depth of her sorrow--and her desperate abilities to bring it under control. I believe Frankenstein, in a large part, was a kind of artistic exorcism for her, since so much of it reflects her experience both as creator and victim. Very good points we'll have to continue to pursue in class...