Mary Shelley: Mother of Sci-Fi

Earlier this month I finished reading Frankenstein, a surprisingly short book (only 160 pages) that almost single-handedly launched the modern science fiction genre. You guys know the story: idiot scientist gets full of himself, sews a bunch of different pieces from various corpses together, and creates a monster who destroys everything he loves. Fun times.

This article is not going to be a run-down of that book. You should honestly read it yourself. Despite the fact that it’s not exactly a feminist book (written in the early 19th century, focuses exclusively on the guys, all the women end up dead, etc.), it’s still a very good, chilling read. And like I said, it’s short, so it goes by pretty quick.

As this isn’t SparkNotes, we’re going to be talking about Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley. Interestingly, Frankenstein was one of Mary’s earliest writings, penned at the age of eighteen at the start of a long writing career. You can kind of tell as you’re reading it; the book is very raw.

It was also written on a dare.

Now here’s the fun part. Once, an eighteen-year-old Mary and her husband Percy Shelley (well, technically he was just her boyfriend because he was kind of already married when they ran off together . . . heh heh) traveled throughout Europe. They were both writers–poets, to be specific–but were struggling financially, barely scraping by as they bounced from country to country. In 1816, they were in Switzerland, visiting their friends Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, all of them bored because it was raining outside.

Lord Byron suggested that they all write a poem.

They all agreed. And then they all failed. Even Mary failed to come up with an appropriate poem, but that’s because she decided to write a story instead.

Now, this kind of backstory usually has the writer blitzing out a manuscript within a handful of days, doing a little editing and then voila! It’s magically published, though whether or not the writer gets the adoring fans and international fame during their lifetime or after they die penniless and miserable is a fifty-fifty chance.

Not the case with Mary Shelley. She had writer’s block for weeks after that bet and couldn’t write a damn word. (I feel you, girl.) All she knew was that she wanted to write a horror story, something she had never done before. She finally broke through the block when she had a nightmare about a creature with glowing eyes staring down at her as she slept.

That scene is in the book. Right after Dr. Frankenstein makes his monster, he goes to sleep, only to wake up with it staring down at him, watching him. Very disturbing.

Mary’s book was a smash hit immediately, although she published it anonymously first and everyone thought her husband wrote it because he penned the introduction. But soon enough, she got the credit she deserved, and she was able to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle because of it.

So that’s it. If there’s a moral to the story, I guess it’s do the stupid writing dare, because you don’t know where it’ll take you.

Also, fun fact: you know how Mary’s husband was a poet? She has one of the characters quote a poem of his in Frankenstein. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.

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