When writing about women in horror, it’s almost impossible not to mention Mary Shelley.
Who was Mary Shelley? She was the daughter of two brilliant and unconventional thinkers, whose mother died in childbirth. A gifted and unconventional thinker herself, she read and wrote in five languages, and set herself an ambitious reading program. She was a pregnant teenager– just sixteen– who, accompanied by her half-sister, ran away from home with Percy Shelley, an older, married man. Disowned by her father, looked down on because she was an unmarried mother for most of that time, she saw three of her children die at a young age, the first just a few weeks after she was born.
Pregnancy must have been often on her mind often, and the consequences were often unpleasant: Shelley’s wife was pregnant when he ran away with Mary (she eventually committed suicide); and Mary’s half-sister was abandoned by Lord Byron when she announced she was carrying his child. It was in the midst of these events that Mary Shelley birthed her novel, Frankenstein. Yet, Mary loved being a mother and loved her children. People familiar with the genesis of Frankenstein know the story of the wager made one dark and stormy night at the Villa Diodiati, between Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley; but Mary Shelley’s creation did not emerge from a vacuum. Her birth, which caused her mother’s death; her witness to the abandonment of other pregnant women (Shelley’s wife and her own half-sister); and the early death of her first child, all combined in the emotions and mind of an intellectually advanced teenage girl with intense emotions who was fascinated by the world around her.
In Literary Women, Ellen Moers relates that shortly after the death of Mary’s first child, she wrote “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”. It’s no surprise, then, that the nightmare she wrote is a vision of the terrible power and consequences that accompany the creation, the possibility of reanimation, and the death of a living creature. In Frankenstein is a synthesis of all the guilt, fear of abandonment, joy, and pain that Mary felt– a story narrated by men and monsters that illuminates a woman’s complex feelings about birth, parenthood, and death.