In Celebration of Mary Shelley
By Megan Powell, Magali Prel and Natasha Smith
In honour of Mary Shelley’s birthday on 30 August 2023, we wanted to mark the occasion by celebrating the phenomenal writer. Mary Shelley was a British writer born in London in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. She married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and achieved great fame for her novel Frankenstein. This is a favourite amongst classic novels and will always remain highly recommended, but for this feature we would like to explore another work by Mary Shelley that doesn’t get as much recognition: Mathilda. We will also take a look into the inspiring works by those surrounding Mary Shelley’s life: Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley.
Mathilda by Mary Shelley
Mathilda was written by Mary Shelley between 1819 and 1820, following the publication of Frankenstein in 1818. This novella is another piece of fiction that emulates many themes of the Romantic era. As common details of her life inspired her work, the titular character’s mother died during childbirth, leaving Mathilda under her father's care. This was Mary’s experience, which she often explored in her work. In the novella, Mathilda’s father, who is confused by the loss of his wife and desires a replacement, develops a sexual desire for his daughter. Although not strictly autobiographical and there is no evidence to suggest it being so, it is undeniable that there exist similarities to Mary’s own life as Mathilda embarks on a romantic relationship with a poet. This challenges the father’s desire, leading to his suicide and Mathilda’s decision to withdraw from society. Although gothic, Mary wrote this novella at a time of grief over the death of her children, and it remained unpublished throughout her life as her father withheld the novella and saw it as being “detestable.” Mathilda is a socially important novella that challenges gothic conventions. It was later published posthumously in 1959 and is perhaps Mary’s second best-known story.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a ground-breaking feminist work written by Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother. It is considered one of the earliest and most influential works of feminist philosophy. Wollstonecraft advocated for the rights and equality of women by promoting reason, education and individual freedom. Her ideas were ahead of her time and laid the foundation for modern feminist thought.
One of Wollstonecraft’s main philosophies was gender equality. She argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but it is societal norms, lack of education and limited opportunities that hinder their intellectual and moral development. She sought to challenge traditional gender roles and advocated for women to be treated as equal to men.
Wollstonecraft also pushed for reason and rationality to be valued for both men and women. She believed that reason was a universal human capability, and women should not be denied access to education and learning on the basis of their gender. Wollstonecraft further argued that education should rely on reason and critical thinking rather than memorisation or conformity to societal expectations.
Overall, Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a powerful and thought-provoking work that challenges traditional gender roles and was revolutionary at its time of publication. Shelley herself attempted to showcase in her novels how strong, independent women thrive compared to submissive women, such as Safie vs Elizabeth Lavenza in Frankenstein.
‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
‘Ozymandias,’ written by Percy Shelley, looks at how finite human power is, in comparison to nature, through the decaying statue of the title figure. Shelley was a Romantic poet, thus part of the late 18th century movement which embraced the natural world as a source of inspiration. It was important for Romanticism to indulge in imagination and it was seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment.
‘Ozymandias’ is a prominent work from the period, exploring how ultimately the power of nature will always rule over human power. The writing on the statue has an arrogant tone, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!” This is ironic given the statue has crumbled and barely resembles its original form, signifying how nature renders Ozymandias powerless by having the final say. This is reinforced through the phrase “King of Kings,” which, to be a king of kings would assume yourself to be above God and not only displays arrogance but is, as Shelley would argue, untrue. This demonstrates a key feature of Romanticism: with Shelley being atheist, such divinity given to humans is refuted. Shelley loosely follows the Petrarchan sonnet structure, and the diminishment of this throughout the poem from line nine resembles the breakdown of the statue as well as power. Ultimately, the power of nature has mocked Ozymandias, leaving him thus no longer worthy of attention despite his previously established power.