Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell
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Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

The history of Mary Shelley in pop culture

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Aug 30, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

There’s no denying that Mary Shelley led a fascinating life. She was the child of two prominent political writers, one of whom was a renowned proto-feminist who died shortly after childbirth. She was the wife of one of the most famous poets of their time,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, and was known to carry around her dead lover’s heart in a box after his tragic early death. In short: this woman was really living the legend well before scandal could do her any favors.

Frankenstein is inarguably the novel for which Mary Shelley is most prominently known, but she covered quite a bit of ground in her life as a writer. Before Frankenstein, she had written a short travel book, and after, she wrote novels about subjects like incest and the apocalypse, so she was out there pushing borders for most of her life. She was also about as political as you might expect, considering her parents and her friend group, and she believed the future would be saved by women working together. Applying pragmatism to her husband’s idealism was kind of her thing, and that is indeed consistent throughout the many media portrayals of Mary Shelley.


In Bride of Frankenstein, we see the beginnings of what would eventually develop into a trope of Mary Shelley stories. There's a famous legend around the night Mary wrote the book after Byron had challenged her, Percy, and a Dr. John William Polidori to a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. Considering that we don’t talk about what Byron or Percy did, while Polidori wrote The Vampyre, a horror story lampooning Byron and an early take on vampires, and Mary wrote, well, Frankenstein, we have a couple obvious contestants for the winner.

In reality, Mary didn’t write the whole book in one night, or even in a few weeks, but closer to a full year. Still, the legend is strong and it can be agreed that it was one pretty interesting summer for literature as a result. There’s even a pretty compelling theory that weather patterns of the 1810s might have induced a dreamlike effect on the group, but regardless of why, the visit gave us a couple important works of genre, and a whole lot of speculation from modern writers as to what exactly was going on in that house with the previously mentioned group as well as Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont.

Bride of Frankenstein gave us a mild version of the night, while in 1986, Ken Russell’s Gothic gave us perhaps the most extreme. Russell had previously directed films like Altered States and The Devils, so fans of his work were prepared for the frantic pacing and bizarre, shocking visuals of Gothic. The bulk of this version takes place with the familiar set-up of the ghost-story-writing challenge on a dark and stormy night. Claire is teetering on the brink of absolute madness at all times. To a slightly lesser extent, Percy, Polidori, and Byron are as well, although their hysteria collectively grows throughout the film. Mary, for her part, is tragic and reserved, played as soft-spoken and demure by Natasha Richardson. She is haunted by the death of her first child and terrified for the future. She has premonitions of Percy’s death and her own slowly deteriorating health. In the end, she very nearly plunges a knife into Byron’s chest. This take on Mary gives her a great deal of focus and embraces the tragedy and the horror she experienced via losing her loved ones.


In 1988, two movies about the same summer evening were released, Rowing with the Wind and Haunted Summer. Rowing with the Wind played up Mary’s haunted, almost precognitive side by showing her over the six years following the trip as everyone around her suffers and more people she loves dies. This take on Mary portrayed her as haunted throughout her life, which is collectively agreed upon by those that have written about her. Haunted Summer focuses more on the lazy summer days that came before the storms, and the drug use and sexuality of the group. Byron and Percy have extended conversations through the film while Mary, proper in some ways, hangs back. Her slight resentfulness towards their rapport is in place throughout all her genre appearances at varying degrees, but it's understandable. Byron hadn't quite lived up to his title as the scourge of humanity yet, but he was working on it.

1990's Frankenstein Unbound is one of the strangest films based in Frankenstein mythos, as it is about a time traveler named Buchanan ending up in the past by accident, who ends up trying to stop Frankenstein’s monster from killing more innocent people. Mary Shelley is played by Bridget Fonda, who has a brief attraction with Buchanan before professing that in truth she’d be too afraid to know of what was to come, and she refuses to help him in his mission. Of all the Mary Shelleys, this is probably the weakest, but the movie itself merges a lot of the weirdest elements of the Frankenstein story and is definitely odd enough to count as a must-watch for fans of ‘90s genre films.


Mary Shelley the biopic is the least sensationalist account, shying away from certain parts of the story to prioritize Mary's feminist awakening. It focuses on her journey up unto the publication of Frankenstein. As is to be expected with biopics, there are some factual errors, but it captures a lot of Mary’s angst over the course of her life. Percy’s sex life outside of their marriage is only barely hinted at in one particular argument and him exiting rooms at random intervals and coming back only when much time has passed. Little focus is given to his wife Harriet, who in truth played a bigger role in their lives. Still, the movie is well-made and sympathetic to Mary, while giving her some strong feminist lines towards the end about owning her own work. It also reconciles Percy and Mary by forcing him to understand that her name on the book is just as important as his name on his own writing. It’s unlikely any of those scenes played out in Mary’s life, but of all the renditions of her in fiction, it might be the one that grants her the most agency.

Although not quite as prominent as most other horror writers when it comes to comic book cameos, in The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, Mary Shelley makes an appearance, as do Byron and Percy, who ride horses and say romantic-era-poet-type things to one another while gazing dreamily into one another’s eyes, as per usual. The following issue we meet Mary, who curtly warns Byron that, “Poets have a right to vanity and pride. They steal the power of creation from the gods. They remake the world with words and in the image of their dreams. The rest of us must live in it.” As usual, Mary seems a bit wiser in general than Percy and certainly much smarter than Byron. Regardless of what their real interactions were like, the combative dynamic between Byron and Mary is a dialogue writer’s dream, and it never gets old watching various incarnations of Mary slam Byron right to the ground with her words. In The Wicked + The Divine, the whole crew shows up as embodiments of various gods. Claire goes mad with power, while Mary is bitter from her life, estranged from her husband, and comes across as mostly cold and unsympathetic, although she prioritizes her sister and tries to save her. As always, Mary's strange, dark compassion paired with a clairvoyant sense of doom is in focus in these stories.

It’s interesting that Mary’s relationship with Percy is what takes the central focus in her life when we see movies about her. Obviously, the couple had a huge effect on one another, but they were together only about 8 years, and Mary lived to 53, which amounts to a good 45 years sans Percy. The most prominent story of her life becomes the night she spent with a handful of prominent male writers, and we very seldom see a version of her depicted later in her life. It is true that the dynamic between Percy and Mary is compelling and even legendary, but it always seems to serve as a reminder that women are meant to bear the burden of their genius husbands, regardless of whether or not they themselves happen to be a genius in their own right. The picture that has been painted of Mary Shelley is remarkably consistent across genres: a strong, deeply jealous, and very sad woman who brought us great works before her death, who outlasted many of the great writers of her time, and who remains a prominent topic of conversation even all these years later.

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