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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Biography. Jessica Stavig February 20, 2009. Mary Shelley's Influences. Her Parents: William Godwin Mary Wollstonecraft Both were enlightenment thinkers Her Husband: Percy Shelley A free enlightenment/romantic thinker . William Godwin ( 1756 - 1836).

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mary wollstonecraft shelley s biography

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Biography

Jessica Stavig

February 20, 2009

mary shelley s influences
Mary Shelley's Influences
  • Her Parents:
    • William Godwin
    • Mary Wollstonecraft
    • Both were enlightenment thinkers
  • Her Husband:
    • Percy Shelley
    • A free enlightenment/romantic


william godwin 1756 1836
William Godwin ( 1756 - 1836)
  • A very radical philosopher
  • Founded “philosophical anarchism” (Philp)
  • Important Philosophical Works:
    • Political Justice (1793)
    • The Enquirer (1798)
    • Thoughts on Man (1831)
    • His novel Caleb Williams (1794)
godwin s political philosophy
Godwin's Political Philosophy
  • Defined mainly in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793)
  • Argument:

“government is a corrupting force in society, perpetuating dependence and ignorance, but that it will be rendered increasingly unnecessary and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge. Politics will be displaced by an enlarged personal morality as truth conquers error and mind subordinates matter.” (Philp) Due to this argument, he rejected forms of “mental enslavements, such as law, private property, marriage and concerts.” (Philp)

  • The idea of the corrupting force in society is directly taken from Rousseau.
  • He expands on Rousseau to explain more specifically that criminals are a result of corruption in society and stresses the importance of education.
godwin s moral philosophy
Godwin's Moral Philosophy
  • Defined as “utilitarian” (Philp)
  • Equality: Godwin’s An Account of a Seminary - “the state of society is incontestably artificial; the power of one man over another must always derive from convention of from conquest; by nature we are equal”(Smith) = Locke
  • Education: Godwin’s An Account of a Seminary -“but our moral dispositions and character depend very much, perhaps entirely, upon education.” (Smith) = Locke and experience
  • ‘Famous Fire Case’: This requires that an individual choose one of two people to save from a fire. One is the Archbishop of Fenelon, “a benefactor to the whole human race,” and the other is that individual’s mother or father (depending on the edition read). (Philps)
    • Godwin’s conclusion: Save Fenelon in order to act justly. Actions should benefit the common good.
    • Note: Professor Drake - I Robot movie
mary wollstonecraft 1759 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797)
  • A very radical writer, intellect, and feminist (Kreis)
a vindication of the rights of women by m ary wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the Rights of Women: By Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Applies Locke: the equality of all people
  • Writes as a response to Rousseau’s Emile from “Marriage” and his proposition that females are inferior and should have different forms of education.
    • Rousseau: “Once it has been shown that men and women are essentially different in character and temperament, it follows that they ought not to have the same education….their education must be wholly directed to their relations with men.” (Rousseau, 256-257)
    • Wollstonecraft: “meanwhile, strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves, - the only way women can rise in the world, - by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act: - they dress; they paint, and nickname God’s creatures.” (Wollstonecraft)
a vindication of the rights of women continued
A Vindication of the Rights of Women continued...
  • Proposes a strong view on Education:

“a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. … One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false sense of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than wives” (Wollstonecraft)

  • Addresses masculinity:

She says: “obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex.”(Wollstonecraft)

a vindication of the rights of women continued9
A Vindication of the Rights of Women continued...
  • Desires to persuade:

“I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste are almost synonymous with the epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.” (Wollstonecraft)

Basically, women shouldn’t live to appeal to men.

  • Enforces strongly the enlightenment ideal of reason:

“some women govern their husbands without degrading themselves, because intellect will always govern.”(Wollstonecraft)

percy shelley 1792 1822
Percy Shelley (1792 - 1822):
  • When he was sixteen he joined up with William Godwin and adopted his philosophy.
  • He too was a very radical philosopher and poet.
  • He was very outspoken,

challenging “oppression, religion,

and convention” as well as calling

for “revolution and change.”


  • He used his poems to convey

these ideas.

mary shelley s life events
Mary Shelley's Life Events
  • 1797, August 30: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is born and 10 days later her mother dies of puerperal fever, due to child birth complications.
  • 1798: After the death of his wife, Godwin publishes her biography, Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women, and in so doing airs all her dirty laundry:
    • the affair with Gilbert Imlay which resulted in their illegitimate child Fanny
    • two attempts of suicide,
    • the premarital relations that she and Godwin shared. (Mellor, 2)
  • Godwin remarries to Mary Jane Clairmont, which gives Fanny and Mary a stepsister Claire.
  • Growing up was difficult
  • Mary is tutored at home in enlightement writings
mary shelley s life events continued
Mary Shelley's Life Events continued...
  • 1812: Percy Bysshe Shelley comes into contact with Godwin
  • 1814: Mary, age 16, and Shelley, still a married man, elope in France and tour around with Claire.
  • In their travels of France, they witness the burned villages and wreckage that the Napoleonic Wars have caused.
  • 1815: Percy and Mary have a daughter named Clara who dies after a few weeks
  • 1816: Mary is 19 - Both Fanny and Percy Shelley’s ex-wife, who is pregnant, commit suicide, Percy Shelley and Mary get married, their son William is born, time is spent with the famous poet Byron in Geneva.
mary shelley s life events continued13
Mary Shelley's Life Events continued...
  • June 1816 - May 1817: Mary writes Frankenstein or; The Modern Prometheus, of which the introduction is written by Percy.
  • 1817: They have another daughter who they name Clara, but she dies after a year.
  • Mary and Percy move back to Italy, now on better terms with Mary’s father because they were married.
  • 1819: Their son William, age 3, dies, and Percy Florence is born
  • 1822: Mary almost looses her life due to a miscarriage. While sailing in the Don Juan, Percy, age 30 drowns and Mary compiles The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe (1824)
mary shelley s life events continued14
Mary Shelley's Life Events continued...
  • 1823: Mary and her son Percy return to England, she continues writing, and fights illness
  • 1824: At age 26 Byron dies of illness while fighting for the independence of Greece from Turkey
  • 1851, February 1: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dies at age 54 in London
  • Information from: Mellor, Merriman, and Drake
frankenstein the melding of ideas
Frankenstein: The Melding of Ideas
  • Locke:
    • Equality
    • Experience
  • Rousseau:
    • Man is innately good but becomes corrupted by society
  • Father:
    • Society corrupts people and that is what results in criminals
    • Science is the answer and will end death
    • In general, he did not side with compassion, but believed in making only rational choices (for the benefit of society, the common good)
  • Mother
    • Criticism of “masculinity”: man has a right to his “child.” (Drake)
    • When this idea takes form in Frankenstein, Shelley basically uses this also as a criticism of her father who raised her after her mother died.
    • Some feminists think that Frankenstein is more of an attack on what happens when a man (Victor Frankenstein) raises a child. (Drake)
    • Importance of education and experience
frankenstein the melding of ideas16
Frankenstein: The Melding of Ideas
  • Mary Shelley:
    • She fuses all these ideas together into a broad theme: “we are what we are trained to become”, behavior is learned, and therefore it is Nurture over Nature. (Drake)
quiz question 1
Quiz Question #1

1) According to Wollstonecraft, “a degree of physical superiority [of men over women] cannot, therefore, be denied…”, but if women are intellectually or emotionally inferior to men, it is due specifically to what? What, in general, does Wollstonecraft blame for the seeming inferiority of women? Pick One:

a) Domestic abuse

b) Raising children.

c) Biased Language

d) False Education

e) Sexual intercourse

quiz question 2
Quiz Question #2

2) According to Wollstonecraft, “the minds of women are enfeebled by…” Pick One:

a) False Refinement

b) Childbirth

c) Sexual Intercourse

d) Nursing Children

e) Industrialism

quiz question 3
Quiz Question #3

3) According to Wollstonecraft, what separates man from "brute creation" (beasts)?

a) Beauty

b) Sexual propriety

c) Divine blessing

d) Industrialism

e) Reason

quiz question 4
Quiz Question #4

4) "My own sex, I hope, will forgive me if I treat them like…"

a) "rational creatures instead of flattering their fascinating graces"

b) "the slaves of brutish man"

c) "mere prostitutes in the house of Satan's capitalist desire"

quiz question 5
Quiz Question #5

5) If women act like children, it is because

a) of Adam's actual corruption of Eve, which priests inverted

b) they are educated to be so

c) they spend all their time raising children, "who influence their feminine minds"

d) of society’s corrupting influence of natural goodness

discussion question
Discussion Question:

So after reading the Vindication - what do you think about the idea of nature vs. nurture and gender? What is Wollstonecraft saying and do you agree or disagree?

works cited and further online resources
Works Cited and Further Online Resources:
  • Kreis, Steven. "Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797." Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. 13 May 2004. The History Guide. 22 Feb 2009
  • Mellor, Anne K.. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. USA: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1989.
  • Merriman, CD. "Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley." The Literature Network. 2006. Jalic Inc. 22 Feb 2009
  • Merriman, CD. "Percy Bysshe Shelley." The Literature Network. 2006. Jalic Inc. 22 Feb 2009
  • Philp, Mark. "William Godwin." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. 26 Feb 2009
  • Professor Tom Drake’s Notes:
  • Smith, Mark K. "William Godwin and Informal Education." 1998. Infed Search. 26 Feb 2009

* Taken from this is the quoted portion of Godwin’s An Account of a Seminary, 1783

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Emile: from Marriage." The Norton Anthology: Western Literature (Volume 2). "8th ed.". 2006.
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. "Introduction." Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. 2009. 22 Feb 2009
  • "1792 A Vindication of the Rights o Women by Mary Wollstonecraft: Table of Contents." 22 Feb 2009