The World’s First Science Fiction Novel

Author Mary Shelley was born on August 30th 1797 in London as the daughter of philosopher and political writer William Godwin and famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Mary never knew her mother, as she died shortly after her birth and was raised by her father. Family dynamics changed when her father remarried, and Mary never got along with her stepmother.

While, unlike her stepsister, Mary wasn’t offered any formal education, she made great use of her father’s extensive library. According to The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, she once explained that as a child she loved to write stories and published her first poem ‘Mounseer Nongtongpaw’ in 1807 through her father’s company.

In 1814, Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – a devoted student of her father. He was still married to his first wife when he and Mary fled England together and travelled around Europe. One summer the Shelleys were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori and are said to have entertained themselves one rainy day by reading a book of ghost stories. Lord Byron suggested they should all try writing their own horror stories, and so Mary began work on what would become her most famous novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition

In 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus debuted as a new novel from an anonymous author. Many thought Percy had written it since he penned its introduction, and it was dedicated to Mary’s father. The story follows a scientific genius who brings to life a terrifying monster that torments its creator, and 500 copies were printed by a small London publisher on the cheapest paper available. The book exploded in popularity and four years later, after a popular theatrical production was staged, Mary released a new edition of Frankenstein under her name.

Mary’s life, much like the focus of her bestseller, was surrounded by death and struggles. Her mother attempted suicide two years before having Mary and died 11 days after the birth. Mary was just 18 when her half-sister committed suicide, as did Percy’s first wife. Of Mary’s four children, only one survived.

In 1822 another tragedy struck when Mary’s husband drowned whilst sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia. Now a widow at age 24, Mary worked hard to support herself and her son and wrote several more novels including Valperga and the science fiction tale The Last Man.

Mary died of brain cancer on the 1st February 1851 aged 53. She was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, laid to rest with the cremated remains of her late husband’s heart. Mary is said by many to have created the world’s first science fiction novel, and her legacy lives on through Frankenstein. The struggle between a monster and its creator has been an enduring theme in pop culture and there have been hundreds of adaptations depicting Mary’s tale.