British and Irish Literature Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Will Bowers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0153


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851) was born in Somers Town, London, the daughter of the radical philosophers William Godwin and the Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died days after her birth, and Shelley grew up one of five siblings under the aegis of her unconventional father, who encouraged the children under his care to read and to educate themselves. Her adult life and career has often been defined by the eight years (1814–1822) she spent with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, but her best critics have also appreciated the work Shelley produced in the second half of her life. Shelley is known for writing Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus one of the best-selling and most culturally enduring novels to emerge from the Romantic period. Although it was published to little acclaim in 1818, from the 1820s to the present-day Frankenstein has inspired countless novels, plays, musicals, and films and remains a staple of high school syllabi and university courses. For most of the 20th century if Shelley was discussed at all it was either for this novel or in the context of her remarkable family and her brief friendship with Lord Byron. Two distinct but interrelated movements in literary studies led to a reappraisal of Shelley in the 1980s that has seen her emerge as one of the major, and most versatile, literary figures of the 19th century. First, the importance of Shelley to influential feminist critics who attempted to shift the predominantly male and poetic focus of the Romantic canon via a reappraisal of Shelley’s writings. Second, the initiation and completion of a number of textual projects provided scholarly editions of Shelley’s letters, journals, novels, and other writings. These editions have allowed Shelley to be appreciated as a novelist, travel-writer, and diarist, and have catalyzed a study of her numerous other interests beyond writing, with recent essays paying due attention Shelley’s study of foreign cultures, and her role as the first, and best, editor of her husband’s poetry. This growing literature has allowed some of Shelley’s core themes—the centrality of love, the importance of the domestic realm, the value of cosmopolitanism—to be appreciated, and for her literary vision to be placed at the center of Romanticism.

General Overviews

To quickly get a sense of Shelley’s writing, the short introductions Bennett 1998 and Wright 2017 should be consulted. The essays collected in Schor 2003 allow readers to appreciate the full range of Shelley’s work and the various approaches to them. The three best book-length studies of Shelley as a writer are Palacio 1969, Mellor 1988, and Blumberg 1993: all three monographs pursue very different approaches to a chronological narrative of Shelley’s literary development.

  • Bennett, Betty T. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    An extended version of the general introduction to Shelley 1996 (cited under Works), which gives a chronological account of Shelley’s life and works. Unusual in that it gives as much space to Shelley’s life after 1823 as it does to the years before.

  • Blumberg, Jane. Mary Shelley’s Early Novels. London: Macmillan, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-11841-0

    A study of literary development from the early essay “A History of the Jews” to The Last Man, which examines Shelley’s works in the context of, and often in opposition to, those of her husband. The book employs an impressive range of approaches to discuss Shelley’s works, including textual analysis of manuscripts, intellectual study of her reading, and biographical and literary analysis of the novels.

  • Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Routledge, 1988.

    A new historicist study that stresses the originality of Shelley’s exploration of family dynamics. It includes a thorough consideration of Shelley’s childhood and other novels alongside a reading of Frankenstein, to show how essential Shelley’s works are to an “exploration of female consciousness.”

  • Palacio, Jean de. Mary Shelley dans son ouevre: Contributions aux études Shelleyennes. Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1969.

    This study is hard to find, in French, and its age means it lacks the cross-references to the editorial feats of the 1980s and 1990s: despite all this it remains the best monograph on Shelley’s work. The approach is scholarly and comprehensive, with particular attention paid to Shelley’s knowledge of Italian literature and contemporary politics.

  • Schor, Esther, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Sixteen short essays by leading scholars divided between sections on Frankenstein, and its legacy in film, robotics, and literary criticism; Shelley’s other novels; and her role as a journalist, travel writer, and editor.

  • Wright, Angela. Mary Shelley. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017.

    An introduction to Shelley’s works that is something between a biography and a literary life. Space is given to all of the novels and some of the shorter works. Wright’s analysis is particularly strong on the Gothic elements of Shelley’s oeuvre.

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