I was prompted this week to think up a girl-activist to cover, and since I’ve already written a few times about Malala Yousafzai, my mind switched to literary mode and bee-lined straight to Mary Shelley. A lot of people wouldn’t consider her an activist—she is best known as a novelist, after all—but a quick look at her life shows that Mary had quite a bit to say, and at a very young age.
When Mary Shelley was a teenager, she wrote what is only considered the germ of modern sci-fi and one of the coolest and most nuanced monster stories to date. During the week I was assigned to read Frankenstein a few semesters back, my husband just happened to be in the middle of the story’s TV series adaptation Penny Dreadful, which focuses a lot on the monster that Shelley created. Both the series and the actual novel were a radical departure from the cartoonish, green monster of the twentieth century. Shelley’s monster was complicated and nuanced. His very existence challenged the social order, the meaning of life, and laws of physiology all at once. Shelley is famous for bringing a spookier air to the gothic novel, pushing the envelope even further with the monster’s anguish of existence and the terror he throws at Dr. Frankenstein for creating him and then running away (similar to the Deist god that was hanging around Europe and the United States around that time). More so, Shelley set the precedent for women in science fiction right out of the gate—even if it wasn’t necessarily followed through until Uhura—and showed her contemporaries the value of a woman’s contribution to arts. Two hundred years later, and we’re still basing things off of her work, which says something about her activism to get her writing out there, in whatever genre she wanted, no matter how new or male sounding.
I admire Shelley most for her writing—if you haven’t sampled her work, I suggest that you pick up Frankenstein for some evocative summer reading. Still, it’s hard to forget that she comes from a fiercely political family. Her mother had been the vocal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the perfect activist match for Shelley’s philosopher father, William Godwin. It’s no wonder then, raised around publishing and with a legacy as big as her late mothers, how Mary Shelley found the courage, as a girl, to begin one of the most famous writing careers the English-speaking world has ever seen.