The History of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein for Kids

Have you heard of Frankenstein? Maybe you’ve seen this pretend monster in movies or books. He is often depicted as being tall and strong with dark hair, green skin, and stitches holding him together since he was created by Dr. Frankenstein. That’s where Frankenstein actually got his name, from the Mad Scientist who created him, Dr. Frankenstein. 

“Farewell! I leave you and in you the last of humankind whom these eyes will ever behold. Farewell, Frankenstein!”

These are the lines from the novel Frankenstein, written around 200 years ago. That’s how old the story of Frankenstein is! Did you also know that the novel is one of the most famous pieces of writing in history? Now let’s take a closer look at the woman behind the novel named Mary Shelley.  

Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797. Her mother was a philosopher and writer named Mary Wollstonecraft and her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher, novelist, and journalist. Both her parents were well-known thinkers who challenged how things worked in the late eighteenth century: Mary Wollstonecraft spoke out for women’s rights, and William Godwin criticized the British government system, especially the monarchy, which means a country run by kings and queens.

Sadly, Mary’s mother died shortly after she was born. This left William to raise Mary, along with her older half-sister, Fanny, alone. Her father wrote a book about his wife, and later Mary was able to read it. Later, she also read the books her mother had written and was brought up cherishing her memory. Overall, Mary’s earliest years were happy ones. 

Mary’s father gave her an education that was different from her time. Mary briefly attended a boarding school, but for most of her childhood, she had a governess and a daily tutor. Her father, William, also taught her about a wide range of subjects. William ran a publishing company, and Mary grew up surrounded by the books, games, and maps that the company sold. She learned Roman and Greek history by reading the books her father published. Her father also had a large library and many interesting, well-educated friends with who Mary got to meet and interact. A few of these friends were very well-known, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the former Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr. William also enjoyed taking his children on field trips as part of their education!  

Mary enjoyed learning, and this homeschooling arrangement worked well for her. When she was 15, her father described her as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible.” In other words, she was curious, dedicated, and maybe a little bit stubborn!

Mary first met the poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe (Bish) Shelley when she was in her late teens. He was a friend of her father’s and would visit the family often. Mary and Percy began meeting each other secretly at her mother’s grave in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church. Eventually, they fell in love. The couple secretly left for France together, and later married. 

A few years later, in 1816, Mary and Percy traveled to Geneva, Switzerland.  They planned to spend the summer at the home of the poet Lord Byron. It turned out to be a very strange, but very important summer for Mary. Mary and her friends spent their time writing, boating, and talking around the fire late into the night. The summer of 1816 was much colder and rainier than usual. This strange weather was caused by a volcanic eruption that happened halfway around the world, in Indonesia, that affected weather all over the world, but Mary and her friends did not know this. Stuck inside for days at a time, Mary and her companions would sit around the fire and tell each other German ghost stories. This gave Byron the idea to challenge his guests to each write their own ghost stories. 

At first, Mary could not think of a story. She was starting to become anxious. . Then one evening, the conversation turned to the idea that it might be possible to somehow bring the dead back to life. At the time, scientists were experimenting with frogs and had found that a dead frog’s legs would twitch if an electrical charge was run through them. They called this galvanism, and it would be the inspiration for Mary’s ghost story. She began writing that night, staying up well past midnight. That ghost story is the same one we talked about at the beginning of the episode: Frankenstein. Mary thought this would just be a short story that she’d share with her friends, but Percy encouraged her to keep writing. Frankenstein became Mary’s first novel.

We’ve already talked about how Frankenstein was actually the doctor who created the monster in the book, but another thing that might surprise you is that the monster wasn’t actually a bad guy at first either. In the book, that hulking, green creature was indeed scary to the people he met after he ran away from Dr. Frankenstein, but he really just wanted to learn about them and live his life. In fact, the monster secretly helps a poor family by gathering firewood for them and clearing the snow from their walkway at night. He hides in a shed and watches them for months. He learns language from them. He sees how kind and supportive they are towards each other, and starts to think of them as friends. But when he tries to talk to one of them, the family is terrified and attacks him. The creature only becomes a real monster after he realizes that people will always fear and chase him away because of how different he looks. In a way, the story is about how people treat others who are different from them, and what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong. Everyone feels out of place sometimes, and it’s important to be kind to those who look or act differently from us.

After she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley went on to write several other novels and short stories, as well as books about her travels. Mary carried on writing and editing in order to support her family. She worked hard to make sure that her husband’s poetry continued to be printed, and that her son had a good education and life. Her son Percy loved Mary dearly and lived with her until she passed away.

Dozens of movies, TV shows, and plays have been based on the story of Frankenstein. In fact, the earliest movie version was a short silent film made in 1910. The filmmaker and comedian Mel Brooks made a musical comedy version, which was first performed as a play, and later made into a movie.  There was even a dance version created by the San Francisco Ballet. And of course, monsters based on Frankenstein’s creature appear in many Halloween-themed TV shows and costumes. Some even think the Marvel superhero Hulk may be based on Frankenstein, too. Both being green and strong.

Do you have a story to tell? An exciting adventure or even a make-believe world you have created in your mind? People can learn a lot by writing and reading good stories. Stories help us think about how people behave and feel, and how we should treat each other. And of course, a good story is fun to read or listen to! The world needs talented storytellers like you to take the time to sit down and write…

Thanks for listening to this episode about Mary Shelley and be sure to tune in for a new episode next Monday.