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Mary Shelley

Rebellious Daughters of History #21

by Judy Cox

Portrait of Mary Shelley 1840. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley was the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the famous feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft who died days after Mary’s birth. Mary grew up with five semi-related siblings in an unconventional but intellectually electric household.

At the age of 16, Mary eloped to Italy with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Each encouraged the other’s writing, and they married in 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s wife. They had four children, of whom only one survived.

A ghost-writing contest on a stormy night with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in 1816 when Mary was just 20, inspired Frankenstein, the first true work of science-fiction and powerful exploration of the destructive nature of power when allied to wealth. It was an instant wonder, and spawned a mythology all its own that endures to this day.

After Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, Mary returned to London and pursued a very successful writing career as a novelist, biographer, editor of Shelleys poetry, which would not have been published without her, and single mum.

Mary did not abandon the radicalism she had shared with Shelley, as many suggested. Mary was lifelong reformer and feminist. She supported all European revolutionary movements and wrote articles for Leigh Hunt's radical periodical The Liberal. She also corresponded with radical abolitionist and feminist Frances Wright who invited her to join her utopian community in Tennessee.

Mary had affairs with women. Writing to her close friend in 1835, Mary recalled her loneliness saying: “I was so ready to give myself away – and being afraid of men, I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women.” (Tousy-mousy was sexual slang for vagina). She was also instrumental in procuring fake passports for two friends, Isabel Robinson and Mary Diana Dods, to flee to Paris and live there as man and wife.

Her novels, such as Lodore and Falkner, had strongly feminist plots. Valperga was a feminist, republican version of Walter Scott’s historical novels. Mary’s works often argue that women were the ways to reform civil society. She died aged just 54.

Her poem Ode to Ignorance (1834) is scathing account of how the tyrannies of her day are sustained by military might and ideological control. She calls for hope in possibilities of change. It is as powerful and militant as the brilliant poems written by her husband (it’s a bit long but you can read whole version here.

Ode to Ignorance

Hail, Ignorance! majestic queen! Mysterious, mighty, dark, profound in mien! Sprung from no upstart brood of Light, But of the ancient house of Night! Daughter of that stupendous line, Which ere the base-born Sun did shine, Or one plebeian star appear'd, Their awful throne in chaos rear'd- The old nobility of Hell, Who through the realms of darkness wide, With lordly morgue and feudal pride Did reign, and when imperial Satan fell, By rebel cherubim cast down And robb'd of his ancestral crown, Received him like a Bourbon there. With fond aristocratic care.
Hail! bounteous mother of each royal race; Corruption, Bigotry, and Fraud, Reflect thy dim patrician face; They many a kingdom fair and broad, Great Ignorance, receive from thee-- Thou who didst take the World in fee! Ay! thou dost call the total earth thy own; And every tyrant for his throne Doth homage at thy knee! Thou dost for kings, in dungeons bind The anarch Truth, the rebel Mind, Who never slip their iron bolts But some fair realm revolts, All hail! Legitimacy's star! Protectress of the despot Czar! Thee Czars invoke, and, gorged with Polish blood, Hallow thy name, and style thee great and good! Night of the Mind, how long, how long, Thy praise hath blazoned been in song! Hail! mighty, mighty queen! August ! Serene! Peers are thy children-noble peers! Thou sucklest them upon thy breasts; Thine is their youth, and thine their years. Transfus'd on them, thy ample spirit rests: Night of the Mind! all hail! Gloomy and grand, Through every land, Great queen! dost thou prevail! ...
But, hah! what hideous change is this? What damn'd magician interrupts thy bliss? The eye-ball aches, And flashes on the sight a horrid gleam Alas, His Day that breaks! 'Tis orient knowledge darts that baleful beam- Knowledge, thy dauntless foe! Where wilt thou fly, how shun the blow? What work, what palisade behind? Night of the mind! Thy sons are stricken with dismay; They cannot bear The hateful glare, But curse the name of Day. Prelates wake who long have slumber'd, Peers believe their days are number'd, Priests before their altars tremble, Courtiers shudder, kings dissemble, Pensioners and place-men quake, All the sons of rapine shake; Guillotines are lordly themes, Barricades haunt royal dreams, Bigots frighted to their souls, Shrink into their narrow holes, To den of filth corruption steals, Reform fierce-barking at his heels, All expect disastrous doom, All the things that love the gloom, All that crouch, and skulk, and prowl, Wolf and tiger, bat and owl; Yet still to thee, their bounteous patroness, They lift adoring eyes; And none apostatize, Nor aught the less Thy name they bless, Because thy kingdom hath been rudely torn, And of a mist or two thy stupid skull been shorn. Oh! for thy loyal sons Hast thou no guerdon fair, no just reward? No new resource, No untried force, To save them from their foe abhorr'd? Come with a host of Huns! Unlock once more thy garners of the North: Unleash the Goth and send the Vandal forth; Exert thy waning might; Rally the powers of Night; Renew the desp'rate fight! That tyrants may rebuild thy mouldering fanes: So may'st hope, Loading thy foes with slavery's ponderous chains, With holy, heavenly light, triumphantly to cope!
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