What Mary Shelley Wrote Besides Frankenstein

She created much more than the Modern Prometheus.

mary shelley

“Poetry and its creations, philosophy and its researches and classifications, alike awoke the sleeping ideas in my mind, and gave me new ones.” –Mary Shelley, The Last Man. 

When an author becomes best known for one particular work, or a particular character, it’s easy for the rest of their output to languish in the shadows, ignored like a least favorite sibling, or a forsaken, decrepit house no one wants to inhabit. 

Romantic-Era British writer Mary Shelley (1797-1851), lamented as the author of the legendary 1818 Gothic science-fiction novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, might as well have started and ended her career at age nineteen, based on the way common readership interprets her career. Challenge someone to name something Mary Shelley wrote other than her Frankenstein, and you’re likely to get a head-scratching and a “Uhhh, the sequel to Frankenstein? Frankenstein 2: This Time It’s Personal?” 

What many don’t know about Mary Shelley is that Frankenstein wasn’t a one-off hit of hers. It wasn’t just some grand stunt she pulled when she was a talented teenager participating in a ghost-writing competition with her friends on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Mary Shelley was a professional writer, scribbling hard to make herself a living, for the majority of her adult life. She had to be. Circumstances demanded it. 

Her father, political journalist William Godwin, was devoid of practical common sense and always in debt. Her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a flaky spendthrift who, having been raised rich, never learned to be frugal or even remotely sensible with money. Her pal Lord Byron, who bled money, also wasn’t about to help her out, and neither was her wealthy and spiteful father-in-law, who resented her elopement with Percy. Her mother, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, left her daughter written instructions in the form of her feminist manifestos on how to solve the problem: work, write, and fend for yourself. Don’t rely on the men to bring home the bread. And that is exactly what her famous daughter did. 

Here are five works by Mary Shelley that demonstrate the author’s remarkable versatility, resourcefulness, and productiveness as a creative figure who also had bills to pay and a child—her son Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the only one of her four offspring to survive infancy—to feed. 

Unlike her capricious protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, Shelley rarely abandoned an idea once she started it. There is plenty of impressive material for eager readers to choose from. The full list can be found here, courtesy of Wikipedia, but here is a satisfying appetizer platter to start with. 

1. “Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot” (1820) 

Mary Shelley, who whipped up the concept of a power-crazed mad scientist assembling an entire animate creature out of stolen dead body parts, is the very last person anyone would expect (or request) to write a children’s story. It’s similar to when Jhonen C. Vasquez, artist and author of the Johnny the Homicidal Maniac graphic novel series was asked to create a cartoon—this was Invader Zim—for Nickelodeon. It’s just not a match anyone who actually has kids would broker, though it happened anyway. 

But Shelley had a softer side to her personality and a great fondness for children. The story itself materialized as a fond gift for bright little Laurette Tighe, the daughter of Shelley’s close friends Margaret King—the former pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft—and George William Tighe. The tale itself follows a lonely orphan child, the former protégé of a fisherman, forming a bond with an equally lonely traveler and explores the theme of parent-child relationships and reassembling severed families. It is considered one of Shelley’s most tender pieces of prose and, in retrospect, one of her most tragic, as she was writing at a time when her own relationship to her father William Godwin was virtually non-existent. There was perhaps some wishful thinking hidden inside this kind gem presented to Laurette. 

2. Valperga: or, the Life and Adventures of Cast Ruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823) 

Shelley’s youthful travels throughout Italy with her husband Percy Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and various bohemian friends and acquaintances left an imprint on her imagination that manifested into long Gothic narratives with swarms of colorful, seedy characters. Shelley’s talent as a history writer is little-known and little-celebrated. Valperga is a material demonstration of Shelley’s ability to make fine art out of anything she learns, encounters, and believes. Though she loved Italian history, she was firmly against what the past city-state warmongers stood for. The best way for her to reconcile her conflicting feelings was through writing a novel about it.

Her main character was borrowed from real life, as Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli was truly the Duke of Lucca in the fourteenth century and, unsatisfied with his little principality, the conqueror of the richer and mightier Florence. Shelley, incorporating her own intellectual agenda, reimagines the politics and forbidden romances that governed early Renaissance Italy with a Romantic undertone. For inspiration for how to portray a world of intrigue, betrayal, and war trauma, she only had to regard her own surroundings, for she was living in post-Napoleonic Europe, and the scars were still fresh. Misunderstood as a cookie-cutter love story in its own day by critics, Valperga is really, in essence, a historic epic saga. 

3. The Last Man (1826) 

Mary Shelley invented the Gothic science-fiction genre and apparently figured that, while she was at it, she would also commandeer the Gothic apocalyptic-dystopian fiction genre as well. In 1826, the publisher Henry Colburn released her The Last Man to a general public that was still reeling from Frankenstein, an already shocking offering from a mysterious young author who seemed to come out of nowhere. Once again, readers would be treated to a narrative about the unbearable loneliness of being only survivors of your own kind. And in a post-COVID world, interest in this book is beginning to resurge. It’s about an epidemic. One that depopulates the entire world. 

The bubonic plague has ravaged Europe in the twenty-first century and a group of humans, an assortment of fleshed-out characters spared by the fatal disease, bands together. Shelley uses the premise as an opportunity to make refined commentaries on political ideals and naivety, scientific progress, the human need for attachments and socialization, and personal responsibility. Her stand-in for this fictional, blazed-down world is the deeply flawed but intelligent and adaptable Lionel Verney. A less memorable name than Victor Frankenstein, but no less significant. It’s he who has to earn, not just bear, the moniker “the last man.” 

4. “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) 

With the rise of cheaply printed, easily accessible literary magazines in the nineteenth-century came the rise of short stories to fill them. Readers who didn’t have the time to commit to a longer novel wanted quicker thrills, and juicy short stories by capable writers soon saturated the market. Shelley generated a small but much-needed income producing such thrills, and from her busy pen emerged tales that, like Frankenstein, played with the dangerous (and dangerously common) human ambition that somehow, somehow, death could be cheated. And shouldn’t be. 

Shelley’s protagonist, Winzy, has cursed himself. Heartbroken by the lover who has spurned him, Winzy downs his wizard master’s potion in a semi-suicide attempt. It does the exact opposite, and instead makes him immortal, though not invincible. Doomed to carry on for centuries, growing older and weaker in body and spirit but forbidden the mercy of dying, Winzy exists as a cautionary tale for anyone carrying around the belief that living forever is a soft, desirable fate. Shelley makes it clear in her stance, as she does in Frankenstein, that the natural cycle of life and death is not for tampering with. Winzy would have been better off putting down the elixir bottle as Victor Frankenstein would have been better off putting down the shovel. 

5. The Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men (1829-1846)

This was a work Mary Shelley was commissioned to complete, and perhaps the most financially lucrative project she ever took on, as she was offered a welcome steady paycheck in exchange for her services to this section of Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia. It was ten volumes long, a mountainous enterprise, but her son’s schooling and her living expenses were pricey, and she was a determined mother and writer. This encyclopedia offered readers short but richly informative blurbs about great European men of science and literature. Mary Shelley was its most prolific contributor. 

However, there is an issue of authorship authenticity. Scholars are still trying to determine which of the biographies Shelley wrote, and which ones were the work of another freelancer. Shelley’s confirmed biographies include luminaries such as Voltaire, Rosseau, Pascal, Madame de Sévigné, and Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, among a sprawling list of others. This is where she really put her self-education and her keen interest in fellow geniuses to good use. Denied access to many research materials due to her sex and low social standing, Shelley had to rely on her greatest and most powerful source to get the job done: her own brilliant mind.