Mary Shelley's biography rivals that of any Romantic era heroine and I like to open the Frankenstein unit with an introduction to her life. She wasn't much older than my students when she started writing Frankenstein, and the circumstances regarding the novel are an essential part of the reading.
I have my students follow the PowerPoint which also includes a short video from a BBC production, watching from 24:00-29:00 narrating the dinner party bet that provided the inspiration for Frankenstein.
I also focus on Shelley's famous parent, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father, William Godwin. We discuss how Godwin believed strongly in educating females and why this would have made a difference in Shelley's later choices, including her literary career.
Finally, we discuss the circumstances of the bet and the pressure that Shelley might have felt to prove herself both to Percy Shelley and herself.
Slide 2 – Sources; This site provides more background on women’s rights and influence of the Enlightenment, Paine & Rousseau on Wollstonecraft and her ideas; helps to connect Shelly's ideas in Frankenstein with those of earlier Enlightenment thinkers. Help students understand that women did not have access to the same educational resources as men and that they were limited as to which professions they could pursue or what they could do with their property.
Slide 3 – Commentary on Wollstonecraft; Wollstonecraft wrote that women’s morality and rights were no different than man’s. That while women exhibit different personality traits and behaviors those were cause by society’s limitations on women, not any deficiency inherent in women. Wollstonecraft appears to have had a typical girls’ education: well versed in the bible, Shakespeare, and Milton, but not much education beyond that. She assumed much of her own education throughout her life working as a governess, editor and translator and this influenced much of her later writings. She was heavily influenced by Rousseau, particularly his ideas about learning. Much of Wollstonecraft’s life reflects her philosophies and writings.
Slide 4 – Explain that girls of Mary Godwin’s time did not receive any formal education and that it was up to the families to decide whether or not girls had any education at all. Explain that upper and middle class girls would receive religious training as well as reading, writing, and a homecraft. Girls’ boarding schools did not become widespread until the Victorian era, and even these were very narrow. Godwin personally took care of Mary’s education (Ty, Biography) and used much of the methods Wollstonecraft wrote about. As a result Shelley received an unusual and modern education.
Slides 5 & 6 – Because of the tensions with her stepmother, Mary Godwin went to Dundee, Scotland and spent several months with the Baxter family, becoming close with Isabel a daughter in the family– the influence of the landscape and atmosphere. Explain that the area is known for its dramatic landscapes and that several castles in the area add to the gothic atmosphere and aura. It is speculated that this inspired Shelley's descriptions of several passages, including the description of 'The Cottage'.
Slide 7 – Discuss how Percy Shelley’s radical views were welcome in the Godwin house, including views about marriage.
Slide 8 – Discuss the tumultuous nature of Mary Godwin and Percy’s relationship. Scandal in England and their elopement
Slide 9 – Map of Shelley’s elopement and six weeks tour through Europe with Percy and Clare Clairmont. Discuss Mary Shelley’s publication of memoir of the trip and her fall from society as a result of returning.
Slide 10 – Percy and Mary elope to Italy and Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley would live in Italy until Percy’s death in 1822.
Read excerpt from 1831 introduction – paragraphs 5-12
Slide 11 – ask students what they notice about the painting. What seems to be the action in the painting? Is the woman alive or dead? What are the attitudes of the creature and the horse. Discuss the title of the painting. Discuss the different physical sensations we might feel when we are dreaming. How does Fuseli represent those physical sensations? Is this painting meant to be an allegory? Tell students to watch for this scene in the novel. (Chapter 23 – Elizabeth Lavenza’s murder).
Slide 12 – Discuss the plate engraving of Frankenstein coming upon his creature for the first time. Discuss some of the pop culture ideas we have about Frankenstein. The use of the word Frankenstein as a noun and verb. What are some of the expectations we have reading this novel?
The last slide of the PowerPoint has three questions:
What events in Mary Shelley’s life made her an a-typical woman?
Does it seem like Mary Shelley led a happy life? Why or why not?
Would you have taken the bet she took? Why or why not?
I use these questions as a ticket-out-the-door.