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Mary Shelley’s monster: Women writers and the work that has overshadowed them


Two hundred years since the publication of one of the world’s most famous novels, Mary Shelley and her monster are inseparable, but Frankenstein is not the only piece of work she produced during her fascinating life. In fact many of the UK’s most influential women writers have accomplishments beyond their greatest literary works that have been largely forgotten.

Catherine Parr (1512 – 1548)

Famous for being the wife who outlived the notorious Henry VIII, Catherine Parr was a staunch reformer whose belief in the importance of education no doubt influenced her most famous stepchild, Elizabeth I. Becoming a queen was not all Catherine achieved, however; she also wrote three books during her life, Psalms or Prayers (1544), Prayers or Meditations (1545) and The Lamentations of a Sinner (1547). Her first book was published anonymously, but Prayers or Meditations became the first English book in England to be published by a woman under her own name.

After Henry’s death Catherine married Thomas Seymour, brother of the king’s third wife Jane Seymour, and her home at Sudeley Castle became a respected place of learning for young women such as Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey. Elizabeth was eventually sent to live with Sir Anthony Denny after Catherine allegedly came across her in an embrace with her husband, whose greedy ambitions would send him to the block in 1549. Sadly, Catherine only outlived Henry VIII by twenty-one months, dying after complications during childbirth in September 1548, and it is her writing that has been forgotten.

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689)

One of the first women to make a living through her writing, Aphra Behn is best known today as a Restoration playwright, poet and novelist and the first woman to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Her most famous work, Oroonoko (1688), is believed to be one of the earliest English novels and follows the story of an African prince who is tricked into slavery and sold to British colonists. Aphra was also a good friend of Charles II’s most famous mistress, Nell Gwynn, who was often cast in her plays; legend has it that she assisted Nell’s ascent to the king’s bed by drugging actress Moll Davis with laxatives on a night that she was due to visit the king, leading to an embarrassing moment that ended their relationship and freed up a mistress-sized gap for Nell to fill.

With such a nefarious deed to her name, perhaps it’s no surprise at all that Aphra Behn was also a Royalist spy in The Netherlands. The English and Dutch were at war at the time over control of the Atlantic trade routes, so Aphra was sent to Antwerp under the somewhat ironic code name ‘Astrea’ (Greek goddess of innocence and purity) to seduce an English exile with the aim of setting him up as a double agent. To this day very little is known about Aphra Behn’s personal life; it is believed she lived in the English colony of Surinam in South America after the Restoration, though she was certainly in England by 1664, but very little is known about her pre-Restoration or married life – if she was ever married at all. There are some who believe she may have invented her deceased husband and many who believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that she was bisexual. Whatever we choose to believe, Aphra Behn was a fascinating woman whose life and work deserves to be more widely known.

Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

The daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and social philosopher William Godwin, it’s likely that Mary Shelley felt an inclination to produce something truly great during her lifetime. Luckily for her she did just that when Lord Byron challenged his companions, Mary Godwin (she became Mary Shelley in December 1816), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, to write ghost stories during that famous summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, and Frankenstein (1818) was born.

While Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Shelley is also the author of what is considered to be the first post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man (1826). Mary’s marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley came to a tragic end when he drowned in 1822, and in 1824 Mary also lost her close friend Lord Byron after he fell ill during a military expedition on behalf of the Greek army. The Last Man follows a group of people whose fates closely resemble those of Mary’s friends as a plague gradually exterminates the human race, providing a vision of the future through which Mary could explore her own isolation and loneliness. During her lifetime Mary penned short stories, travelogues and biographies – she was even forbidden from writing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s biography after his death by her father-in-law – as well historical novel Valperga (1823) and novella Mathilda which was posthumously in 1959. Frankenstein is a masterpiece, but it has overshadowed its creator for far too long.

Emily Brontё (1818 – 1848)

Here we have another writer who is no stranger to being interchangeable with her own masterpiece. 200 years since Emily Brontё’s birth, her sole novel Wuthering Heights (1847) is still considered one of the twenty most popular novels of all time and one of the greatest Gothic masterpieces in the history of British literature. Beyond the shadows of Cathy and Heathcliff, however, Emily is also widely considered to be the most accomplished poet of the three Brontё sisters.

While Charlotte dreamed of earning her own living as a known writer respected in her own right, much like Aphra Behn, and Anne used her writing to explore themes such as domestic violence and animal cruelty, Emily’s wild and powerful imagination stemmed from the mind of a woman who struggled with terrible shyness throughout her tragically short life. When Charlotte discovered two notebooks of Emily’s filled with poems in 1845 she insisted they be published, and yet Emily initially refused, furious that Charlotte had invaded her privacy in such a way, until Anne also revealed she had been writing poems. In 1846, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published and it’s thanks to that publication that the sisters began their careers as professional writers. In Emily’s bicentenary year, she should be celebrated as both a novelist and a poet.

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