The story of Frankenstein originates around a log fire by Lake Geneva, on a rainy night in 1816, as a group of friends were telling each other German ghost stories. The poet Lord Byron suggested to the group that they each write their own story. One of the group was a woman named Mary Shelley and her storey was published in 1817, under her husbands name.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town London in 1797 to political philosopher William Godwin and feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died 10 days after Mary was born, leaving her and her half sister Fanny Imlay to be raised by her father. Godwin remarried in 1801 to Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary hated her step-mother, but formed a strong friendship with her new step-sister Claire.
The Godwin family followed Calvinism (a Non-Conformist version of Christianity) religion, and Mary’s grandfather had been a non-conformist minister in Norfolk. TheGenealogist.co.uk and its sister site BMDRegisters.co.uk have over 8 million non-conformist records, the largest collection available online. These records and images are unique to S&N and the data includes images of early birth certificates, with many records showing three generations of a family. Mary’s birth is registered in Dr William's Library, London and includes an official birth certificate.
Mary was exposed to the world of stories and novels from an early age, as the family started their own publishing company ‘M. J. Godwin’, which sold children’s books as well as maps, stationery and games. The business however didn’t make any profit and Godwin had to keep borrowing money to stay afloat. Eventually the business closed down in 1809, leaving the family with mounting debts. One of Godwin’s radical friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley offered to help and became more involved with the family. He was already married but fell in love with Mary and the pair began meeting in secret at her mother’s grave in St Pancras churchyard. Percy came from a wealthy family but they restricted his finances in opposition to his radical political views. He was therefore unable to provide Godwin with the money he needed to pay of his loans. The Shelley family had an aristocratic lineage and can be found in heraldry records such as Burke’s Peerage. The new Diamond Premium subscription on TheGenealogist.co.uk offers Peerage, Heritage and Visitation records, which document the ancestry of titled and landed families.
With both families against the relationship, Mary and Percy decided to run away to France with Mary’s step-sister Claire, and travelled across Europe for two years until they ran out of money and had to return home to England. By their return, Mary found she was pregnant, and over the next few months they were faced with tragedy as Mary’s sister killed herself and Percy’s wife Harriet committed suicide in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Their baby was also born prematurely and died shortly afterwards. The couple were now free to marry, and the record of this is seen in the London Parish Records available on TheGenealogist.co.uk:
Ostracised from society and with the constant threat of creditors, the Shelley’s travelled to Lake Geneva, Switzerland with Claire Clairmont and were later joined by Claire’s lover Lord Byron, where the idea for Mary’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ was first conceived. They decided to leave England for good in 1818 and moved to Italy, where another two of their children died and Mary gave birth to their last and only surviving child Percy Florence.
In 1822 the Shelley’s sailing boat sank during a storm in the Bay of La Spezia and the elder Percy Shelley drowned. The Eton School Registers available on TheGenealogist.co.uk have a record for Percy Bysshe Shelley, which shows his occupation and death in Italy.
Mary was forced to return to England with her son and decided to dedicate herself to being a mother and professional author. Life was not easy for Mary and her son as the Shelley family were reluctant to support them since her scandalous relationship, which they had still not forgiven. Percy however became the heir to the Shelley estate when his elder brother Charles, son of Harriet Shelley, was struck by lightning and died in 1826. Percy is named as heir in the Will of his Grandfather Sir Timothy Shelley in 1843, which can be seen in the PCC Wills collection on TheGenealogist.co.uk. The Wills include anyone who owned property in the South of England up to the Midlands and across the whole of Wales, with images of the original will and covers the years 1384 to January 1858.
Mary and Percy appear on the 1841 census in London at Halfmoon Street and she died in London in February 1851 from a suspected brain tumour at the age of 53. Complete census transcripts for England and Wales from 1841 to 1901 are available to all Personal Plus and Premium subscribers on TheGenealogist.co.uk with subscriptions starting from £24.95. Mary Shelley’s family tree can also be seen on TreeView, our free online family tree builder: