Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on August 30, 1797 to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft at the Polygon in Somers Town, Camden, London. Her mother died ten days after her birth. Her father, who did not believe in marriage, had married her mother so that she would be legitimate. They moved to Skinner Street after her father remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont and started their publishing business. Mary would meet Percy Shelley when she was 16 and elope to Paris. Mary would begin to write Frankenstein after the summer of 1816 in Geneva and publish the first edition anonymously in 1818. She would marry Percy Shelley in December of 1816 after his wife committed suicide.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born 4, August 1792, the eldest son of a minor baronet from Sussex. His grandfather made his money in the American colonies and bought his title with a noble connection by marriage. Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing a treatise on atheism. He would be introduced to William Godwin by the poet Robert Southey. Shelley was supporting Godwin with money when he fell in love with Mary, while still married to Harriet Shelley. He had published two significant early works by the age of 22, the gothic story of alchemy, St Irvyne, and the romantic epic poem Queen Mab.
Claire Clairmont-Godwin was born April 27, 1798 in Brislington near Bristol. Her mother misidentified her father, and would claim more than one name, at the time of the birth claiming him to be a Charles Clairmont. Claire would develop a question of identity as a teenager. Her birth name was Jane, but she decided she would rather be Claire when studying French and Clara when she felt particularly English. Shelley preferred to call her Jane, but Mary tried to appease her sister with the identity she preferred at the time. Claire would spend much of her early life with the Shelleys, and the two step-sisters would maintain a precarious friendship.
William Godwin was 58 years old in 1814. He had been a journalist and author and noted radical philosopher since the publishing of his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in which he questioned the system of hereditary property, capitalist economics, and marriage. He was an author of a variety of works, including a number of historical biographies and bible stories for children which he published under a pseudonym. He married Mary Wollstonecraft after she had become pregnant. Four years following her death and Mary’s birth he met Mary Jane Clairmont (Vail) while living in Somers Town. He had two daughters to care for, Mary and her older sister Fanny, his stepdaughter. She had two children, Jane and Charles. When she became pregnant with their only natural child, he married her in two ceremonies, one giving her name as Vail and the other as Clairmont. He was a recognized author at the time and she convinced him to start a publishing business, chiefly producing children’s books. They moved from Camden to Holborn in North London, starting their publishing business under her name, the M.J. Godwin Juvenile Library.
Mary Wollstonecraft had died on September 10, 1797, ten and a half days after giving birth to Mary. She had been a journalist reporting on the French Revolution when she met an American businessman, Gilbert Imlay. She bore him a daughter, Francis (Fanny) while living in France. They registered a marriage with the American consulate, but it was not recognized by English authority. She had written a noted study on the place of women in society, especially advocating education for girls and questioning the reliance on marriage for economic survival, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She had also published journals of her travels with her young infant daughter, Fanny, in which she wrote openly on breast feeding. She met William Godwin through his writing circle and was the love of his life. Godwin never fully recovered from her death. He published a biography of her in which he revealed her relationship with Imlay, the question of Fanny’s legitimacy and Mary Wollstonecraft’s intimate friendship with the Swiss painter Fuseli, famously known for his sexual gothic painting of The Nightmare. The revelations of the biography created a scandal and her once popular writings were shunned in English society as scandalous and unworthy.