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2 - Frankenstein, Matilda, and the legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft

from Part 1 - “The author of Frankenstein”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2006

Esther Schor
Affiliation:
Princeton University, New Jersey
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Summary

'[My mother's] greatness of soul & my father high talents have perpetually reminded me that I ought to degenerate as little as I could from those from whom I derived my being . . . my chief merit must always be derived, first from the glory these wonderful beings have shed [?around] me, & then for the enthusiasm I have for excellence & the ardent admiration I feel for those who sacrifice themselves for the public good.'

(L II 4)

In this letter of September 1827 to Frances Wright, the Scottish-born author and social reformer, Mary Shelley reveals just how much she felt her life and thought to be shaped by the social and political ideals of her parents, William Godwin, the leading radical philosopher of the 1790s, and his wife, the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. The multiple literary, political, and philosophical influences of Godwin and Wollstonecraft may be traced in all six of Mary Shelley's full-length novels, as well as in her tales, biographies, essays, and other shorter writings. Yet while she consistently wrote within the framework established by her parents' concerns, she was no mere imitator of their works. Writing with an awareness of how French revolutionary politics had unfolded through the Napoleonic era, Mary Shelley extends and reformulates the many-sided legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft in extreme, imaginatively arresting ways. Those legacies received their most searching reappraisal in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley's remarkable first novel, and were reexamined a year later in Matilda, a novella telling the story of incestuous love between father and daughter, which, though it remained unpublished until 1959, has now become one of her best-known works.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2003

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