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ExhibitionAn Extraordinary Life

The literary life attracted Mary Shelley from an early age. Her education stressed the development of the imagination; she was introduced to great works of literature, history, and mythology, and studied French and Latin. Her father’s London home attracted writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles and Mary Lamb, American politician Aaron Burr, chemist Humphry Davy, poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, and chemist-inventor William Nicholson.

  • Portrait of a young woman in a white dress, looking to her right.

    Mary Wollstonecraft, oil on canvas, ca. 1797

    Artist: John Opie (1761—1807)

    Courtesy © National Portrait Gallery, London

    Mary Wollstonecraft (1759—1797) earned her living as a governess before moving to London in 1787 to pursue a career as a writer. Within five years, she established herself as an influential and controversial political theorist. She married William Godwin in March 1797; she died in September of that year after giving birth to her daughter, Mary.

  • Open book showing cursive handwriting on the left and the title page on the right.

    A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, 1792

    Author: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759—1797)

    Courtesy Library of Congress

    Mary Wollstonecraft’s book argued for women’s right to self-determination and equality in the intellectual, public, and domestic spheres. American feminist Susan B. Anthony presented a copy of “this earliest work for women’s rights to equality” to the Library of Congress in 1904.

  • A man's right profile wearing white shirt and a dark jacket.

    William Godwin, oil on canvas, 1802

    Artist: James Northcote (1746—1831)

    Courtesy © National Portrait Gallery, London

    William Godwin (1756—1836) perceived the political issues raised by the French Revolution as an opportunity to reorder the world to produce an egalitarian society structured on reason, justice, and universal education. He and Mary Wollstonecraft married in 1797; their daughter Mary was born August 30, 1797.
  • Book open to the title page on the right. Left page is blank.

    Caleb Williams, 1794

    Author: William Godwin (1756—1836)

    Courtesy Rare Book Room and Special Collections, University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams supported the arguments he had made for a republican, anti-monarchical government in his masterwork, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
  • Book open to yellowing and stained title page on the right. Library sticker on the left

    Elements of Chemical Philosophy, 1812

    Author: Sir Humphry Davy (1778—1829)

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In October 1816, when she was working on Frankenstein every day, Mary Shelley recorded in her diary that she was reading Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy.
  • A man in vest and jacket, looking to his right with left hand at chin-height.

    Sir Humphry Davy, ca. 1827

    Artist: James Lonsdale (1777—1839)

    Engraver: James Thomson (ca. 1788—1850)

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Sir Humphry Davy (1778—1829), a friend of Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, held popular public demonstrations of chemical phenomena at the Royal Institution in London in the early 19th century.
  • A man's right profile, wearing a dark cap and white gown.

    Henricus Cornelius Agrippa

    Artist: R. Cooper

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In Frankenstein, young Victor Frankenstein reads the entire works of Cornelius Agrippa, hoping to master a “secret store of knowledge” about the natural world.