Mary Shelley: The Proper Lady?

Mary Shelley
By Samuel John Stump circa 1820

In her early years, Mary Shelley went against the stereotypical "Proper Lady" and discovered her own path.

During Mary Shelley's upbringing, women were taught to be sweet, pleasant, amiable, and to support and obey their husbands. They were valued by their modesty and chastity and were supposed to be completely ignorant of their sexuality. Shelley obviously did not follow this formula. At the age of sixteen, she ran off with radical Percy Bysshe Shelley, and traveled with him around Europe.

Although she was shunned by her father and society, Shelley drew inspiration while on these journeys to write her breakthrough novel, Frankenstein.

A woman's contribution to society was believed to be self control and morality. Many women were involved in the church through practicing selfless activities where no masculine traits were thought to be required. Vain, passionate, assertive, and opinionated women were practically unheard of

and these qualities were frowned upon in a woman. Instead, women were valued by their loyalty to their man, their purity and chastity, and their modesty. All of these innocent attributes were to shine through their husband.

Although Mary Shelley eventually wed Percy Shelley, they were unmarried and traveling together for a time before their marriage, completely going against the norm of the time period. In addition to this aspect of their unaccepted way of life, Percy was still married when he and Mary ran off together. Definitely a scandal!

It is interesting to note, however, that in the above painting, Mary Shelley looks quite like a "Proper Lady." She is proper, prim, slightly smiling, yet not revealing too much. She looks pleasant, pretty, and one could even say a bit boring.

Mary Shelley was not a "Proper Lady" in her early years. Blessed with a sense of adventure and excitement, she chose to venture outside of the stereotypical norm of the "Proper Lady." Shelley upset her parents and ran off with Percy, traveled through Europe, married, wrote a novel, had a child, and was widowed all before she was twenty-five years old. Mary Shelley was definitely an individual.

Was Mary Shelley defiant of society's expectations her whole life?
Find out in After Frankenstein!


Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
This page was created by
Lindsay Theile.