March 24, 2013

Women in Literature: The Mistress of Science Fiction

Welcome Author Charlotte Bennardo today to the Women's Lit Event!  Today Charlotte explains why Mary Shelley is a female writer who deserves the utmost respect.  Thanks, Charlotte!

            It’s been generally acknowledged that many female writers in earlier times did not get the recognition  they deserved, like the Bronte sisters. One woman that’s been unjustly overlooked not just for the literary quality of her work, but because she was a revolutionary in the Gothic/Horror genre, is Mary Shelley.

            Everyone agrees that Frankenstein is Mary’s golden achievement, and knows the story behind it. While on holiday in the Lake District in Geneva, Switzerland, with her partner not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, renowned Lord Byron, and his physician William Polidori, it was raining and dreary. Although Mary had a liberal education, it was informal; what she could learn from her parents and her own efforts, and nothing like the private schools and universities that her male peers attended, yet she participated equally in the group’s discussion of politics, social mores, and even how poet/philosopher/scientist Erasmus Darwin claimed to have reanimated some “dead matter” (clearly her inspiration). Sitting around a cozy fire telling ghostly stories, Byron issued a challenge to the group to write the best supernatural story. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and both Percy’s and Byron’s works were less than stellar (not mentioned in most accounts of the famous gathering). Mary’s Frankenstein was clearly the winner.

            This work was more than the best story between a group of writers on a stormy day. Frankenstein was the marriage of science into the Gothic and horror novel genre. Polidori wrote about vampires, the basis derived from folktales. Byron and Shelley wrote about ghosts. All Mary’s contemporaries, like Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving, stuck to the traditional ghostly, magical, religious and folklore based themes when writing their Gothic/horror novels. Only Mary took the genre further. From my brief investigation, she was the first to incorporate science, therefore, its creator.

            The next widely recognized novel incorporating horror and science was The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson—68 years after Frankenstein. Next were The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897), all authored by H.G. Wells.

            And yet it is H.G. Wells who is called the “Father of Science Fiction.” Methinks there is a bit of sexism here; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is clearly science fiction. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, enamored of science, creates a creature from dead bodies, and in his arrogance, reanimates it to disastrous results. Mary explains, in fine and believable detail, how Frankenstein builds this monster. There was no predecessor for her to follow. Shelley wrote Frankenstein 87 years before H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (which was written 11 years after Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde). In what is now one of the most popular and bestselling genres, clearly Mary Shelley has been unfairly forsaken in favor of a more popular male counterpart. It is but another example of not only the times in which she lived, but to a measure our own, when we do not correct this grave injustice and continue to let the although revered, but “Johnny come lately” H.G. Wells continue to hold the title of creator of her genre. Mr. Wells would have needed the time machine to deserve Mary’s accolades.

            So raise your horror/science fiction novels high: I give you Mary Shelley, Mistress (and creator) of Science Fiction.

Charlotte's Bio: While trying to keep her three kids, 2 cats, hubby, and demented squirrel from creating more havoc in New Jersey, Charlotte works on her YA and MG novels. Currently she is working on Sirenz: Myth Appropriated (2013) and Blonde Ops(Thomas Dunne, 2014). To make herself crazier, she also has several solo novels she's working on.


  1. Yes agree! Nice post, thanks! (no I am not spam, I am just a banal commenter! LOL)

    1. Haha, Jill! Banal comments welcome, too! :D

  2. Anytime I hear about a winner of the H.G. Wells award, I'm going to substitute "Mary Shelley" Award.

  3. I would agree that Frankenstein would qualify as science fiction, but I'm not sure one book would qualify anyone to be the Queen of Science Fiction. I think there are authors like Anne McCaffrey who would be a better fit for that title. I'm not trying to take anything away from Mary Shelley, as I do think Frankenstein was an important book, but I just can't go along with that reach.

    I do have to say, the arguments were strong though.

  4. I am kind of thinking along the same lines as Ryan in that perhaps Wells gets the accolades for writing multiple books whereas Shelley basically just has Frankenstein no matter how great and important it is. Still I think there is some validity in the sexism charge.


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