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Mary Shelley

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English Literature

Frankenstein is a name that has sent a chill through generations of readers and movie-goers. If its author were alive today, she would be a multi-billionaire from the sheer number of copies sold and film adaptations. The novel first captured the public imagination in 1818 when it was published, and has been described as the earliest known science-fiction novel. There has been some speculation as to how a reticent nineteen-year-old girl came to create one of the most iconic figures in horror, in fiction and, more recently, film. Who was Mary Shelley?

Mary Shelley timeline StudySmarterMary Shelley TimelineJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Mary Shelley Biography

The question of who Mary Shelley was is perhaps best answered by looking at her parents. Mary was the daughter of two of the remarkable people of the age, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were radicals, and both believed in the possibility of a better, freer world. Godwin was a political philosopher and author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and Wollstonecraft was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Although neither agreed with the institution of marriage (Godwin believed it should be abolished, along with government), the couple married in 1797 to protect their child, and Mary was born a few months later.

Mary never knew her mother, who died ten days after giving birth. Godwin’s biography Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) was written in the following months. Mary got to know her mother through her written words: tales for children, a little book of Lessons for her and Fanny, and later, Godwin’s biography.

Early influences

Early visitors to the Godwin household before Godwin's second marriage included the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was a father himself, a lively conversationalist, and a natural entertainer. He treated Godwin’s quiet little girls as special people and would draw them out of themselves. In 1802, however, Coleridge returned to the Lake Country.

Kind-hearted yet emotionally restrained, Godwin was left with a baby daughter and an older step-daughter Fanny (his wife’s child by a former lover). Godwin did not feel himself up to the task of bringing up the children alone. In 1801 he married the widowed Mary Jane Clairmont, who already had 2 children of her own, Charles and Jane. A further child, William, was born. Mary, inheriting her father’s reticence, and her mother’s affectionate nature, felt isolated from an early age by this added-on family. The second Mrs Godwin did not share the intellect of either her husband or Mary’s late mother, although she did later take an interest in literary endeavours (hence the publishing firm).

Mary Godwin Shelley

The two families did not mix well, and by the time Mary was 14, she was suffering from eczema and isolation. Her father decided to send her to connections in Scotland for her health. Despite the uncomfortable journey (seasickness and theft of her money) Mary welcomed the freedom. She visited Scotland twice. On her return from her second visit, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley, a disciple of Godwin’s, had offered a loan to help out the now nearly-bankrupt Godwin. Shelley was already married with a child and another one on the way. He was also regretting his hasty union with Harriet Westbrook. Separated and lonely, he welcomed Mary’s company and they spent most of their time together. Many meetings took place at the tomb of Mary’s mother, and in the summer of 1814, Mary expressed her feelings to Shelley.

Relying on the elder Godwin’s former belief in freedom of love, Mary Godwin and Shelley disclosed their love for one another to him. However, even the progressive Godwin was horrified. As he complained to a friend at the time:

... I had the utmost confidence in him; I knew him susceptible of the noblest sentiments; he was a married man, who had lived happily with a wife for three years. … On Sunday, June 26, he accompanied Mary, and her sister Jane Clairmont, to the tomb of Mary’s mother..and there it seems the impious idea first occurred to him of seducing her, playing the traitor to me, and deserting his wife.

(William Godwin, Letter to John Taylor, Aug 27, 1814)

Godwin attempted to separate the lovers. However, the couple, together with Mary’s step-sister Jane (later ‘Claire’) Clairmont, escaped to Calais. Mrs Godwin (Mary’s stepmother) followed the trio there and attempted (unsuccessfully) to persuade Mary to return home.

Their elopement was followed by a period of uncertainty. Mary, Shelley, and Jane travelled across France, often on foot, as far as Switzerland. They returned to London in September of 1814 in need of money, only to find Harriet had emptied Shelley’s bank account. Godwin, meanwhile, wanted nothing more to do with Mary. Shelley got some of his money back from Harriet, but his father refused to help him any further (they had not spoken since Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford).

Shelley’s grandfather then died, and financial circumstances improved sufficiently for the Shelleys to settle for a time in London. In 1815, Mary gave premature birth to a daughter who died shortly after. Jane and Shelley seemed to be drawn closer to each other. Mary, meanwhile, was desolate after the loss of her child, and her relationship with Shelley grew strained. The Shelleys sent Jane away to stay with friends.

In 1816, Mary’s son was born, and Shelley produced 'Alastor, or Spirit of Solitude'. In the summer of the same year the Shelleys, together with Jane (now Byron’s mistress), joined Lord Byron in Switzerland. While staying at Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley's Books

Frankenstein (1818)

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

(Mary Shelley, Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

In June of 1816 the Shelleys and Byron discussed philosophy, the principle of life, and ghost stories. A writing contest was announced: who could write the scariest tale? Later, Mary described the process:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.

(Mary Shelley, from Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

The contest had proved easier said than done; and when Mary had this waking dream of horror, she sought to distract her mind:

I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story,—my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night! Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.

(Mary Shelley, from Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

Mary started writing, and by 1817 had completed the story of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.

Shelley was well-versed in the science of her time, including galvanism, which she adopted as Frankenstein’s method for bringing his Creature to life. Frankenstein therefore qualifies as a work of science-fiction rather than gothic fantasy. There is nothing magical about the creation of the Creature. Rather, it is a result of Frankenstein’s research and scientific approach.

Mathilde (1819)

Mary Shelley completed another book, the incest drama novella Mathilde in 1819. It was not published until after her death. This novel follows 3 months in the life of a tragic actress, who lives in a world of make-believe. The book may have drawn elements from her own life, but according to more recent critics, should not be regarded as autobiographical. Certainly, the hysterical lead character Mathilde is not similar to Mary (and Mary does not appear to have liked Mathilde much either).

Both Frankenstein and Mathilde are curiously prophetic in parts: Mathilde’s father, a Shelley-like figure, drowns himself by throwing himself off a boat into the sea. In Frankenstein, the Creature murders Frankenstein's small brother William, as well as Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth. (Shelley's son William died of malaria a year after Frankenstein was published).

The Shelleys were living in Florence at this time, and in November 1819 Percy Florence, the Shelleys' sole surviving child, was born.

In May of 1822, the Shelleys moved into Casa Magni in Lerici. In June, Mary miscarried and Shelley saved her life. In August, after a fateful visit to Byron at Livorno, Shelley drowned after his yacht went down in a summer storm in the Bay of Lerici. Shelley’s body drifted ashore ten days later and he was cremated on the shore of Viareggio.

Penniless, with one surviving child, Mary made her sorrowful way back to London. She attempted to publish Shelley’s poems in a collection, only his father Sir Timothy Shelley bitterly resisted her efforts. He demanded custody of Percy Florence, but when Mary refused, he arranged instead an allowance of £100 a year, increasing it every year, to help with the upkeep of his grandson.

Mary, always shy and reticent by nature, now gradually withdrew from society. Her third novel, Valperga, which she had been working on for the previous couple of years, was published in 1823, followed by The Last Man in 1826.

Valperga (1823)

Valperga is a historical romance, set in medieval Italy, against the war between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. It is the story of a Byronic Prince Castruccio, and his relationships with two women, Euthanasia and Beatrice. Euthanasia is a female version of Mary’s husband Percy, combined with Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘rational feminist’. Beatrice is a prophetess and the victim of a witch. At one point Euthanasia gives Beatrice shelter and attempts to rally her dejected spirits. This suggests Mary’s own struggle with depression, which Percy also attempted to heal unsuccessfully.

The Last Man (1826)

Shelley wrote another science-fiction novel that differed from Frankenstein - The Last Man. This could be termed an early (if not the earliest) dystopian ‘Last Survivor’ novel. Set in the 21st century, the world population is nearly wiped out by cholera.

Three to four characters journey to the continents in search of a survivor community. After several disappointments, they are reduced to one survivor, the Last Man in the World. It can also be viewed as semi-autobiographical, as Mary Shelley had returned to London after P.B. Shelley’s death, having also lost two children. In 1824 she wrote:

...I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.

(Mary Shelley, Journal, 1824)

The novel explores the theme of power, both socially and emotionally. Much of the first part concerns the contrasts in the two leading male characters, Adrian and Raymond. The philosophical republican Adrian is based on Shelley, while the ambitious, heroic Raymond is based on Lord Byron.

The Last Man did not enjoy the popularity of Frankenstein, and was largely forgotten until the 20th century. It is now recognised as Shelley’s next most important work after Frankenstein and foreshadows modern apocalyptic fiction.

Dreams and Mary Shelley

All of Mary’s novels contain dream sequences. In Frankenstein, Victor dreams of his dead mother. In Mathilde, the heroine has a prophetic dream about her father’s suicide. Beatrice in Valperga has a dream where she meets her own double. She, like Mathilde, has prophetic dreams, but about her own death rather than anyone else’s. In The Last Man, Lionel (based on Shelley) dreams he is searching for Raymond (Lord Byron) after the fall of Constantinople and finds him

altered by a thousand distortions, expanded into a gigantic phantom, bearing upon its brow the sign of pestilence.’

(Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1826)

The phantom continues to grow and grow, filling and engulfing the world. This would seem to be Shelley's analysis of the dangers of (male) ambition and aggression. Byron had died just a few months before Shelley wrote The Last Man.

Mary Shelley's Cause of Death

In addition to her novels, Mary Shelley also wrote travelogues and histories of authors such as Cervantes, Machiavelli, and Moliere. She wrote another historical romance inspired by a real person: The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830). This was followed by Lodore, a family romance, in 1834.

Her Rambles in Germany and Italy was published in 1844. Percy’s father Sir Timothy Shelley died the same year, and Mary’s son Percy Florence inherited the by-now heavily indebted estates. In 1849, Mary Shelley moved with her son and his new wife to Field Place, the Shelley country home. She died in 1851 after a short illness and lies buried between her parents in St Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth.

Her legacy remains the story of the child abandoned by its father (as Godwin had abandoned her): Frankenstein. Although she wrote other great works, it is Frankenstein for which she continues to be remembered most.

In the words of Anne Mellor, her writings act as a

powerful warning to the modern age, showing us the damage wrought by a still dominant capitalist ideology...

(Anne Kostelanetz Mellor, Mary Shelley, her life, her fiction, her monsters, 1988)

Mary Shelley - Key takeaways

  • 1797 - Mary Godwin is born; her mother Mary Wollstonecraft dies 10 days later
  • 1814 - Mary and Shelley elope to Europe with Mary’s step-sister Jane (Claire Clairemont)
  • 1816 - Shelley’s wife Harriet drowns herself and Shelley marries Mary Godwin
  • 1816 - The Shelleys visit Lord Byron at Geneva: Mary starts writing Frankenstein
  • 1818 - Frankenstein is published
  • 1822 - Shelley is drowned in the Bay of Lerici and Mary returns to England
  • 1851 - Mary Shelley dies and is buried with her parents in Bournemouth

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley is a Romantic Gothic novelist.

Frankenstein (1818)

Mary eloped with the poet Percy Shelley and wrote the gothic novel Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing contest set up by Lord Byron.

With her parents in St Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth.

Final Mary Shelley Quiz

Question

Who is Mary Shelley?

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Answer

Mary Shelley is a Romantic Gothic novelist.

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What is Mary Shelley's most famous work?


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Answer

Frankenstein (1818)

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Why was Mary Shelley famous?


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Answer

Mary eloped with the poet Shelley and wrote the gothic novel Frankenstein.

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Why did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein?


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Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing contest set up by Lord Byron.

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Where is Mary Shelley buried?


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With her parents in St Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth

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 By the time Mary was 14, she was suffering from … and ….

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By the time Mary was 14, she was suffering from eczema and isolation.

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 Godwin attempted to … the lovers. However, the couple, together with Mary’s half-sister Jane (later ‘Claire’) Clairmont, escaped to …. 

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Godwin attempted to separate the lovers. However, the couple, together with Mary’s half-sister Jane (later ‘Claire’) Clairmont, escaped to Calais. 

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‘"Have you thought of a …?" I was asked each ..., and each … I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.’


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‘"Have you thought of a story?" I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.’

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Shelley was well versed in the science of her time, including …, which she adopts as Frankenstein’s … for bringing his Creature to …. 

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Answer

Shelley was well versed in the science of her time, including galvanism, which she adopts as Frankenstein’s method for bringing his Creature to life. 

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True or False? Mrs Godwin (Mary’s stepmother) followed the trio as far as Rome and attempted (unsuccessfully) to persuade Mary to return home. 

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False: Mrs Godwin (Mary’s stepmother) followed the trio as far as Calais and attempted (unsuccessfully) to persuade Mary to return home. 

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True or False? Mary started writing, and by 1819 had completed Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

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False: Mary started writing, and by 1817 had completed ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’.

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True or False? Shelley got all of his money back from Harriet, and his father offered to help. 

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False: Shelley got some of his money back from Harriet, but his father refused to help him any further.

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Choose: In June of 1816 the Shelleys and Byron discussed... 

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phrenology

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Choose: Mary Shelley got her idea for Frankenstein from


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a gothic novel

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 Mary Shelley is buried in...

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Brighton

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Who is the author of Frankenstein?

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Mary Shelley.

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What is the main idea of the book Frankenstein?

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Creation and the duality of the individual.

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Is Frankenstein a true story?

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Frankenstein is based on a dream Shelley had.

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What is the meaning behind Frankenstein?

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The dangers of knowledge without human empathy.

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What does the monster represent in Frankenstein?

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The Innocent, the Child.

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Choose: Frankenstein is written as 


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a framed narrative.

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Choose: Mary Shelley began Frankenstein while 

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living in Italy.

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Complete: Walton describes Frankenstein: I never saw a man in so ... a condition. He is generally ... and ... .

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Walton describes Frankenstein: I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. He is generally melancholy and despairing.

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Choose: Shelley uses ... as Frankenstein’s method for bringing his Creature to life.


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magnetism

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Choose: Frankenstein qualifies as 

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science-fiction

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Where does Frankenstein die?

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The captain’s cabin.

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Complete: Frankenstein’s dying words are ‘Seek ... in tranquillity and avoid ...' .

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Frankenstein’s dying words are ‘Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition.

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True or false? The Shelleys visited Lord Byron at the Villa Eboli.

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False: It was the Villa Diodati.

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True or False? The Creature was adopted by the de Laceys.

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False: The Creature made friends with the blind father.

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Choose: Mary Shelley based the story of Frankenstein... 

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...on a real incident.

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When was Mary Shelley born?

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Mary Shelley was born in 1797.

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True or false: Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley to Egypt.

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False: Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley to France.

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What happened to Mary's first daughter in 1815?

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In 1815 Mary’s first daughter Clara was born prematurely and died a few weeks later.

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Where was Mary Shelley in 1816 when she was inspired to write Frankenstein

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In 1816 Mary Shelley travelled to Switzerland, where she was inspired to write Frankenstein.

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True or False? Frankenstein is published in 1819.

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False: Frankenstein is published in 1818.

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In Switzerland, the Shelley household rented a chalet nearby Lake _____.


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Garda

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Why did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein?

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Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing contest set up by Lord Byron.

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Choose: In June of 1816 the Shelleys and Byron discussed...

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Answer

phrenology. 

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Choose: Mary Shelley got her idea for Frankenstein from...

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a gothic novel.

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Complete: Frankenstein promises to construct the female creature... 

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but hides it from the Creature.

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Complete: Byron, Polidori, and Percy Shelley spent one evening discussing _____, which Shelley then used in her novel as the method by which Frankenstein brings the Creature to life. 

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batteries

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Mary Shelley's idea for Frankenstein came from a nightmare about

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a pale student

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