Bloody Valentines: Mary Shelley’s Tell-Tale Heart

 

We all know that Mary Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, a phenomenal work of Gothic horror. But did you know that the gory details of Mary Shelley’s life itself read better than any novel? Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that she kept her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, carrying it with her and storing it in her drawer until her own death in 1851!

In honor of Valentine’s Day and my February Women in Horror Series, I would be remiss if I did not include the strange, romantic and horrific life of Mary Shelley.

In her short lifetime, Mary Godwin Shelley saw a great deal of death: her mother, three of her own children, her half sister Fanny Imlay, her husband Percy Shelley, her step-mother, her father and father-in-law. It comes as no surprise that the woman who experienced a cavalcade of grim reapers became obsessed with resurrecting and recreating life. Her character, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, was the embodiment of this obsession.

Bleak Beginnings

Mary Godwin’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and free thinker. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argued that women, given the proper education, were “intellectually equivalent” to men –  a “radical” idea for the times.

Mary Wollstonecraft died of a post partum infection when daughter Mary was less than a month old. Little Mary’s father, William Godwin, a political activist and publisher, raised her along with her half sister Fanny Imlay – a child from another of Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationships. Godwin took a new wife –  one Mary Jane Clairmont – who had two children of her own, Claire and Charles. The family set up housekeeping in London where William opened a publishing company that eventually went bankrupt.

Young Mary was given a somewhat radical education by her free-thinking father. When she was just seventeen, she became acquainted with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley – a friend and “political disciple” of William Godwin. Percy was twenty-two.

Percy and Mary fell deeply in love. The only problem was, Percy was already married. His wife was a woman named Harriet Westbrook – with whom he had eloped when she was just sixteen and he nineteen – much to the dismay of Percy’s aristocratic family. They subsequently cut him off from his inheritance, although Percy loved to flaunt his wealthy roots and often claimed that large sums of money would eventually be his. Percy and Harriet had one child, and to make matters worse, Harriet was pregnant!

Cemetery Trysts and Love Triangles

Nonetheless, Mary and Percy began having secret meetings in – of all great Gothic places — Saint Pancras Cemetery where Mary’s mother was buried!

Percy said he could not hide his “ardent passion” for her. Mary wrote she was attracted to Percy’s “wild, intellectual, unearthly look.”

The two made love for the first time in the cemetery. Mary lost her virginity to Percy.  After that, forget it. Mary was ruined. RUINED, I tell you!!!! Call in the National Guard! Mary was now a social pariah, a leper among women!! (I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Remember, in Victorian times, virginity was a big deal. No way in hell could Mary get away with this!) Even the so-called liberal thinking and politically radical William Godwin disapproved of their relationship.

The only sensible thing to do was run away. And so, Mary and Percy ran away to France. They took Mary’s step-sister Claire (daughter of her step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont) along with them. According to Percy, this was because Claire was “the only one among them who could speak French.” However, Claire and Percy reportedly had many “excursions” together, and historians believe the two were lovers as well.

Furthermore, older sister Fanny Imlay who was left behind, also expressed having feelings for Percy.  He may have been three timing the sisters. Of course, Percy’s pregnant wife Harriet also got left behind.

Mary, Claire and Percy traveled together throughout France and Switzerland until, being broke and destitute, they could no longer survive. They then returned to England. Mary was pregnant. Mary’s father – apparently growing more traditional by the minute – still disapproved of their relationship and refused to take them in. The baby was born premature and died shortly after. Mary became pregnant again and in 1816 gave birth to a son, named William.

That same year, Mary, Percy, little William and Claire all traveled back to Switzerland. Soon after they were joined by Percy’s friends, the poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori. It was a meeting of the minds.

There, in Geneva, the group passed one of the coldest summers ever by telling ghost stories around the fire and challenging each other to write horror. It was one of these challenges that led 18 year old Mary to write her masterpiece Frankenstein.

Mary became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter – but both children would be dead within two years. In the meantime, Mary completed Frankenstein and had it first published anonymously in 1818.

The couple returned to England in September, 1816.  They settled in Bath with Claire Clairmont – who was now (ironically) pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Mary then received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who alluded to her “unhappy life”. The letter was apparently so alarming that, on October 9, Percy took it upon himself to go looking for Fanny, worried about her state of mind. He never found her. On the morning of October 10, Fanny Imlay was found dead in a room at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She left a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum.

Fanny was not the only suicide that year.  On December 10, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, was discovered drowned in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It seems the two women who got left behind decided to leave forever.

Both suicides were hushed up, as suicide in Victorian times was illegal, considered disgraceful, and brought great shame to the families.

Percy, for his part, tried to gain custody of his two children by Harriet. His lawyers told him it would be a good idea for him to take a wife, so he finally married Mary on December 30, 1816 at St Mildred’s Church in London. Although Harriet’s family gained custody of their children, the couple remained in London and attempted their new married life.

It was not long before Percy’s debt collectors came calling. The couple left England again, this time bound for Italy, with Claire and her new born daughter Allegra (the child of Lord Byron, who would later claim her) in tow.

In Italy, Mary’s two children developed malaria and died. On November 12, 1819, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one who would survive to adulthood.  Mary became pregnant again in 1822. She suffered a miscarriage and almost bled to death. Percy, too distraught to call a doctor, put Mary in a tub of ice water to staunch the bleeding. It was later agreed that he had saved his wife’s life.

That same year, Percy Shelly set out on a sailing adventure from which he would never return.

The Heart That Would Not Die

On July 1, 1822, Percy Shelley, Edward Ellerker Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed south down the coast to Livorno. On July 8, he and Edward Williams set out on the return journey to Lerici — minus the captain — but with an eighteen-year-old boatboy, Charles Vivian. They were detained by a storm and lost at sea. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.

Percy Shelley’s body was only identifiable by his clothing and a book of John Keats’ poetry that he had stashed away in his pocket.

It was decided that Percy’s body would be cremated on the beach at Viareggio. However, something bizarre happened.

His heart would not burn.

Before we get too carried away with supernatural implications, it is only fair to say that modern-day physicians believe the heart may have calcified due to an earlier bout with tuberculosis – thus rendering it inflammable.  Whatever the reason, Mary Shelley decided to save and preserve her husband’s heart.

Mary kept the heart as a prized possession, wrapping it a silken shroud. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.

In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in Mary’s desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais – a tribute to John Keats.

Interesting aside —  when Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones died in 1969 by drowning in his own swimming pool, it was the poem Adonais that Mick Jagger chose to read at his memorial service.

“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife…”

Another interesting aside: Brian Jones died of drowning. Harriet Shelley died of drowning. Percy Shelley died of drowning. Harriet died in a lake in Hyde Park. Brian Jones’ Memorial Service was held in Hyde Park.

See how that works? I suspect Mick saw some significance in this.

The entire poem can be read HERE.

Author Legacy

Although Mary is most remembered for Frankenstein, it was by no means the full extent of her writing career. After the death of Percy, Mary was active as a writer and editor. She wrote the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French authors to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote short stories, including sixteen for The Keepsake. She also championed Percy Shelley’s poetry, promoting its publication and quoting it in her writing. By 1837, Percy’s works were well-known and increasingly admired.

Believe it or not, in 1830, financially strapped, Mary sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein for only £60!

In the summer of 1838 Edward Moxon (the publisher of Tennyson and the son-in-law of Charles Lamb) proposed publishing the collected works of Percy Shelley.  Mary was paid £500 to edit the collection, called Poetical Works (1838).

Tragic Endings

Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body.  On  February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the young age of fifty-three from a brain tumor. Her son and daughter in law had her buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, although Mary’s request was to be buried at Saint Pancras near her mother.  (She obviously had fond memories of the place.)  However, Mary’s daughter in law, Jane Shelley, had decided that by then Saint Pancras was simply “too dreadful” a place to bury her.

On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to open Mary’s box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, the tell-tale heart!

 

 

 

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Jesus Christ Superstar, Female Apostles and the 1%

 

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In honor of Good Friday, I am paying tribute to my favorite rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar!  Fresh out of The Netherlands comes this timely and creative interpretation, featuring female Disciples, a very young Jesus and a Roman government which is akin to Wall Street elites.  A lot of effort went into it — careful casting and two years rehearsal.  The play was first performed in 2016 at Candea College in Duiven.  The cast includes Tijmen Steg as Jesus, Don Voogt as Judas and Anne Baars as Mary Magdalene.

In the house of Lazarus, Mary  tries to anoint Jesus with precious oil, only to be reprimanded by Judas Iscariot.  “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, could have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe, three hundred silver pieces or more.”

Jesus, looking at the big picture and knowing he is not long for this world, answers: “Surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling; look at the good things you’ve got.”

(For more on Jesus’ anointing see my previous post Lazarus and the Pink Moon)

These very talented performers may come as a bit of a juxtapose and surprise.  I think they are fantastic!  Hope you enjoy it and have a happy Good Friday 🙂

Here, Anne Baars as Magdalene performs the ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

Intrigued? Watch the whole opera here: (Running time about 1 hour 30 minutes.)

 

 

Mary’s Manifesto

 

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I never set out to be a feminist icon, yet they made me one. I was an inadvertent example of the movement. At the time, I did not yet realize there even was a movement, although I knew  a woman’s place in society was fundamentally wrong.  I simply tried to acquire some freedom for myself. I wanted independence, my own income and a life where I would not be solely defined as ‘wife’.

On the downside, I was also an uptight thirty-something Minneapolis transplant, on the rebound from a failed relationship and one step away from doormat-ism. But to call me a representative of 2nd wave feminism? That was hardly accurate.

Take my first day at work. Sure, I became an associate producer at WJM News. It was a fancy title, yet my pay was ten dollars less than the lowly secretaries. When my boss, Mr. Lou Grant interviewed me, the first thing he asked was my religion. The second thing was my marital status. When I informed him that I was Presbyterian and single, he asked why. Why I was single that is.  I should have automatically  said “Nunya bizness bitch!” (It was, after all, an illegal question.)  But no. I stammered, clasped my hands and choosing my words very carefully, I began to explain to this total stranger, who was in a position of vast authority over me, that there were a multitude of nuanced reasons as to  why one was ‘still single’ at the ripe old age of thirty.

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Mr. Grant was not interested in my explanation, which made me wonder why he had asked in the first place.

That very same night a drunken Mr. Grant showed up at my apartment. He told me, among other things, that I had a ‘great caboose’. He was lonely and his wife was out of town.

In the meantime, my ex-fiancé (who had been persuaded by my landlady to come rescue me) also showed up at my door with flowers. My ex was a doctor and he proceeded to inform me he had stolen the flowers from a very sick patient.

There I stood, a resistant sex object, not even worthy of receiving store bought flowers. See what I mean about doormat-ism?

I sent my ex fiancé packing. Mr. Grant typed a letter to his wife, then staggered out to mail it. I was relieved to be rid of them. The next day at work I was given a stack of pencils to sharpen. My pseudo-feminist career had begun.

The good thing was I realized then I could take care of myself. Every woman needs to realize she is able to take care of herself.

Up till my last day in the newsroom I could never get past calling my boss ‘Mister Grant’ although everyone else called him ‘Lou’. Even my best friend Rhoda, a fast talking New Yorker, would saunter in his office and boldly call him ‘Lou’.

My self assertion was wrought with shortcomings. I was no Betty Friedan. Gloria Steinem hated me.

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As for the traditionalists, they didn’t like me either. I heard Phyllis Schlaftly was appalled because I often stayed out all night with my dates. ( Oh yes, I did have dates! A plethora of men called on me. I had no intention of marrying any of them.)  This type of thing was a real no-no for a nice Midwestern girl in 1972.  I remained polite.  Never once did I speak of my sexual escapades. After all, those who DO, do not speak, and those who SPEAK, do not DO. Yet I was a sexually liberated woman. A ring never crossed my finger.

So you see, on the spectrum of feminism I really fit right in the middle. People loved me for it. My ratings soared.

In years to come the women’s movement would explode. Every issue would be tackled, from reproductive rights to equal pay to single filing income tax to home ownership. (Even Miranda of Sex and the City was expected to have a husband or father sign off as joint owner of her condo!)

Gender roles would be questioned. Non-traditional family structures would be accepted. Single motherhood and ‘childless by choice’ became (almost) okay.  Young women became more and more vocal in their demands.   And precisely at the time when they were given almost everything they wanted — young women would demand more. They took to the streets wearing pussy-cat ears and Styrofoam genitalia. ( I could not join them. It was simply not my style.)

Rhoda got married and then divorced. The newsroom closed in 1977. As far as Mr. Grant’s behavior, nowadays he would be sued. Ironically, I would not have wanted to sue him. He was, believe it or not, a good boss.

In re-runs I remain America’s sweetheart.

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One of the best parts of my show was of course its theme song! Who knew this catchy little number would inspire the likes of Husker Du and Joan Jett?

I, Mary Richards am now permanently signing off, but I will leave you with this final statement:

Friday the 13th and the Divine Feminine

 

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It is a day shrouded in superstition and fear. Supposedly it is the most unlucky day of the year.  It created a cottage industry of movie franchises, which I’d say was pretty lucky for Jason, Freddie Kruegar and certain Hollywood moguls…

Nonetheless, many people have a specific fear of this day. So many, in fact, that apparently we now have a medical term for the phobia known as ‘fear of Friday the 13th’. That term is known as ‘paraskevidekatriaphobia’.  (I can’t pronounce it either.)  This term was apparently coined by one Dr. Donald Dossey, a phobia specialist.  According to Dr. Dossey, paraskevidekatriaphobia is the most widespread superstition in the United States today. Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th; some won’t dine in restaurants and many wouldn’t dare have a wedding on this date.  My my my.  But it wasn’t always like this.

In many pre Christian and goddess worshipping cultures, Friday and the number 13 were not so bad.   In fact, they were actually very lucky 🙂

To the ancient Egyptians, for example, the number 13 symbolized the joyous afterlife. They thought of this physical life as a quest for spiritual ascension which unfolded in twelve stages, leading to a thirteenth which extended beyond the grave.  (This explains why they had such elaborate burial and embalming rituals.)

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The number 13 therefore did not symbolize death in a morbid way,  but rather as a glorious and desirable transformation.  Interestingly, the 13th card in the Tarot deck is Death, which often represents not a physical death but a transformation, a chance for change or an opportunity  to release what no longer serves us.

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When Egyptian civilization perished, the symbolism of the number 13 was, unfortunately,  corrupted by subsequent cultures. Thirteen became associated with a fear of death rather than a reverence for the afterlife.

The number 13  has a unique association with the Divine Feminine. Thirteen is said to have been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The ‘Earth Mother of Laussel’ is a 27,000-year-old carving  that was found near the Lascaux caves in France. She is an icon of matriarchal spirituality. The Earth Mother holds a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches.

laussel

Primitive women kept track of time by the passing of their menstrual cycles and the phases of the moon, as well as the change of seasons and the wheel of the year.  However, as the solar calendar, with its 12 months, triumphed over the 13 month lunar calendar,  so did the ‘perfect’ number 12 over the ‘imperfect’ number 13. (But note that they really had to discombobulate those 12 months, giving some of them 30 days, some 31 and poor old February with 28, to make the 364 days…) Twelve became the sacred number after that, with, for example, 12 hours of the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Jesus and 12 signs of the zodiac.  Thirteen became unpredictable, chaotic, untrustworthy and evil.

Friday (the Sixth Day) also offers a unique connection with the Divine Feminine. The name ‘Friday’ was derived from the Norse goddess Freya (or Frigg) who was worshiped on the Sixth Day. She is a goddess of marriage, sex and fertility.

Freya/ Frigg corresponds to Venus, the goddess of love of the Romans, who named the sixth day of the week in her honor “dies Veneris.” Friday was considered to be a lucky day by Norse and Teutonic peoples — especially as a day to get married — because of its traditional association with love and fertility.

As the Christian church gained momentum in the Middle Ages, pagan associations with Friday were not forgotten.  Therefore the Church went to great lengths to  disassociate itself with Friday and thirteen.   If Friday was a holy day for heathens, the Church fathers felt, it must not be so for Christians — thus it became known in the Middle Ages as the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’.   Friday became a big deal in the Bible. It was on a Friday, supposedly, that Eve tempted Adam with the apple, thus banishing mankind from Paradise. The Great Flood began on a Friday. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday. Christ was crucified on a Friday, PLUS, there were 13 attendees at the last supper, the most infamous of course being the betrayer, Judas Iscariot.

Interestingly the sacred animal of the Goddess Freya is the cat (probably a black one) which also became associated with evil as Christianity began to encompass the Western world.  Freya then became known as (you guessed it!) an evil witch, and her cats were evil as well.

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Various legends developed around Freya, but one is particularly pertinent to this post.  As the story goes, the witches of the North would observe their sabbat by gathering in the woods by the light of the moon. On one such occasion the Friday goddess, Freya herself, came down from her sanctuary in the mountaintops and appeared before the group.

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The witches numbered only 12 at the time. Freya joined the circle, making the number 13, after which the witches’ coven — and every properly-formed coven since then — comprised exactly 13.

So, on this Friday the 13th embrace the luck and grace of the Goddess Freya! Pet your cats, engage in some moon-gazing, celebrate love and fertility with your significant other.  Rest assured, the Divine Feminine is with you and there is nothing to fear 🙂

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Women in the Desert

 

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Have you seen the 1991 movie Thelma and Louise? If not, you must rent it or stream it. Immediately!

Geena Davis stars as Thelma , a stuck at home housewife and Susan Sarandon  plays Louise, a  cynical waitress.  The two are both funny, smart, a little bored and maybe secretly longing for adventure when they set out on a weekend get-away.  Here is what they look like in the beginning.

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Yeah, too much lipstick and bad eye shadow. That’s all gonna change. Their  plan is to drive to a friend’s cabin in the mountains to do some fishing and communing with nature. But actually, they want to get away from bosses, husbands, boyfriends and other  oppressive types who happen to be causing problems in their lives.

On the way they stop at a country/ western bar where Thelma, after dancing and being a bit too friendly with Harlan (a would be date rapist) is assaulted by him in the parking lot.  Louise comes to Thelma’s rescue and  accidentally kills the guy.

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 “In the future? When a woman’s cryin’ like that? She ain’t havin’ any fun!” 

 

Then these two normal, everyday women unwittingly become dangerous criminals  on the run from the law.   Before the movie is over they will be guilty of  murder, armed robbery, property destruction and holding an officer at gunpoint. Also  adultery, driving  WAYYY over the speed limit and stealing whiskey, sunglasses and hats.  The snowball effect follows them as one catastrophe leads to another, none of it being their fault. In the meantime they make some poignant self discoveries.

Maybe it would have been different if that truck driver would have just apologized…

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Not only is this movie a feminist masterpiece,  it is also a  great tribute to the American West, full of breathtaking cinematography.  Thelma and Louise, in their non-stop driving spree, travel through long stretches desert highway, red rock caverns, cattle round-ups, endless sky and even the Grand Canyon itself.

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Plus, we get to watch  a young Brad Pitt (before he was even famous.)

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I love this film because it is a realistic, funny and sometimes disturbing look at 20th century feminism.  And it’s not just about women shooting guns.  (If it were, I’d surely hate it.)  There is actually very little violence, although it was touted as such, and with great controversy when it first came out. This story is really more of  a psychological study of life under the pink collar. Can two feisty, flirty women travel across the country, drink and dance in bars without fear of being raped?  (Yes! Nowadays they can.)   Luckily things have changed a lot since 1991. Maybe even in part because of this film and others like it. Written by Callie Khouri,  directed by Ridley Scott.  Highly recommended for bad-ass women and rebels everywhere 🙂

Here is my favorite scene:

 

This post was inspired by the Daily Prompt Desert