Mary and Mary on Milton: Maternal Bonding via Discourse

From Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley:[1]

She goes to stand before the portrait, and stares up at it.

Godwin glances up.

Godwin You have grown more like her.

Mary Have I?

Godwin A little in your looks. A great deal in your stridency of expression.

You went away a girl, and have returned a young woman.

Mary I still look like you though, don’t I? Everyone says so.

Godwin Oh, yes. You will never be rid of that nose. The Gods are not entirely benign.

He continues with his work.

Mary Is it a good likeness?

Godwin Very.

Mary How old was she then?

Godwin About thirty. She was pregnant with Fanny.

Mary She looks happy.

Godwin finishes his work and sets his pen down.

Mary Are there more books about my mother which I can read? Or can I read the other books she wrote?

Godwin Hum. I can’t remember what you’ve read already.

He goes to the bookshelves.


In the National Portrait Gallery in London, a room is devoted to the figures of the Romantic Movement. On one wall, a later portrait of Mary Shelley[2] is on the left hand side of the elaborate oil painting of George Gordon, Lord Byron[3] on whose opposite side rests a simple portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary’s portrait gazes directly across the room, to the opposing wall. On the opposing wall hang the soft portrait of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and a harsh portrait of her father, his gaze seemingly directed away from his daughter. It’s a masterpiece of curation, simple placement conveying the tumultuous tale of a family and a movement. One cannot escape the obvious paradoxes drawn, especially those drawn by Mary Shelley’s direct gaze upon her distant mother, unreachable and strikingly younger than her daughter’s portrait.[4]

Mary Wollstonecraft never knew her greatest pupil: Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to her. A young Mary Shelley, who intensely studied the writings of both her parents, must have keenly felt the absence of Wollstonecraft. In the publication of Frankenstein, Shelley’s writing is profoundly bound up in her mother’s discourse—and in a clear relationship to John Milton’s Paradise Lost.[5] These two influences are inextricable from each other. Rather, it is the combination of interactions that created a masterwork the likes of which Mary Shelley could never replicate in her lifetime. Mary and Mary come together across the years to converse about Milton, an iconoclast whom both felt compelled to envelop in their work and lives. In discourse on Milton, Mary Shelley gained an audience with her mother by joining the voices of women readers across the centuries. A distinction emerges when one compares the allusions made by Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s allusions tend to stay within the garden, while Shelley’s allusions in Frankenstein are constantly in the fires of Hell. The effect of this contrast is the capability to see how Shelley was casting her eye toward what her mother’s criticism would have become. Wollstonecraft was challenging the authority of Adam over Eve; Shelley was challenging the ultimate patriarch, God, over His authority over all Creation. In this model, Victor Frankenstein is God, while his Creature represents Adam, Eve, and Satan at various points of the narrative. Thus, the point of this study is to trace the sutures connecting mother and daughter, utilizing Miltonic discourse in order to show a conversation and a continuation stretching over the years.

In order to understand why the dichotomy between mother and daughter is relevant in the discussion of both of their works and treatments of Paradise Lost, one must understand the relationship between the two.[6] Certain events in the life of Mary Shelley, née Godwin, have become mythologized in the reading and teaching of Frankenstein. The estrangement from her father, a strange summer of creativity on the lake in Geneva, the miscarriages and tragic deaths of her children… Mary Shelley offers opportunities for biographical criticism, and these opportunities have been seized: her life is as well read as her texts.[7] One moment, among all of the moments of young Mary’s life, is the precursor and possible catalyst toward all of these events. As Mary Shelley was torn forcibly and gruesomely from her mother’s womb, her birth was a morosely ironic moment: one of the key[8] feminist theorists struck down by an ultimate act of femininity. Considering Shelley’s later difficulties with this act of femininity, the event must have hung in her subconscious for years. In turn, Mary Wollstonecraft became an absence in the lives of her daughters, and an untouchable figure in the Godwin household.[9]

The weight of the inheritance from Wollstonecraft is oft discussed, and is even the topic of Shared Experience’s biographical play, Mary Shelley. The play actually begins with Mary Shelley reading of her mother’s suicide attempt, and several scenes deal with how the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft is a spectre the younger Mary’s life. The play traces the creation of Shelley’s novel, deftly weaving the influences that bore Frankenstein into the world. The texts that most occupy the play are not Frankenstein though, but rather the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on Paradise Lost can be found repeatedly throughout her work. Milton’s shadow falls repeatedly on Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He serves as a defining patriarch, both igniting her indignation and enriching her prose of her prose. Wollstonecraft was a close reader of Paradise Lost, and she not only critiques his work, but utilizes his language to illuminate her own. In Vindication, Eden becomes the land of discourse and subversion at once. Wollstonecraft wrestles with Milton’s text, especially in “Chapter II: The Prevailing Notion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” Wollstonecraft takes Milton to task for his description of Eve:

Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan[10] strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience[11], to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation.

Wollstonecraft’s writing is filled with ire, and it is little wonder that she preferred the Hell scenes, as the mere description of Eve and its implications in the context of a patriarchal system that utilizes Milton’s language in a way that enhances and justifies male privilege is enough to fuel such distaste. The seeds of contemporary feminist critique of Paradise Lost are contained within this single sentence. Of note, though, is that Wollstonecraft still considers Milton a “great man” (85).[12] She engages with and utilizes his language in support of her own beliefs, so it is of great import to not dismiss the reverence and respect Wollstonecraft had for Milton and his work. Consider Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on lines 634-8 of Book IV:

‘To whom thus Eve with perfect beauty adorn’d,
My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst
Unargued I obey; so God ordains;
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is Woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.[13]

“These are exactly the arguments that I have used to children” Wollstonecraft remarks, while adding, “but I have added, your reason is now gaining strength, and, till it arrives at some degree of maturity, you must look up to me for advice—then you ought to think, and only rely on God” (85). Wollstonecraft’s emphasis is to show the lack of independence allotted by such sentiments. Her key issues with patriarchal values became encapsulated herein.   Wollstonecraft finds such treatment infantilizing and demeaning.

As Steven Blakemore states, “Wollstonecraft hence makes a series of condemnatory connections between Milton’s prelapsarian Eve and the postlapsarian women who are argued into debilitating ignorance by males using Milton’s authoritative language” (452). These “connections” serve to show how Milton’s language has been morphed into a language of subjection. However, it is important to note that Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary[14] who co-opted Milton’s language[15] to defend revolutionary sentiment. The writer to whom Wollstonecraft responded to in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Edmund Burke, “equated what [he] envisioned as an epistemological revolution with Satan’s revolt- the satanic presumption, pride, and lust for forbidden knowledge inscribed in the textual falls of rebellious angels and postlapsarian people”. This was in opposition to the “subversive allegory that revolutionary readers were writing: Satan as revolutionary liberator or… Eve as feminist rebel” (Blakemore, 451-452).

In Joseph Wittreich’s Feminist Milton, he points out a key passage from Wollstonecraft’s The Female Reader (1789), where she has copied from Books IV and V of Paradise Lost. According to Wittreich, Wollstonecraft “reminds us through the words of others that she is ‘sick of hearing about the sublimity of Milton’ always from those who ‘could not enter into the spirit’ of Milton or understand him” (35).   Fittingly, Wollstonecraft’s daughter was one who fully grasped and understood Milton. According to Sandra M. Gilbert, “endlessly studying her mother’s works and her father’s, Mary Shelley may be said to have ‘read’ her family and to have been related to her reading, for books appear to have functioned as her surrogate parents, pages and words standing in for flesh and blood” (223).[16] Mary Shelley not only comprehended the “spirit” of Milton, but also, much like her mother, saw how the language of Paradise Lost could be used to subvert authority.[17]

It is specifically through Miltonic language that the Creature articulates his struggle to his creator. Throughout the genesis of Frankenstein, Shelley repeatedly records in her journal that she and her husband were entrenched in a reading of Paradise Lost, wherein Percy Bysshe Shelley would read aloud from the epic as his wife composed her novel. Interestingly, like her mother, Shelley “with conscious dignity, or Satanic pride, turned to hell for sublimer subjects” (Vindication, 91). Victor Frankenstein and his Creation are denizens of a burning hell, constantly alluding to their lapsarian states—and to Paradise Lost. “I bore a hell within me nothing could extinguish”, Victor laments, upon the demise of Justine Moritz for a crime he knows to be committed by his creation (113).[18] This line corresponds with line 467 of Book IX in regard to Satan, which is part of a whole that truly translates into the text of Frankenstein:

But the hot Hell that always in him burns,

Though in mid-heaven, soon ended his delight,

And tortures him now more, the more he sees

Of pleasure not for him ordained: then soon

Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts

Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

This is the Creature who enacts his vengeance on Justine Moritz, and his assumption that she would reject him. In fact he comments, “thanks to the lessons of Felix and the sanguinary laws of man, I have learned to work mischief” (168). Similarly, Book IV contains language that reverberates into the theme of Frankenstein, such as the famous line “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” (75) or earlier in the same Book when the narrator remarks “His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir/ The hell within him, for within him hell/ He brings…” (19-21)

Gilbert points out that “Frankenstein answers the questions posed by Milton through explicit or implicit allusions to Milton, retelling the story of the fall not so much to protest against it as to clarify its meaning” (225). To clarify meaning is more than authorship, it is criticism. It is this sentiment that gives credence to Mary Shelley’s critical importance as a reader of Paradise Lost. In her journals, there are repeated mentions of Shelley reading Paradise Lost as she is actively writing Frankenstein. Shelley was immensely invested in reading Paradise Lost—probably in no small part because her parents both wrote critical materials on the work.[19]

Where Wollstonecraft attempted to negotiate Eve’s prelapsarian role, contemplating how to “rouse [her] sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away” (198), Shelley was reaching beyond to interpret the ramifications of postlapsarian existence and to comprehend the nature and meaning of the fall. This is the continuum, the critical point upon which the discourse of mother and daughter rests. In casting her discourse to the depths of hell, Shelley was conducting an extension of her mother’s work. As stated by Joseph Wittreich, “Mary learned from her mother that the book men believe educates them into submission actually educates them otherwise—into truth and gentleness, dignity and wisdom” (81). Raised to be literate and literary, as an intellectual companion and equal to the powerful men in her life, from Godwin to Shelley, Mary Shelley was the realization of the hopes and wild dreams of her mother. And in this realization, a true matriarchal lineage is carried out in Miltonic discourse.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress. Web. 2 Jul 2013. <;.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shelley, Mary (with Percy Shelley). The Original Frankenstein. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A vindication of the rights of woman [electronic resource]: with strictures on political and moral subjects. London: J. Johnson, 1792.

Blakemore, Steven. “Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft’s Subversion of Paradise Lost.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 34.4 (1992): 451-480.

Gilbert, Sandra “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton’s Bogey,” PMLA 93, 1978, 368-82; rpt. Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979, 187-211.

Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Critical Heritage Volume 1 1628-1731. London & New York: Routledge, 1972.

Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Critical Heritage Volume 2 1732-1801. London & New York: Routledge, 1972.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. Feminist Milton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

[1] Shared Experience is an Oxford-based theatre company, which utilizes a very interior look at authors and texts.

[2] For clarity’s sake, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley will be referred to as “Mary Shelley”.

[3] In resplendent attire.

[4] Mary Shelley is 43 in her portrait, while her mother is 38.

[5] The influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley is of import to the writing of Frankenstein, but is not the primary focus of this paper.

[6] It should be noted that there is no matriarchal line in Paradise Lost, which only serves to make this matriarchal inheritance of Miltonic discourse even more striking.

[7] This is in doubt partially due to the obsession with the activities of the Shelley circle among the press and gossips back in England in the summer of 1816.

[8] Some would argue that Wollstonecraft was the original feminist theorist.

[9] Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, felt the pressures of her mother’s legacy, which may have contributed to her suicide.

[10] Referring to the common and incorrect belief among Christians in the eighteenth century that Islam did not permit women souls.

[11] This echoes Dr. Samuel Johnson’s interpretation of Milton’s life and works in his Lives of the English Poets: “His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” (157).

[12] This may be Wollstonecraft’s difference in how she approaches Milton criticism in comparison with Dr. Johnson’s work. Johnson seemed to reprimand Milton the man instead of taking his writing in a separate vein.

[13] Wollstonecraft’s emphasis is retained.

[14] Wollstonecraft’s barricade adventures are well documented, as she supported French revolutionaries until it became unsafe for British expatriates, and she was forced to leave.

[15] Wollstonecraft, of course, knew that Milton was himself a revolutionary.

[16] This is a key concept in Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley.

[17] And, in her close reading of her mother’s text, she learned just how to do so.

[18] By extension, this crime is Victor’s. Had he not abandoned his Creature, his brother would be alive.

[19] Godwin’s An Enquiry concerning Political Justice from 1793 contains Godwin’s thoughts on Satan as virtuous, compassionate, and sympathetic.