Juxtaposed drawings of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary S., Mary W. and the pursuit of happiness

Lately I’ve been revisiting some of the sources on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein that I gathered years ago while working on Frankenstein Incarnate. In Miranda Seymour’s biography of Mary, I ran across this quote from a novel by Mary’s mother, the writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft.

Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the springtide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. Gain experience – ah! gain it – while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a different path.

Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of Sylvia Pankhurst’s remark that “As a speaker, a pamphlet-seller, a chalker of pavements, a canvasser on doorsteps, you are wanted; as an artist the world has no real use for you; in that capacity you must fight a purely egotistical struggle.” Sylvia walked her talk, sacrificing her artistic career to her activism for women’s rights. She could seldom find paying customers for her art; maybe this made the sacrifice easier, or at least made it feel like the wiser choice.

The character in Wollstonecraft’s book is advising her daughter to “pursue her own happiness” when choosing a husband, not a job. Whatever the context, it’s interesting to me that she frames the pursuit of happiness not as “an egotistical struggle,” but as a fight that needs fortitude and results in the ability to be useful. She seems to be assuming that what makes us happy is being good. And being good is not easy.

Wollstonecraft died within days of giving birth to her daughter Mary, who, in later life, clearly did not assume that being good was what made people happy. See Victor Frankenstein’s dying words to his friend, the Arctic explorer Robert Walton:

Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.

I love that “Yet why do I say this?” Pursued to death by the creature he made and who murdered his brother, his friend and his wife, Frankenstein is still happiest when imagining new discoveries.


  1. Catherine Gurbaxani
    February 3, 2020

    Love this probe on happiness … Thank YOU!

    Another author named Mary is very helpful in sharing happiness through her character, Elwood P. Dowd in her play HARVEY, “Dr. Chumley, my mother used to say to me, … ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You can quote me.” – Mary Chase, 1944.

    Thank you for the insight and exploration Anne!

    1. Anne
      February 4, 2020

      Catherine, thank you for bringing another Mary’s insight to the mix!


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