Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley) and Mothers of the Novel

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley 

For too long, Mary Shelley was more or less a footnote to the life of her spectacularly famous husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. When I took a course on the Romantic poets as an undergraduate, a great deal of class time was devoted to the sexual adventures of the charismatic Shelley and Byron, and of course Mary Shelley's name came up during that discussion--at age sixteen she eloped with the already-married Shelley!!! She gave birth to an out-of-wedlock baby!!! But I had no idea that, before her name was Shelley, she bore the name of not one but two extraordinary political thinkers and writers, her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. 

Mary Shelley, c. 1840,
portrait by Richard Rothwell
While Mary's identity as an individual--her own accomplishments, even her name--were never discussed in my 1971 classroom, her singular "achievement" was also subject to doubt. Like many, even today, my professor didn't believe that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein; he thought the novel should be credited whole, or in large part, to Persey Bysshe Shelley, not to Mary. And so, in writing about her, I've relegated his birthday (4 August) to serving as the occasion for today's post. 

Born on 30 August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is an extraordinarily accomplished woman irrespective of her relationship to Shelley. In fact, I've sometimes wondered what she might have achieved if she had never met him. As it is, over the course of her life (she died on 1 February 1851, at age fifty-three), she published some two dozen short stories, six novels, two travel narratives, children's literature, biographies, poetry, criticism, and reviews. She wrote two unpublished plays. She edited her husband's literary work. Her journals cover the years from 1814 to 1844. Her letters fill three volumes. 

The list of just the titles of books and novels is impressive:
  • Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or, the Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris (1808);
  • History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (including contributions by PBS, 1817);
  • Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818; revised editions published in 1831 and 1833) 
  • Matilda (1818-19, but first published in 1957); 
  • Maurice; or the Fisher's Cot (1820, but first published in 1998); 
  • Valperga: or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823); 
  • The Last Man (1826); 
  • The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830);
  • Lodore (1835); 
  • Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, volumes 86-88 of The Cabinet of Biography, Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia (1835-1837); 
  • Falkner: A Novel (1837);  
  • Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, volumes 102 and 103 of The Cabinet of Biography (1838, 1839); 
  • Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844).

But, of course, what is most astonishing is that all of this was achieved despite the social, legal, and financial obstacles Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley) faced--not to mention the physical difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth, childcare, and the loss of three of the four children to whom she gave birth. 

For many years after my college course in Romantic literature, I didn't think about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. But Janet Todd's 2007 Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle started me off on a brief period of self-education. (In my defense, I consider myself a medievalist who has spent much of her career writing about early-modern history, politics, and literature--I would always tell my students that if something happened after 1603, I didn't know anything about it, and I really didn't care. Not completely true, but true enough.)

Reading about the women in this "Shelley Circle" is revealing----these brilliant and ambitious women paid a terrible price for daring to share the revolutionary political, religious, and sexual ideals of men like Shelley and Byron. The men are regarded as geniuses whose work has become central to the literary canon and whose early deaths have been mythologized, while the women in their lives, when they are not invisible, have been regarded as disposable, their struggles reducing them to suicide, madness, or despair. 

Todd's book is the most complete account of MWG's older sister, Fanny Wollstonecraft (Mary Wollstonecraft's child with the American "speculator," Gilbert Imlay). Fanny committed suicide at age twenty-two.

As for Percy Bysshe Shelley's young wife (the woman he abandoned when he ran away with the teenaged Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin), Harriet Westbrook was also sixteen when she eloped with PBS. She was just nineteen and pregnant with their second child when Shelley abandoned her and eloped with MWG. Harriet committed suicide in 1816, when she was just twenty-one. There is a biography from 1962 by Louise Schutz Boas, Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years--it's long out of print, but there are used copies available, and it's well worth reading. There's also a good essay, here, by Lynn Shepherd.

Claire Clairmont, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's step-sister (the daughter of Godwin's second wife), accompanied her sister and Shelley when they eloped. She may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Shelley, but she certainly had an intimate and deeply emotional relationship with him. She also became, briefly, Byron's mistress, and she gave birth to his child, a daughter, whom she reluctantly transferred to Byron's custody and carelessness. The little girl died at age five. Robert Gittings and Jo Manton's 1992 Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys is out of print, but used copies are available. Claire Clairmont had many aspirations beyond those of being Byron's lover--she wrote, she taught music, she worked as a governess, she traveled and lived abroad (Florence, Vienna, Russia, Dresden, Pisa, Paris). She died in Florence in 1879 at age eighty, outliving all the others.

Miranda Seymour's excellent 2002 biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Mary Shelleyis richly rewarding. There is an excellent and detailed essay on Mary Shelley and her work at the Poetry Foundation, which you can access by clicking here.

Claire Clairmont, c. 1812,
portrait by Amelia Curran,
a painter and friend of PBS
Most of MWG's work is available today in carefully edited paperback editions and via Google Books or Project Gutenberg--since there are so many possibilities, I won't link to them here.

Update, 2018: This marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. I highly recommend Jill Lepore's New Yorker essay, "The Strange and Twisted Life of Frankenstein," which you can access by clicking here.

You may also enjoy a couple of recent podcasts, including "'It's Alive!' Frankenstein at Two Hundred" (On Point, 12 February 2018, with Jill Lepore, click here) and "Mary Shelley and Her Monster" (History Extra, 11 January 2018, click here.)

You will definitely want to check out the "collective reading and collaborative annotation experience" at Frankenbook: 
The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.

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