- The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Vol. 1 edited by Betty Bennett
Johns Hopkins, 591 pp, £18.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 8018 2275 0
‘Madame – vous avez du caractère’, remarked a French gentleman travelling through Savoy in 1823 in the same carriage as Mary Shelley and observing her as she checked her small son Percy’s self-willed behaviour. She was pleased enough to report the compliment to Leigh and Marianne Hunt in a letter; and if she seems a little arch in liking compliments, she strikes the reader too as deserving them. This is the letter of an unusually intrepid and well-educated woman: it mixes affectionate chat about the Hunts’ children and hers with clear-headed comment on her present travels and memories of earlier, happier journeys. At one moment she is describing the Customs officers’ jokes about the seriousness of their work as they lift the lid of her box – Shelley had had books confiscated on the journey out; at another she recalls how the Montagne des Eschelles had given him the idea of his Prometheus Unbound; then she is surprised, entirely on her own account, by the people of Cenis making an annual August pilgrimage to a mountain top: ‘it belongs to that queer animal man alone, to toil up steep & perilous crags, to arrive at a bare peak; to sleep ill & fare worse, & then the next day to descend & call this a feast.’ Through these impressions she scatters idiomatic French and Italian with perfect ease: this is the pen of an undoubtedly quick and clever young woman.
Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981
SIR: It seems to me a pity that Claire Tomalin (LRB, 19 February) has come to be regarded, in this country at least, as the main authority on Shelley and his circle, if only because, as her book on Mary Wollstonecraft proved, she has no understanding of and, one suspects, little interest in the political ideas of the time that motivated both Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and to which no daughter of Mary and William Godwin could have been immune. All were influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and in the forefront of revolutionary thinking.
According to Ms Tomalin’s own biography, Mary Wollstonecraft left England for Paris solely to find a man! This is a ludicrous theory, if only because, like so many English radicals at the time, Mary went to study, and if possible participate in, the French Revolution. Like the rest, she wrote on it at some length.
If anything emerges from the Shelley/Harriet marriage it is that Harriet, an adolescent girl deeply in love, genuinely tried to grasp Shelley’s political ideas, but failed to register more than a faint imprint of what he told her, and soon tired of pretending. Shelley, too eager and chivalrous to realise this at first, did so as soon as he contacted the Godwins and Mary’s far tougher mind. In what way was he ‘mendacious’ about Harriet? She was certainly pregnant when she drowned, and it would seem definitely not by him. Years later, he expressed some sense of guilt, but this was surely inevitable in the circumstances.
There is no evidence at all that he had an affair with Claire Clairmont, although a good deal that she was a trial to both him and Mary. The fashionable new theory that the Naples child was his is also just that: an assumption entirely without concrete evidence. Shelley’s kindness to and selfless activity on behalf of others in trouble was proverbial. Under this theory, his vigorous protests when he heard the rumour must all be lies, which is surely singular in one so prone to trumpet the truth as he saw it, and what he knew were highly controversial views and ideas on love, marriage and society.
The fact is that Shelley’s political writings are the best guide to his type of mind; our age is far too prone to emotional assessments, owing to its obsession with sex and private lives, and its refusal to admit that any friendship between the sexes can be, and remain, platonic, even if there is an implicit attraction. Shelley’s views on marriage, incidentally, were that it should be easily breakable where it had obviously failed: not that the answer was polygamy or simultaneous sexual attachments.
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
is no rebuke, and still less the pang of one finding solace elsewhere.
If Ms Tomalin can produce foolproof evidence of her own and other modern assumptions about Shelley’s supposed infidelities with Claire Clairmont, Jane Williams or anyone else, then it is time she did so. Love poetry is not evidence and is frequently a literary exercise. Williams, at least, seems to have realised this and taken it in good part. The verses addressed to Jane were written for the eyes of all four.
It is not for nothing that Bernard Shaw was an admirer of Shelley, and recognised a similarity of outlook.
Vol. 3 No. 6 · 2 April 1981
SIR: Audrey Williamson’s eccentric outburst (Letters, 19 March) seems to have been provoked by my review of a volume of Mary Shelley’s letters, but turns out to be a review of my books on Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. A retrospective survey of one’s work is of course flattering, but it is difficult to believe from her remarks that Miss Williamson has actually read my books. She complains, bafflingly, that I have ‘little interest in the political ideas of the time that motivated both Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft’. Even a cursory reading of the books would have made it plain that this is the reverse of the truth: both treat their subjects’ political ideas and influence with entire seriousness. The confusions of Miss Williamson’s letter grow more impenetrable as it proceeds. ‘According to Ms Tomalin’s own biography, Mary Wollstonecraft left England for Paris solely to find a man!’ writes Miss Williamson. This ‘ludicrous theory’, as she describes it, is, however, not mine. It is Mary Wollstonecraft’s own little joke (‘at Paris, indeed, I might take a husband for the time being’), which I quote and characterise as such.
Miss Williamson demands ‘foolproof evidence’ for my ‘assumption’ that Shelley was the father of Claire Clairmont’s child. I make no such assumption. I merely examine the evidence for and against many theories about the Neapolitan baby, and say which I find most plausible: an elementary duty of a biographer.
Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981
SIR: Claire Tomalin suggests I cannot have read her book on Mary Wollstonecraft (Letters, 2 April). In fact I reviewed it, praising its research, alongside Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit (Tribune, 13 September 1974). I am sure she is sincere in thinking she deals with the political ideas ‘with entire seriousness’, but she is unsympathetic to Mary’s Vindication of the Rights of Man, describing it as a ‘rag-bag’ without any attempt to ‘reason with Burke at the level he required’. Apart from this brief praise she makes no study of Burke’s reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (its reference to ‘the swinish multitude’ alone provoked a political storm), or of Paine’s contrary ideas set out in Rights of Man, the other reply to Burke, all of which I discuss at length in my 1973 biography of Paine. On Mary’s ‘joke’ when setting out for France she remarks that ‘it covered her anxieties about her continuing state as a spinster.’ There is no evidence Mary had such anxieties. This seems to me very far from E.P. Thompson’s estimate of Mary as ‘a major intellectual’ (New Society, 19 September 1974), a view echoed by Michael Foot, quoting Hazlitt and Coleridge in support, and which I share.
With regard to Shelley’s affair with Claire Clairmont, Mrs Tomalin’s acceptance of this seemed clear to me from her review of Mary Shelley’s letters (LRB, 19 February): if her recent book on Shelley, which she wrongly assumes I have read, is more sceptical, I am glad. The story was first spread by the servant, Elise. However, Mrs Tomalin now claims I requested evidence that ‘Shelley was the father of Claire Clairmont’s child’! I never suggested the Naples baby, Elena, was Claire’s: it is she who now states it was. On what proof, one wonders? Even Mr Holmes examined and rejected this, and plumped for the tale-bearing Elise.