The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Vol. 1 
edited by Betty Bennett.
Johns Hopkins, 591 pp., £18, July 1980, 0 8018 2275 0
Show More
Show More

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.

She was at this time 25 and had been a widow for a year. She had lost three children, and nearly died of a miscarriage, before that. She had endured the suicides of her half-sister and of Shelley’s first wife. She had published a travel book and a novel (the famous Frankenstein), and written another; and she was now returning to her native England, reluctantly, knowing she faced there severe social disapproval amounting to ostracism. She was also penniless, too poor even to travel with a maid, and so liable to insult, which she got, and fended off for herself. Her father, the Micawberish William Godwin, was unlikely to be able to assist her once she reached London; he had grown accustomed to the bounty of his son-in-law without any prospect of repaying it. (In one of her letters Mary loyally urges a correspondent to remember to inscribe ‘Esquire’ rather than plain ‘Mr’ upon letters to her father, who, however egalitarian his opinions, felt strongly upon this particular point.) Her father-in-law, Sir Timothy, was fixedly hostile; he already had the guardianship of Shelley’s son and heir by his first marriage and when Mary asked him for help offered to take Percy (aged four) on condition that she disappeared from his life. In such circumstances, whatever ‘character’ she had was needed.

It is a character that has been much subjected to assessments. Shelley’s friends and biographers have made up most of the debit side of the balance sheet, blaming her for not being the perfect person the poet evidently needed. More credit has been allowed by her own biographers (all women), who find her personal achievements admirable and are better prepared to understand the strains placed upon her: but even they tend towards sympathy and respect rather than affection.

Peacock, while conceding that she provided Shelley with needed intellectual companionship, certainly disliked her; he seems also to have blamed her for her initial willingness to elope and to accept Shelley’s mendacious version of Harriet’s behaviour. And although Hunt, Trelawny, Byron and Hogg all counted themselves her friends at one time or another, none left any very warm account of her. Something became repellent to each of them, and pity could not overcome this. Even her own father’s description of her as a girl is proud rather than tender, when he speaks of her as ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind’.

Shelley’s view of her began as idolatry. In 1814 he wrote to her: ‘your thoughts alone can awaken mine to energy ... My understanding becomes undisciplined without you.’ He enjoyed the notion of himself as passive, expecting her to mould and discipline his character and intellect in the way he believed he had moulded Harriet’s. But things turned out differently; Shelley’s character pursued its own course. The only work about which he consulted her much, The Cenci, is probably his least original. Under the many stresses of their life together, Mary’s formidable and unbending nature lost its appeal. When he began to complain (instead of simply departing for walks, or longer expeditions, with other women), it was of her coldness and lack of sympathy.

This coldness was of course connected with her refusal to be comforted for the grief she felt at the deaths of her children. Sexual jealousy, which Shelley gave her cause for, must have played its part too; and on occasion the two griefs were connected, as in the case of little Clara’s death in Venice and Claire Clairmont, the ever-intrusive stepsister. Sadly, while Shelley saw all this and put on record his disappointment with Mary, he could not see her greatest gift to him, since it was posthumous: the collecting and annotation of his poems for the editions of 1824 and 1839. This work, with Frankenstein, makes Mary’s claim to greatness, and demonstrates an exact and scrupulous mind as well as a wonderfully vivid recall of her life with Shelley.

The letters have nothing like the same brilliance, although they are likely to interest social historians as much as students of literature, reflecting their period as they do through the eyes of a woman who was clever but poor and outside respectable society. Most have been published before (in Frederick Jones’s 1947 edition and W.S. Scott’s New Shelley Letters of 1948), but there are enough new ones here to cause excitement, and every reason to be grateful to Betty Bennett for her careful and considerable labours. The new material also provides at least one curious story.

It concerns Jane Williams, whose lover Edward drowned with Shelley, and who became the emotional centre of Mary’s life for some time after. (Although she took Williams’s name, she was not in fact married to him but had a husband in the Army in India from whom Edward had rescued her.) The two young women settled close to one another in Kentish Town (then ‘hay-odorous’ and blessed with ‘green meadows’ and ‘gentle hills’), brought up their children together, and went out together to the opera and the theatre. Mary’s passion (it is not too strong a word) for Jane met with a tremendous blow when she discovered, in July 1827, that Jane had behaved treacherously towards her by talking about the last months at La Spezia when the Shelleys and Williamses had shared a house, and there had been bad relations between Mary and Shelley. This period had become sacred territory to Mary, not to be profaned by any comment except assertions that they were ‘days of bliss – of Paradise before the fall’. The fact that Jane was now pregnant by Hogg, Shelley’s old friend (and persistent suitor of Shelley’s women – he had nearly prevailed with Mary herself a decade before) did not make things easier for Mary to bear. But her behaviour was extraordinary.

In the first place, she said nothing to Jane but continued to write to her in her usual loving, even flirtatious tone, for several months after the journal entry makes clear that she is suffering anguish. Miss Bennett attributes this to the fact of Jane’s pregnancy. But if this were so, her subsequent behaviour is even stranger. After broaching the subject with Jane at last, some seven months later, the letter she writes (it will appear in Vol. II of this edition) does not actually reproach her for her indiscretion or cruelty but takes the tone of a lover injured by rejection:

I believe you still and forever to be all that man or woman could desire as a lover or a friend, if you loved them, your very merits make my unhappiness – my sole claim on you was the entireness of my affection for you ... I have known no peace since July – I never expect to know it again. Were I to say, forget me – what will you reply? I cannot forget you, your form, in all its endearing grace, is now before me – but more than ever, I can only be an object of distaste to you, is it not better then that you forget me?

The oddity is that Mary never states her real grievance against Jane; it is all ‘when I first heard that you did not love me – every hope of my life deserted me.’ Instead of accusing, she retreats into her own misery, even leaving town to escape from – what? The answer has to be: from the unpleasant, unpalatable, indiscreet truth.

What makes this of more than passing interest is the light it throws on previous episodes of scandal in Mary’s life, notably the Neapolitan baby Elena, attributed by gossip to Claire. Mary’s written denials of the truth of this assertion had read convincingly: now it seems increasingly likely that she was not so much discreet as almost pathologically divided in her mind between one set of feelings and another, and between one version of the facts and another. What I am suggesting is that her determination to see her relations with Shelley as ‘ever untroubled’ was so overpowering that she could make herself blind to what was obvious to other people, and convert one sort of emotion into another in order to avoid ideas or emotions that she found intolerable.

On the subject of Mary’s feelings about Claire and her relationship with Shelley, there is another newly published letter here, written from Bath in January 1817, the winter of the suicides, of the birth of Claire’s daughter Allegra and of Shelley’s and Mary’s marriage. Her dislike of the intimacy between Shelley and Claire, and fear that he would take steps to strengthen it (as he did), are transparent:

Claire writes I entreat you most earnestly and anxiously to take care how you answer it – Be kind but make no promises and above all do not say a word that may imply any responsibility on your part for her future actions – I shall most likely not see your letter but I shall be very anxious for its ... contents for you are warmhearted ... & indeed sweetest very indiscreet ... pardon this but pray attend to it ...

Mary was usually happy to be Claire’s adviser and even to assist her (another part of the same letter asks Shelley to bring a nipple shield for Claire, who was nursing Allegra): but never for one moment did Mary trust Claire in her relations with Shelley. (Miss Bennett is surely astray, however, in using the word ‘incest’ in this connection, page xx, since Shelley and Claire stood in no prohibited relation to one another.)

In 1824, Mary said to Leigh Hunt: ‘Years ago, when a man died the worms ate him; now a set of worms feed on the carcase of the scandal that he leaves behind him, and grow fat upon the world’s love of little talk.’ But before I grow fat myself I shall quote in extenuation another remark of Mary’s, this time to Teresa Guiccioli, to whom she wrote in Italian after Byron’s death, in March 1825, urging her ‘to write in detail this true romance, more romantic than any fictional romance’. Mary’s own life, if not a romance, was far more interesting than Guiccioli’s.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.

Audrey Williamson
London SW1

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.

Audrey Williamson
London SW1

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.

Claire Tomalin
London NW1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences