Scandal’s Hostages

Claire Tomalin

  • 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.

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.