Menagerie of Live Authors

Francesca Wade

  • Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
    Hutchinson, 649 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 09 195894 7

There were high hopes for the son of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, the grandson of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, but the boy told his mother that all he wanted was a quiet life and a sailing boat. She wasn’t wholly disappointed at his failure to distinguish himself. When it was suggested at school that he needed to learn to think for himself, Mary Shelley said: ‘Oh God, teach him to think like other people!’

Percy Florence was unusual in a uniformly cerebral family. Charlotte Gordon’s premise for writing a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is that while their lives overlapped only for ten days, they shared a spirit. Wollstonecraft’s work – especially her treatise on education and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – was addressed to future generations, and her daughter was one of her most avid disciples. Wollstonecraft died at 38 of puerperal fever; her daughter, the story went, learned to read by tracing the letters on her gravestone, which still stands in St Pancras churchyard; she also declared her love to the married Shelley there. Her first book, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, was written in direct homage to her mother’s bestselling memoir of her Scandinavian tour, and much of her subsequent fiction examines the fate of the motherless, from the ‘cursed’ Ida in her short story ‘The Pilgrims’, torn between her lover and her disapproving father, to the eponymous heroine of Matilda, forced to fend off her father’s advances. Many have detected, in the destruction Frankenstein’s monster visits on his creator, the author’s guilt at her mother’s death.

Although both Marys have been the subject of many biographies, their intellectual significance has often been doubted. Shelley’s daughter-in-law Jane wrote an ‘antiseptic’ biography claiming that Shelley and Mary eloped only after his wife had died, which led to Mary being seen as merely a virtuous wife, tender of her husband’s flame following his early death. In 1951, Muriel Spark rescued Mary’s literary reputation in her critical biography. Until then, Mary’s assertion that Shelley’s ‘genius, far transcending mine, awakened & guided my thoughts’ prevailed; many believed him the true author of Frankenstein, and dismissed her editorial work on his poetry. Much the same happened with Wollstonecraft, whose standing, bad in her lifetime, worsened after her death. Godwin’s hastily written memoir of her was explicit about her relationships, pregnancies, suicide attempts and religious doubts. After her Posthumous Works were published, detractors in the press warned, as Gordon puts it, that ‘her words could promote suicide, foster licentiousness and destroy the very fabric of decent society.’ Wollstonecraft was not reclaimed until the 1970s, when six biographies appeared in as many years. Charlotte Gordon relies on the work done at this time by Claire Tomalin, Lyndall Gordon, Janet Todd and Miranda Seymour: her innovation is to narrate the lives in alternate chapters, which allows the two stories to echo each other (though the jumps in chronology are confusing). In 1885 the Athenaeum described Wollstonecraft’s life as ‘one of the most thrilling romances’; Gordon seems to agree, sacrificing depth and context for paciness and overblown prose.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s early life was unsettled; the family moved house frequently to avoid bailiffs, and as the eldest daughter, she was often called on to protect her mother from her alcoholic father and to act as a surrogate mother for her siblings. Her brothers learned algebra and Latin while her own education was limited to basic addition and needlework. Her grandfather, a Spitalfields silk weaver, left bequests to local paupers and the inmates of debtors’ prisons as well as to his son and eldest grandson, but nothing to his female descendants. As Wollstonecraft wrote in her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), middle-class girls, financially and intellectually destitute, were habitually left ‘dependent on the caprice of a fellow creature’, or, as she was, forced to take low-paid jobs as governesses or widows’ companions (work Fanny Burney called ‘toad-eating’). William Godwin studied Locke at the Dissenters’ Hoxton Academy; a few hundred yards away, his future wife had to borrow copies of Locke from neighbours in order even to read him.

Wollstonecraft’s first vindication of the rights of woman was the rescue of her sister Eliza from a violent husband. She also founded a school, but was determined to support herself by writing. In this she was helped by the publisher Joseph Johnson, whose three o’clock salons – known as ‘a Menagerie of Live Authors’ – introduced her to the work of Thomas Paine, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley. Johnson taught her to ‘offend, alienate and strenuously disagree’ in her unsigned pieces for his monthly Analytical Review; with his encouragement she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) in response to Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Critics, predictably, were outraged (Horace Walpole called her a ‘hyena in petticoats’). She responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). ‘Both jeremiad and prophecy,’ according to Gordon, ‘Rights of Woman reveals her as a teacher, a hellfire preacher, a satirist and a utopian dreamer.’ Inspired by European political theory, and reacting to the weak heroines of Rousseau’s novels as well as her own experience, she criticises kings and domestic tyrants, and argues that a society which keeps women as ‘alluring mistresses’ and treats them as ‘a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species’ degrades men and women alike. That December she was in Paris, during the trial and execution of Louis XVI; she saw many of her Girondist friends imprisoned and guillotined.

‘Every day,’ Virginia Woolf wrote of Wollstonecraft, ‘she made theories by which life should be lived; and every day she came smack against the rock of other people’s prejudices.’ An intense platonic relationship with Henry Fuseli and an affair with a dubious American businessman, Gilbert Imlay, by whom she became pregnant in France, ended when Fuseli’s wife and Imlay’s mistress indignantly vetoed the idea of sharing their men with her. Imlay left Wollstonecraft and their newborn daughter, Fanny, in Paris. ‘Forever would he be the criminal,’ Gordon writes of Imlay. ‘Forever would she be the victim.’ But such stark oppositions belie Wollstonecraft’s attempt to live according to her progressive ideals and to evade feminine victimhood. She did, though, try to commit suicide twice at around this time. She was saved on the first occasion by Imlay, and on the second by Thames fishermen on commission from the Royal Humane Society. Thinking of Fanny (who would take her own life in 1818), Wollstonecraft wrote:

I feel more than a mother’s fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart … I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the worlds she is to inhabit – Hapless woman! What a fate is thine!

Wollstonecraft saw Fuseli’s refusal as a betrayal of their intellectual communion; Imlay’s abandonment left her in a dangerous position socially and financially. She escaped censure for Fanny’s birth because Imlay had registered her as his wife at the US embassy, but then she became pregnant by William Godwin. Like Wollstonecraft, who described marriage as ‘legal prostitution’, Godwin was notorious for his dislike of the institution (it was, he wrote in 1793 in Political Justice, ‘a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies’), but, Gordon says, he knew ‘philosophy would be little consolation when faced with the wrath of their society.’ An uneasy compromise was reached: in the second edition of Political Justice, Godwin cut his remarks on the matter, and they married quietly at St Pancras Church. They did their best to ensure their marriage was as untraditional as possible. They spent their days in separate houses and discussed what was for dinner via messenger: as Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘I wish you, for my soul, to be riveted in my heart; but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow.’

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‘No father,’ Frankenstein’s monster laments, ‘had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses.’ Three years after Wollstonecraft died Godwin married Mary-Jane Clairmont, who had two children by different fathers and claimed – falsely – to be a widow. In ‘The Pilgrims’, Mary Shelley, who hated her stepmother, makes sure that such a marriage doesn’t happen (‘the very thought of marrying again’ is, to the widowed father, ‘a profanation to the memory of my Agnes’). The competition between the children, especially Mary and Jane Clairmont, was intense, but as the daughter of Wollstonecraft and Godwin (‘Child of Love and Light’, Shelley proclaimed), Mary received the most attention. Coleridge’s fireside readings of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ lured Mary and Jane out of their beds to listen from behind the sofa; later, Shelley came to pay homage to Godwin, his political hero.

One idea Godwin never saw fit to retract was his notion that the greatest sums of money should be distributed to those who provided the greatest good to the world. While Mary-Jane sold children’s books to make ends meet, Godwin sought benefactors. In Shelley, ‘rich, wild and charming’ (and recently expelled from Oxford for atheism), Godwin found an admirer willing to take out reckless loans on his behalf. Shelley had left his young wife, Harriet Westbrook, whom he had ‘rescued’ from boarding school; Mary, Gordon says, was ‘ready for her own grand love affair’. Godwin, somewhat hypocritically, was horrified at the relationship, but ‘even as he was trying to separate the two young lovers, he was still seeking to finalise a loan from Shelley.’ In July 1814 the couple eloped to France with Jane in tow, crossing the Channel on a fishing boat. There were rumours Godwin had sold his daughters to Shelley for £800 and £700 apiece.

Mary should have taken advice from her mother: ‘I have determined on one thing,’ Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘never to have my Sisters to live with me.’ Gordon considers it ‘likely’ that Shelley had an affair with Jane. ‘A dangerous competitor, only too ready to take Mary’s place’, Jane changed her name to Claire, adopted Wollstonecraft’s birthday and Shelley’s idea of free love, and soon seduced Byron. The affair was disastrous for Claire, but inadvertently created the circumstances for her stepsister’s greatest success. In 1816, Mary, Claire and Shelley travelled to Switzerland to join Byron, who was reluctant to spend time alone with Claire but intrigued by her companions. (‘I could not exactly play the stoic with a woman who had scrambled 800 miles to unphilosophise me,’ Byron later wrote.) At the Villa Diodati, following Byron’s suggestion that each member of the group try their hand at writing a ghost story, the 18-year-old Mary began Frankenstein.

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They had been talking about scientific progress: Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani and Humphry Davy had argued – and shown through experiment – that electricity could cause movement in inert matter, even corpses. Mary took this a step further by imagining a creature sparked to life from animal bones. Byron’s physician John Polidori (commissioned by John Murray to provide the press at home with scandalous gossip) read aloud the notes he’d taken at lectures by the anatomist William Lawrence, who had been widely attacked for arguing that the origins of life were to be found in nature, not in divine will. Shelley, fascinated by the theory, wrote ‘Prometheus Unbound’.

The English press called the group a ‘league of incest’: like Wollstonecraft and Godwin, the Shelleys disdained marriage, only yielding, after Harriet’s suicide, to bolster Shelley’s case for custody of his two children (the court still threw out his claim on grounds of immorality). Mary’s attitude towards Shelley’s affairs – and the extent to which she pursued her own – remains unclear. In ‘Epipsychidion’, dedicated to his lover Teresa Viviani, Shelley wrote:

I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion …

Free love was a different proposition for women, especially in an age when poorly understood natural methods were relied on for contraception. Society’s attitude to unmarried mothers hadn’t changed since Wollstonecraft’s time, and mothers had no legal rights to their children. After Shelley drowned off Livorno in 1822, his father told Mary that he would support Percy Florence, but only if she agreed to part with him: she was able to refuse because, like her mother, she was capable of earning her own living through writing. Claire, however, lost her position as a governess when her employers learned of her liaison with Byron. Her daughter Allegra was given over to him at 15 months and died at the age of five in an Italian convent. All this makes it easy to understand Mary’s devotion to Percy Florence, even moving to Harrow where he was at school.

Claire and Mary both pursued what Woolf called Wollstonecraft’s ‘experiments in living’. Mary Shelley admitted that although she didn’t write ‘to vindicate the Rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed – at every risk I have defended and supported victims to the social system.’ Gordon uses this assertion as the basis for her interpretation of the much puzzled-over case of Elena Adelaide, the baby Shelley registered as his own in Naples in 1819. The mother, Gordon suggests, was not Claire or another lover of Shelley’s, but their faithful servant Elise, and the father – plausibly – Byron. To protect Elise, she argues, Mary encouraged Shelley to register the child, then persuaded Elise to marry another of their servants. By this account, Mary is not a dupe but Shelley’s ‘co-conspirator, helping carry out a plot to save another woman’. There are other examples: when her friend Isabel Robinson had an illegitimate child, Mary arranged the forging of a passport for another friend, Mary Diana Dods. Disguised as a man, ‘Doddy’ accompanied Isabel to France, where they planned to live as husband and wife until enough time had passed for Isabel and the baby to slip back unnoticed. (Doddy proved a jealous ‘husband’; ever eager for a happy ending, Gordon neglects to tell us that Isabel escaped only after Doddy’s death in a debtors’ prison.)

The Literary Gazette claimed after Mary Shelley’s death that ‘it is not … as the authoress even of Frankenstein … that she derives her most enduring and endearing title to our affection, but as the faithful and devoted wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley.’ Mary was 24 when Shelley died; in the 29 years she outlived him, she enjoyed fame (but no money) for theatrical adaptations of Frankenstein; she wrote dozens of biographical essays for The Cabinet Cyclopedia and several more novels, including her apocalyptic fantasy The Last Man (she considered herself after Byron’s death ‘the last relic of a beloved race’). But she spent most of her time editing Shelley’s poetry, patching together stanzas from scraps and resurrecting lines buried beneath doodles of trees and boats. This was done anonymously because Shelley’s father had finally agreed to give her and Percy Florence some financial support on condition she didn’t permit the further publication of Shelley’s writing. She neglected her own reputation to salvage Shelley’s; when she became Godwin’s executor, however, she decided not to publish her father’s final book, a refutation of the Gospels, because she hoped to send Percy Florence to Cambridge ‘without further dilapidation on his ruined prospects’.

Gordon’s effort to portray both Marys as revolutionaries means she doesn’t explore the ever increasing conservatism which led Mary Shelley to say in 1838 that ‘since I lost Shelley I have no wish to ally myself to the Radicals – they are full of repulsion to me.’ Gordon hardly covers the second half of Mary Shelley’s life, mentioning a few thwarted love affairs, and her stand-offs with the malicious memoirists who traded on her history, but not Ferdinando Gatteschi, whose offers of marriage turned to extortion when he threatened to publish the romantic letters she had sent him. The story ended happily: a friend bribed the French police to seize Gatteschi’s papers, to Mary’s undisguised glee. Spark called this ‘the most human incident of Mary’s life’; it’s also a telling example of the importance and difficulty of preserving reputation at a time when any woman who displayed an interest in her own love life was a ‘whore’. Soon after Godwin published Wollstonecraft’s amorous letters to Imlay, the Anti-Jacobin Review’s index included a new entry: ‘Prostitution: see Mary Wollstonecraft’.