Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

by Lynn Shepherd
I write literary mysteries. Taking the classic literature of the 19th century as the inspiration for new stories that inhabit the same world. I’ve worked with novels like Mansfield Park, Bleak House, and Dracula, and in my third book, I did the same with two of the century’s most remarkable literary figures: Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The lives of the Shelleys are incredibly rich material for a novelist. There’s so much we simply don’t know. From what Richard Holmes calls the “two great biographical mysteries” of the assassination attempt in Tremadoc in 1813 and the adoption and abandonment of baby Elena in 1819, to the relationship between Shelley and Claire Clairmont, and even the authorship of Frankenstein – all are to a greater or lesser extent unresolved, and all leave us with unanswered questions. Even the established facts sometimes stagger belief (so much so that one of my readers was convinced I’d made my whole novel up, when in fact less than a tenth of it is outright invention). To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we’re in the territory of both ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’ here, not least because so much of the evidence is either missing or deliberately destroyed, whether by the Shelleys themselves, or by that fearsome self-appointed rehabilitator, their daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley.
Faced with such pregnant silences (perhaps literally, in Claire’s case), fiction can be an extraordinarily fruitful vehicle for speculation. It allows you to fill those gaps, and explore possible explanations. Not just what might have happened, but – even more intriguingly – why.

And so we come to A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US) . The novel encompasses all the mysterious episodes I’ve referred to, and attempts to create a story that can make sense of them. It’s structured as two parallel narratives, one set in late 1850, just before Mary Shelley’s death, and one 30 years earlier, which includes that infamous interlude at the Villa Diodati in 1816.

This is the first of two posts in which I will look at how I turned fact into fiction in the case of the ‘Shelley suicides’ – the twin tragedies that confronted the Shelley party on their return from Geneva in late 1816. The first of these is the death of Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin’s half-sister (pictured above by @AmandaWhiteArt – as far as we know, no portrait of her was ever painted).

Fanny Imlay: The facts
Let’s start with a brief resumé. The Shelley party landed in Portsmouth on 8th September 1816, and took up residence at 5 Abbey Churchyard, Bath.
Abbeychurchyard

Shelley travelled regularly to London in the next few weeks, both on his own business and Byron’s (he had brought the manuscript of Childe Harold back with him for John Murray), but it was in most other respects a period of comparative calm in their turbulent and peripatetic lives. As Shelley wrote to Byron on 29th September:

We are all now at Bath, well and content. Claire is writing to you at this instant. Mary is reading over the fire; our cat and kitten are sleeping under the sofa; and little Willy is just gone to sleep. We are looking out for a house in some lone place; and one chief pleasure which we shall expect then, will be a visit from you.

That visit never happened, of course; Byron had ‘shaken the dust of England from his shoes’ for what proved to be the last time. The Shelley party’s domestic bliss was not to last long either. On 9th October a letter arrived from Mary Godwin’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, which suggested such a disturbed state of mind that Shelley travelled immediately to Bristol, where it had been posted, but failed to find her. It later emerged that Fanny had already travelled on to Swansea, where she checked into the Mackworth Arms inn, and later that same night, killed herself with an overdose of laudanum.

Mackworth Arms Swansea
She had with her a watch that had been Mary’s gift, and the stays she was wearing bore her mother’s initials. She left a note, but a strip of paper had been torn off the bottom, and thus when The Cambrian reported the news, Fanny was not identified by name. We can only conclude that someone who was actually there, at the inn, must have intervened to prevent Fanny’s identity being made public. Meanwhile her step-father, William Godwin, was doing all in his power to achieve the same end, albeit at a safe distance. He had started for Bristol after Fanny went missing on October 7th, but he turned back to London as soon as he got the news of her death, and explicitly forbade either Mary or Shelley from going to Swansea or attending the funeral.

My advice, & earnest prayer is, that you would avoid any thing that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea. Disturb not the silent dead. Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired… We are at this moment in doubt whether during the first shock we shall not say that she is gone to Ireland to her aunt, a thing that had been in contemplation. Do not take from us the power to exercise our own discretion… What I have most of all in horror is the public papers; & I thank you for your caution as it might act on this. We have so conducted ourselves that not one person in our house has the smallest apprehension of the truth.

Godwin’s desire for secrecy was almost pathological: the real cause of his step-daughter’s death was not divulged even to her family, and almost a year later, Fanny’s step-brother Charles still hadn’t been told she had died.

Why did Fanny Imlay kill herself? The documentary evidence offers no one simple cause. Part of the answer may have been physiological: she seems to have suffered from the same periods of depression that afflicted her mother, and which Mary also endured. And Fanny’s life at Skinner Street had never been easy. In a household where none of the five children had the same mother and father, she was the only one living with neither of her biological parents, and in that intensely competitive environment she clearly cut a rather sad figure. Godwin went on the record saying that his own daughter Mary was “considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before”, and Mary herself obviously agreed – in a painful letter sent to Geneva that summer Fanny wrote that she knew she was the “laughing stock” of Mary and Shelley, and the butt of their “satire”. There is some evidence that Fanny may have nursed an unrequited attachment to Shelley, (all three girls at Skinner Street had been in love with him, according to Godwin). Shelley’s poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ certainly suggests a deep personal remorse. In the weeks before she died, Fanny had also made the distressing discovery that she herself was illegitimate (something everyone else in the family must have known long before). Moreover, she had been disappointed in a long-held ambition to take up a teaching position at her mother’s sisters’ school in Dublin. Emotional fulfilment, social acceptance, personal independence: it must have seemed like they had all been denied her.

Godwin, Mary and Shelley
Fanny Imlay: The fiction
In A Treacherous Likeness, the account of Fanny’s death is narrated by the elder Charles Maddox, a former Bow Street Runner who has set up a lucrative private practice finding missing persons, and solving crimes. This, of course, is long before the establishment of an official police force in England. In the novel, Maddox is hired by William Godwin to investigate Shelley on his return from Switzerland. Godwin’s always fragile finances are by now reliant on handouts from Shelley, and there are rumours that Shelley intends to abandon Mary Godwin and return to his lawful wife, which would inevitably cut off all further funds. Hence the Godwins’ concern:

As I made my way to Skinner-street that morning I was anticipating, with some degree of apprehension I confess, an introduction to a distinguished philosopher, a fine thinker, an exacting intelligence. What I encountered in his stead was a short, balding, solid little man, with a long, thin nose, and a very disagreeable wife. And even had I not my own sources of information as to the perilous state of the gentleman’s finances, I should have seen at once that the bookshop of which he had become the proprietor was a failing concern: ill managed, ill situated, and the shelves half empty.

 Godwin's bookshop

I wondered at first, and for a moment, that any man of business could employ such a timid and self-effacing assistant behind his counter, only to find that the young woman in question was none other than the elder daughter of Mr Godwin’s first wife, a Miss Fanny Imlay. A modest, gentle, well-meaning creature, to judge of first impressions, though it was evident, from words Godwin let drop later, and – may I say – in the young woman’s presence, that he adjudged Miss Imlay considerably inferior in capacity to his own daughter by that same lady. That he considered the latter to be singularly bold and active of mind, and almost invincible in everything she undertook, while the former, though sober and observing, was too much given to indolence; that he thought his own daughter very pretty, while Fanny could at best be termed ‘not unprepossessing’. I glanced more than once at the aforementioned young woman during this exposition, and it was evident to me that she was only too accustomed to hearing her own talents thus denigrated in comparison with her younger sister’s. I say this, not only in condemnation, however well deserved, but in anticipation of what is to come, for I believe such behaviour on Godwin’s part – such arrant thoughtlessness – played its own part in the tragedy that was so soon to unfold. For my own part, and from such limited observations as I was able to make, I considered the young lady to be virtuous, gentle and kind; qualities, in my opinion, to be both admired and fostered in woman, even if they were neither valued nor encouraged by her celebrated mother, with her infamous concern only for the rights and freedoms of her sex. That Miss Fanny resembled that lady as little in looks as she did in temperament I could see for myself, by reference to a very fine portrait of Mrs Wollstonecraft Godwin which hung over the fireplace. Such a fine portrait, and so centrally displayed, that any subsequent wife might have found it irksome; that the second Mrs Godwin did so, and profoundly, was obvious to me at once, as was the fact that her husband seemed not in the slightest aware of it.

 

The said Mrs Godwin busied herself, firstly, in providing refreshment, or rather in instructing Miss Imlay to do so; she then took a seat beside her husband, and proposed to lay before me the facts of the case. I was, I admit, disconcerted. I have, on occasion, encountered women of insight and intelligence in the course of my profession – women able to follow the principles of logic and observation that I have always expounded – but I did not expect to find one in Mrs Godwin. Appearances were decidedly against her, but I gradually divined that her coarse features, prominent bosom and rather extraordinary green-tinted spectacles concealed a mind of considerable cunning, even if she could boast neither education nor understanding, in the strict meaning of those terms.

 

I asked then, if either Mr or Mrs Godwin had spoken in person to Shelley as to his plans in relation to his wife. A look passed between them at this, and Mrs Godwin answered, somewhat pink about the cheeks, that all direct communication had ceased the day the poet first left London in company with the two young women, some two years previously. ‘Mr Godwin has forbade him the house,’ she said, ‘and quite right too, after such a scandalous and disgraceful betrayal. He swore he would stop seeing Mary, you know. He stood there, on exactly the spot where you’re standing now and swore the affair was over and there would be no more clandestine meetings and midnight assignations and secret messages going to and fro. And the next we hear he’s upped and gone with her, and tricked my Clairy into going with them.’

 

I observed with mounting irritation Mr Godwin’s rather supercilious expression throughout his wife’s narration, and I was very much tempted to enquire how he reconciled his public condemnations of the institution of marriage with his continued ostracism of a man who appeared to have followed those precepts only too assiduously. Nor did I venture my own opinion as to the justice – moral or indeed political – of importuning such an individual for money while refusing to afford him even the time of day. Mrs Godwin, meanwhile, had become increasingly testy, saying that the current state of affairs was most trying and unsatisfactory, and had rendered it difficult, nay, almost impossible, to obtain the information they required as to Shelley’s wider intentions.

 

That, in short, was to be my undertaking.

You can see here, how I have attempted to translate fact into fiction. The preparatory work for the novel required almost the same degree of research as a biography, and in my case, letters, journals, and other papers were invaluable not just for what they said, but how they said it. I wanted to be able to speak in my characters’ voices, absorbing their own words, where appropriate, and drawing on contemporary descriptions. The suicide note Fanny left is reproduced in her own words, for example. And Charles Lamb was no great admirer of the second Mrs Godwin, and thus a particularly lively source. And even for a fictional character like Maddox, I wanted to create a strong sense of the period through an appropriate and convincing prose style.

To continue the story. Godwin later summons Maddox a second time, on the morning they discover Fanny has disappeared. It is entirely natural, within the world of the novel, that Maddox should offer to follow Fanny, and thus find himself at the Mackworth Arms on the day she died. History tells us someone intervened that day; in my novel that person is Charles Maddox:

I found Skinner Street in uproar – maids dispatched hither and thither in random and ineffectual enquiries, and the youngest Godwin child, a rather fearful-looking boy of some thirteen years, crying aloud for his sister and trailing about the house, unregarded, it seemed, by anyone in it. Godwin himself I found hunched over his writing-desk, taciturn and morose. As well he might be. What does it say of any father that all three of the young women consigned to his care had now gone to such extraordinary lengths to escape from it? But if Godwin had become silent in the face of such a calamity, his wife appeared even more strident, if such a thing were possible. Poor silly Fanny, she repeated incessantly, was always falling into such fits of dejection at the slightest provocation, and without the slightest cause. ‘You mark my words, William,’ she said to her husband. ‘It will just be another attempt to put herself forward and have people notice her. That girl never did know how to conduct herself properly – but what do you expect with an adventurer like Imlay for a father? It will all be just another billow in a ladle, just you see. I’ll wager even now she is thinking better of it, and is on her way home with her tail between her legs. And she’ll have a piece of my mind when she gets here, make no mistake about that.’

 

This vulgar tirade seemed at length to rouse the philosopher from his broodings, and he reminded his wife, with a certain terseness, that she might have done better to keep the secret of Fanny’s parentage from her, or at the very least informed her of it in a rather more delicate manner. I was forced to conclude from this that even if the circumstances of the young woman’s birth were widely known outside the family, Fanny herself had not known until recently of her own illegitimacy. I could see how sorely this might have affected her, and began to feel a degree of concern far in excess of what Mrs Godwin clearly believed either necessary or appropriate. And this concern was only augmented when Godwin took me aside to inform me that Fanny had, only a few days previously, been sadly disappointed in a long-held ambition to join her mother’s maiden sisters at their school in Dublin, and assume a career there as a teacher. Mrs Godwin then interjected loudly that that was all Mary’s fault, not Fanny’s, and how could you blame them? However reluctant I was to find myself in agreement with Mrs Godwin on any point of note, I had to concur that it was in all likelihood the public scandal occasioned by Miss Godwin’s elopement that had caused the ladies in question to decide against offering such a position to a young woman living in the same household, albeit their own niece. But the fact that Fanny was in no way to blame for this change in her prospects cannot have afforded her much consolation in the loss of them, left, as she must have believed, without any possibility of making a life for herself independent of her family. Godwin begged me then for my counsel, and I gave it as my opinion that there seemed only two places that the young woman might have fled: to her half-sister and step-sister in Bath, or to the aforementioned aunts in Dublin, and I thought it likely that Dublin would be her preference of the two. My advice, therefore, was that I should send one of my most trusted men to Bath, but I would go myself to Swansea, that being by far her likeliest port of departure for Ireland. I wrote out a description of Miss Imlay, and asked Mrs Godwin to ascertain the likely contents of her travelling case. How much more grave my concerns became when that lady returned downstairs to report Fanny had taken with her only a small reticule, and the clothes she was wearing. ‘And that watch that Mary bought for her in Swisserland,’ she said. ‘Make sure to mention that. Expensive, that was.’

 

I arrived eventually late in the afternoon of October 9th. A hard wind was blowing off the sea, and I wanted nothing more than a hot bath and an honest dinner, but disdaining both I made at once for the house of an acquaintance, a man in the employ of the port authorities. There had been but one crossing that day, he informed me, the wind being so foul, and there had been no young lady answering Miss Imlay’s description aboard. Having extracted a promise for vigilance and dispatch I repaired to a small ill-favoured inn, where I ordered such a repast as the sour and slatternly landlady could offer, and retired as soon as I might to my bed, exhausted, dispirited and uneasy.

 

I did not know – and it will haunt me to my dying day – that scarcely an hour after I had left the noisy and stinking tap-room there came a knock at the outer door and an enquiry, in low and trembling tones, whether there might be a room available for a respectable lady travelling unaccompanied. A small room only was required, and for that night alone. She would be gone, she said, by morning.

 

I wonder now, with pain, how she spent those last hours. How many times she put the bottle of laudanum to her lips before she had the courage to take the fatal dose. How sadly her thoughts must have returned to the mother she barely knew, who had tried, she too, to put an end to a life that had become to her unbearable. I wonder likewise if any circumstance might have prevented it. A kind word unlooked-for; a knock of concern at the door; a letter in a much-loved hand. But no help came. By the time a thin sun was rising over the bleak iron sea, I awoke to commotion and alarm in the corridor outside and arose in a terrified haste, my heart misgiving me and a terrible certainty weighing upon my heart like lead

 

The maid it was who found her. The maid who needed only one glance at the young woman on the bed to know that something was dreadfully amiss. She was lying, fully clothed, above the counterpane, in one hand her sister’s last gift, and in the other a single sheet of crumpled paper. I know all this, because I saw it. Before the doctor came, and the constable, and the idly and offensively curious, I thrust the maid from the room and slammed the door behind her. Then I went to the bedside and placed my hand against the pale forehead, and saw with a heart that faltered that on her eyelashes there still lingered tears. And then I took the paper from her cold and rigid fingers and read the words she had left for us to find.

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as

Fanny Imlay

 

My duty – my professional duty – was clear. This note must remain, and the constable must see it. But I had a higher duty, or so I thought then. Not to her family, who, I feared, would be only too ready to commence their forgetting, but to the young woman herself. I knew what scandal and gossip would be whipped up by the very mention of her name, and what vile speculation would dog her to her grave, if it were bruited abroad that one connected so closely with the Godwin family had died here by her own hand, desolate and alone. Hearing footsteps on the stair I knew I had no time, and I made a decision I have never since regretted, not for one moment: I took the letter and tore the name away, then stepped quickly to the hearth and consigned the scrap of paper to the fire.

 

It was little enough, by way of a service, and not as decisive as I had hoped, for I discovered later that she had her mother’s initials sewn into her stays, and I fear that the prying of a callous posterity will uncover the secret I was striving so desperately to keep. But for then, and I hope for some little time yet, it was enough – enough to keep her poor wounded name from the speculations of the newspapers, and cast the kindness of concealment about her last hours. And even if I had failed her living, I had the power to protect her dead. Swansea is a small town, and word of such an untoward incident promulgates only too quickly, but I was relentless. No effort was spared, no payment unmade, and by nightfall on the third day I had ensured that the inquest verdict was given merely as an unexplained death, and there would be none of those references to insanity or self-destruction as would have seen her corpse treated with indignity and disrespect.

 

Of the interment, I wish not to speak. The rain driving in off the sea, the black-suited clergyman racing through the service that he might return to the comfort of his own fat fireside, and the bodies, three of them, sewn into their rough sacks, heaved one by one into the tainted pit of a paupers’ grave. I did not even know which one was hers.

The second post will be on the second tragic suicide of that autumn: Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. The woman he abandoned, pregnant, when he eloped with Mary….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart.  She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust. Lynn Shepherd