Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch


Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film – played by Charles Ogle in a 1910 short by the Edison Company.

Until recently, my only knowledge of that film was a well-known still of Ogle’s monster, twisted and staring at the camera, with his wild hair and claw-like fingers. Out of context, it looks ridiculous, almost comical, and I had long dismissed this lost film as unworthy of any attention.

But now that short is available to view online, expertly restored and free. And what a treat it is!

Experts at the US Library of Congress added missing intertitles and a score by Donald Sosin, and have restored the print to a condition that is a vast improvement on earlier uploaded versions. Frankenstein can now be viewed free on YouTube (and below). There’s quite a story behind the restoration. The film had been thought lost until the American Film Institute named it among its top 10 most wanted lost films in 1980, when a certain Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin, revealed he had acquired a print (almost certainly the only surviving print) as part of a collection of old nitrate films in the 1950s.

Unwilling to release it for restoration, Dettlaff had his own 35mm copy made and eventually produced DVDs of the film, which he sold at conventions. Those became the source of the previous relatively crude online versions. In 2005, Dettlaff’s decomposed body was found at his home. The eccentric and reclusive character had been dead for a month – from natural causes, aged 84. The Library of Congress bought the Dettlaff collection in 2015, and the restoration of Frankenstein was completed in 2018 – fittingly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel.

The film was made at Edison’s studios in the Bronx, New York City, written and directed by James Searle Dawley, photographed by James White, and starring (uncredited) Charles Ogle as the creature, Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, and Mary Fuller as his fiancée, Elizabeth. Described as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, Dawley shot the film in three or four days, and it was released in March 1910. The Edison Kinetogram, the Edison company’s film magazine, reported:

In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination of what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”


It may not be ‘repulsive’ – there are no severed limbs or unhealed wounds that would characterise later film versions of the story, but this debut appearance is no less scary.  The scene in which the monster is created is eery and bizarre, as it gradually takes human form from some kind of potion, which Frankenstein has concocted – a technique apparently achieved by burning a puppet and running the film backwards. The film opens with Frankenstein bidding farewell to his father and fiancée, and heading off to college. An intertitle tells us that two years later he has discovered the secret of life. (That’s a good college and a smart student!)

But instead of building the perfect human as he intends, another intertitle tells us the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a twisted creature, which will horrify its creator. Appalled by the sight of his creation, Frankenstein returns home to the loving arms of his fiancée. But, like some faithful puppy (but much less cute), the creature follows, only to become madly jealous at the sight of this rival for his creator’s attention, and shocked at the sight of himself in a mirror. The creature leaves, but returns to gate-crash the wedding night, before the story is resolved – and it’s all done, rather cleverly, with mirrors.



Hats off to Mike Mashon and the team in the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress for restoring and preserving this piece of movie history. This is an important film for many reasons – not least because it was the first Frankenstein film and therefore the cinematic ancestor of the hundreds (or even thousands) which have followed.  It’s also a fascinating and impressive film in its own right – especially for the sequences involving the creation of the monster and the mirror in Frankenstein’s study.

Definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.



Andrew Weltch is a writer, editor and public relations consultant, whose interests include film and history. He blogs about arts and entertainment and runs a communications consultancy.  

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole


When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, history and personal interest we bring to our readings of it. Because analysis is subjective, isn’t it? We bring so much of ourselves to our individual understandings of a story.

If a text feels particularly poignant or personal, we may take opportunities, where possible, to increase our intimacy with it. In recognition of its bicentennial, my friend Tess and I each seized the chance to become closer to our favourite novel, Frankenstein. We each visited Geneva, Chamonix, and other significant sites, I in 2016 to follow the Shelleys, and she in early 2018 in the footsteps of Victor Frankenstein and his Creation.

Cologny, today a municipality of Geneva, was an essential stop as the birthplace of both the novel and its eponymous protagonist. Mary would not have had her famous dream of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” at the still-standing Villa Diodati, but there’s still a thrill that comes with standing so close to where Frankenstein began. I took a water shuttle – a boat that’s part of Geneva’s public transportation system – in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Villa from afar. While the motorized shuttle was a far cry from anything they’d have used, I could still envision the Byron-Shelley party boating out into the lake in view of a different city skyline, but with the same mountains towering above. Victor, Elizabeth, and Clerval also surely played along the shore and rowed into the lake themselves.


But they’re not the only ones in the novel who visit Geneva. We both had to visit the statue of the Creature in Plainpalais, despite its much-later formation and the morbid event its placement commemorates. The statue itself is absolutely incredible, its size more impressive than any human actor (even with the lifts in Karloff’s boots). This modern interpretation has the Creature dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but his mismatched limbs and patchwork skin evokes both his humanity and his monstrosity. It’s worth a few minutes to take photos for any lover of Frankenstein; even if, like Tess, you have to shyly ask English-speaking strangers to take a photo for you. She insists it’s worth it, especially if the strangers tell you to pose “like you’re in love.”


It can be harder to envision the streets that Frankenstein and Shelleys traversed in modern Geneva, but that’s not the case in Ingolstadt, especially in 2018. The whole city was celebrating Frankenstein, Tess felt like she couldn’t turn a corner without seeing posters advertising events and exhibitions, as well as informational pamphlets about the city’s connection to the novel. She admits a bit of tunnel vision, more interest in Frankenstein than other available tourist attractions. A storied and intellectual space, especially as Shelley presents it, Ingolstadt felt like the true beginning of Victor’s (and certainly the Creature’s) journey. Walking the streets of the old, walled city, Tess felt an emotional churning; “this is where things start to happen in the book, and here I am.”

Being in the physical space where a novel takes place can help solidify a part of the story in our minds. Even with a vivid imagination, the images we have are, to an extent, amorphous. Seeing a visual adaptation of a novel can help concretize our mental image of a character or setting, but reading a novel like Frankenstein, we can’t help but be informed by decades of re-imaginings, from films to ballets to breakfast cereals. While there’s no definite way the characters must look, we can start to bring our vision of their setting closer to what Mary Shelley envisioned herself. This is especially gratifying in a novel where the landscape is practically another character itself. Tess felt like she could see the Creature lumbering out of the walled city of Ingolstadt into its surrounding forests, and could feel Victor’s isolation on the rough and windy Orkneys. While the locals were warm (and apparently largely unaware of the islands’ connection to Frankenstein), their home was as harsh and unforgiving as Shelley describes.

My most striking experience of connecting with a Shelley’s work on my trip was not with Mary’s novel. While Pont Pélissier is briefly mentioned in Frankenstein, it’s more significantly the spot where Percy began writing “Mont Blanc.” I’ve always felt a sense of swirling intensity in the descriptions of the landscape in the poem, but standing in the “dark, deep Ravine” over the “vast river” and looking up at the sun on the mountains, I could, more than ever, connect with the sense of the sublime in Shelley’s words. From high in the Alps, as well as in the valley below, I was awestruck by the immensity of the mountains; it was easy to see how the Shelleys were moved to create some of their best work by the permanence, stillness, and scale of the scene.

Tess felt the same way visiting the Mer de Glace. She couldn’t fathom its size from photos alone, and felt like she couldn’t take it all in at once. There was too much. This was her first time being so close to mountains or glaciers, and she felt a sense of inherent awe and violence in the unforgiving ice and rocks of the Alps. This is a scene where only a truly superhuman being, like the Creature, could thrive. She was also able to ascend into the mountains, looking on Mont Blanc from a facing mountain range, and admits that she cried at its rugged beauty. (I did too, when I got close as close as tourists can get to Mont Blanc. It’s a lot to take in.) More than any art she’d seen before, this scene helped her understand what the sublime truly means.



While she doesn’t hope to communicate the sublime in every piece she creates, Tess believes that this experience helped her develop her art. She was able to do some drawing from life on her trip, and she truly realized how futile it can be to try to capture every small detail of a landscape. In any form of art, we can only communicate so much, but we can create something truly immersive. Tess is drawn to art (like Frankenstein) where there’s a sense that there’s more going on in the world of the story than what we’re being given. Barely-explored characters like Ernest Frankenstein and Margaret Saville have lives separate from the narrative. Animals live in the mountains near Chamonix and the forests outside Ingolstadt. The people living on the Orkneys barely realize they’re a part of Victor’s and the Creature’s narratives at all. This is something that we strive to incorporate into our own work – the sense that you’re only seeing a part of a bigger picture. You can’t take in that whole picture, so relish what you can take in.



The Romantics understood, of course, the inspirational power that the landscape could hold for artists, but they also understood the appeal of following artists who came before. Byron and Percy Shelley visited scenes of importance to Rousseau, and Keats followed Burns’ life in Scotland; these trips informed their work too. I find that this humanizes the poets who can seem a bit larger than life – their trip was motivated by the same desire as mine. Victor Frankenstein never set foot in the real Ingolstadt, but he’s just as (if not more) real in the public imagination at this point than his creator and her circle. Walking these real streets, changed as they are in two hundred years, feels like bringing these figures to life.


You can find more from Allison O’Toole and Tess Eneli Reid in Called into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein, which you can now support on Kickstarter!

Allison is a freelance editor whose recent work includes Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women and The Pitiful Human-Lizard. Tess is an illustrator and storyboard artist who self-publishes comics that focus on stories about the agency of people in harsh landscapes, and exploring personal histories in the underbelly of small-town Canada.

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone


A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his daughter to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s name on the gravestone, that Mary feels connected to her mother through her writing (in one scene holding A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and that silhouettes and a small portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft are prevalent in William Godwin’s bookshop and home. The film depicts Mary Shelley as a woman author of fierce independence and ambition, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of a man’s world of writing, learning, publishing, and entitlement (social and sexual). Frankenstein, the film proposes, was Mary’s stinging commentary on that world, where men are “monsters” and young women such as Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont are discounted. As Claire says through tears after copying the manuscript of Frankenstein, she identified with the creature’s struggles and expected many more would, and so Mary “must” publish the novel.


Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Image: IFC Films

Al-Mansour’s film hits its emotional core once Mary drafts Frankenstein, presented in a series of images tracking Mary’s recognition of the destructive behaviour of men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, interspersed with images of handwritten words that form and dissolve as Mary’s voiceover relates parts of the creature’s account. Here, the images and voiceover link Mary and the creature, reinforcing the film’s premise that the novel is the culmination of a young woman’s life of abandonment and contending with prejudice owing to her sex. When Percy has read that first draft, he proclaims its genius, but then wishes the creature to be “perfect,” an “angel,” to show humanity hope — a suggestion Mary refuses, replying that their lives are a mess, that she is a mess, which is reality. Percy relents, admitting Mary’s way is better. Overall, the sequence is absorbing, as a speculation upon the novel’s genesis and as an idea of the creature expressing the experience of women, especially women artists. I am tempted to think of Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that women novelists were “an injured body” in the early nineteenth century ….


Regarding the context of the early nineteenth century, those very familiar with the period and either of the Shelleys in particular will notice the film’s creativity regarding chronology. When Mary and Percy first meet conflates different times: in Scotland, when she is sixteen and he twenty-one, they tell each other, which would be a year later than the proper year of 1812; Percy was visiting William Godwin in 1814, the year that saw him and Mary elope to France and Switzerland, but the film portrays all these events as taking place in the same year, mere months or weeks apart. The film’s own timeline produces additional historical anomalies. Claire Clairmont goes to a performance of Byron’s Werner, which he will not write until 1822. While the months during 1816 spent with Byron in Geneva was Mary and Percy’s second trip to Europe, the film makes it their first, and they are childless though their son William was born in January. (In fact, the film collapses their first three children into the birth and death of Clara, which actually came after Mary finished and then published Frankenstein, not before. It also skips over the months in Bath when the Shelleys returned to England, where Mary wrote much of Frankenstein and Claire gave birth to Allegra Byron in early 1817.) Moreover, Percy’s dialogue includes lines from his works, such as “the imagination is the instrument of moral good,” said in a church where he and Mary have their first kiss, though he composes A Defence of Poetry in 1821.

I mention these chronological glitches partly to warn those who might identify them and, perhaps, be pulled out of the film. On one hand, I am curious why Al-Mansour and the writer, Emma Jensen, made such choices. On the other hand, the film never definitively sets us in a specific year or month, which, upon reflection, allows it to fashion a sense of timelessness, or, rather, of not being strictly bound by time. We have impressions of Mary and Percy, which render them as both of their historical moment and relevant to our own. Mary’s struggles as a woman and author, therefore, continue across two hundred years, and her creature remains a voice for those denied the “compassionate touch” (as William Godwin says in the film) of the world.

However, the film as a whole feels anticlimactic. This feeling is highlighted by the scene of the nightmare that spurred Mary to write Frankenstein. It involves a mere several seconds of a haughty man touching a rod to the creature’s arm, the creature otherwise covered by a white sheet — not the harrowing, vivid “reverie” recounted by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel. Although the film finishes strongly, with Percy publicly acknowledging Mary’s authorship of Frankenstein at a gathering of men in William Godwin’s bookshop, it seems never quite to find the full, radical force of the “fire” in Mary’s “soul.” There are missed opportunities to delve further into the fraught months of the novel’s composition, when Mary faced scandal, upheaval, and loss.

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, and Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley


Still, the film is carried by a compelling performance from Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Tom Sturridge is magnetic as Lord Byron, and Bel Powley gives her Claire Clairmont engaging depth as a woman even more discounted than Mary. The cinematography is lush, bold, and attentive, particularly with interiors such as the bookshop, the lodgings in St. Pancras, and the villa in Geneva. In the end, we have a film that certainly reminds us Mary Shelley at eighteen and nineteen years old shaped modernity, though it perhaps leaves wanting a richer, more rigorous portrait of how she did so.


Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy. USA, May 2018; UK, July 2018.

Michael Johnstone teaches at the Department of English, University of Toronto. His Twitter ID is @mikejwrites  



Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, by Fiona Sampson

by Barry Forshaw
Does Mary Shelley need rescuing from neglect? Has the young woman who created the most iconic figures in Gothic literature apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula — Frankenstein and his benighted, stitched-together creature — languished in the shadow of her husband and lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, her friend Lord Byron and her celebrated parents Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin?
The poet Fiona Sampson, author of this extremely readable biography, considers that Mary Shelley has been eclipsed of late, but it might be argued that the fascination with the young woman who created her durable monster and creator at a famous Italian literary gathering with Shelley, Lord Byron and others has more of a comprehensive hold on the popular imagination than others in her circle of family and friends.  Not least for the fact that this quiet, well-educated English girl counter-intuitively forged a gruesome horror myth that continues to inspire imitations to this day.
Sampson, however, clearly thinks that more attention should be paid to her heroine, and attacks her proselytising task (in the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein) with some panache.
As the daughter of a high-achieving mother (one of the founders of feminism) and a father famous for his shocking rejection of orthodox religion — and an equally unconventional espousal of free love — Mary had an iconoclastic upbringing and possessed the credentials necessary for success in the literary field.
But Sampson points out that we know less about her life after eloping with the poet Shelley because of the loss of her journals. And with the paucity of material describing Mary’s inner life, Sampson (as with earlier biographers of the writer) is obliged to bring her own imaginative constructions into play
While the famous ghost story face-off at Villa Diodati — at which Byron, the Shelleys and others attempted to frighten each other with their own tales of the macabre — has been communicated to us by several of the participants, it’s probably now better known via the various film versions of the gathering (in fact, for generations of viewers, the face of Mary Shelley was that of the English actress Elsa Lanchester, who played both the writer and the electric-haired female monster in James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein). That cinematic connection, in fact, makes the very filmic ‘cutting’ between scenes employed in In Search of Mary Shelley very appropriate.
What Sampson has done is to try to read the life of her subject through Mary’s most famous book, and it’s an approach that bears fruit. For instance, Sampson notes that Mary was concerned with the fragility of the human body. She suffered from a condition of the arm, which at one point was unnaturally swollen, and issues of birth (including her own miscarriages) were often in her thoughts; not hard to see reflections of Victor Frankenstein’s connection with both the giving of life and the distortion of the body.
As for the popular conception of Mary Shelley submerging her own life in that of her husband (even after his death when she returned to the house in which he was brought up as a boy), Sampson briskly disposes of this dated image, pointing up the writer’s remarkable individual achievements while not ignoring the fact that certain constraints would have been placed on her as a Victorian woman.
There is already a considerable body of literature concerning Mary Shelley, so one might not agree that her star has been somewhat dimmed. But Fiona Sampson’s study manages to illuminate her subject in prose that is both insightful and elegant
This review originally appeared in the i newspaper.
Fiona Sampson has written her own blog for us on Mary Shelley which you can read here.

Mary Shelley: Through the window

by Fiona Sampson
I’ve always liked buildings. When I was a child I used to get myself to sleep by imagining palaces that I designed room by room. I like the way a building tells you its age without meaning to, because it’s been designed according to the architectural fashion of its day. I spend a lot of time visiting churches because their aspirational shapes are beautiful, but also because the details of their construction are the giveaways that let us in to local history. When, last year, we moved to an old stone farmhouse that has itself been often rebuilt (it has thirteenth-century kitchen beams but an eighteenth-century façade), trying to date it became a fascinating game.
So it’s no surprise that, when I started to think about Mary Shelley and how life must have been for her, I used the places she lived as a way to reconstruct her experience. I was not going to fictionalise Shelley, but I did want to recoup in forensic and faithful detail all that we do know about her own experience. Nor did I want simply to repeat research already brilliantly and comprehensively carried out by previous biographies. Miranda Seymour’s 2000 Mary Shelley is surely the most magisterial of these, though I also have a particular admiration for the American academic Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989) and Muriel Spark’s brilliant reading of the woman and her work in Child of Light: A biography of Mary Shelley, which dates back to 1951. All three books read the facts they unearth, and take on the biographer’s responsibility of making sense of their often-confusing subject.

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary, first exhibited in 1840. National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary, first exhibited in 1840. National Portrait Gallery, London

Instead, I wanted to supplement these with the kind of psychological biography that a Romantic such as Mary might have relished. After all, Mary was herself an eager biographer, who first tried to write a life at the age of seventeen, when she started work on the Girondist J-B. Louvet de Couvrai. During her years of widowhood, she supported herself mainly by anonymous literary hackwork, much of it a lengthy series of biographies for the 133-volume Cabinet Cyclopaedia published by Dionysius Lardner. Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (three volumes) and Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (two volumes), to which she contributed the lion’s share, were published between 1835 and 1839. In an entry on the eighteenth century librettist and writer Pietro Metastasio, in Volume 2 of Italy, Spain and Portugal (p. 206) Mary noted with approval, of her subject’s own practice of biography, that its aim was: ‘to collect the peculiar character of the man his difference from others [through] the bringing forward of minute, yet characteristic details.’
We know this concern with individuation was at the heart of the Romantic project, but memoir and biography are such seductively familiar forms that it’s easy to forget how central these genres were to its development. It wasn’t only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at the start of his Confessions, who could say that: ‘My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.’ Confessions was published posthumously in 1782, at a time when members of the literate, educated class to which Romantic culture-makers belonged had little or no problem reading its French. So by 1798, when Mary’s father, the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin, published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman about Mary Wollstonecraft who had died the year before from complications resulting from Mary’s own birth  the principle of searching a life for evidence of the person who lived it would have been a familiar one.
Mary Wollstonecraft, painted by John Opie the year before she died, National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted by John Opie the year before she died, National Portrait Gallery, London

So familiar was it that Godwin seems to have been ill prepared for the catastrophic damage his Memoirs did to Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation. By revealing that Wollstonecraft really did live according to her radical ideals  including sympathy with the French revolutionaries among whom she had lived, and the practice of Free Love with the American father of her first child  he helped ensure that her work would not be taken seriously for decades.
Though the daughter of both the author and the subject of this turn of the century shocker, Mary was evidently not put off the genre. And perhaps it’s easier to understand how much she and her contemporaries saw in it when we remember that, earlier, biography had been closer to either formal hagiography or the cheerful anecdotalism of John Aubrey’s seventeenth century Brief Lives. Both are social, public kinds of account; neither explores motivation or experience. Both take the significance of an individual to be as a social protagonist, neither sees it as being either to his or herself, or as a model of individuality itself.
William Godwin painted by James Northcote in 1802, when Mary was just turning five. National Portrait Gallery, London.

William Godwin painted by James Northcote in 1802, when Mary was just turning five. National Portrait Gallery, London.

It was to this Romantic idea of biography that I turned when I was asked to write about Mary. She matters to us because she produced the astonishing, and astonishingly contemporary, archetypal story of Frankenstein, first published anonymously two hundred years ago this month. And so the very first question we’re bound to ask of her life is how and why she managed to do so, especially since she only a teenager at the time. (Mary was nineteen when she completed the novel, twenty when it came out.) Immediately or so it seems to me, as a twenty-first century writer: of course, I’m absolutely a creature of my own cultural times too  we are in the world of the psyche: of how thought works, how ideas are formed and of what motivates works of imaginative creation.
If this weren’t reason enough to take Mary as an exemplar of artistic experience, her subsequent life as a woman who tried to be both a loving mother and what we’d today call a ‘surrendered wife’ to her unreliable poet husband, and a writer and intellectual in her own right, speaks to questions of identity that we, her successors, still grapple with today. This historical figure is a very contemporary exemplar.
Yet she wears, of course, the costume of the period that formed her. So I decided to go back to something we can share with her: the physical spaces of the rooms she inhabited, especially during her formative years. Incidentally, this kind of encounter with the actual surroundings that formed the Romantics is something the Wordsworth Trust knows all about. Walking round Dove Cottage isn’t just a literary pilgrimage. It allows us to share the actual experience of what daylight and evening were like for William and Dorothy Wordsworth and their visitors; what a somewhat claustrophobic domesticity and the preoccupying landscape outside the house walls meant.
The same applies to the Regency new-build in which Mary was born and spent the first ten years of her life. The Godwins’ home, at 27 the Polygon, Somers Town, has now disappeared under post-war social housing. But at the time the family lived there it was a building site, in the middle of fields only recently leased for development to the architect Jacob Leroux by the eponymous, recently ennobled First Baron Somers of Evesham. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a palatial London townhouse, but I do know what it’s like to grow up in a new-build on a half-built estate. I drew on my memories of the Waunfawr estate outside Aberystwyth of mud, and noise, and the strangely inauthentic sense it gave us children, as we played in the street, that human settlement was only one house deep, and as temporary as a stage set.
Contemporary prints make clear that the houses in the Polygon, in an almost exaggerated version of the height of contemporary Palladian style, had enormous windows.
Palladian window
They would have had a great view of the mud and surveyor’s tape taking over the surrounding fields. They would also have been very much draughtier than the relatively small, deep-set windows traditional in even quite grand houses from earlier in the eighteenth century. That set me thinking about the new domestic fuel, coal, and the unexpectedly dark, mineral-smelling dust that would have been in the air of the high-ceilinged rooms. But I also reflected on how much light would have come into every room, and how visible its inhabitants would be. I discovered that at the turn of the nineteenth century windowpanes were becoming larger and cheaper as glassmaking technology slowly improved.
Mary, I realized, grew up in a house where there was a culture of visibility: even though her parents and her stepmother were all, in their various ways, writers rather than visual artists. And this was of a piece with the Natural Philosophy of her time, whose rapidly developing scientific thinking was based on observation. Small wonder that, when she came to write Frankenstein, Mary would make appearances the trigger for her protagonist’s destinies. She demonstrates that Victor Frankenstein is intrinsically good by making him  literally good-looking; while her creature becomes loveless, universally rejected and precipitated into his life of murderous crime because his appearance is so horrifying.
There was much more the house at 27 the Polygon had to tell me, and that I’ve no space here to revisit. But I did enjoy discovering, and writing about, this material. It was just as if I was three years old again, sitting on the carpet and watching as Play School took us though the window… on another adventure.
In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein is published by Profile Books on Jan 18, and launched with a lecture at National Portrait Gallery that evening.
It is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week Jan 15-19. Fiona will be talking about it on BBC R4’s Start the Week on Jan 8 and on BBC R3’s Free Thinking and Radio Scotland on Jan 18. In the US it appears from Pegasus Books in June, to coincide with the summer exhibition Fiona is curating at the Wordsworth Trust.

Book review: Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, by Christopher Frayling

by Barry Forshaw
Given that the 1st of January 2018 is a significant literary date — 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — it is surprising (and disappointing) that this event is not enjoying more ballyhoo – but this sumptuous, over-sized volume goes some way to redressing that injustice.
Sir Christopher Fraying, a cultural polymath in the UK of heavyweight reputation, proves to be the perfect commentator to celebrate the Frankenstein bicentennial. Frayling utilises new research on the novel’s origins, and his text is enriched with a variety of illustrative materials (all the films, of course, but also the first visual representations of the creature).
His book is also an examination of the tributaries of the creation myth in modern times, from genetic engineering to nanotechnology, but this is no dry academic text. Shelley’s novel set in motion a cultural phenomenon whose offshoots continue to this day. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is not a more fecund source of Gothic inspiration.
Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years
by Christopher Fraying. Reel Art Press, 208 pages, £29.95
This review first appeared in the Financial Times.

In the footsteps of the Shelleys: Switzerland and Mont Blanc

by Anna Mercer
In June 2016 I made a pilgrimage to an area in Europe known for its sublime scenery. I have read so much about the snowy peaks of the Alps and the shores of Lake Geneva, primarily from two sources that figure in my life because of my PhD research at the University of York. I am studying Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, two Romantic authors who, before their marriage but after their romantic union, spent the summer in the environs of Geneva and Chamonix in 1816, exactly 200 years before I arrived there.
Percy Shelley had originally thought of leaving England for Italy. The Shelleys were instead convinced to head to Cologny near Geneva by their travelling companion Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, who in London had begun an affair with Lord Byron.
On 13 May 1816 the Shelleys and Claire arrived in Geneva, followed on 25 May by Byron and his physician Dr John Polidori. By June, both parties had taken residences close to each other on the shores of the lake; Byron stayed at the Villa Diodati. Incessant rain often prevented them from going out on the water in the evenings, and even stopped Percy, Mary and Claire from returning to their own lodgings. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 has devastated the weather across Europe, and 1816 is recalled now as ‘the year without a summer’.  I also arrived to an atmospherically rainy Geneva:
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The weather eventually cleared, and we explored the town, and like the Shelleys, we were also intrigued by the literary greats who had graced the city.
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During the 1816 summer, Percy, Mary and Claire stayed at Maison Chapuis but often spent time at Byron’s grander lodgings nearby. Geneva is where Mary Shelley began writing her most famous and enduring novel, Frankenstein (first published in 1818). Mary’s terrifying novel – according to her 1831 introduction – was ostensibly inspired by a ‘waking dream’ she had after hearing Percy and Byron’s discussions on ‘the nature of the principle of life’ to which she ‘was a devout but nearly silent listener’. This account of her literary genius is characteristically modest, as her silence is in all likelihood overplayed; the community at Geneva in 1816 offered a stimulating intellectual environment and Percy and Mary collaborated on the novel as well as many other works.
Mary began writing Frankenstein in June 1816. The Shelleys met Byron on 27 May, and he took up residence at Diodati on 10 June, and by June 22 Percy Shelley and Byron went on a tour of Lake Geneva together. So, although Mary only recorded the composition of Frankenstein in her journal in July, it is likely the novel was started between 10-22 June.
In a previous blog for the Wordsworth Trust, I reviewed the excellent exhibition on Frankenstein at the Bodmer Foundation Library and Museum: Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness. We were treated with a walk around the grounds of the Villa Diodati itself.
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Percy and Mary included descriptions of their travels in the 1817 publication History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. Mary’s view of Geneva was muted to say the least:

There is nothing … in it that can repay you for the trouble of walking over its rough stones. The houses are high, the streets narrow, many of them on the ascent, and no public building of any beauty to attract your eye, or any architecture to gratify your taste. The town is surrounded by a wall, the three gates of which are shut exactly at ten o’clock, when no bribery (as in France) can open them.

However, the dramatic weather offered her respite:

The lake is at our feet, and a little harbour contains our boat, in which we still enjoy our evening excursions on the water. Unfortunately we do not now enjoy those brilliant skies that hailed us on our first arrival to this country. An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house; but when the sun bursts forth it is with a splendour and heat unknown in England. The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud, while perhaps the sun is shining cheerily upon us. One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.

I am particularly fascinated by this jointly-authored publication History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, Mary’s first foray into print (besides her early light verses published in her father’s library). The text of this volume is an intermingling of voices, the provenance of each section being drawn from a joint journal, numerous letters and original words composed for the edition. I will be discussing the History in a paper at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference in York this July.
On our first day in Geneva, after wandering around and dodging the rain, we immediately set off to cross the border. We were staying in an idyllic, isolated chalet in France, and the first place we wanted to visit the next day was the site of many inspirations for both Percy and Mary: the town of Chamonix, which rests under the imposing gaze of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.
Our travels from Geneva to the French Alps reminded me of Mary Shelley’s third novel, The Last Man (1826), in which the protagonist Lionel and his companion Adrian (a Percy Shelley-esque figure) make a similar trajectory:

We left the fair margin of the beauteous lake of Geneva, and entered the Alpine ravines; tracing to its source the brawling Arve, through the rock-bound valley of Servox, beside the mighty waterfalls, and under the shadow of the inaccessible mountains, we travelled on; while the luxuriant walnut-tree gave place to the dark pine, whose musical branches swung in the wind, and whose upright forms had braved a thousand storms – till the verdant sod, the flowery dell, and shrubbery hill were exchanged for the sky-piercing, untrodden, seedless rock, “the bones of the world, waiting to be clothed with every thing necessary to give life and beauty”.

This excerpt concludes with a quotation taken from Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, by Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. This inspired Mary in her own travel writing. This was a text in which the author sought ‘to let my remarks and reflections flow unrestrained’ (Advertisement). The writing of Mary Shelley’s radical parents (her father was William Godwin) were some of the texts the Shelleys were both reading – occasionally aloud together – in 1814, the year of their elopement, and their first journey to the continent. Texts included the Letters written during a Short Residence by Wollstonecraft and Caleb Williams by Godwin.
On the day of our arrival in Chamonix, the mountains were not only seemingly inaccessible, but invisible. Low cloud prevented us from identifying Mont Blanc above us, but did not damage the charming nature of the town, now a popular ski-resort.
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Despite the cloud, we decided to get the train to the ‘Mer de Glace’. Perhaps bad weather would have prevented tourists from making the journey in the Shelleys’ day, but in 2016 the Montenvers Railway (opened 1909) takes you right up to the viewing platform. On arrival, we were sorely disappointed, as we couldn’t see a thing. Mildly upset that we had travelled all this way up and wouldn’t see the glacier itself, my companion convinced me to take the cable car that descends into the mist despite the slightly miserable conditions. When we landed at the bottom, the glacier was in full view. I will firstly give you Percy Shelley’s description of this natural wonder in the History of a Six Weeks’ Tour:

We have returned from visiting the glacier of Montanvert, or as it is called, the Sea of Ice, a scene in truth of dizzying wonder. The path that winds to it along the side of a mountain, now clothed with pines, now intersected with snowy hollows, is wide and steep. … We arrived at Montanvert, … On all sides precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost, surround this vale: their sides are banked up with ice and snow, broken, heaped high, and exhibiting terrific chasms. The summits are sharp and naked pinnacles, whose overhanging steepness will not even permit snow to rest upon them. Lines of dazzling ice occupy here and there their perpendicular rifts, and shine through the driving vapours with inexpressible brilliance; they pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth. The vale itself is filled with a mass of undulating ice, and has an ascent sufficiently gradual even to the remotest abysses of these horrible desarts. It is only half a league (about two miles) in breadth, and seems much less. It exhibits an appearance as if frost had suddenly bound up the waves and whirlpools of a mighty torrent. We walked some distance upon its surface. The waves are elevated about 12 or 15 feet from the surface of the mass, which is intersected by long gaps of unfathomable depth, the ice of whose sides is more beautifully azure than the sky. In these regions every thing changes, and is in motion. This vast mass of ice has one general progress, which ceases neither day nor night; it breaks and bursts for ever: some undulations sink while others rise; it is never the same. The echo of rocks, or of the ice and snow which fall from their overhanging precipices, or roll from their aerial summits, scarcely ceases for one moment. One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and that the frozen blood for ever circulated through his stony veins.

We dined (M***, C***, and I) on the grass, in the open air, surrounded by this scene. The air is piercing and clear. We returned down the mountain, sometimes encompassed by the driving vapours, sometimes cheered by the sunbeams, and arrived at our inn by seven o’clock.

However, we were not just relieved to be able to see more than cloud, but shocked by the lack of glacier before us.

Carl Hackert, ‘Vue de la Mer de Glace et de l’Hôpital de Blair’ (1781), Centre d’iconographie genevois

Carl Hackert, ‘Vue de la Mer de Glace et de l’Hôpital de Blair’ (1781), Centre d’iconographie genevois

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Percy Shelley’s premonition that Buffon’s ‘sublime but gloomy theory’ that ‘this globe which we inhabit will at some future period be changed into a mass of frost’, was entirely unfounded. We knew that the ice was melting – the majority of us do (I am avoiding any political comment here) – but we were still affected by this huge difference across the decades. You can read more on this subject at the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe website, an AHRC-funded project at the University of Leeds.
You can now go inside the glacier itself:
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When we went back up in the cable car, the clouds had cleared and we had an astounding view of the Mer de Glace and surrounding peaks. This reminded me of Vol II Chapter II of Frankenstein, as Victor makes the same ascent. He makes it alone, because ‘the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene’. Just as in our visit, in the novel the clouds clear from the protagonist around midday:

It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. Presently a breeze dissipated the cloud, and I descended upon the glacier.
From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy.

On our way back to Chamonix, we had the same luck again – an overwhelming sight.
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We returned two days later in marginally better weather to take the cable-car that made the ascent of Mont Blanc itself. To be honest, the cloud had left me confused as to where the peak of this infamous mountain was.
A ride up the side of the mountain to the Aiguille Du Midi took my breath away. This trip is a must for any visitor to the area. We were warned that the visibility would be bad at the top, but when we arrived the clouds cleared and left us with spectacular views. If you are a lover of the Shelleys, you will be further mystified in wondering just what those two incredible authors would have made of the sight, if they could have ascended to 3,842m and see the ‘vast animal’ Mont Blanc this close.
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Mont Blanc appears in both of the Shelleys’ works (such as Mary’s Frankenstein and The Last Man), but it is Percy Shelley’s poem dedicated to the mountain that reveals the full extent of their awe. You can read the full poem here, but I will leave you with its final lines:

Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them:— Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

Anna Mercer is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research is on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. She is also organising a day conference on the work of Percy and Mary Shelley in London in September 2017. For more details click here
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This post originally appeared on Anna’s blog –

Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

by Lynn Shepherd
The Shelleys and their circle have inspired hundreds of books, plays and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences, where the biographers can offer us only speculation. My third novel, A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US), was an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect and explain those silences.
Turning  fact into fiction is a labour of love for any novelist, but one that comes with its own challenges, whether technical, literary,  or indeed, moral.  This is the second of two posts in which I discuss this question in relation to two particular episodes in 1816 –  the death in October of Mary Godwin’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, and less than three months later, the discovery of the body of Harriet Shelley, the wife he had abandoned for Mary Godwin more than two years earlier. She is pictured on the right by @AmandaWhiteArt – no portrait of her was ever painted.

Harriet Shelley: The facts
On 15th December 1816, Shelley received a letter in Bath from his old friend and publisher, Thomas Hookham. The Shelley party was  still coming to terms with the sudden death of Fanny Imlay, but another tragedy was about to overwhelm them.  The body of Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had been found floating in the Serpentine. It appeared that she, too, had killed herself.
Harriet had been living at her father John Westbrook’s house in Chapel Street, Mayfair, ever since Shelley abandoned her, pregnant, in the summer of 1814. But Shelley now learned that she has suddenly left that house in September 1816, leaving her two children behind. She went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady her name was ‘Harriet Smith’, that she was married, and that her husband was abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though the main purpose of such a cover story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this from her family any longer that had forced her to flee .
And then, on November 9th, she disappeared a second time, and we still don’t know where she spent the weeks before December 10th, when her body was discovered in the Serpentine by one John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital. He told the authorities that he thought she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the nearby Fox and Bull inn, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of ‘found dead’.
Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Harriet’s name – real or otherwise – and ended with the words, “a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe”, in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.
Even now, we do not know who was the father of Harriet’s baby, though some biographers have suggested Shelley himself, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived. More likely candidates include a certain ‘Major Ryan’, perhaps stationed at the Knightsbridge barracks; sixty years later Claire Clairmont claimed it had been ‘a Captain in the Indian or Wellington Army, I forget which’, who had gone abroad. At the time, Mary’s father William Godwin passed on a frankly scurrilous rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he abandoned her, and Godwin may also have been the source behind a claim Shelley himself later made that Harriet had “descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith”. In the same letter Shelley wrote that “beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret”. Not his finest hour.

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet’s death). But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand.
One thing we do know, unquestionably, is that the whole thing was hushed up. Hushed up so effectively, in fact, that one cannot but conclude that it was done deliberately, and by someone with the skills and connections to do so. And here I turn, again, from fact to fiction.

Harriet Shelley: The fiction
The account of Harriet’s death in the novel is part of a long flash-back narrated by Charles Maddox senior, a former Bow Street Runner turned expensive private investigator. Having been employed by Godwin to track Shelley’s movements (because Godwin feared losing an important source of loans ), Maddox is one of the first to realise that Harriet has disappeared, and he has both the men and the means to discover where she went:

In the week that followed Miss Imlay’s death I received, almost daily, supplications from Godwin to augment the account I had sent him from Swansea with whatever further information I had now at my disposal; supplications I steadfastly refused to gratify with even the briefest of replies. I cared not for his feelings, judging he possessed very few; I did care, and very much, about Mrs Shelley, where she might be, and what circumstances had driven her to such a reckless course of action. I feared the worst, and those fears were brought to a greater and more painful intensity when my assistant Fraser brought me word that the Westbrooks had hired a young man, one William Alder by name, to drag the ponds in the area of Hyde-park nearest the house. My distress on hearing of this was extreme, but Fraser soon established that nothing had been found. It was some time before I was to receive further news, and I attempted to engross my mind with other pressing cases recently neglected, until, one morning in November I was woken by Fraser pounding on my door an hour before breakfast and calling to me, hot-faced and out of breath, that Miss Eliza Westbrook had dressed the children herself before the rest of the household was awake, and taken them to an address near Hans-place, Brompton.

Less than half an hour later the coachman set us down outside the lodging-house, where I made myself known to the lady proprietor of the establishment and asked if I might go up to Mrs Shelley’s rooms.

‘Mrs Shelley, sir?’ she said, looking – or feigning – ignorance. ‘We have no lady by that name here.’

‘A lady of below middle height,’ intervened Fraser. ‘Rather plump than trim as far as her figure goes. Quite a beauty once, I should say.’

‘Ah,’ said the landlady, with a look I could not at once decipher, ‘you must mean Mrs Smith. Do you bring word from her husband? She is hoping to see him every day.’

‘I am, as you so cleverly surmised, a fr―’ But my tongue stumbled against the word, and I could not utter it. ‘A business connection of her husband’s. It has but recently come to my knowledge that his wife has been reduced to the painful circumstances in which she now finds herself, and I wish to do all in my power to assist her.’

That last, in any event, was the absolute truth.

‘Well,’ sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat. ‘You can begin by assisting me with the money. A month’s rent she owes me, and that’s a fact.’

I smiled in what I hoped was a gracious manner, and proceeded to take my pocket-book from my coat and count out the coins, one by one. Her acquiescence, if not her confidence, thus purchased, she informed me that the young lady’s room was ‘at the top – the last you get to,’ and left me to find my own way up.

When I reached the last landing I knocked sharply and heard a few moments later the sound of a bolt drawing back and a light but weary female voice saying, ‘If it’s about the rent’ – as the door swung open. ‘Oh,’ she said then, drawing back and frowning, ‘I took you for Mrs Thomas.’

I had wondered at Fraser’s remark that Mrs Shelley must ‘once’ have been a beauty, for I could not believe she was much more than twenty, but now I understood his observation. The woman who stood before me looked at least a dozen years more, with none of the freshness and bloom of youth the calendar surely owed her. Her brown hair was lank, her eyes lustreless, and if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.

‘Who are you?’ she said, holding the door close, and pulling her shawl about her. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is, indeed, about the rent, or at least in one respect,’ I replied, as I proceeded to inform her that I had just had the honour to assist her with that particular obligation.

The smile that greeted this information was enough to show me how lovely she must once have been. It illuminated her whole face, lifting the lines from her eyes, and setting the ghost of a flush on her thin cheeks.

‘Do you come from Shelley?’ she said, with a gasp. ‘Is he well – does he want to see the children?’

How I cursed the man then, in my soul; to have abandoned this young woman so callously, depriving her of the protection she had every right to expect, and leaving her suspended in a pitiable state that was neither marriage nor widowhood. ‘I regret,’ I began, ‘that I have no commission from him. But what I may do for you, you may rely upon.’

And then, as the shawl slipped a moment from her grasp, I saw. I saw her secret, and I knew what it was that had driven her from her father’s house.

‘You are with child?’ I asked gently.

She flashed me a look then, though whether of anger, fear, or shame, I could not tell. ‘Please go now. I do not wish you to be here when my sister returns.’

‘But surely there is more I can to do assist you – does your husband even know of your condition?’

‘No!’ she cried, her eyes wild. ‘And he must not be told of it! Never!’

‘But he must discharge his duty!’ I exclaimed, my mind in fury. ‘Not merely towards your existing children, but towards this one. To have behaved so despicably – to have continued to exercise all the rights of a husband while presenting himself in that character to another woman – another woman who has already borne him two children―’

‘You do not understand,’ she wept. ‘He is not to blame – I have not seen him – not since – not since long before―’

At that point the door flew open and a woman strode into the room. From a distance she might well have been deemed handsome, with her abundant black hair and pale complexion, but standing as I was, within a few feet of her, I could see that her skin was seamed with the smallpox and of a dead white, and her hair, of which she was evidently very proud, coarse and wiry.

‘Who are you, sir?’ she demanded. ‘My sister is not nearly well enough to receive casual visitors.’

‘Please, Eliza,’ whispered Mrs Shelley, going at once to her side. ‘Mr Maddox was offering to help me. Perhaps he might be able, if he knew―’

‘I can give you all the assistance you need,’ replied Miss Westbrook, firmly, leading her resolutely to the bed. ‘You need no one but me, Harriet,’ she said, as she settled her gently against the pillows. ‘You have never needed anyone but me, and now that that villain has gone, we may be together once more, and for ever.’

Miss Westbrook then marched swiftly to the door and held it open. There was no mistaking the gesture, just as there was no mistaking the look that flickered across Mrs Shelley’s face as I stepped briefly towards her and made my bow. ‘You know where you may find me, Mrs Shelley,’ I said gravely, contriving to leave a fold of banknotes on the table by the bed. ‘I am at your service, and will remain so.’

‘Mr Maddox?’ said Miss Westbrook as I drew level with her in the doorway. ‘Do not call again. We need no interference from strangers. However seemingly benevolent.’

Some readers will no doubt recognise the description of Harriet’s sister Eliza Westbrook, which I have borrowed from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s memoir of Shelley, published long after his death. This is just one among many examples of how I used contemporary texts and observations to bring my characters to life (in the extract below, Harriet’s heart-breaking last letter is a transcription of her actual words). William Alder is another historical figure, whom I discovered in the fourth volume of Kenneth Neill Cameron’s series, Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. The section on ‘The Last Days of Harriet Shelley’ collects together all the known information about Harriet’s death, including an account of the inquest held by the coroner, John Gell, at the Fox and Bull, on 11th December.
William Alder apparently knew Harriet from working for her father, and went with her when she took a second-floor room in Hans Place in September, in the house of a Mrs Jane Thomas. In the novel, Maddox and Fraser question Adler after Harriet’s second disappearance –none too gently, either – and he becomes thereafter Maddox’s informant, with instructions to contact him if he sees Harriet again:

November had passed and December commenced before I received any word of her. I was at dinner in Downing-street, whence I had been invited to offer my advice as to the apprehension of the miscreants responsible for the late disturbances in Spa-fields, when the waiter slipped me a message in Fraser’s hand: Alder has seen her – Chapel-street. I made my excuses immediately and hurried down to the waiting carriage. The night was dark and the fog so heavy we could not move at any pace through the crowded streets, and I half despaired of arriving in time, but the carriage eventually drew to a halt a few yards from the Westbrook residence, and Alder stepped forward to open the door.

‘Saw ’er by chance, guv. I were in two minds whether to try to talk to ’er but thought it best to send for you instead.’
I glanced at him; there was still the ghost of a bruise along his jaw and I could well understand that he wished to run no risk of further intimacy with George Fraser.
‘She’s been ’ere ’alf an hour and more. Just walkin’ up and down. Cryin’ I think she is, and talkin’ to ’erself. Once or twice I saw ’er approach the door but then seem to think better of it.’
‘And you have not informed Miss Westbrook, or anyone else in the house?’
He shook his head. ‘No, guv. I judged as I’d leave that to you.’

I nodded, and turned to look down the street. A little distance ahead of me, I could see a figure walking away from me slowly in the mist; even at that distance I knew from her gait that it was a woman, and one much advanced in pregnancy. I could, as I intimated to Alder, have gone quietly to the door and summoned Miss Westbrook, but I did not see a way of doing so without alerting the whole household, and I judged likewise that had Mrs Shelley wished to see her sister she had had ample time already to do so. By that judgement I stand, but I cannot acquit myself of not perceiving the degree of alarm my own appearance would engender. I knew she feared Godwin, but I did not comprehend the full extent of that fear, or the terror she might conceive at the merest glimpse of a man she believed to be hounding her at his behest. I should have deduced this, but I did not; I should have sent Alder in my place, knowing that she had deemed him her friend, but to my everlasting regret, I did not.

Ordering Alder instead to remain by the carriage, I started down the pavement towards her. The fog thickened suddenly and I hastened my step, but the heavy air so absorbed all sound that I was almost upon her before she heard my approach. She turned then and I saw her face – a face at once stricken with panic.
‘You – you,’ she stammered, clutching her shawl tighter about her.
‘Do not distress yourself,’ I said. ‘I wish only to assist you.’
‘You said that before,’ she whispered, taking a pace backwards, ‘and then I discovered you are working for him – for them.’
‘I work for no one, I give you my word.’
‘I do not believe you – why else would you―’
‘Because I have had dealings with your husband in the past, and I know the cruelty – the wanton, careless cruelty – of which he is capable.’
‘No, no – you misjudge him – it is her – if it were not for her he might return to me – we might be happy again.’
I stepped forward then and gripped her hand. ‘Do not think it – do not wish it. The last time I saw your husband it was in the same inn where a young woman had destroyed herself – destroyed herself out of love of him, a love he allowed, even encouraged, but had no more thought of returning than he does of returning to you.’

I spoke it out of a desire to free her – I spoke it because my greatest fear was that he might indeed seek to return to her, and I wished her to have the strength to refuse him. I knew my intentions to be honourable, but I did not allow sufficiently for the effect such words must have had upon a woman – upon a spirit so distraught, a heart so sorely wounded. I had accused him – and justly ‒ of cruelty, but I stand accused in my own mind of no less a crime.

‘No, no,’ she cried again, wrenching her fingers from my grasp. ‘It is all a lie, all a wicked, wicked lie.’

And she turned from me and ran, stumbling, blinded by the tears that were streaming from her eyes. I hesitated a moment – a cursed moment – then set off after her, calling her name, but we were hard by the entrance to Hyde-park, and by the time I reached it she had disappeared into the darkness. I remained there for some moments more, then spent more precious minutes retracing my steps to the carriage, where I ordered Alder, somewhat breathlessly, to muster as many men as we had and conduct a search of both the park and the streets around.

They found nothing – then. I was still awake at three the following morning when Fraser returned to say there was no sight or trace of her. My relief at these words was profound, but all too short-lived. This was Saturday; it was Tuesday morning that I received the note from Alder that destroyed all my hopes.

He begged my presence without delay at the sign of the Fox and Bull in Knights-bridge. They had brought a woman’s remains to the inn, he said, through the old gate leading into the park whence all those found drowned were always conveyed. He said no more, but I knew; knew he would not have summoned me so unless he was certain beyond all possibility of doubt.

And so it was for the second time in as many months I stood before the body of a young woman ruined by love of that man, confronting the piteous waste of a death that could have been prevented – a death, in this case, that I seemed only to have hastened. I blamed Shelley – blamed him bitterly ‒ but I knew I merited my own share of censure.

The water had been cruel. Her body was bloated, the rank cloth clinging to the swollen form of her dead child, and her sweet face mottled with the taint of rottenness. These are not, I know, the words of a practitioner of my art, but my feelings were not the feelings of a professional man. Indeed, had one of my subordinates displayed such a weakness in the face of death I should have cashiered him at once and without reprieve. And knowing that, I strove to regain command of my passions and assess the corpse not as a man who had known her, but with the dispassionate and appraising eye of the detective, scrutinizing the cadaver for signs of violence, and seeking to determine how long it had been immersed. But grim indeed was that examination. I could see no obvious wound, and I was forced to conclude, with infinite sorrow, that she had indeed ended her own existence.

I had protected one young woman from public scandal and ignominy; I now faced the same distasteful task once more. It was harder, in the gossip of the metropolis, to achieve my end, but I knew the coroner, John Gell, and the editor of The Times was in my debt. I likewise persuaded Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow-street, to allow me free rein, though not without profound misgivings, knowing he trusted me, and I had never before abused that trust. I then instructed William Alder to take up residence at the Fox and Bull, so as to be on hand to give witness at the inquest, and ensure that Mrs Thomas’ servant gave the name of the deceased as Harriet Smith, and provided only such further evidence as was strictly necessary. The jury sat barely a quarter of an hour before returning, as I had ensured, a verdict of ‘Found Dead in the Serpentine River’. The body I then caused to be taken to the Paddington cemetery and buried there under her assumed alias.

A second pauper’s grave, a second desolate and windswept interment, the only persons present the minister, myself and Miss Westbrook, her face heavily veiled, scarce able to support herself in the wretchedness of her grief.

‘We will have our revenge, my love,’ she whispered hoarsely, falling to her knees in the mud as the body was lowered into the grave. ‘Papa will institute a process in Chancery for custody of the children, and expose that man to the world as a profligate and an atheist. All who know him will abhor and shun him for the murderer he is.’
‘I must, I fear, bear some responsibility myself,’ I began, assisting her to her feet as the sexton turned the first soil upon the pit. ‘I am very much afraid that our last meeting only served to distress your sister further, and that had I acted differently – ’
But she was already shaking her head. ‘If you are to blame, then so am I. I was away from the house on Saturday and did not receive this until I returned.’

She put her hand into her reticule and drew from it a letter. ‘She must have left it at the door and waited in the street, hoping – expecting – that I would come out to her. And I did not. I can hardly bear to think what must have passed through her mind. She must have thought I no longer loved her – that I did not care -’
I had no great regard for Miss Westbrook, but I did pity her then. I pressed her hand. ‘She would not have believed so.’
She shook her head once more and put her handkerchief to her eyes as she watched me read her sister’s last words. A letter she copied for me later, at my request, and sent to me at Buckingham-street. A letter that tore my heart; a letter no man could peruse without seeing ‒ in the tears that stained it, in the very orthography – the most afflicting proof of the depths of her despair.

Sat. Eve.
When you read this letr. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S–––


Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted a reference here to a meeting between Shelley and Maddox at Swansea, after Fanny’s death, and to other – clearly disastrous – earlier dealings between the two. In devising a fictional narrative that might make sense of all the ‘known unknowns’ of the Shelleys’ history, I involved the elder Charles Maddox not only in the suicides of 1816, but much earlier in their lives, and his first encounter with the poet is in late 1814, after his elopement with Mary Godwin. And it is Mary, in fact, who is the first member of the Godwin family to hire Maddox’s services. But what she commissions Maddox to do, and what fateful consequences that task then had, you will have to read the novel to discover….

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.

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.

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.

Byron and his women: Mad, bad and very dangerous to know

by Alexander Larman
In the (mercifully) final season of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, played with wooden heartiness by Hugh Bonneville, is convalescing after a spectacular moment of bloody vomiting. To aid him in his recuperation, he is shown leafing through a volume of Byron’s poetry. There is a jocular exchange in which Byron is said to have been ‘a great lover of wine’, and then an indulgent chuckle before it is announced ‘and women too’. This has for centuries been the accepted public face of Byron, that of a man who loved – ‘not wisely, but too well’. He loved liberty, life and literature, and made himself one of the most talked-about men of letters who ever lived.

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

The adjective ‘Byronic’ has entered the language in a way that the names of few other writers have, and is generally bestowed as a mark of approval. Many men, and not a few women, would regard being described thus as a badge of honour; it seems to convey dash and panache, coupled with a liberal political stance and peerless artistic achievement. The less savoury and more unfortunate aspects of Byron’s character – the often callous treatment towards his lovers; the violence of his mercurial temper; an attitude towards friends that alternated between reckless generosity and equally reckless dismissal – have not been ignored, but have become part of the Byronic myth. It is time to delve beneath the surface of the myth, and be prepared for what we may find there.
The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal. In addition to the innumerable chambermaids, maidservants and acolytes who were, in Byron’s own words, ‘tooled in a post-chaise- in a hackney coach – in a gondola – against a wall – in a court carriage- in a vis a vis — on a table — and under it’, he had a series of mutually destructive relationships with a variety of women. Some of them, such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, he was initially drawn to because of their status and wealth but soon grew tired of. Others, including his most tragic mistress Claire Clairmont and his mother Catherine Gordon, were treated with disdain and even anger. The two exceptions were his final lover, Teresa Guiccioli, who at least received a small measure of compassion; and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who weathered the slings and arrows of a scandalous and incestuous affair with a dignity and good humour that makes one wonder why she has been regarded by posterity as little more than a brainless dupe.
The answer, unfortunately, is a lazy misogyny that has permeated the Byron establishment for decades. In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man. When I decided to write an ‘anti-biography’ of sorts, it seemed obvious to examine his life through the prism of his relationships. I was not prepared at first for how distressing this would be, nor how revealing. Using as much of his lovers’ and friends’ correspondence as I could, I set out to paint a picture of those who were so much more than mere satellites orbiting an aloof star. I was equally keen for the voices of those around him to be heard, whether the precise, cold decisiveness of Annabella, the worried but fiercely loyal bustling of Catherine, the warm affection of Augusta and even the bewildered tenacity of his presumed illegitimate daughter Medora Leigh, product of incest and deceit.
Byron women
What is plain to see in the people I spent so much time with is how extraordinarily independent-minded and tough they all were. Catherine, abandoned by her feckless and debt-ridden husband, doggedly brought up her son to be worthy of the title that he inherited; Caroline took revenge on Byron by publishing a roman-à-clef that was nearly as scandalous as anything that her lordly lover ever wrote; the unlikely trio of Mary Shelley, Claire and Shelley travelled through Italy and Switzerland as free agents, casting off the shackles of respectability that they were expected to wear in favour of intellectual and sexual emancipation; and his daughter Ada Lovelace played a pioneering role in the development of computing science.
All nine of ‘Byron’s women’ in my book are a remarkable reminder, decades before universal suffrage and the concept of ‘women’s rights’, that intelligent and forthright women could and did expect to live lives considerably richer than merely serving as wives and dutiful producers of children at regular intervals. These lives might often have been difficult, or unconventional, or short, but they were seldom boring.
And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel. His personal legacy is undeniably a tarnished one, and many readers may have some sympathy with the manner in which Annabella attempted, without success, to bring up her daughter in ignorance of what her father represented. But there can be little doubt that Ada’s fierce protectiveness of him should find an echo in all but the most dogmatic of hearts. Unlike the Roman, I have come here neither to praise him, nor to bury him.
Nonetheless, as I consider, with some reluctance, the relationship between Byron, his romantic relationships and Downton Abbey, it is appropriate to remember the words of the Dowager Countess from an earlier episode: ‘The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.’
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women, published in September 2016. He is a writer and biographer whose books include Blazing Star (2014), a life of Byron’s predecessor the Earl of Rochester and Restoration (2016), a social history of the year 1666. He writes Alex Larmanabout literature and culture for publications including the TLS, Observer, Times and Telegraph, and lives in Sussex with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.

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