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.

'A Revolution in Female Manners'’: The Political Portraiture of Mary Wollstonecraft

by Lucy Peltz
From America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Britain’s economic, social and political stability was in turmoil. Against this backdrop of revolution abroad, the relations between the sexes – and their proper roles — were increasingly challenged. While the figure of the respectable female writer of sentimental novels, poetry or didactic literature had become a cultural commonplace, there was a new backlash against the literary woman asserting her views in the more ‘masculine’ genres of history and politics. The tightening of gendered boundaries can be particularly identified in the reception and troubled reputation of a new generation of political voices, including the radical Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, oil on canvas, 1797. National Portrait Gallery, 1237

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, oil on canvas, 1797. National Portrait Gallery, 1237

In 1787, Mary Wollstonecraft was a relatively unknown writer who was running a school when she published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. This was a ‘conduct book’, one of the few genres deemed acceptable for women writers. A year later Wollstonecraft wrote Mary, A Fiction, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she created an independent female protagonist whose ‘grandeur is derived from the operations of [her] own faculties, not subjugated to opinion’. It was also in 1788 that Wollstonecraft began to write for the Analytical Review. It was in this radical newspaper, that she first declared her admiration for the controversial republican thinker, Catherine Macaulay.  This happened when Wollstonecraft was reviewing the older woman’s Letters on Education, where there was a clear overlap between Macaulay’s ideas and those Wollstonecraft had published in Letters on Education, especially around the importance of parental nurture and the coeducation of girls and boys. Wollstonecraft also empathised with Macaulay’s attack on the way girls were expected to ‘counterfeit . . . weakness in order to attract the notice of the male’. And while Wollstonecraft had formerly imagined herself the ‘first of a new genus’, in 1790 she was pleased to identify Macaulay as a female role model. Her enthusiastic sense of affinity with the ageing radical is evinced in the unsolicited and bold letter that Wollstonecraft wrote to Macaulay.

Now I venture to send you < blank >, with a name utterly unknown to you in the title page, it is necessary to apologise for thus intruding on you – but instead of an apology shall I tell you the truth ? You are the only female writer who I consider in opinion with respecting the rank our sex ought to attain in the world. I respect Mrs Macaulay Graham because she contends for laurels whilst most of her sex only seek for flowers.

Mary Wollstonecraft autograph letter signed to Catharine Macaulay, 30 December 1790, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790.

Mary Wollstonecraft autograph letter signed to Catharine Macaulay, 30 December 1790, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790.

Whereas the final sentence of this letter captures the spirit of the two writers’ shared interest in promoting a new model of assertive womanhood, it is the first (now expurgated) sentence that indicates Wollstonecraft’s main excuse for writing to Macaulay without prior introduction. With this letter, we can deduce that Wollstonecraft had sent a copy of her recent publication the Vindication of the Rights of Men. This was her impassioned reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) which had appeared a few months before — Observations on the Reflections of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France (1790). Her letter to Macaulay thus attempted to reach out to a kindred political and intellectual woman whose own published attack on Burke’s Reflections had also just appeared. Both pamphlets reflect the feeling among radicals who had welcomed the French Revolution, in its first years. Wollstonecraft later summed up the mood when she stated that a ‘new spirit has gone forth, to organise the body-politic . . . Reason has, at last, shown her captivating face.’
The Vindication was Wollstonecraft’s first major success and it moved her into the masculine terrain of political discourse. It argued in favour of a more meritocratic society and scorned the privilege and property of the aristocratic hierarchy which Burke had defended. The first edition of the pamphlet made no mention of Wolstonecraft’s name and many critics assumed it was the work of a man. The Analytical Review knew better and their critic could not resist mocking Burke on this point:  ‘How deeply must it wound the feelings of a chivalrous knight . . to perceive that two of the boldest of his adversaries are women!’ For conservatives in Britain desperate to maintain the status quo the deferential relationship expected between men and women took on an increasingly politicized charge at this time at this time. In this context, the image of the empowered woman – as identified particularly in the French mob — became deeply emotive. An example of this can be seen in the satire Don Dismallo running the Literary Gauntlet.
Don Dismallo Running the Literary Gantlet, published by William Holland, 1790

Don Dismallo Running the Literary Gantlet, published by William Holland, 1790

This etching was published by William Holland, a radical printseller, just one month after the publication of Burke’s Reflections. It portrays Burke in the character of Don Dismallo, the deluded knight from Don Quixote who champions chivalrous but pointless causes. The inference here is that Burke’s support for the French monarchy was just such a pointless cause. To reinforce this point, Burke is presented in a fool’s costume running the gauntlet past a line of opponents who are each armed with a cat-o’-nine-tails to punish him. On Burke’s left we can see: Helena Maria Williams, the poet, Richard Price, the Dissenting minister and polemicist, Anna Letitia Barbauld, the poet and educationalist. To Burke’s right, are: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an MP who opposed Burke in the House of Commons, and the figures of Justice, holding out her sword, and Liberty, who turns her back on Burke to support a frail figure with a banner bearing scenes from the storming of the Bastille. To their right, are John Horne Tooke another radical MP and Catharine Macaulay. She, like the other women, wears French tricolours.
The people in this print are all linked by their support for the Revolution. The women were distinguished for refuting Burke in print, or so it seemed. Williams who was noted for her sympathetic, eyewitness Letters Written in France had just published a poem in praise of the storming of the Bastille. Catharine Macaulay’s forthcoming attack on Burke’s Reflections had been announced and Barbauld, who had first opposed Burke in March1790, was assumed to be writing another refutation of his Reflections.
While only a handful of the responses to Burke were by women, Don Dismallo indicates how the female political voice raised special anxieties. Horace Walpole, who shared Burke’s anti-revolutionary conservatism, dismissed them as cheap hacks who ‘spit their rage at eighteenth pence a head’. He vilified further, describing them as ‘Amazonian allies, headed by Kate Macaulay and the virago Barbaud, whom Mr Burke calls our poissardes’. By referring to Burke’s description of working-class women in the French mob — as fishwives, or the ‘furies of hell’ – Walpole’s comments reflect the conservative fear of female activism.
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men appeared just a few days before Don Dismallo which explains why she is not figured in the print. According to her biographer, the Vindication received ‘extraordinary notice’, especially once it was identified as the work of a woman.
At the same time, her name became associated with other leading revolutionaries who, like Tom Paine, had attacked Burke’s Reflections. She met Paine and many others through Joseph Johnson, the bookseller who was like a father figure to her. He gave weekly dinners which were a meeting place for London’s religious dissenters and political radicals. Among them were Henry Fuseli an extrovert but married artist for whom Wollstonecraft developed a desperate infatuation and eventually proposed a ménage à trois — and William Godwin – a shy and awkward philosopher who was initially irritated by the way she monopolized the conversation but would later become her husband.  It was also through Johnson that Wollstonecraft met John Opie, the fashionable artist who became her life-long friend. This was his first portrait of Wollstonecraft painted in the period immediately following the Vindication. It is a sensitive and confident image of a female author, showing her distracted momentarily from her studies.
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c.1790-1), Tate Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c.1790-1), Tate Gallery

With Opie’s typically dark palette we have the sense that Wollstonecraft is working late into the night. Although Fuseli had criticized her as a ‘philosophical sloven’, Wollstonecraft is shown here with the powdered hair and silk gown of a polite woman. There is no record of Wollstonecraft’s views on this portrait. But her comments on sitting for the portrait below, at about the same time are, however, revealing.
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Williamson, 1791. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Williamson, 1791. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

She wrote to her supporter William Roscoe, stating that ‘I do not imagine that it will be a very striking likeness; but, if you do not find me in it, I will send you a more faithful sketch – a book that I am now writing, in which I myself . . . shall certainly appear, hand and heart’. This comment contains both prosaic and psychological insight. Apparently Wollstonecraft doubted Williamson’s work but, more importantly, she was did not like giving up control over her own self-representation. The book that she refers to in this letter was her The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
It would be an overstatement to call the Rights of Woman an autobiography. The work does however tackle issues of female education, identity and autonomy that had preoccupied and effected Wollstonecraft for most of her adult life. English women she argued had been forced into narrow roles within society, were denied access to education and were thereby trivialized as frivolous creatures whose purpose was only to please men. Moreover, women were complicit in their own cultural subordination through their love of sentimental novels, gossip and fashion. Advocating serious study to lift a woman from sensation to intellect, Wollstonecraft’s rallying cry was aimed at the radical reform of Britain as a whole. “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore them their lost dignity – and make them, as part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.
Having renounced Christianity in 1790, Wollstonecraft’s proposals were rooted in her belief in ‘perfectibility’ – the doctrine that people can achieve perfection in their lifetime. The work was also based on a levelling principle which took its inspiration from the French Revolution. Both were contentious positions to adopt and yet the Rights of Woman was greeted with approval in 1792. That is because most reviews treated it as ‘an elaborate treatise on female education’. The Analytical Review, for one, managed to overlook the radical elements and conclude that ‘If the bulk of the great truths which this publication contains were reduced to practice the nation would be better, wiser and happier’. The only periodical to attack the Rights of Woman was the Critical Review. This Tory paper correctly identified the revolutionary ambitions and implications of Wollstonecraft’s proposals. It envisaged a world in which Wollstonecraft’s proposals were put into action and decried the social impact if women, once educated to the level of men, refused to continue their allotted duties of child care and nursing the sick. Ironically the French Revolutionary government concurred. Although Wollstonecraft had dedicated the book to the French diplomat Talleyrand, his report on education to the National Assembly in France expressed the view that women were indeed the weaker sex and should follow the ‘will of nature’ in pursuing gentler, domestic occupations.
Despite its initial success, the Rights of Woman and its author would become synonymous with libertarian immorality and would soon be shunned. The reasons for this fall from grace were manifold including the reception of Wollstonecraft’s subsequent writings, the details of her private life and the increasingly repressive social and political situation. The personal details were revealed by her widower William Godwin whose Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was rushed into press four months after Wollstonecraft’s gruesome death in childbirth in 1797.
William Godwin, by James Northcote, oil on canvas (1802). National Portrait Gallery, 1236.

William Godwin, by James Northcote, oil on canvas (1802). National Portrait Gallery, 1236.

Godwin, a leading radical philosopher, was grief-stricken and stayed away from Mary’s funeral writing ‘I have not the least expectation that I can ever know happiness again’. During a deep and prolonged melancholy, his one consolation was reading Wollstonecraft’s manuscripts including her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Within two weeks, he had begun to write her Memoirs which were published with four volumes of her posthumous works. If this was a cathartic exercise for Godwin, his inability to dissemble ruined the Wollstonecraft’s reputation for generations to come.
True to his philosophical ideal that perfection could be achieved by reason alone, Godwin made no attempt to hide the scandals of her life. He shocked readers with details of how Wollstonecraft had lived out of wedlock and had a child with another man, had twice attempted suicide, had become pregnant before her marriage to Godwin and, finally, had refused religious rites on her deathbed. In focussing on her personal life and distress, Godwin aimed to present his dead wife as a ‘female Werther’ – the doomed character in Goethe’s influential novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). But in the end, Godwin’s writing is in fact more an exploration of his own feelings and the culture of sensibility than the Wollstonecraft’s political philosophy.
Mary Wollstonecraft, stipple engraving, by John Chapman, possibly after an anonymous painting (1798)National Portrait Gallery, D7842.

Mary Wollstonecraft, stipple engraving, by John Chapman, possibly after an anonymous painting (1798) National Portrait Gallery, D7842.

Before her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft was the most widely read political woman in Europe. While her death had been recorded by respectful obituaries, Godwin’s Memoirs made a spectacle of her unconventional life. Describing her as having ‘sentiments as pure, as refined, and as delicate, as ever inhabited a human heart’ his principle mistake was to ask for sympathy for her plight and pose her as ‘the fairest source of animation and encouragement to all who would follow’. Godwin was of course deluded by grief but he also misjudged the moral climate in presenting Wollstonecraft as a role model. Those periodicals that had applauded the Rights of Woman were almost unanimous in wishing Godwin had never written such a ‘tribute’. Her posthumous reputation was also poorly served by his publication of her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman which excuses adultery, argues for women to have control over their own property and is frank about female sexual appetites.
In the end, there was no literary model which Godwin could use to represent Wollstonecraft as a subjective, intellectually assertive woman with desires in a way that did not render her contemptible. Moreover, his catalogue of her sexual exploits and political beliefs provided a rod with which to beat all radical women writers. The grand inquisitor was Reverend Richard Polwhele whose long verse-diatribe The Unsex’d Females, of 1798, was one of the most concerted critiques of late eighteenth-century feminist writers. Using the inflammatory category ‘unsex’d’, Polwhele named and attacked a band of women who, he declared, had abandoned ‘natural’ modesty, supported the introduction of democratic politics and who even went as far as to demand equality with men. Unsurprisingly, he considered Wollstonecraft the archetypal ‘unsex’d female’:

See Wollstonecraft, whom no decorum checks,
Arise, the intrepid champion of her sex;
O’er humbled man assert the sovereign claim,
And Slight the timid blush of virgin fame.

Besides Wollstonecraft, Polwhele named eight other ‘unsex’d’ women: Mary Hays, Helen Maria Williams, Catharine Macaulay, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Charlotte Smith. This may have been was a disparate group, but on close inspection what the ‘unsex’d’ women have in common is their temerity in claiming literary independence  but worse still, their support for progressive politics and their criticisms of Britain’s political, social and religious institutions.
All this was manna to Wollstonecraft’s opponents in the increasingly repressive climate that followed the Treason Trials, the Naval mutinies, and the Irish Rebellion in the late 1790s. Thus Wollstonecraft’s life was turned into an emblem of revolutionary, immorality in action. The European Magazine declared her a ‘philosophical wanton’ and the government-sponsored Anti-Jacobin Review led an intense scurrilous attack to defame her and her beliefs. In the index for 1798, under the heading ‘Prostitution’ was printed simply: ‘see Mary Wollstonecraft’.
 Lucy Peltz is Head of Collection Displays (Tudor to Regency) and Senior Curator, 18th Century Collections, at the National Portrait Gallery. She is a Wordsworth Trust trustee. Her book Facing the Text: Extra-illustration, Print Culture and Society in Britain, ca. 1769-1840 is about to be LucyPeltz_120published. Other recent publications are Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, with A. Cassandra Albinson and Peter Funnell, Yale University Press, 2010; Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, with Elizabeth Eger, National Portrait Gallery, 2008 and the guide book to Beningbrough Hall, with Roger Carr-Whitworth, National Trust, 2006.

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.

Mary Wollstonecraft on Men

by Simon Court

Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the first recognisably feminist texts. Yet earlier, in December 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which introduces some of the arguments extended in Woman, and which also anticipates some of the beliefs expressed in the highly influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) by the anarchist thinker William Godwin, who was later to become her husband.
Although Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was relatively short (she died in 1797, aged only thirty-eight), it was both extraordinary and controversial. Independent-minded and often courageous, her adventures included: setting up (unsuccessfully) a school in London; entertaining a doomed passion for the artist Henry Fuseli and proposing co-habitation with him and his (appalled) wife; travelling to Paris alone in December 1792 to witness the French Revolution, and staying there as Louis XVI was guillotined and the ‘Reign of Terror’ unfolded, and having a turbulent affair with the American businessman, Gilbert Imlay.
Mary became pregnant by Imlay, who abandoned her in France before the birth of their illegitimate child, Fanny. Imlay remained indifferent to both Mary and Fanny on their return to London in 1795, and this led to two unsuccessful suicide attempts by Mary in that year, one by laudanum overdose, and the other by jumping into the Thames. (Sadly, Fanny proved to be more successful in her own suicide attempt by laudanum overdose, dying aged just twenty-two, in 1816).
Wollstonecraft started an affair with William Godwin in 1796 and, despite his principled objections to the institution of marriage, they married in March 1797, after Mary discovered she was pregnant. Yet this domestic tranquillity was tragically short-lived: Mary died on 10 September 1797, after complications from giving birth eleven days earlier to her second child, Mary (later author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).
In 1790, the Whig politician Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France: a famous critique of the abstract ‘metaphysical’ reasoning of the French Revolutionaries, and the murderous tyranny which it produced, and a staunch defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England. Wollstonecraft, who was a regular contributor to the Analytical Review, took up her pen (with the encouragement of her publisher, Joseph Johnson) and produced the first of many critical responses to Burke’s Reflections in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Initially published anonymously, it was reviewed extensively and sold out in weeks, the second edition bearing her name, and establishing her reputation as a political thinker.
It is wholly unsurprising that Burke’s Reflections irked Wollstonecraft, because the political principles upon which the Reflections is based contrasts dramatically from her own. In a nutshell, Burke was, in political ideological terms, a conservative. He had a pessimistic view of human nature, and believed the virtues of tradition and custom preserved the continuity of society, and controlled the citizens within it. He denounced as futile and dangerous any attempt to artificially impose ‘metaphysical’ rational principles upon society – in other words, abstract principles which are not derived from practical political experience. For Burke, this would always lead to failure, tyranny, and the wilful destruction of society, and the French Revolution in 1789 was the latest, most horrifying example.
Wollstonecraft, by contrast, was a radical liberal (and emerging feminist). She believed that the French Revolution was self-evidently a good thing. She took from the Enlightenment generally, and John Locke in particular, the view that people possess inalienable rights to freedom, and property (in the sense of ownership acquired through labour, rather than inherited). Further, she assumed that people, in using their rational faculties, are capable of a degree of social co-operation which leads to an equal and just society, in which all irrational prejudices and customs are removed. This progress was, for Wollstonecraft, inevitable. Given that optimism, coupled with the notion of the perfectibility of human nature, and armed with an emerging ‘feminist’ insight, there is little wonder that her reaction to Burke was explosive.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was a political pamphlet, and part of the contemporary controversy concerning the French Revolution and the merits of monarchy over republicanism which was being waged in a propaganda war. As such Men contains lively, and entertainingly savage, rhetorical flourishes, and remains heated throughout. Take, for instance, this opening salvo aimed at Burke in the advertisement printed at the beginning:

“Not having leisure or patience to follow this desultory writer through all the devious tracks in which his fancy has started fresh game, I have confined my strictures, in a great measure, to the grand principles at which he has levelled many ingenious arguments in a very specious garb”.

Much of the discussion in Men amounts to a relatively conventional liberal response to a conservative view of political society. Hence there are arguments about the scope and meaning of ‘liberty’, the redundancy of established political institutions and classes (notably the monarchy, the Church of England and the aristocracy) and the just allocation of private property and wealth.
On the usefulness of the Church, she observes that “It is a well-known fact, that when we, the people of England, have a son whom we scarcely know what to do with – we make a clergy-man of him”. And she has no time for what she takes to be Burke’s sentimental affection for country life: “you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and a dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer”.
However, what most interests us now is to examine how Men charts the emergence of Wollstonecraft’s own distinctive political ideas: most obviously, how her discussion of the place of women in society in Men serves as an introduction to ideas further developed in Woman (making Men, perhaps, the first feminist work?). For Wollstonecraft aspires to a society in which women play their fullest part, employing their reason and demanding to become useful members of it. Yet she despairs at seeing how “women of fashion take husbands that they may have it in their power to coquet, the grand business of genteel life, with a number of admirers, and thus flutter the spring of life away, without laying up any store for the winter of age, or being of any use to society. Affection in the marriage state can only be founded on respect – and are these weak beings respectable?”  There is no suggestion here that women are helpless victims. Far from it, they are letting themselves down by perpetuating their role as “vain inconsiderate dolls”, whose “luxury and effeminacy” has introduced “so much idiotism into the noble families”.
Wollstonecraft’s call to women is, in effect, to disregard the silly weaknesses of ‘effeminacy’, and instead, as a matter of moral duty and respectability, exercise their reason to acquire the virtue of being “prudent mothers and useful members of society”. A forceful message at the time, which still has resonance today.
Wollstonecraft also addresses the issue of ill-health and poverty in the emerging industrial cities, which she contrasts with the countryside. Yet in doing so she presents an idealised portrayal of rural life. She asserts that whereas London is where “misery lurks in pestilential corners”, the English countryside, “with all the rustic contrivances of simple, unlettered taste”, is where she saw that “the cheerful poultry were fed by the chubby babes, who breathed a bracing air, far from diseases and the vices of cities”. She seeks a radical transformation of the ownership of land, asking “why cannot large estates be divided into small farms?” and “why might not the industrious peasant be allowed to steal a farm from the heath?” Her demand for common ownership of land, coupled with a utopian portrayal of agrarian society anticipates the same, essentially anarchist, views expressed by William Godwin in Political Justice, which influenced Coleridge and the ‘pantisocrats’.
Wollstonecraft first met Godwin on 13 November 1791, that is, a year after Men had been published, and while Godwin was writing Political Justice. Godwin had read Men but had been irritated with the polemical style, later dismissing it as ‘intemperate’. The meeting between them was not a success: a fellow guest that evening was Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) Godwin greatly admired, but, he later recalled, Paine was “no great talker….the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence heard her very frequently when I wished to hear Paine”.
Although most of Wollstonecraft’s attack on Burke concentrated on his Reflections, it is interesting to note her twist on his concept of the ‘sublime’, as expressed in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).  Her accusation was that Burke was guilty of what has subsequently been termed ‘aesthetic genderising’: that is, he had deliberately set out to persuade women that the quality of beauty is associated with femininity and weakness, while reserving the ‘sublime’ to masculinity and strength. She declares “you may have convinced them that littleness and weakness are the very essence of beauty…..thus confining truth, fortitude, and humanity, within the rigid pale of manly mortals…”
Even if we may not agree with this attack on Burke, we can still acknowledge that Wollstonecraft’s observation that a writer’s use of language can reflect their deeper assumptions about gender is, again, part of an early and recognisably feminist ideological view of the world.

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and Romanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club. Simon

William Godwin: Political Justice, anarchism, and the Romantics

by Simon Court
William Godwin was a major contributor to the radicalism of the Romantic movement. A leading political theorist in his own right as the founder of anarchism, Godwin provided the Romantics with the central idea that man, once freed from all artificial political and social constraints, stood in perfect rational harmony with the world. In this natural state man could fully express himself. This idea was first articulated in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, and was immediately seized upon by Coleridge as an inspiration for his misplaced venture into ‘pantisocracy’. Later, it heavily influenced Shelley in his political poems.

Godwin’s impact was personal as well as intellectual. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was one of the earliest feminist texts. He was good friends with Coleridge and later became the father-in-law of Shelley when his daughter, Mary, married the poet in 1816. Yet despite the idealistic ambitions of his principles, Godwin singularly failed to match up to them in his own life, behaving particularly hypocritically towards Mary and Shelley.

Godwin’s political views were based on an extremely optimistic view of human nature. He adopted, quite uncritically, the Enlightenment ideal of man as fully rational, and capable of perfection through reason. He assumed that “perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of man may be presumed to be in the course of progressive improvement”. For Godwin, men were naturally benevolent creatures who become the more so with an ever greater application of rational principles to their lives. As human knowledge increases and becomes more widespread, through scientific and educational advance, the human condition necessarily progresses until men realise that rational co-operation with their fellows can be fully achieved without the need for state government. And, Godwin thinks, the end of the reliance on the state will also herald the disappearance of crime, violence, war and poverty. This belief in the inexorable perfectibility of man and progress towards self-government knew no bounds. Thus we find Godwin speculating that human beings may even eventually be able to stop the physical processes of fatigue and aging: for if the mind will one day become omnipotent, “why not over the matter of our own bodies….in a word, why may not man be one day immortal?”

On the other side of this sparkling coin lies the corrosive state, and here Godwin asserts that the central falsehood, perpetuated by governments themselves, is the belief that state control is necessary for human society to function. Rather, Godwin claims, once humanity has rid itself of the wholly artificial constraints placed upon it by the state, men will be free to live in peaceful harmony. For Godwin, “society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals”, whereas “government is an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgement and individual conscience of mankind”. The abolition of political institutions would bring an end to distinct national identities and social classes, and remove the destructive passions of aggression and envy which are associated with them. Men will be restored to their natural condition of equality, and will be able to rebuild their societies in free and equal association, self-governed by reason alone.
Godwin’s utopian portrayal may be highly radical, but he was not a revolutionary. He believed political revolutions were always destructive, hateful and irrational – indeed, the immediate impulse to write Political Justice came from the murderous bloodshed in the recent French Revolution. And whilst Godwin never called himself an anarchist – for him, ‘anarchy’ had a negative meaning associated with French Revolutionary violence – his vision was recognisably anarchist. For Godwin, social progress could only be obtained through intellectual progress, which involved reflection and discussion. This is necessarily a peaceful process, where increasing numbers come to realise that the state is harmful and obstructive to their full development as rational creatures, and collectively decide to dissolve it. He was convinced that eventually, and inevitably, all political life will be structured around small groups living communally, which will choose to co-operate with other communities for larger economic purposes.

In addition to the artificial constraints placed on man by political institutions, Godwin identifies the private ownership of land, or what he termed “accumulated property”, as a major obstacle to human progress. And here, like all utopian thinkers, we find that Godwin’s criticism of the present reality proves to be far more convincing that his predictions of the future. For he observes that “the present system of property confers on one man immense wealth in consideration of the accident of his birth” whilst “the most industrious and active member of society is frequently with great difficulty able to keep his family from starving”. This economic injustice leads to an immoral dependence: “Observe the pauper fawning with abject vileness upon his rich benefactor, and speechless with sensations of gratitude for having received that, which he ought to have claimed with an erect mien, and with a consciousness that his claim was irresistible”. For Godwin, only the abolition of private property and the dismantling of the hereditary wealth which goes with it will free mankind from “brutality and ignorance”, “luxury” and the “narrowest selfishness”. Yet once freed:

Every man would have a frugal, yet wholesome diet, every man would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would give hilarity to the spirits: none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropic affections of the soul, and let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. What a contrast does this scene present us with the present state of human society, where the peasant and the labourer work, till their understandings are benumbed with toil, their sinews contracted and made callous by being forever on the stretch, and their bodies invaded with infirmities and surrendered to an untimely grave?

In this utopia, or egalitarian arcadia, all the immoral vices of the present world, oppression, fraud, servility, selfishness and anxiety, are banished, and all men live “in the midst of plenty”, and equally share “the bounties of nature” – “No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, each would lose his own individual existence in the thought of the general good”, and “philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her”. In this agrarian idyll, “the mathematician, the poet and the philosopher will derive a new stock of cheerfulness and energy from recurring labour that makes them feel they are men” (a world, incidentally, in which only “half an hour a day, seriously employed in manual labour by every member of the community, would sufficiently supply the whole with necessaries”).

Another highly radical idea raised by Godwin in Political Justice is the immorality of marriage. For Godwin: “Co-habitation is not only an evil as it checks the independent progress of mind; it is also inconsistent with the imperfections and propensities of man. It is absurd to expect that the inclinations and wishes of two human beings should coincide through a long period of time. To oblige them to act and to live together, is to subject them to some inevitable portion of thwarting, bickering and unhappiness. This cannot be otherwise, so long as man has failed to reach the standard of absolute perfection.” As such “the institution of marriage is a system of fraud”, and “the worst of all laws”. Moreover, “marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties” (although this didn’t prevent Godwin marrying twice, first Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and then Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801). Inevitably, Godwin asserts, the institution of marriage will be abolished with all the other types of “accumulated property” in the new, free society. And although sexual relationships will continue because “the dictates of reason and duty“ will regulate the propagation of the species, “it will [not] be known in such a state of society who is the father of each individual child”, because “such knowledge will be of no importance”, with the “abolition of surnames”.
The vision of political society portrayed in Political Justice served as a direct and immediate inspiration for the Romantic ‘pantisocrats’ Coleridge and Southey, and contributed to their youthful flirtation throughout 1794 with the idea of migrating to North America to set up a rural commune (see Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream). On a personal level, Coleridge first met Godwin and wrote the appreciative poem ‘To Godwin’ in 1794, but it was from 1799 onwards, when Godwin’s public reputation had waned, that they became good and mutually supportive friends (see Coleridge and Godwin: A literary friendship ).

By contrast, Shelley’s personal relationship with Godwin was far more turbulent: beginning in adoration but ending in despair. In 1811, Shelley started corresponding with Godwin, who was now a bookshop owner with a modest income, and offered himself as both an admirer and provider of financial support, which Godwin accepted in equal measure. A year later they met. Unsurprisingly, Shelley took Godwin’s pronouncements on marriage and ‘free-love’ to be a rational justification for him abandoning his first wife Harriet and eloping to Europe with Godwin’s sixteen-year-old daughter Mary, in July 1814. But Godwin reacted as furiously and as disapprovingly as any protective father would, and he refused to see Shelley and Mary on their return (whilst still being prepared to demand that money be sent to him under another name, to avoid scandal). By August 1820 Shelley was in such extreme debt himself, having previously obtained credit on the (false) assumption that he would soon inherit the family estate from his father, that he was finally forced to refuse Godwin’s constant demands for money, writing “I have given you ….the amount of a considerable fortune, & have destituted myself.” Within two years Shelley was dead.

Yet at least in the permanence of the printed word Godwin’s influence on Shelley remains. It is most apparent in Shelley’s political poems, which echo Godwin’s views on the state and his anarchistic vision of society. For instance, in The Masque of Anarchy (1819), which was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, Shelley describes how non-revolutionary, passive resistance can morally defeat tyrants, and how men can become free:

“Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!”

A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon SimonCourt indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

Coleridge and Godwin: A literary friendship

by Pamela Clemit
‘No two persons can be conceived more opposite in character or genius than [Coleridge and Godwin]’, wrote Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age (1825). He placed them side-by-side in his ‘Gallery of Contemporary Portraits’, as if to intensify each by the proximity of the other. In person and on paper, their differences drew them together.

Like most educated young radicals of his generation, Coleridge could not avoid Godwin’s bombshell of a book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin began with Paine’s argument that the government was a necessary evil, but ended up arguing for its ‘utter annihilation’. Coleridge’s instinctive reaction was hostile. He openly criticized Godwin’s atheism and apparent immorality. By the end of the decade, as Godwin’s public reputation declined, Coleridge turned towards him.

Godwin’s idea of political reform was a good conversation: ‘The true instruments for changing the opinions of men are argument and persuasion.… If then we would improve the social institutions of mankind, we must write, we must argue, we must converse.’ He and Coleridge conversed frequently during the winter of 1799-1800, and corresponded for several years after that. Their letters stood in for a larger conversation, sustaining friendship at a distance, a friendship sometimes more intense and with different qualities to what was possible face-to-face.

By 1799, Godwin was no longer the purely rational thinker of the first edition of Political Justice. After revising his treatise (twice), he rejected systematic enquiry in favour of attention to individual experience, turning his hand to educational writings, biography, and fiction. He now acknowledged the role of sympathy and feeling in moral judgements. He courted Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 and married her in March 1797, but she died seven months later (leaving him with two little girls to bring up). She converted him to her ‘culture of the heart’. After meeting Godwin for the second time in late 1799 (the first was in 1794), Coleridge wrote to Southey: ‘Godwin is no great Things in Intellect; but in heart & manner he is all the better for having been the Husband of Mary Wolstonecroft.’ Is it too much to suggest that, in Coleridge, Godwin found a person whose intellectual and emotional stature could fill some of the void left by his loss?

Coleridge had returned home from Germany in late July 1799 and had made various plans for future projects without settling to anything. However, his co-authorship (with Southey) of The Devil’s Thoughts, a poem satirizing contemporary moral and political hypocrisy, indicates the way his thoughts were tending. In September of that year he wrote to Wordsworth in terms that suggest his own desire to return to the public realm: ‘I wish you would write a poem … addressed to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes.’ By 27 November Coleridge had moved to London to make his own contribution to ‘the amelioration of mankind’ as a writer for the anti-ministerial Morning Post. Three days later he began visiting Godwin, the most prominent ‘visionary philosophe’ of the day.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust

Both men were fascinated by, though never entirely at ease with, each other. According to Godwin’s diary, they met every few days from the start of December 1799 to the end of the following March, when Coleridge stayed at Godwin’s for three days before moving north to the Lake District. They both regretted the separation. Coleridge repeatedly urged Godwin to come and stay at Keswick. Godwin (having just returned from six weeks in Ireland) didn’t go, but lamented the loss of ‘the opportunity of engrafting your quince upon my apple-tree, & melting & combining several of your modes of feeling & deciding, into the substance of my mind’. He declared: ‘I feel myself a purer, a simpler, a more unreserved & natural being in your company than in that of almost any human creature.’ Coleridge attributed this to his ‘own ebullient Unreservedness’ and ‘the circumstance, that my affections are interested deeply in my opinions’.

The bond of affection never disappeared. Once Godwin was down, it was safe for Coleridge to support him.  ‘Every man in his heart is in favor of your general principles’, he wrote to Godwin in October 1800. By June 1801 he had come round to Godwin’s early rationalism: ‘your Retractations [in the second edition of Political Justice] have been more injudicious than the assertions or dogmas retracted.’ When he read the pamphlet, Thoughts Occasioned by Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801), in which Godwin replied to attacks by former friends, he wrote warmly of Godwin’s dignity in adversity: ‘I feel remorse ever to have spoken unkindly of such a Man.’

Coleridge, perhaps because of his own intellectual changeability, appreciated the quality of Godwin’s mind: ‘To the World it would appear a Paradox to say, that you are all too persuadible a man; but you yourself know it to be the truth.’ He identified Godwin’s tendency to undermine his own arguments, finding ‘in whatever you published … some one outrageously imprudent, suicidal Passage’. Coleridge was probably thinking of the ‘one hateful Paragraph’ in Thoughts, in which Godwin declared that the death of a newborn child was preferable to a life in which vice and misery were the only checks to population, as Malthus had argued. But his comment also recalls one of the most audacious propositions in Political Justice. Given the choice of saving Archbishop Fénelon or his chambermaid from a burning palace, Godwin argued, the truly benevolent individual would save Fénelon, because of his superior value to humanity—even if the chambermaid were one’s wife or mother. Both propositions, wrested free of their contexts, entered popular consciousness as examples of Godwin’s inhumanity.

Godwin in turn was so drawn to Coleridge that he made notes on his life up to 1799 for a future biography. He was intrigued by Coleridge’s childhood precocity: ‘accustomed only to the conversations of grown persons, he becomes arrogant & conceited.’ The adult Coleridge ‘always longed to know some man whom he might look up to, by that means to increase his sentiment of the importance of our common nature’, a trait which the ‘all too persuadible’ Godwin may have recognized. Later he wrote privately: ‘I could write a character of Coleridge—the solemn—the superemphatical—the mass of immeasurable complacence in his own rare & unfinished conceptions …. Look to his writings—the Deeper he dives, the more absolutely beyond all comprehension.’

Coleridge made great plans for what Godwin should write, and offered advice on what he did write. In 1800, Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy that he and Godwin agreed that ‘the Poet is the Greatest possible character’. In 1801, Godwin embarked on his massive Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in two quarto volumes in 1803. The work’s dual focus may be partly due to Coleridge’s advice ‘to make the Poet explain his Age, & to make the Age both explain the Poet, & evince the superiority of the Poet over his Age’. Godwin set out to portray the life and personality of Chaucer in terms of the totality of influences to which he was subject from birth. But at the same time, he endorsed a view of the ‘master geniuses’ of poetry as ‘seem[ing] to belong to no age, but to be the property of the world’. Coleridge later praised Godwin’s biographical design, which, he declared, ‘has given us if not principles of Aesthetic, or Taste, yet more & better Data for Principles than had hitherto existed in our Language.’

Godwin tried to reciprocate. He supported Coleridge the political journalist by introducing him to prominent public figures. On at least two occasions in the winter of 1799-1800 Coleridge accompanied Godwin to Horne Tooke’s famous dinner parties at Wimbledon, where he met the leading reformist politician, Sir Francis Burdett, among others.

In later years, when Coleridge was writing for the Tory Courier, he asked Godwin to arrange meetings with Henry Grattan and John Philpot Curran (‘the Fox and Sheridan of Ireland’). Yet Coleridge was more interested in their eloquence than their political views. In March 1811, anticipating dinner at Godwin’s with Grattan (‘a red letter day’), he remarked of the latter: ‘all his speeches are attested by that constant accompaniment of true Genius, a certain moral bearing, a moral dignity—His Love of Liberty … has no smatch of the mob in it.’ A few months later, he read the debates of the Irish Parliament in preparation for an evening at Godwin’s with Curran. He declared himself ‘so impressed with the distinction of Irish from English Eloquence, in Flood, Curran, and Grattan compared with Fox, Pitt, and Wyndham’, that he intended to write an essay on the subject. The essay never appeared.

For Godwin, the quality of his interaction with Coleridge arose ‘partly because we have thought a good deal of the same subjects; but not less because we have pursued dissimilar objects, & contemplated the same objects in a dissimilar spirit’. Though they drifted apart in later years, each left a permanent imprint on the mind and the writings of the other.

Pamela Clemit is Professor of English at Durham University and a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford. She is editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford University Press, 2011-), among other things. Volume II: 1798-1805, which includes some of the letters quoted in this piece, appeared in 2014. 
Follow her on Twitter @Godwin_lives.

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