The Book Club

The High Costs of Open Rebellion in Mary Shelley’s England 

Dear Nell,

I thought it was fascinating that Thomas Hardy was the architect in charge of excavating the graveyard in which Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Godwin were buried. For me, all those small, slant, serendipitous connections Seymour mentions help recreate a world—not just the lost physical world of the 19th century, but the social world of British letters, which was and still is so much more closely woven and interconnected than our far-flung and thinly scattered American one. Hardy and Wollstonecraft, two moody self-willed worshippers of the sublime, both self-made strugglers in a class-bound society, both centrally concerned with the situation of women and its connection with modernization—who more appropriate than Hardy to step into that cemetery! It’s almost fate.

On the other hand, you were quite right to call Shelley “Percy,” (odd as it sounds—I don’t think many people called him that in his lifetime)—if Mary is to be “Mary.” I stand corrected! Why should he get the dignity of the shared last name and she, also a famous writer who outlived him for 29 years, be reduced like a child to a first name only? One of my pet peeves, in fact, is biographers who call their female subjects by their first name, something biographers of men rarely do—Dickinson can be “Emily,” but Dickens is never “Charles.”

Like so many male poets, Shelley—that is, Percy—was both cad and catnip to women. (One reviewer compared him to Ted Hughes and described Mary as a proto-Sylvia Plath, in her youthful genius, her depressive tendencies, and her marital woes). On the positive front, he fostered Mary’s intellectual growth, already well on its way when she eloped with him at 16, and gave her a much more exciting life—poetry! Italy! intensity of every kind!—than she would probably otherwise have found. On the negative side, he was flagrantly unfaithful—possibly even with Mary’s half-sister Jane “Claire” Clairmont—and shockingly callous to those he discarded, like his first wife, poor Harriet. Lots of men are rats to women, but usually not with a whole fancy pseudo-radical-feminist-philosophical theoretical justification, such as Percy developed. (He pushed her to sleep with his friend James Hogg, but nothing came of it.) And what made it worse was that since he was the resident genius, Mary came under the special ban of opprobrium reserved for Great Men’s wives, surely the most reviled characters in biography, with the possible exception of Great Men’s mothers. Percy’s male friends and hangers-on disliked her, and their memoirs and literary politicking shaped the standard view of her as cold, shrewish, and unsympathetic to her husband.

What makes all this particularly sad is that Mary herself felt guilty over her marital troubles and as a widow—she was only 25 when Percy drowned while sailing in a storm—devoted herself tirelessly to promoting his work and reputation in the teeth of her father-in-law’s opposition to the publication of his son’s scandalous verses. As you note, some of Mary’s post-Percy conservatism and caution had to do with her precarious position vis-à-vis Sir Timothy Shelley, who set unfair, even degrading conditions on his meager financial help (He forbade her to publish using the Shelley name and suspended her allowance for publishing The Last Man, although it was listed merely as by “the author of Frankenstein.”) He even threatened her with custody loss of her only surviving child, Percy Florence. (The ease with which mothers could lose their children if they led unconventional lives is a continuing thread in Seymour’s book—Byron took Allegra, his daughter with Claire Clairmont, away from her mother and put her in a convent boarding school, where she died.) You asked earlier for my thoughts about the fact that Mary Shelley’s later novels were not as interesting as Frankenstein, and I guess I would say the answer is not so mysterious: Beside the fact that it would be hard to for anyone to reproduce that striking feat of originality (lots of prolific 19th-century novelists are known today for only one book), she was poor, forced into hack work, lonely, depressed, beset with cares, and hampered at every turn by the social and economic limits placed on women of her day.

The post-Percy half of Seymour’s book is the less familiar part of Mary’s story, and I found it fascinating. Although not an outspoken public feminist like her mother, Mary used her money or influence to help a lot of women privately, including the notable lesbian transvestite Mary Diana Dods. She may have had some lesbian feelings herself; after Percy’s death, her most intense relationship (although whether or not it was sexual, Seymour cannot say) was with Jane Williams, whose husband had drowned in the same accident. (Jane repaid Mary’s affections by spreading vicious gossip about her and married Shelley’s friend, James Hogg, after a secret courtship that left Mary feeling totally betrayed.) That the flamboyant and brilliant young Mary Shelley was gradually forced into embracing conventionality as the years went by is a testament to the narrowness of the choices available to her in an England that was itself becoming more reactionary for most of her life; the costs of open rebellion were very, very high—custody loss, ostracism, poverty. A rather surprising number of youthful female free spirits populate these pages, but only the boldest and most ebullient—women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Fanny Wright, Mary’s Utopian socialist friend—could keep it up as the years went by. Mary Shelley did her best to live a life of honor and achievement, and she comes across as a person one would very much like to have known—witty, generous, gifted, and brave.

I really enjoyed this, Nell.

Best wishes,