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—
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
The post-Percy half of
I really enjoyed this, Nell.