Mary Shelley Dramaturgy II: A Family Portrait Continued / by Logan Berry

Originally posted on October 23, 2016

by Malvika Jolly

For the upcoming week, Mary Shelley dramaturge Malvika Jolly will be guest posting here with all manner of dramaturgical research and documentation that goes into bringing our play to life! Here you will find short essays, photos & video from the rehearsal process, and other tasty tidbits to help us flesh out the social, political, and performative landscapes of “Mary Shelley Sees the Future”. This is part two in the series.

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Here is an introduction— a family portrait— of the Wollstonecraft sisters and their progenitors. In our last post we covered Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft; today we will tackle polymath William Godwin and his eldest step-daughter Fanny Wollstonecraft… Buckle up!

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~    W I L L I A M         G O D W I N ~

William Godwin was, in many ways, the child of the French Enlightenment, drawing many of his most fundamental ideals from the rationalists of the movement. He was a historian, an essayist, and a novelist (and for a period in his second marriage he co-wrote many a children’s primer on biblical stories), and had a lasting impact on British literature and literary culture. He wrote what is widely seen to be the first mystery novel or thriller (Things As They Are; Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams which, moreover, is a scathing attack on the aristocracy and systems of privilege). He is best known for his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which is a text of political philosophy published during the French Revolution and outlines a kind of non-violent anarchistic society… an idea that 20th century sociologist and critical theorist Habermas picked up and adapted into his own work. It was this text which made him so popular and so cherished by the Romantic Poets (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and so on)

After the death of his wife, he chose to publish a very tell-all biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, titled Memoirs of The Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which definitely takes the prize for the longest book-title. In his book, he revealed all sorts of things about Mary Wollstonecraft, including the details of her two suicide attempts, all of her lovers before their marriage (including Gilbert Imlay, father of her now-outed illegitimate child Fanny!), and so on. This book completely killed his reputation, and he lived out the next decades as a recluse, hiding under the weight of his reputation.

Two or three years later, Godwin left young Mary and Fanny under the supervision of his friend and playwright James Marshall and traveled to Ireland. I’m not sure how long he was gone for— in some places it is described as only a summer, and in others it appears to be much longer… It is interesting to note that in her semi-autobiographical novella Mathilda, Mary Shelley describes the protagonist’s father leaving her in the care of a friend as he embarks on a trip (and writing her the same indulgently sweet letters Godwin wrote to his daughters) and not returning until she is well into her adolescence!

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~   F A N N Y       I M L A Y ~

I could not find a reliable portrait of Fanny— to be honest, she was kind of a lifelong forgotten child, and it is not unlikely that there may have never been a portrait of her made. In place of an image of her, I’ve included this copy of a letter she wrote to her sister Mary and brother-in-law Percy Shelley in 1816, after they ran away to the sunshine and bohemian idylls of “The Continent”. On this escapade, the pair took along the 16-year old youngest Godwin sister Claire, but neglected to invite Fanny, leaving her behind at home to deal with the very dysfunctional and complicated household they had escaped. In this letter she is writing from Godwin’s home in London. He has permitted her to write in the margins and unused spaces of his own (rather bad-tempered) letter to Percy Shelley. Doesn’t that just paint a portrait, of her very soft and tragic life?

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Fanny Imlay is the textbook definition of a life in the margins. Or, perhaps, for the crisis of identity that comes from being put in the corner your whole life? At various points in her life she also went by the names “Fanny Wollstonecraft” and “Fanny Godwin”. Though she and Mary Wollstonecraft lived very happily together with Fanny’s biological father Gilbert Imlay— and, in fact, to protect Mary Wollstonecraft in France at the time, he claimed that he had filed them for marriage and that they were lawfully husband and wife, an illusion of propriety that fell apart very quickly— he did leave both of them (dishonored woman and illegitimate infant) alone and impoverished, in the midst of the French Revolution.

After the Scandinavian trip she went along on during infancy, Fanny was returned to London. Soon after, Mary Wollstonecraft fell in love with William Godwin and, marrying him, brought three-year-old Fanny into the family they build together.

After the death of her mother, Godwin had his publisher contact Fanny’s biological father Gilbert Imlay, seeking out the next guardian in whose hands he could put the now orphaned child. However, he was unable to find a home for her, and so Fanny was left under the care of the rather unfeeling Godwin— and his new wife Mary Jane Clairmont, who resented Godwin’s children from his previous marriage. The Godwin household during this era has been described as a kind of house on fire, becoming an increasingly uncomfortable and tense place to live.

The fact that both her sisters ran away— and chose to leave her behind!— was an enormous wound to Fanny. Her exclusion from their “summer of love” was made only worse, I’m sure, by the fact that Fanny— not Mary— was the first love interest Percy Shelley had in the Wollstonecraft sisters! Being passed over not only by her suitor (who eventually moved on to her middle sister Mary) but also by her biological sister Mary, who chose not to bring her along but did choose to invite their youngest (and not even related to them!) sister Claire was only salt in the wound. My goodness!

In the rather pathetic letter above, wherein Fanny writes to her sister and now brother-in-law in the margins of Godwin’s letter, she pleads— and then tucks her pleading into the polite affections of a doting aunty:

“I endeavor to be as frank to you as possible that you may understand my real character. I understand from Mamma [Mary Jane Clairmont] that I am your laughing stock— and the constant beacon of your your riposte satire. I am very glad to hear that little William is so very much improved. Kiss him again & again for me.”

During her Scandinavian tour, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her infant daughter: “I dread lest she be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or her principles to her heart”, describing exactly the double-bind “predicament of the 19th century woman without means”.

At the age of 22, she took her cue from her deceased mother and successfully committed suicide by drinking laudanum.

After her death, Percy Shelley wrote the following poem titled “On Fanny Godwin” in her honor:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,

Yet knew I not that heart was broken

From which it came, and I departed

Heeding not the words then spoken.

Misery—O Misery,

This world is too wide for thee.

And— ever the pragmatist— William Godwin writes Mary Shelley this letter urging her to say nothing to anyone of her sister’s death, in order to avoid scandal.

(1816, Source: The Bodleian Library)

(1816, Source: The Bodleian Library)

His opening line: “I did indeed expect it.”


Malvika Jolly loves all things gender-bending, time-warped, & body-swapped. She tweets @dinnertheatrics