Death and the Maidens

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Fanny Wollstonecraft had a short and difficult life. She was the outsider in the household in which she grew up, alternately neglected and abused. Relatively little is known about her in relation to all the others around her, but the biographical details Janet Todd provides in Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle suggest that perhaps the only wonder is that she did not commit suicide even before she did at age twenty-two. Even in death, she was rejected and abandoned, and her body was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave somewhere in Wales.

Fanny Wollstonecraft was born in France in 1794, the daughter of the well-known English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, most famous for what is considered the first book-length exploration of feminist issues, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft named her baby after her closest friend, Fanny Blood, whom Wollstonecraft had been with when she died in childbirth. Fanny’s father was Gilbert Imlay, and although Fanny’s birth registration listed her as Françoise Imlay, her parents were never married. Wollstonecraft generally considered marriage a form of slavery for women, but the man she had fallen in love with, the unscrupulous American Imlay, was not interested in marrying her anyway, and he provided no support for her or their child despite her many pleas for his affection and responsibility. Twice, in 1795 and again in 1796, Wollstonecraft tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide in despondence over Imlay’s unfaithfulness and desertion. It was an inauspicious beginning for little Fanny, and her future life proved equally ill-fated.

Fanny contracted smallpox as a young child and was badly scarred. Unlike her mother’s close relationship with Fanny’s namesake, Fanny would never have the opportunity or time to have a friend at all. She would be destined to be surrounded by those who did not consider her worthy of their attention unless they wanted her to do something for them; they did not include Fanny in their activities, though she longed to be included.

In an effort to make money to provide for herself and her baby, Wollstonecraft turned the letters she had written about her travels to Scandinavia when Fanny was an infant into a published work. Todd considers this book, the last one completed before Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797, to be Wollstonecraft’s most appealing work. Ironically, however, the popular book created a romanticized life that later no one, including Fanny herself, felt that Fanny could live up to. One of the most poignant aspects of Fanny’s biography is her repeated readings of Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Fanny was presumably desperate to find her mother and to believe she was loved, yet with all of these rereadings of the book that included her, Fanny was simultaneously internalizing the belief, augmented by those who knew her, that she was not only incapable of living up to her mother’s talent and fame but also incapable of living up to the image of that little baby Fanny in the book.

Todd provides a genealogical table of the main characters in the drama that surrounded Fanny, and it is well that she does, because the connections are not simple. After Gilbert Imlay was finally out of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, Mary thought she had found someone who shared her liberal view in the philosopher William Godwin, who at the time was the well-known writer of the novel Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and a radical treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), although in a second edition of the book two years later Godwin recanted many of his previous radical beliefs. Mary became pregnant before she married Godwin, but they were married March 29, 1797, before their daughter, named Mary, was born on August 30. Mary Wollstonecraft died on September 10 as a result of complications during childbirth. At the time, Fanny was three years old.

William Godwin hastened to find someone to marry and raise the new baby and her half sister Fanny. The first woman who agreed was Mary Jane Vial (also known as Clairmont), who brought to the household a son, Charles Clairmont,...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2007, p. 14.

Entertainment Weekly, nos. 959/960 (October 19, 2007): 133.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 15 (August 1, 2007): 779.

Library Journal 132, no. 17 (October 15, 2007): 68.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 30 (July 30, 2007): 68.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 2007, p. 27.