The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
One of the most positive results of the women’s movement of the past two decades has been the rediscovery of talented women writers whose works have been largely ignored. Mary Shelley is one of these. Her name has never, of course, vanished altogether from the literary scene; her position as the wife of one of England’s greatest Romantic poets has provided her with at least vicarious immortality, and her own best-known creation, Frankenstein’s monster, has become a part of popular folklore, although it is rarely associated with the name of its creator. Betty T. Bennett’s new, definitive edition of Mary Shelley’s letters, however, and its excellent and appreciative introductory essay should do much to establish her as a writer worthy of much greater recognition for her own accomplishments than she has heretofore received.
This volume, the first of a projected three-volume edition, contains 396 letters, approximately eighty of them previously unpublished. They were written between 1814, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, seventeen, eloped with the twenty-three-year-old married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and August, 1827, the month of her thirtieth birthday. The letters, fully but unobtrusively annotated by the editor, record the Shelley’s trip to the Continent in 1816, their debt-plagued months in England, Harriet Shelley’s suicide and their subsequent marriage, their move to Italy, the births of four children and the deaths of three of them, Mary’s near-fatal miscarriage, Shelley’s drowning in a boating accident, and, finally, Mary’s struggle to make a life for herself and procure an income to raise her one surviving child, Percy Florence.
Considerable interest naturally falls on what she has to say about her circle of friends, the “Elect” referred to in the subtitle. This group included many of the best-known figures of the Romantic period: Lord Byron and his mistresses Claire Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister) and Countess Teresa Guiccioli, Leigh and Marianne Hunt, Charles and Mary Lamb, William Hazlitt, Greek patriot Alexander Mavrocordato, and American writers Washington Irving and John Howard Payne. The letters are, indeed, filled with fascinating literary gossip, but, more important, they show Mary herself in a much more sympathetic way than she has generally been seen in biographies of her husband. Especially important to a fuller understanding of her are the newly published letters to Jane Williams Hogg. Jane and her husband Edward Williams shared a house near Pisa with the Shelleys for several months in 1822, and the two men died together in a storm at sea in July of that year. The young widows remained intimate friends until almost the end of the period covered by this volume, and Mary poured out her deepest feelings in her letters to Jane.
There will be some disappointment that Mary’s letters do not reveal more about Shelley. Although he is mentioned in most of them, he remains a rather shadowy figure. Several factors may account for this vagueness. First, Mary completely idealized him after his death, writing of “my Lost One,” a creature of “wondrous excellencies” pursued by a “strange fate.” She berated herself, although not as severely as some Shelley partisans have criticized her, for “not making my S.—so happy as he deserved to be.” Second, the couple were rarely separated after 1817, and the twenty-five surviving letters from her to him date chiefly from the years 1814-1817, when her attention was focused principally on domestic details, their precarious finances, the health of Shelley and their babies, and the tangled affairs of Claire Clairmont and Allegra, her child by Lord Byron. Third, perhaps anticipating the attention that was to be paid to her husband in the future, Mary was guarded about their relationship in both her letters and her journals. It is, however, refreshing to see glimpses of the famous poet as husband and father, not too ethereal to be instructed at the beginning of a letter to purchase a new hat for his small son and then to be told two pages later, “Perhaps you had better not get William’s hat as it may not fit him or please me.”
The letters show clearly the intellectual ties that bound Mary and Shelley. She shared his passionate involvement in English political issues, and they undertook formidable studies in Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Italian literature together. While there are no extended discussions of their creative pursuits, scattered brief references to the progress of his work and hers make it clear that they were closely in touch with each other’s writing. There is little in her letters to suggest the estrangement between them that others have reported. If her depression over the loss of two children within a year and her understandable preoccupation with the baby born shortly afterwards left her unable to meet Shelley’s emotional needs, she was apparently unaware of the problem at the time. The depth of her grief at his death, extravagantly expressed in letters to a number of friends, suggests that for her, if not for him, their relationship was still an unbroken one.
If Mary’s loyalty and reserve kept her from discussing Shelley’s feelings and actions as candidly as a modern reader would like, they did not prevent her from being frank about her own emotions, and she herself comes vividly to life and grows from page to page. Her earliest extant letters introduce her as a coquettish passionate adolescent. She plaintively lamented Shelley’s absence when he was hiding from his creditors in 1814 and wrote flirtatiously to her lover’s friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, with whom Shelley...
(The entire section is 2311 words.)