The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

by Mary Shelley
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The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2311

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...

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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volume, the first of a projected three-volume edition, contains 396 letters, approximately eighty of them previously unpublished.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 apparently suggested she share her favors. She matured rapidly under the stress of parental disapproval, social ostracism, constant debt, and the death of her first daughter, born prematurely in February, 1815. At twenty she wrote a friend, “I, you know, am an old woman,” and she does by this time sound like a settled matron. The years with Shelley were undoubtedly the richest and most exciting of her life, but they were never free from anxiety. Only toward the end of the period covered here, when she was resettled in England regularly writing for publication and receiving (after long and painful negotiations) a modest allowance from her father-in-law, do her letters show fully the warm, intelligent, witty individual she was always capable of becoming.

Many of the problems that beset Mary Shelley—poverty, illness, death—were beyond her control, but much of the unhappiness described in her letters arose out of her relationships. Although she often appeared cold, reserved, and detached, her correspondence suggests that she was an intensely emotional person who craved uncritical affection and acceptance. Her friends and relatives had great power to hurt her, and they frequently did. Her father, William Godwin, whom she almost worshiped during her childhood, caused her continual pain during her marriage with his endless peremptory demands for money. It was Shelley’s admiration for Godwin that had brought about his meeting with Mary, and the young poet was already providing Godwin with money before their elopement. Godwin strongly opposed their union but continued to act as if Shelley had a moral obligation to support him. His demands were so distressing to Mary that in the period following the children’s deaths Shelley would not even show her Godwin’s letters if he felt they would upset her. The relationship between father and daughter was not fully restored until Mary returned to England after Shelley’s death.

Relations were also strained between Mary and other members of the loosely connected Godwin family. Her own mother, the distinguished feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, had died when Mary was born, and she detested her father’s second wife, who had introduced into the household her own two children, Charles and Mary Jane, later Claire Clairmont. Charles occasionally asked the Shelleys for money but otherwise interfered little in their lives; Claire, however, was a vexatious but inextricable part of Mary’s existence from the time their parents married. Mary frequently complained of Claire to Shelley and their mutual acquaintances, yet she permitted her to live with them for much of their married life, she saw her through the many crises of Allegra’s brief life, and she continued to worry about her welfare even after Claire had gone to Moscow as a governess in 1823. There has been gossip through the years that Claire was Shelley’s mistress as well as Byron’s, but this is one of the few complaints Mary did not make against her.

Mary looked to friends for the affection she did not find in her family, but even the closest friendships recorded in this volume were tarnished from time to time. Maria Gisborne, a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, became a surrogate mother for the Shelleys when they moved to Italy; almost a quarter of the letters printed here were addressed to her and her husband John. Mary wrote her about her domestic concerns, her children’s progress, and Shelley’s health, as well as about their reading and English politics. Maria Gisborne undertook endless commissions at Mary’s request, forwarding letters and packages, purchasing clothing, and making inquires about servants, without ever suggesting that she felt burdened by the Shelley’s demands. Yet, when the Gisbornes returned from a trip to England in 1820, Mary felt that they insulted her by refusing to visit right away, and she kept a hostile distance between the two families for several months. The causes of the quarrel are not entirely clear in the letters or in Bennett’s usually informative notes; the disagreement seems to have been connected in some way with the Gisbornes’ meeting with the Godwins in London.

Mary’s friendships with Lord Byron, Jane Williams, and Leigh and Marianne Hunt followed the same pattern of intimacy and disillusionment. She may simply have been unlucky in her choice of confidants, but the letters show that she made considerable demands, both practical and emotional, on them, and she required absolute loyalty to herself and her husband. She wrote gratefully and respectfully to Byron, who provided considerable assistance to her in the months immediately following Shelley’s death, but after he rescinded, or threatened to rescind, his offer to provide funds for her return to England with her son, she wrote Jane of his “unconquerable avarice” and recoiled in a fit of hurt pride that temporarily blotted out any memory of his former services to her. She was, however, able to put aside personal resentment to pay tribute to him after his death in Greece in 1824.

The most painful betrayal was that of Jane Williams, who committed the unpardonable sin of speaking disparagingly to others of Mary’s treatment of Shelley during the time the two couples lived together in Italy. There is no such clear reason for the loosening of ties with the Hunts, to whom she wrote a number of the most delightful of her letters in 1823. Perhaps the pressures of supporting their large family simply left them little time for the kind of intense friendship Mary seems to have needed in the early years of her widowhood. Her efforts to improve their financial situation through negotiations with Hunt’s brother John, reported at some length in her letters, may also have exacerbated existing tensions.

Mary did manage to sustain one comfortable friendship over a number of years; her relationship with American playwright John Howard Payne, whom she met in 1824, was distant enough to prevent the emotional upheavals of earlier connections but close enough to permit her to enjoy his company and write easily and often of her activities and her work, providing readers with an excellent picture of her life in London and its environs.

She made new friends among musicians and writers, indulged her interest in the opera and the theater, and dedicated her energies to preserving her husband’s literary reputation and establishing a minor one of her own. As she wrote on many occasions, she found her greatest consolation in her studies, and she was justifiably confident in her ability to support herself and young Percy at least modestly by her pen. She did not discuss her literary efforts at length with her correspondents, but her letters indicate both the care with which she researched the background for her novels and essays and the competence with which she handled their publication. Her attitude toward her work was pragmatic and modest, quite different from the reverence with which she regarded Shelley’s achievements. She wrote to Payne of The Last Man, generally considered one of the most interesting of her novels,If I had at the commencement fore seen the excessive trouble & then (much worse) the state of imperfection in which partly for want of time I was obliged to leave it—I should never have had the courage to begin. Here and there you will find some things to like, but your critical taste will be hurt by it as an whole.

Viewed together, Mary Shelley’s letters demonstrate the range of her concerns and the versatility of her prose style. One letter might include a description of the customs in an Italian town, a critical comment on the poetry of Ariosto, a report of Shelley’s progress with The Cenci, a paragraph of gossip, and a list of half a dozen household items to be purchased for her. She could be kittenish with her youthful admirers, quintessentially romantic in her description of remote mountain passes, businesslike in her dealings with publishers and lawyers, maudlin in her grief for Shelley, imperious in her demands for favors from friends, playful in her interchanges with the Hunts and Payne. The same talent for drawing people and places that made her a successful novelist enlivens her correspondence with the result that the letters, skillfully linked by Bennett’s commentary, form a connected narrative that is as fascinating as a good novel.

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