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Tag Archives: Mary Shelley

I’m recycling a post from a few years ago about Mary Shelley, whose birthday it is today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on this day in 1797, the daughter of radicals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Well-educated and not particularly happy at home (there was some friction between Mary and her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont), it was only natural that when a handsome young poet showed up, she’d fall in love and run off with him. Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who later had a torrid affair with Byron, accompanied them to Europe.

Shelley already had a wife, Harriet, but these were the heady days of sex, opium, and the sonata form. Godwin, his radical sexual politics put to the test, became estranged from his daughter.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Byron were in Switzerland and it was there, in response to a challenge to tell the best ghost story, Mary started to write Frankenstein. After Shelley’s death in 1822 she returned to England and supported herself as a writer until her death in 1851, penning short stories, essays, poems, and reviews, and several other novels.

I’m not doing justice at all to Mary’s adventurous, unconventional, and sad life, so I encourage you to read a book that does–Passion by Jude Morgan. It’s about the women who became entangled with Byron, Shelley, and Keats, beautifully written, and with a wonderfully strong sense of time and place. It’s also a very sad book–if you know anything at all about these people, you’ll know everything ended badly, particularly for the women.

Have you read this book or any other book, fictional or biographical, about the Godwins, Mary, Shelley, Byron et al? Do you have any recommendations?

In blatant self promotion, you can enter a contest at Goodreads to win a copy of Hidden Paradise, which recently got this wonderful review at Heroes and Heartbreakers. Go for it.

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I’m in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, in a wooded vacation house with three friends, winding up a writing retreat. Great experience. It is amazing how much a person can get done with lots of quiet and no interruptions.

It made me think of another writing retreat that took place in 1816, the year without a summer. That year Percy Bysshe Shelley, his 18 year old mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, joined Lord Byron (by whom Claire was pregnant), and his physician and friend, John William Polidori, at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, for a holiday. The weather, however, was cold and rainy and the party was forced indoors for days at a time, reading ghost stories and discussing galvanism and the possibility of reanimating the dead. Byron issued a challenge. They should each write a ghost story.

Shelley wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story.” Byron abandoned his story but his friend Polidori used it to inspire his short story, “The Vampyre.” And, of course, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

It seems to me this is how writing retreats go. Some people are inspired and very productive (Mary and Polidori) and some make some progress (Shelley) and some get distracted and amuse themselves in other ways (Byron—perhaps amusing himself with Claire).

I fall in the Shelley category. Although I have made good progress on my revisions, I’m not quite through with them.

Have you gone on a working retreat? Writing Retreat or some other kind? How productive was it?

I do have writing news, though. The cover of my October Undone, The Liberation of Miss Finch, is here! And on Aug 23 (tomorrow), Valiant Soldier, Beautiful Enemy should be appearing in bookstores. Check my website tomorrow for more information.

Today’s the birthday of William Godwin, born March 3, 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the son of a nonconformist Calvinist minister, who became a journalist, novelist, publisher, and founder of philosophical anarchism.

He who should make these principles would not rashly insist upon instant abolition of all existing abuses . . . . Truth, however unreserved by the mode of its enunciation, will be sufficiently gradual in is progress. It will be fully comprehended only be slow degrees, by its most assiduous votaries; and the degrees will be still more temperate by which it will pervade so considerable a portion of the community as to render them mature for a change of their common institutions . . . we shall have many reforms, but no revolutions . . . . Revolutions are the produce of passion, not of sober and tranquil reason.

His life is a fascinating mass of contradictions: the radical who didn’t believe in formal institutions married Mary Wollstonecraft when she became pregnant for reasons of propriety; he strongly disapproved of his daughter Mary‘s elopement with the (married) poet Shelley but accepted Shelley’s money; in his old age he accepted a pension from a Tory government.

Throughout his life, Godwin kept a journal, a brief daily listing of people he had meals, conversations, or meetings with, now transcribed and analyzed online courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, The Godwin Project. His meetings with Mary are recorded in code.

Godwin and Mary, UR Getting It Wrong…

After three failed attempts to consummate their attraction, recorded concisely in Godwin’s diary as ”chez moi,” ”chez elle” (twice), victory is finally denoted by ”chez elle toute” — surely one of history’s most succinct sexual success reports.

Wollstonecraft’s diary indicated that while it was not entirely ”toute” for her — not the ”rapture” of Imlay, her only other lover — it was an experience of ”sublime tranquillity.”

Once starting their affair they meticulously practiced the most sophisticated birth control of the day: abstention for three days following menstruation and then frequent sex for the remainder of the month (frequency was thought to lower the possibility of conception.) Bingo! Within a few months Wollstonecraft was pregnant and these two outspoken opponents of marriage, married, though they maintained their separate abodes and their mutual, and separate, circles of acquaintances. Toni Bentley’s review for the New York Times of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon. More.

Here’s the page from Godwin’s diary that records the birth of his daughter on August 30, 1797, in the rather cramped entry added in halfway down the left page: {Birth of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night. Ten days later Mary Wollstonecraft was dead of childbirth complications. An entry on the right page reads: …dying in the evening.

I’ll recommend once again Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel Passion about Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and Shelley and Byron and the women who were their lovers and victims.

I’m fascinated by the story of Wollstonecraft and Godwin and the fact that she’s still an icon of feminism whereas he’s pretty much sunk into obscurity. Have you read any of his works? Here’s a bibliography. I’m tempted to try his novel, if only for the reason that anyone Mary Wollstonecraft loved has to be okay.

What do you think? Who are your favorite couples, fictional or historical, where the women outshine their men?

And in self-promoting news (you knew it had to be coming) check out the great review for Mr. Bishop and the Actress at Dear Author. Pam Rosenthal will be holding a contest to win copies of both Mr. Bishop and the Actress and Improper Relations starting tomorrow.

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