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BY LUCY MADOX ROSSETTI.
I have to thank all the previous students of Shelley as poet and
man - not last nor least among whom is my husband - for their loving and
truthful research on all the subjects surrounding the life of Mrs.
Shelley. Every aspect has been presented, and of known material it
only remained to compare, sift, and use with judgment. Concerning
facts subsequent to Shelley's death, many valuable papers have been
placed at my service, and I have made no new statement which there are
not existing documents to vouch for.
This book was in the publishers' hands before the appearance of Mrs.
Marshall's _Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley_, and I have had
neither to omit, add to, nor alter anything in this work, in
consequence of the publication of hers. The passages from letters of
elseif (getClientWidth() > 430)
Mrs. Shelley to Mr. Trelawny were kindly placed at my disposal by his
son-in-law and daughter, Colonel and Mrs. Call, as early as the summer
Among authorities used are Prof. Dowden's _Life of Shelley_, Mr.
W. M. Rossetti's _Memoir_ and other writings, Mr. Jeaffreson's
_Real Shelley,_ Mr. Kegan Paul's _Life of William Godwin_,
Godwin's _Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft_, Mrs. Pennell's
_Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin_, &c. &c.
Among those to whom my special thanks are due for original information
and the use of documents, &c., are, foremost, Mr. H. Buxton Forman,
Mr. Cordy Jeaffreson, Mrs. Call, Mr. Alexander Ireland, Mr. Charles C.
Pilfold, Mr. J. H. Ingram, Mrs. Cox, and Mr. Silsbee, and, for
friendly counsel, Prof. Dowden; and I must particularly thank Lady
Shelley for conveying to me her husband's courteous message and
permission to use passages of letters by Mrs. Shelley, interspersed in
LUCY MADOX ROSSETTI.
CHAPTER I. PARENTAGE.
CHAPTER II. GIRLHOOD OF MARY - PATERNAL TROUBLES.
CHAPTER III. SHELLEY.
CHAPTER IV. MARY AND SHELLEY.
CHAPTER V. LIFE IN ENGLAND.
CHAPTER VI. DEATH OF SHELLEY'S GRANDFATHER, AND BIRTH OF A CHILD.
CHAPTER VII. "FRANKENSTEIN".
CHAPTER VIII. RETURN TO ENGLAND.
CHAPTER IX. LIFE IN ITALY.
CHAPTER X. MARY'S DESPONDENCY AND BIRTH OF A SON.
CHAPTER XI. GODWIN AND "VALPERGA".
CHAPTER XII. LAST MONTHS WITH SHELLEY.
CHAPTER XIII. WIDOWHOOD.
CHAPTER XIV. LITERARY WORK.
CHAPTER XV. LATER WORKS.
CHAPTER XVI. ITALY REVISITED.
CHAPTER XVII. LAST YEARS.
The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin, the wife of Shelley:
here, surely, is eminence by position, for those who care for the
progress of humanity and the intellectual development of the race.
Whether this combination conferred eminence on the daughter and wife
as an individual is what we have to enquire. Born as she was at a time
of great social and political disturbance, the child, by inheritance,
of the great French Revolution, and suffering, as soon as born, a loss
certainly in her case the greatest of all, that of her noble-minded
mother, we can imagine the kind of education this young being passed
through - with the abstracted and anxious philosopher-father, with the
respectable but shallow-minded step-mother provided by Godwin to guard
the young children he so suddenly found himself called upon to care
for, Mary and two half-sisters about her own age. How the volumes of
philosophic writings, too subtle for her childish experience, would be
pored over; how the writings of the mother whose loving care she never
knew, whose sad experiences and advice she never heard, would be read
and re-read. We can imagine how these writings, and the discourses she
doubtless frequently heard, as a child, between her father and his
friends, must have impressed Mary more forcibly than the respectable
precepts laid down in a weak way for her guidance; how all this
prepared her to admire what was noble and advanced in idea, without
giving her the ballast needful for acting in the fittest way when a
time of temptation came, when Shelley appeared. He appeared as the
devoted admirer of her father and his philosophy, and as such was
admitted into the family intimacy of three inexperienced girls.
Picture these four young imaginative beings together; Shelley,
half-crazed between youthful imagination and vague ideas of
regenerating mankind, and ready at any incentive to feel himself freed
from his part in the marriage ceremony. What prudent parents would
have countenanced such a visitor? And need there be much surprise at
the subsequent occurrences, and much discussion as to the right or
wrong in the case? How the actors in this drama played their
subsequent part on the stage of life; whether they did work which
fitted them to be considered worthy human beings remains to be
* * * * *
As no story or life begins with itself, so, more especially with this
of our heroine, we must recall the past, and at least know something
of her parents.
Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most remarkable and misunderstood
women of even her remarkable day, was born in April 1759, in or near
London, of parents of whose ancestors little is known. Her father, son
of a Spitalfields manufacturer, possessed an adequate fortune for his
position; her mother was of Irish family. They had six children, of
whom Mary was the second. Family misery, in her case as in many, seems
to have been the fountainhead of her genius. Her father, a
hot-tempered, dissipated man, unable to settle anywhere or to
anything, naturally proved a domestic tyrant. Her mother seems little
to have understood her daughter's disposition, and to have been
extremely harsh, harassed no doubt by the behaviour of her husband,
who frequently used personal violence on her as well as on his
children; this, doubtless, under the influence of drink.
Such being the childhood of Mary Wollstonecraft, it can be understood
how she early learnt to feel fierce indignation at the injustice to,
and the wrongs of women, for whom there was little protection against
such domestic tyranny. Picture her sheltering her little sisters and
brother from the brutal wrath of a man whom no law restricted, and can
her repugnance to the laws made by men on these subjects be wondered
at? Only too rarely do the victims of such treatment rise to be
eloquent of their wrongs.
The frequent removals of her family left little chance of forming
friendships for the sad little Mary; but she can scarcely have been
exactly lonely with her small sisters and brothers, possibly a little
more positive loneliness or quiet would have been desirable. As she
grew older her father's passions increased, and often did she boldly
interpose to shield her mother from his drunken wrath, or waited
outside her room for the morning to break. So her childhood passed
into girlhood, her senses numbed by misery, till she had the good
fortune to make the acquaintance of a Mr. and Mrs. Clare, a clergyman
and his wife, who were kind to the friendless girl and soon found her
to have undeveloped good qualities. She spent much time with them, and
it was they who introduced her to Fanny Blood, whose friendship
henceforth proved one of the chief influences of her life; this it was
that first roused her intellectual faculty, and, with the gratitude of
a fine nature, she never after forgot where she first tasted the
delight of the fountain which transmutes even misery into the source
of work and poetry.
Here, again, Mary found the story of a home that might have been
ruined by a dissipated father, had it not been for the cheerful
devotion of this daughter Fanny, who kept the family chiefly by her
work, painting, and brought up her young brothers and sisters with
care. A bright and happy example at this moment to stimulate Mary, and
raise her from the absorbing and hopeless contemplation of her own
troubles; she then, at sixteen, resolved to work so as to educate
herself to undertake all that might and would fall on her as the stay
of her family. Fresh wanderings of the restless father ensued, and
finally she decided to accept a situation as lady's companion; this
her hard previous life made a position of comparative ease to her,
and, although all the former companions had left the lady in despair,
she remained two years with her till her mother's illness required her
presence at home. Mrs. Wollstonecraft's hard life had broken her
constitution, and in death she procured her first longed-for rest from
sorrow and toil, counselling her daughters to patience. Deprived of
the mother, the daughters could no longer remain with their father;
and Mary, at eighteen, had again to seek her fortune in a hard
world - Fanny Blood being, as ever, her best friend. One of her sisters
became housekeeper to her brother; and Eliza married, but by no means
improved her position by this, for her marriage proved another unhappy
one, and only added to Mary's sad observation of the marriage state. A
little later she had to help this sister to escape from a life which
had driven her to madness. When her sister's peace of mind was
restored, they were enabled to open a school together at Stoke
Newington Green, for a time with success; but failure and despondency
followed, and Mary, whose health was broken, accepted a pressing
invitation from her friend Fanny, who had married a Mr. Skeys, to go
and stay with her at Lisbon, and nurse her through her approaching
confinement. This sad visit - for during her stay there she lost her
dearly loved friend - broke the monotony of her life, and perhaps the
change, with sea voyage which was beneficial to her health, helped her
anew to fight the battle of life on her return. But fresh troubles
assailed her. Some friend suggested to her to try literature, and a
pamphlet, _Thoughts on the Education of Daughters_, was her first
attempt. For this she received ten guineas, with which she was able to
help her friends the Bloods.
She shortly afterwards accepted a situation as governess in Lord
Kingsborough's family, where she was much loved by her pupils; but
their mother, who did little to gain their affection herself, becoming
jealous of the ascendency of Mary over them, found some pretext for
dismissing her. Mary's contact, while in this house, with people of
fashion inspired her only with contempt for their small pleasures and
utterly unintellectual discourse. These surroundings, although she was
treated much on a footing of equality by the family, were a severe
privation for Mary, who was anxious to develop her mind, and to whom
spiritual needs were ever above physical.
On leaving the Kingsboroughs, Mary found work of a kind more congenial
to her disposition, as Mr. Johnson, the bookseller in St. Paul's
Churchyard who had taken her pamphlet, now gave her regular work as
his "reader," and also in translating. Now began the happiest part of
Mary's life. In the midst of books she soon formed a circle of
admiring friends. She lived in the simplest way, in a room almost bare
of furniture, in Blackfriars. Here she was able to see after her
sisters and to have with her her young brother, who had been much
neglected; and in the intervals of her necessary work she began
writing on the subjects which lay nearest to her heart; for here,
among other work, she commenced her celebrated _Vindication of the
Rights of Woman_, a work for which women ought always to be
grateful to her, for with this began in England the movement which,
progressing amidst much obloquy and denunciation, has led to so many
of the reforms in social life which have come, and may be expected to
lead to many which we still hope for. When we think of the nonsense
which has been talked both in and out of Parliament, even within the
last decade, about the advanced women who have worked to improve the
position of their less fortunate sisters, we can well understand in
what light Mary Wollstonecraft was regarded by many whom fortunately
she was not bound to consider. Her reading, which had been deep and
constant, together with her knowledge of life from different points of
view, enabled her to form just opinions on many of the great reforms
needed, and these she unhesitatingly set down. How much has since been
done which she advocated for the education of women, and how much they
have already benefited both by her example and precept, is perhaps not
yet generally enough known. Her religious tone is always striking; it
was one of the moving factors of her life, as with all seriously
thinking beings, though its form became much modified with the advance
in her intellectual development.
Her scheme in the _Vindication of the Rights of Woman_ may be
summed up thus: -
She wished women to have education equal to that of men, and this has
now to a great extent been accorded.
That trades, professions, and other pursuits should be open to women.
This wish is now in progress of fulfilment.
That married women should own their own property as in other European
countries. Recent laws have granted this right.
That they should have more facilities for divorce from husbands guilty
of immoral conduct. This has been partially granted, though much still
remains to be effected.
That, in the case of separation, the custody of children should belong
equally to both parents.
That a man should be legally responsible for his illegitimate
children. That he should be bound to maintain the woman he has
Mary Wollstonecraft also thought that women should have
representatives in Parliament to uphold their interests; but her chief
desires are in the matter of education. Unlike Rousseau, she would
have all children educated together till nine years of age; like
Rousseau, she would have them meet for play in a common play-ground.
At nine years their capacities might be sufficiently developed to
judge which branch of education would be then desirable for each;
girls and boys being still educated together, and capacity being the
only line of demarcation.
Thus it will be seen that Mary's primary wish was to make women
responsible and sensible companions for men; to raise them from the
beings they were made by the frivolous fashionable education of the
time; to make them fit mothers to educate or superintend the education
of their children, for education does not end or begin with what may
he taught in schools. To make a woman a reasoning being, by means of
Euclid if necessary, need not preclude her from being a charming woman
also, as proved by the descriptions we have of Mary Wollstonecraft
herself. Doubtless some of the most crying evils of civilisation can
only be cured by raising the intellectual and moral status of woman,
and thus raising that of man also, so that he, regarding her as a
companion whose mind reflects the beauties of nature, and who can
appreciate the great reflex of nature as transmitted through the human
mind in the glorious art of the world, may really be raised to the
ideal state where the sacrilege of love will be unknown. We know that
this great desire must have passed through Mary Wollstonecraft's mind
and prompted her to her eloquent appeal for the "vindication of the
rights of woman."
With Mary's improved prospects, for she fortunately lived in a time
when the strong emotions and realities of life brought many
influential people admiringly around her, she was able to pay a visit
to Paris in 1792. No one can doubt her interest in the terrible drama
there being enacted, and her courage was equal to the occasion; but
even this journey is brought up in disparagement of her, and this
partly owing to Godwin's naïve remark in his diary, that "there is no
reason to doubt that if Fuseli had been disengaged at the period of
their acquaintance he would have been the man of her choice." As the
little _if_ is a very powerful word, of course this amounts to
nothing, and it is scarcely the province of a biographer to say what
might have taken place under other circumstances, and to criticise a
character from that standpoint. If Mary was attracted by Fuseli's
genius, and this would not have been surprising, and if she went to
Paris for change of scene and thought, she certainly only set a
sensible example. As it was, she had ample matter of interest in the
stirring scenes around her - she with a heart to feel the woes of all:
the miseries however real and terrible of the prince did not blind her
to those of the peasant; the cold and calculating torture of centuries
was not to be passed over because a maddened people, having gained for
a time the right of power by might, brought to judgment the
representatives, even then vacillating and treacherous, of ages of
oppression. Her heart bled for all, but most for the longest
suffering; and she was struck senseless to the ground by the news of
the execution of the "twenty-one," the brave Girondins. Would that
another woman, even greater than herself, had been untrammelled by her
sex, and could have wielded at first hand the power she had to
exercise through others; and might not France have been thus again
saved by a Joan of Arc - not only France, but the Revolution in all its
purity of idea, not in its horror.
In France, too, the women's question had been mooted; Condorcet having
written that one of the greatest steps of progress of the human
intellect would be the freedom from prejudice that would give equality
of right to both sexes: and the _Requête des Dames à l'Assemblée
Nationale_ 1791, was made simultaneously with the appearance of
Mary Wollstonecraft's _Vindication of the Rights of Woman_. These
were strong reasons to attract Mary to France, strange as the time was
for such a journey; but even then her book was translated and read
both in France and Germany. So here was Mary settled for a time, the
English scarcely having realised the turmoil that existed. She arrived
just before the execution of Louis XVI., and with a few friends was
able to study the spirit of the time, and begin a work on the subject,
which, unfortunately, never reached more than its first volume. Her
account, in a letter to Mr. Johnson, shows how acutely she felt in her
solitude on the day of the King's execution; how, for the first time
in her life, at night she dared not extinguish her candle. In fact,
the faculty of feeling for others so acutely as to gain courage to
uphold reform, does not necessarily evince a lack of sensitiveness on
the part of the individual, as seems often to be supposed, but the
very reverse. We can well imagine how Mary felt the need of sympathy
and support, separated as she was from her friends and from her
country, which was now at war with France. Alone at Neuilly, where she
had to seek shelter both for economy and safety, with no means of
returning to England, and unable to go to Switzerland through her
inability to procure a passport, her money dwindling, still she
managed to continue her literary work; and as well as some letters on
the subject of the Revolution, she wrote at Neuilly all that was ever
finished of her _Historical and Moral View of the French
Revolution_. Her only servant at this time was an old gardener, who
used to attend her on her rambles through the woods, and more than
once as far as Paris. On one of these occasions she was so sickened
with horror at the evidence of recent executions which she saw in the
streets that she began boldly denouncing the perpetrators of such
savagery, and had to be hurried away for her life by some sympathetic
onlookers. It was during this time of terror around and depression
within that Mary met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American, at the house
of a mutual friend.
Now began the complication of reasons and deeds which caused bitter
grief in not only one generation. Mary was prompted by loneliness,
love, and danger on all hands. There was risk in proclaiming herself
an English subject by marriage, if indeed there was at the time the
possibility of such a marriage as would have been valid in England,
though, as the wife of an American citizen, she was safe. Thus, at a
time when all laws were defied, she took the fatal step of trusting in
Imlay's honour and constancy; and, confident of her own pure motives,
entered into a union which her letters to him, full of love,
tenderness, and fidelity, proved that she regarded as a sacred
marriage; all the circumstances, and, not least, the pathetic way she
writes to him of their child later on, prove how she only wished to
remain faithful to him. It was now that the sad experiences of her
early life told upon her and warped her better judgment; she who had
seen so much of the misery of married life when love was dead,
regarded that side, not considering the sacred relationship, the right
side of marriage, which she came to understand later - too late, alas!
So passed this _année terrible_, and with it Mary's short-lived
happiness with Imlay, for before the end we find her writing,
evidently saddened by his repeated absences. She followed him to
Havre, where, in April, their child Fanny was born, and for a while
happiness was restored, and Mary lived in comfort with him, her time
fully occupied between work and love for Imlay and their child; but
this period was short, for in August he was called to Paris on
business. She followed him, but another journey of his to England only
finished the separation. Work of some sort having been ever her one
resource, she started for Norway with Fanny and a maid, furnished with
a letter of Imlay's, in which he requested "all men to know that he
appoints Mary Imlay, his wife, to transact all his business for him."
Her letters published shortly after her return from Denmark, Norway,
and Sweden, divested of the personal details, were considered to show
a marked advance in literary style, and from the slow modes of
travelling, and the many letters of introduction to people in all the
towns and villages she visited, she was enabled to send home
characteristic details of all classes of people. The personal portions
of the letters are to be found among her posthumous works, and these,
with letters written after her return, and when she was undoubtedly
convinced of Imlay's baseness and infidelity, are terrible and
pathetic records of her misery - misery which drove her to an attempt
at suicide. This was fortunately frustrated, so that she was spared to
meet with a short time of happiness later, and to prove to herself and
Godwin, both previous sceptics in the matter, that lawful marriage can
be happy. Mary, rescued from despair, returned to work, the restorer,
and refused all assistance from Imlay, not degrading herself by
receiving a monetary compensation where faithfulness was wanting. She
also provided for her child Fanny, as Imlay disregarded entirely his
promises of a settlement on her.
As her literary work brought her again in contact with the society she
was accustomed to, so her health and spirits revived, and she was able
again to hold her place as one of its celebrities. And now it was that
her friendship was renewed with that other celebrity, whose philosophy
ranged beyond his age and century, and probably beyond some centuries
to come. His advanced ideas are, nevertheless, what most thinking
people would hope that the race might attain to when mankind shall
have reached a higher status, and selfishness shall be less allowed in
creeds, or rather in practice; for how small the resemblance between
the founder of a creed and its followers is but too apparent.
So now Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the author of
_Political Justice_, have again met, and this time not under
circumstances as adverse as in November 1790, when he dined in her
company at Mr. Johnson's, and was disappointed because he wished to
hear the conversation of Thomas Paine, who was a taciturn man, and he
considered that Mary engrossed too much of the talk. Now it was
otherwise; her literary style had gained greatly in the opinion of
Godwin, as of others, and, as all their subjects of interest were
similar, their friendship increased, and melted gently into mutual
love, as exquisitely described by Godwin himself in a book now little
known; and this love, which ended in marriage, had no after-break.
But we must now again retrace our steps, for in the father of Mary
Shelley we have another of the representative people of his time,
whose early life and antecedents must not be passed over.
William Godwin, the seventh of thirteen children, was born at