Wednesday, August 29, 2012

mary shelley's stepsister

Every generation tends to think it lives in more freewheeling, liberated times than its ancestors, but after reading about Mary Shelley (née Godwin) and her stepsister Claire Clairmont and their exciting lives it's clear that the Romantics put the free in free love. Mary was the strongest character in Gideon Defoe's latest Pirates! romp, the comic novel The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics, which featured Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his bride-to-be Mary Godwin. As funny as the pirates were, I decided I'd like to learn a bit more about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, and that quickly led me to her stepsister, Claire Clairmont.

Miniature portrait on ivory of Mary Shelley, based on a death mask, by Reginald Easton, ca. 1851–93. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries

I know what most people do about Mary Shelley. She began writing one of the most famous gothic novels, Frankenstein, on a dare while vacationing in Switzerland with Byron and Shelley. But how did she get there? The answer was Claire Clairmont, who was also at the Geneva house party. Claire's mother and Mary's father, had married in 1801, when both girls were three. Mary's father, author and philosopher William Godwin, was an inspiration to many free thinkers, and one of them, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, started spending a lot of time at the Godwin's home (the girls were 16 by this time.) Claire, who was a strong believer in free love, helped and encouraged Mary in her romance with the married Shelley. Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife Harriet and young daughter and ran off with Mary in 1814. Claire also ran away with them, and the trio traveled together throughout Europe.

In 1816 Claire began an affair with the poet Lord Byron. Byron quickly lost interest, but Claire pursued, some might say stalked, him to Switzerland, dragging along Shelley and Mary, ostensibly to introduce Shelley to Byron. When Claire and her party arrived at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, where Byron was staying with his personal physician, John William Polidori, the reluctant lover soon realized she was pregnant with his child. He was not happy. [Clara Allegra Byron was born in 1817 and Byron, although not fond of Claire, took custody of his illegitimate daughter and raised her in Italy. Tragically she died of a fever at the age of five.]

Claire Clairmont
The Geneva summer of 1816 was wet and dreary, and the five people amused themselves by discussing philosophy and reading ghost stories. Byron suggested they each write their own supernatural tale. After a dream, Mary began to write her now-famous story:
"'How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?' ... I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. ... I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion." — from the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
To add even more drama to the unconventional ménage, were Claire and Shelley involved? In 1817 Shelley wrote "To Constantia, Singing," to Claire. Throughout his years with Mary, Shelley formed relationships with other women. One of the most notable was Jane Williams, who he wrote many poems to. But he was also consistently rumored to have been more than close to Claire, and may have fathered a child with her in 1818, while they were all living in Naples, Italy. The novelist Henry James based his novella The Aspern Papers on Claire and her niece, fictionalizing how the pair closely guarded possessions they had of Shelley's. It certainly appears that her friendship with the poet was closer than just a sister-in-law, as he named her a major benefactor in his will.

Mary gave birth to four children by Shelley; the first three died young. The first, a daughter, was born prematurely in 1815 and died just a few days later. Mary was despondent and had to not only cope with her tragic loss but with Shelley's joy at the recent (legitimate) birth of his son Charles by his wife Harriet. The teenager was soon pregnant again and gave birth to a son, William, in January of 1816. Harriet was found drowned, on December 10 of that year, an apparent suicide. After his wife's suicide, Shelley was advised to marry Mary, or he might lose custody of his two children by Harriet. Shelley and Mary married in December 30, just twenty days after Harriet was pronounced dead. Not the most fairy tale-like conditions for a marriage for these Romantics.

Throughout all of this familial drama Mary was revising Frankenstein. The Shelley's continued their nomadic life, traveling from England to various cities in Italy, and Mary's novel was finally published, anonymously, in January of 1818. Shelley was at first assumed to be the author. How did Mary feel about that? 1818 and 1819 were sad times for the couple, as their two children both died, Clara in September 1818, and William in June 1819. Mary gave birth in November of that year to Percy Florence Shelley, their only surviving child. She became pregnant one more time, in 1822, but miscarried.  The next month Shelley drowned in a boating accident, along with his companions Edward Williams and their boat boy Charles Vivian. Their bodies were found washed up on the coast of Viareggio.

After Shelley died, the stepsisters separated. Mary returned to England, while Claire continued an itinerant existence in Europe. She either lived with family or worked as a governess, in such diverse places as Vienna, Russia, Dresden, Pisa, and Paris. She eventually settled in an expatriate colony with her niece Paulina in Florence and died at the age of 80 in 1879, outliving Shelley, Byron, and Mary. Claire, although neither a poet nor a novelist, of all of the Romantics, seems to have embraced its lifestyle most fully. But she was no stranger to writing. I am currently trying to track down a copy of The Clairmont correspondence letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin. I'm looking forward to reading her impressions of Shelley, Byron and Mary and their romantic lives.
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