Saturday, 23 June 2012

William Godwin and the Shelleys, by William St Clair

I've been reading this book for a long time now. It is a second-hand hardback from Amazon, and out of print, I believe.  Hence it is quite precious, and not suitable for train reading.  It is too heavy (physically) for bedtime reading. It's quite heavy intellectually, also, thus I naturally incline to take it in small doses.

It sits on the kitchen table, and I read it over breakfast (a page or two a day), lunch (weekends only) and evening meal ( a page or two a day). Thus I make slow progress.  I had intended to wait until I'd finished before posting a review (this is why my blog has had pictures of goslings and boats, instead of book-related subjects).  However, I have just reached the point where Percy Bysshe Shelley runs away to France aged 22 with the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 17, and her stepsister Jane Clairmont, a year younger.  This is pivotal. 

I've noticed a recent trend in modern novels for the writer to apparently end the book half-way through, by revealing some denoument, which seems to render the rest of the book pointless.  Then the book gains a second wind, and goes from strength to strength in the last laps.  I've even taken to lifting these novels up so as to measure the width of the section already passed through, to check whether the trend is holding, and have yet to be proved wrong. 

The turning point in WG & the Shelleys is actually two thirds of the way through, but then it is not a novel but meticulously researched historical fact.  What makes it even more unusual is that it is not written by an academic or professional biographer, but by a "senior official in HM Treasury".  He is described as such according to the end-paper, which also shows a beaky-nosed, bespectacled middle-aged man, exactly how you would imagine a Treasury official to look.

The book was published in 1989.  I am willing to bet a modest sum that no Treasury official in post today would have the time to research and write a lengthy tome of 572 pages, including extensive library research,  references to official records, quotations from out-of-print diaries and even original copies of correspondence between the major players.  People in all walks of life these days seem to work much, much longer hours and more intensively than a quarter of a century ago.  That's before we start on the strangely polymathic tendencies displayed here, in that a dry old stick in the Treasury would take up his pen to catalogue the events of two of the most turbulent female lives in history.

They are, of course, the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, nee Godwin.

Where to start on them! Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, one of several daughters born to an impoverished and violent father, abused at home, became a governess, travelled widely, including to France during the period of the Revolution, wrote the "Vindication of the Rights of Women", bore an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, attempted suicide, and finally, in 1796, met the political philospher William Godwin.  They became lovers, she became pregnant, they married, and in August 1797 she gave birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley.  Two weeks later, Mary Wollstonecraft was dead.  Godwin brought up both her daughters. Following a second marriage to a neighbour (credited with hanging over her balcony and propositioning him), he brought up that lady's two (apparently illegitmate children), and the new couple had one child of their own.  So Mary grew up in a very mixed family. 

If anyone reading this gets a chance to see the West Yorkshire Playhouse touring production of "Mary Shelley" I recommend it highly, and you can stop reading now, because the play details all the important things that happened after this point with a high degree of historical accuracy (as far as the documents turned up by William St Clair allow one to judge).   The play is also beautifully acted, genuinely dramatic without needing to embellish with fiction, and  introduces an idea which was new to me. This is the idea that the genus of Mary Shelley's classic "Frankenstein" was the patchwork family in which she grew up.  Five children, only one of whom knew both his mother and father, the rest cobbled together, led to unhappiness and a sense of loss partly responsible for the ugliness of some of the consequent lives, and ceaseless wandering of the globe in other cases.

Mary junior and her step-sister Jane (who later renamed herself Claire) ran off with Shelley, as I have described.  They behaved exactly like teenagers on a gap year - setting off without enough money and with romantic and unrealistic plans (such as to walk from Calais to Switzerland, taking it in turns to ride on a donkey).

Mary experienced at least five pregnancies, most of them prior to her marriage to Shelley who already had a very young wife, Harriet, at the time, and two babies by her, both under two years old.

Harriet was only 19 and  later drowned herself in the Thames when it became clear that Shelley was never coming back.  Following this tragedy, Mary and Shelley were married, and their one surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley,  became the legal heir to the Shelley fortune and eventually inherited.

In the intervening years, the stepsister Fanny also committed suicide, it is believed due to unhappiness at not knowing either of her natural parents and possibly also being in love with Shelley.

The other stepsister, Jane, now reinvented as Claire, having seen the exciting and poetic life led by Mary (although perhaps screening out the miscarriages and early deaths of her babies, and the suicides of those close), decided this was a good wheeze.  She threw herself at Lord Byron, a friend of Shelley and fellow romantic (this word now takes on a whole new meaning). Her mother had form in this area, after all.

Jane gave birth to Byron's daughter, Allegra, who later died aged four.  Jane never married, but spent  20 years as a governess, travelling the world and often vilified when her past came out.

It was thought to be during the runaway trip to France, Switzerland and Italy that the idea of "Frankenstein" was born.
Mary never  knew her mother, but as the child of two notable philosophers, she was always likely to develop an original and strong mind of her own.  Her book has become one of the world's most famous classics, and the name has become synonymous with "monster", although it is a lesser known fact that the name is actually that of the "doctor" who cobbled the monster together, breathing life into something that would have been happier had it never lived.

Watching the play "Mary Shelley", I have to admit that I turned to my companion and said that such total self-indulgence in matters of relationships and the heart, commonly described as "romanticism" seemed to me to be largely responsible for many of the ills of modern society. 

Should one place duty over passion, and accept the consequences of previous decisions as taking priority over new enthusiasms?  Or is that being too boring and stick in the mud?  My companion thought it was, and was all for a wider and more compassionate view.

I stand by my observation that the principle players may have experienced satisfaction and fulfillment, but many of those on the periphery were irretrievably damaged. And subsequent generations copying the template of self-fulfillment ( not too far away from pure self-indulgence), have seen the same results. A few high fliers have it all, but most get their fingers badly burned, when seeking the elusive goals of "the dream".  This phenomenon is  exemplified by celebrity culture, and finds  expression in TV programmes which encourage total unknowns, often without talent, to give up their everyday occupations and  "live the dream".

Did all this start with the literary movement known as "The Romantics", and the 18th century liberal notion that man is innately good, and only needs the right encouragement to become actually perfect? 

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