A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Wollstonecraft, Imlay, Godwin – for a young unmarried woman, dead at twenty-two, Mary Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate daughter Fanny had many names. It seems to be in fashion these days to write biographies of people who might be termed ‘historically insignificant’; usually such biographies try desperately to milk these lives for all the drama and passion they’re worth, and make them appear more interesting than they actually were. This is not the case with Janet Todd’s biography of Fanny. Her tragedy was precisely to live her life as an ordinary person in the shadow of her extraordinary relatives: her (in)famous mother, her stepfather William Godwin, her sister Mary, her brother-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley, and even Godwin’s volatile stepdaughter Claire Clairmont, who famously bore Byron’s child. Ever since her mother died after giving birth to little Mary, Fanny was anxious to be loved and needed, and feared nothing more than rejection. She was devoted to her stepfather, and later to Mary and Shelley as well. The devotion was a hopeless cause. Her short life was one of conflicting loyalties, undeserved blame, the financial dependence of a ‘poor relation’, and ever-deepening depression. In 1816 she travelled to Wales and killed herself with an overdose of laudanum. To prevent further scandal from attaching to their names, Shelley and Godwin never claimed her body.
The cover quote calls Death and the Maidens a ‘disturbing commentary on the seductive doctrine of free love’, which isn’t entirely accurate: Mary Wollstonecraft had suffered much for it, and Shelley left a trail of distraught women in his wake (including his first wife Harriet, who killed herself within a month or so of Fanny’s suicide) but ‘free love’ was not the direct cause of Fanny’s suffering. Rather, her tragedy was to get caught up in the lives of self-dramatising, self-absorbed people, Romantics writ large, who saw her as insignifcant and paid no attention to her needs until it was too late. She was not fit for a life like theirs: and yet, she longed to be one of them, and was probably in love with Shelley too. Till the end she believed in the redeeming powers of poetry and genius. ‘A disturbing commentary on the dark side of Romanticism and its personality cults’ might be a better description of her biography.
One suspects that this is not the whole truth – surely nobody can be quite so consistently kind, patient and selfless as Fanny, or as consistently callous as the Shelleys? (Though, from everything I’ve read about Percy Bysshe, I don’t have any difficulties believing that part of the story.) As Todd points out, Fanny had a ‘textual life’ independent of the reality of her existence; she was immortalised in her mother’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and later she seems mostly to come to life through other people’s passing references. Her own voice is rarely heard; the presumably bitter letters she wrote before her suicide, which might have revealed much, were destroyed. For a biographer, there are many gaps to fill. Todd doesn’t hide the fact that she’s taking a stand here, and that doesn’t make the book any the weaker: far from it. Death and the Maidens has a novelistic urgency which would have been impossible with a 1,000-page every-moment-accounted-for treatment, and the remaining mystery makes it so haunting.
For haunting, and sad, it is. Todd reconstructs Fanny’s brief life with the skill of an academic and the sensibility of a novelist. This forgotten life cries out to be dramatised, which is perhaps the most disturbing thing of all: in her death Fanny Wollstonecraft finally became ‘worthy’ of her Romantic relatives’ attention. For Shelley, who had coldly dismissed her during their last meeting, the idea of her became fodder for poetry:
Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came – and I departed –
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery – O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee!
Final Verdict: Without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Profile Books, 2007, hardback, 297 pp., ISBN: 9781861979551