The woman without a name

Hello, friends. Recently, I mentioned reading and loving Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve now become completely obsessed with the question of Mary Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter, Fanny. Fanny was born in 1794 in revolutionary Paris, the result of a short, passionate affair between Wollstonecraft and a handsome, fickle, frequently dishonest American named Gilbert Imlay. Imlay promptly tired of Wollstonecraft, moved to London, and set up house with an actress; he never displayed further interest in either Wollstonecraft or their infant daughter.

Wollstonecraft returned to London as well, with her toddler, and married the philosopher William Godwin in 1797. Shortly after, she died from complications of childbirth. (The new baby, Godwin’s biological daughter, grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) Godwin raised both girls and then some: he soon remarried and formed a blended family of five children, none of whom shared a pair of biological parents. Fanny and Mary grew up knowing that they were half-sisters and the daughters of the scandalous genius Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Godwin household was intellectually demanding, emotionally remote, and paralyzed by debt. The second Mrs. Godwin sounds like a deeply unpleasant character who, in fairy-tale fashion, resented and oppressed her stepdaughters. Mary asserted herself by eloping with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writing a genre-defining bestseller, Frankenstein. Fanny tried to make peace within her fractured and fractious family and committed suicide in a coaching inn at the age of 22.

I’ve now read two books about “the Shelley circle”, combing them for details about Fanny. Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve found.

This is Mab’s Daughters (UK title) by Judith Chernaik. I couldn’t find a decent image of the North American edition, which is titled Love’s Children, but it’s the same novel. Yes, it’s a novel and it’s a quiet, contoured, persuasive, imaginative recreation of the voices of the four women closest to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: his first wife, Harriet; his second wife, the novelist Mary; his sister-in-law (Mary and Fanny’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont; and Fanny. Chernaik’s gift is balance and restraint. She takes these extraordinary lives filled with scandalous episodes and renders them entirely plausible, anchored by loyalty (between sisters) and love (for learning, for travel, but mainly for Percy’s genius). I admire it hugely.

I just finished Death and the Maidens, by Janet Todd. Fanny is typically a footnote in the stories of other great minds: William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. The traditional line goes something like this: “Poor, depressive Fanny, what a pity. Her death is important because of what it tells us about so-and-so…” This biography is Todd’s corrective, an effort to place Fanny’s story at the centre of her own life. Todd argues that Fanny was intelligent, politically conscious, opinionated, and warm-hearted. She tried repeatedly to reconcile her sister Mary with her stepfather Godwin (there was a rift after 16-year-old Mary ran away with Shelley; it ended only after Mary and Shelley were legally married, two and a half years later), and hoped to escape her stepmother by going to live with Mary and Shelley. Fanny never got her wish; never received an invitation even to visit Mary for a few days.

Todd argues that this rejection was the central force that pushed Fanny into suicide. It’s an interesting theory but will always remain so; there is scarce evidence of Fanny’s last days, and the people closest to her remained silent. Even at the time, rather than risk the scandal of a suicide in the family, they refused to claim the body. Fanny was abandoned in death, and buried in an anonymous grave in Swansea (the city where she died). While I enjoyed learning more about Fanny’s life, I found Todd’s clear antipathy towards Percy Bysshe Shelley rather distracting, and I wish the footnotes were more thorough. What dominates overall, however, is Todd’s clear affection for Fanny, and her desire to do Fanny justice.

My third book is Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. I’m only partway through and will wait until next week to talk about it, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

At this point, I’d like to explain the title of my post. At birth, Fanny’s name was officially recorded as “Fran├žoise Imlay” (Wollstonecraft and Imlay were still a couple, just about, and they were living in Paris). After Wollstonecraft’s death from complications of childbirth, Godwin chose to raise Fanny as his daughter and she became known as Frances Godwin. Despite carrying the names of these two men, however, Fanny was technically illegitimate and never legally adopted. Her name should always have been Fanny Wollstonecraft.

I find it both fascinating and moving that readers still can’t agree on her name. Todd reclaims her as Fanny Wollstonecraft; at other times, she’s Fanny Imlay (wikipedia) or Fanny Godwin (with explanations). It’s tricky to find her in an index. And this elusive quality, the fact that we can’t even work out what to call her, is reflected in her life. No diary survives; her letters are partly destroyed; there is no known portrait. And for a very long time nobody found her remotely interesting, except as an adjunct to the lives of others.

Poor Fanny, indeed.

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6 Responses to “The woman without a name”

  1. GEW says:

    Thanks for this post! We’re back to Mary Wollstonecraft in my survey course tomorrow (Rights of Women, this time), we’ve read Mary Shelley’s “Swiss Peasant,” and soon we’ll get to Percy and then Frankenstein. Hearing more about Fanny and these resources is interesting. A few years ago, I read The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. As a popular history, the scholarship leaves something to be desired, but I still thought it was very interesting. That said, I don’t remember how much was included about Fanny!

    Question: When you mentioned Todd’s “antipathy towards Shelley,” did you mean Mary?

  2. GEW says:

    Rights of *Woman*, I mean. And there is comma splice. I am bad as my students–not re-reading before I “submit” something.

  3. HJ says:

    Thank you for this post. I too find Fanny interesting, and read the Janet Todd book.

  4. Ying says:

    You’re welcome, GEW. I hadn’t heard of The Monsters, so thank you in return! I’ll chase that down. (Hang on: I just checked the PW and Booklist reviews and noticed 2 factual errors! Is the book really that sloppy?) And thanks for catching my ambiguous Shelley reference. I meant Percy Bysshe. Todd really dislikes him (it’s especially noticeable in the first few chapters), which shakes my confidence in her readings. It’s a pity, because there’s so much excellent work here. Todd even digs up the unpublished diary of Aaron Burr (yes, the disgraced American VP) and uses it as a window into Fanny’s mind. And HJ, I’d love to know what you thought of the Todd biography.

  5. GEW says:

    Yes, I think the scholarship in Monsters might be fairly sloppy. I haven’t read the reviews or lots of other books for comparison, but it seemed quite soft.

  6. Ying says:

    Thanks, GEW! That’s helpful.

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