Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Before I knew much about all these folks and their stories, the multiple Marys in the mix sometimes confused me. Mary Lamb, Mary Jane Vial Clairmont, Clara Mary Jane Clairmont (two different people, mother and daughter!), Mary Hays, with a Maria Gisborne stirred in for good measure. And there seemed to be two Mary Wollstonecrafts. In my vast ignorance as I stood at the trailhead of my journey, I wondered, Are Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley the same person?
Oddly, it wasn’t until quite recently that I actually acquired a photocopy of Mary Godwin’s birth record. I’d begun to wonder: Was “Wollstonecraft” part of her legal name? Or had she merely adopted it out of respect for her mother? Edgar Poe was never adopted by the Allans after his mother died, though he lived with them until young manhood. Still, he used the name and the initial throughout his life—though he never published a book with Edgar Allan Poe as the named author. Still, we insist on that name for him. Was Mary the same?
I corresponded with Charles Robinson, the terrific Shelley scholar, who generously replied about the name—and, yes, her middle name was Wollstonecraft. He directed to me to a site where I could download a photocopy of the record. And there it is: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. No question.
Later, after she became Mary Shelley, she rarely signed letters with her full middle name; she used “Mary Shelley” or “Mary WS” or “MWS” or “MaryShelley” or “Mary S—” or “MaryWShelley” or “Mary W. Shelley” or “MS” or “MShelley” or “M.” But we know she was surpassingly proud of the name she shared with the mother she’d never known but whose works she read continually and whose courage she patently admired.
And there’s also that touching tale of Godwin’s helping little Mary learn her letters by having her trace with her finger her late mother’s name on her gravestone in the nearby St. Pancras churchyard. I hope that story is true—even though ripples of the macabre curl across its emotional surface.
On 18 April 1999 I found that St. Pancras gravestone—touched those letters myself—and later wrote how odd it was that Godwin was buried there with two wives. The thought of it: The man who had no women whatsoever before Mary Wollstonecraft now lying through eternity with two!
Only he’s not in that St. Pancras grave any longer. As we shall see, Mary Shelley later moved the remains of her father and mother to Bournemouth, more than a hundred miles southwest—but left her stepmother, Mary Jane Vial Clairmont, behind at St. Pancras, whose cemetery was later threatened with destruction by a railway tunnel, a project later abandoned.
That April day at St. Pancras I picked up a pebble near the gravesite and took it with me. I have no idea where it is now.
|Mary Wollstonecraft's original grave,|
St. Pancras Cemetery (in the foreground)