I stopped this serialization of my memoir about chasing Mary Shelley when Joyce and I went to Stratford, Ontario, for the Theater Festival in mid-August. Travels and illness and ennui have kept me from this, but I'm back at it now--and will continue the serialization on M-W-F until its completion. The installment before this one (LINK to that earlier post) included the news I'd sent to the premier Shelley scholar, Betty Bennett, about the death of my father in late November 1999. And so we continue ...
I don’t remember if I did what I’m going to tell you next, but I’m going to assume I did. William Godwin, Mary’s father, died on 7 April 1836; he had recently passed his final birthday—his eightieth—on 3 March. Eighty is a lot of years in any human era, but in the first third of the nineteenth century it was highly unusual. The median age for a man at death was about forty-five. (For those of you whose statistics are rusty—this means that about half of men died before forty-five, about half after forty-five.) So in 1836, Godwin was an unusually old man.
As we’ve seen, the road he and Mary had traveled was a rough one at times. Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in 1797, shortly after delivering the child who would become Mary Shelley. Little Mary grew up with a father who adored her.
But near Christmas, 1801 (Mary was three), Godwin remarried—to Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought two children into the family—Claire and Charles Clairmont (the two children had different fathers); also living in the Godwin home was Fanny Imlay Godwin, the child of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay (of whom I’ve written quite a bit earlier in this volume). In 1803, Mary Jane delivered William Godwin, Jr. So … by 1803 five children were living in that household, no two of whom had the same parents. It made for some complicated choreography.
By 1836, of course, death had been a regular visitor to the Godwin circle. Daughter Mary had lost three children—and her husband. And her friend Lord Byron. Fanny Imlay Godwin had taken her own life in October 1816. Harriet Shelley (Bysshe’s first wife) drowned herself in the Serpentine later that same year. William Godwin, Jr., still in his twenties, had died of cholera in 1832. And on and on.
So Mary knew about death.
She’d also had other conflicts with her father. She’d greatly disliked her step-mother (so much so that when she was a young teen, she’d gone to live with family friends in Scotland for nearly two years). During one of her visits home she’d met the dashing young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was soon seeing him secretly, and on 28 July 1814, they eloped, her step-sister Claire Clairmont in tow. For two years Godwin refused all communication with his daughter.
But following Harriet Shelley’s suicide—and the subsequent marriage of Mary and Bysshe—things cooled off, and Godwin felt very comfortable borrowing chunks of money from his new son-in-law. And correspondence re-commenced between Mary and her father. He helped her with her publications—even wrote with pride to her about the first stage production (in London) of her novel Frankenstein, a play called Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823).
Mary, in turn, helped her father. When he was stuck on his final novel—Deloraine (1833)—he told Mary about his problems with the plot, and she suggested using the device of the chase, a device he had used so wonderfully well in his early novel Caleb Williams—and a device Mary herself had used so expertly in Frankenstein.
Godwin immediately saw the power in her idea and finished his final novel, a story that is full of incidents and characters, slightly altered, from Mary’s life. In a way, Deloraine is a final tribute to his daughter.
But by the spring of 1836, he was ill. Mary and her step-mother cared for him, in shifts, and when he finally passed, they were both with him. In her journal she wrote on 7 June 1836: I have lost my dear darling father—What I went through—watching alone his dying hours. … O My God—I am too miserable to write—too ill—too hopeless to do aught but weep.
I think I read what Mary wrote about the death of Godwin not long after my mother called with the dark news about my own. I hope I did, for as I look over her words today, I know the nature of her despair, a despair shared by all who have lost a beloved parent. A despair I felt in late November 1999.