When little Mary Godwin was not quite three weeks old, her father, William Godwin, had his friend William Nicholson, a phrenologist, examine her. Nicholson wrote a report to Godwin in September 18, 1797, the same day that he’d examined the infant. “The outline of the head viewed from above, its profile, the outline of the forehead, seen from behind and in its horizontal positions, are such as I have invariably and exclusively seen in subjects who possessed considerable memory and intelligence. … The mouth was too much employed to be well observed. It has the outlines of intelligence.
When I began eating my Frankenstein sundae (the metaphorical, not the actual one) in 1997, I knew nothing about little Mary Godwin—hell, I didn't even know who Mary Godwin was. I knew only the slimmest bit about Mary Shelley—nothing at all about her Godwin girlhood. I’d never even heard of William Godwin when I began nibbling. But that would soon change.
I've already written about my journey through all the Mary Shelley biographies, beginning with Emily Sunstein’s 1988 volume, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. As I look now at my copy of that book—which I read in January 1997, beginning it just days after I retired from the Aurora City Schools—I notice the myriads of underlinings, especially about Mary's girlhood. A simple formula, really: the more underlinings in the text, the less I knew.
As I’ve said, I subsequently read every other biography of Mary Shelley—and all the biographies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, as well. But this story about the phrenologist stuck with me. Of course, the “science” of phrenology is right up there with astrology in its nonsense (both –ologies have mastered the technique of saying little while saying a lot), and Godwin’s friend knew very well that this infant was the offspring of two of the most remarkable and talented human beings of the era. So observing that the child looked as if she might be intelligent, affectionate, and of “quick sensibility,” and “surely not given to rage” was not exactly the riskiest prediction I’ve ever read.
But my favorite line of all? The mouth was too much employed to be well observed. Gee, an infant with a busy mouth? What a surprise.