The death of Mary Wollstonecraft--and how it affects her husband, William Godwin.
And then, of course, Mary died shortly after delivering her daughter, whom Godwin promptly named for his lost wife. Godwin would reanimate his lost Mary in more than one way in his ensuing years. Yes, he named his daughter for her (and isn’t this in an eerie way a bit like Frankenstein? A distraught man seeking the secret of Life—bringing into the world another living being?), but he also found other ways to immortalize her.
I’ve already written about his memoir about Mary—a memoir that caused him (and his late wife) considerable social trouble from which he never truly recovered. But he also wrote about her, indirectly, in his fiction. The first novel he wrote after her death was St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century,[i] begun on December 31, 1797, just four months after that dark date. It first appeared on December 2, 1799, and he later revised it for another edition in 1831.
Contemporary reviews were generally unfavourable—so says scholar Pamela Clemit, who edited the authoritative edition for publisher William Pickering in 1992.[ii] This is no surprise: Godwin had tumbled from favor with both critics and much of the conservative and pious reading public. And literary criticism is often pointedly political.
I read St Leon in the late summer of 1997, coincidentally just about the time of the two-hundredth anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death. And I was moved by it—especially when I became aware of the personal aspects of the story.
It is a tale about the eponymous St Leon, who narrates. In his twenties, he meets Marguerite Louise Isabeau de Damville: This was a woman, Godwin writes, destined to crown my happiness, and consummate my misery. If I had never known her, I should never have tasted true pleasure; if I had been guided by her counsels, I should not have drained to the very dregs the cup of anguish.[iii]
Later, from a strange old man whom he has helped, St Leon learns both the art of multiplying gold, and the power of living forever.”[iv] Of course, this means he will outlive his beloved wife, and when she does die later on, he says I never loved but once; I never loved but Marguerite. All other affection is stillness and ice compared with this.[v]
I remember—when I originally read this—what Godwin’s second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, must have thought when she read it. For there’s not doubt that Godwin was writing about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (he kept her portrait over his desk for the rest of his life), and there’s also no doubt that Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin, a bright woman, knew that her husband was writing, in a way, about his first wife.
Keeping a loved one alive in words. Godwin was neither the first nor the last to engage in that hope for immortality. Think of that final couplet in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?): “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” The this, of course, is the sonnet itself—the words in which this anonymous lover lives forever. Just as Mary, in a way, lives on in the pages of St Leon.
I’ll not say more about the novel—you can easily acquire it online, on e-readers, and Amazon still has paperback and cloth copies available. Oh, I just checked ABE and discovered that a first printing of the novel is going for $3500.[vi] The ever-impecunious Godwin is no doubt drooling in his grave. And that very impecuniousness forced him to make a radical decision about his life, and that decision would forever affect his famous daughter.
[i] Godwin does not use a period after St—not in the title, not in the text; this was the general practice in England. In his 1831 revision, however, the period appears in the title though not in the text.
[ii] Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, vol. 4, vi.
[iii] Ibid., 39.
[iv] Ibid., 135.
[v] Ibid., 240.
[vi] On January 12, 2015.