And that very impecuniousness forced him to make a radical decision about his life, and that decision would forever affect his famous daughter.
Godwin married again. On May 5, 1801, he wrote in his diary: Meet Mrs Clairmont. Mary Jane Clairmont, mother of two (by two different fathers), was living in the same building—called “The Polygon”—in Somers Town; they married on December 21; in 1803, she delivered their son—William Godwin, Jr.—so little Mary, age six, would grow up in a household with five children, none of whom had the same two parents. Let’s tick them off: (1) Fanny Imlay Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay); (2) Mary herself (Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin); (3) Charles Clairmont (Mary Jane Clairmont and Charles Gaulis—perhaps not married?); (4) Claire Clairmont (Mary Jane Clairmont and a man still not identified); (5) William Godwin, Jr. (Mary Jane Clairmont and William Godwin). The interpersonal relationships in that family must have been … complicated, to say the least.
Mary Shelley’s biographers generally agree that she was very happy with her father, whom she adored, and very unhappy with arrangements after Mary Jane arrived on the scene. The stepmother—who sought constantly to advance the reputations of her own children and was surely weary of notables coming to their home to catch a glimpse of little Mary—did have her virtues. She was willing to take on this wild household of children, eager to help Godwin with his perpetual financial difficulties. Mary Jane had no money, either, but by most accounts she was better—much better—than the feckless Godwin about managing their wee pile of funds. He constantly overspent—not on luxuries but on books and other research materials to support his writing. He borrowed from anyone who would lend. Often had problems paying back the money.
The Godwins could not make enough money to live on with Godwin’s writing income—especially after his “scandalous” memoir about Mary Wollstonecraft. So he and Mary Jane resolved to go in the book business themselves, specializing in volumes for young readers. They called it M. J. Godwin & Co. Juvenile Library. Little Mary and the other children in the household would be among his first readers—letting him know what they thought about the books. He would also enlist his literary friends to contribute volumes. One of the most celebrated was Tales from Shakespeare, 1807, by siblings Charles and Mary Lamb, a book that’s still in print.
In 1807, the family left The Polygon and moved to a shop on Skinner Street (Holborn) where they would live upstairs and conduct the business downstairs.
In 1999 I spent some time in London (as I’ve said) trying to find sites significant in Mary’s girlhood. But they are few.