Fanny, as we’ve seen, did not have the easiest of childhoods. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay (the American businessman—see earlier chapters about his story), Fanny never really knew her father, who danced out of the frame not long after she was born on May 14, 1794. Two years later, Mary’s relationship with William Godwin began, and, for a bit, Fanny had something like a “normal” childhood.
But then, of course, her mother died delivering the child who would become Mary Shelley, and now poor Fanny, only three, had no mother—and a father who was pretty much clueless about children. A series of women helped care for her. Then, as we’ve seen, late in 1801 (Fanny was then 7), Godwin married again, this time to Mary Jane Clairmont, who had, by two different fathers, two children of her own (Jane—aka Claire—and Charles). And when Fanny was about to turn 9, Mary Jane delivered William Godwin, Jr. And so it was, as I said, that in that Godwin household for a time there were five children, no two of whom had the same two parents. Rivalries crept like ivy up the psychological framework of their home.
And poor Fanny was never the favorite of anyone. Mary Jane preferred (and fiercely so) her own children; notables arrived at the house to meet little Mary, the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, two luminaries of the Left. And then there was Fanny, who, as if she needed more humbling, suffered scarring from chickenpox and smallpox.
Scholar Janet Todd—to her great credit—did something long in need of doing in Godwin-Wollstonecraft-Shelley scholarship: investigate and tell Fanny’s story, a story whose chapters are often dark and depressing. When I wrote to Prof. Todd recently to congratulate her on her work, she replied very graciously—and then told me how she’d felt at Swansea, Wales, where Fanny had died.
But let’s wait a moment for that.
Before telling about Swansea, Todd goes after the men in Fanny’s life—Imlay, Godwin, Bysshe Shelley. I’m not going to summarize her book (it’s not long; it’s well worth reading), but I’ll just observe that Todd produces evidence that Fanny, about to turn 20, might have been the first of the women in the Godwin household to fall under the sway of Bysshe Shelley when he swooped into their lives in 1813 and 1814.