Another suicide in the Godwin-Shelley circle ...
And then, in the close Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle there was another suicide attempt, another one, like Harriet Westbrook Shelley’s, that was sadly successful. Early in my research on Mary Shelley I learned, of course, about Mary Wollstonecraft’s first child, her daughter Fanny, named in honor of Mary’s dear friend from girlhood, Fanny Blood.
I’ve already written about the context of Fanny’s conception—her mother’s affair with American Gilbert Imlay, who, as we remember, eventually abandoned mother and daughter and vanished into the mists of history. I’ve written, too, about how when Fanny, born in May 1794, was still a little girl, she and her mother joined lives with William Godwin, who soon married Mary when she once again became pregnant, this time with the daughter she would never know, the daughter who would become Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.
The early biographers of William Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley do not say much about Fanny. She was, in their view, a minor player. A character actor. A young woman who, unlike so many of the others, apparently had no literary or artistic talents. A young woman who, it seems, was physically ordinary. Nothing special. Just, you know, a human being. Oh, she had a kind heart. That sort of thing.
And I confess that throughout my years of research, I also consigned Fanny to the corners of the story. Far more interesting to me were the lives of the others—the lives of historical and literary significance. Sure, it was sad when she left home in October 1816—she was just twenty years old—and traveled nearly 200 miles west to Swansea, Wales, all of it by coach, where she executed her plan to kill herself. But, I fear, I was more interested in the reactions of the others in her life. How Bysshe dashed off to look for her, how Godwin tried to cover it all up (how embarrassing, a suicide in the family!), how Mary (19) and Claire Clairmont (18) responded.
In my elaborate trip to Europe in the spring of 1999, I made no plans to go to Swansea (which lies about 130 miles south of Porthmadog in Wales, a place I did visit and have written about). As I look at travel maps now, I see that there is no direct train connection between the two towns. It would have taken about six and a half hours to make all the connections. The bus is no better. Seven and a half hours. I suppose I could have rented a car, but I was afraid to do that—all that driving on the left stuff; I figured I’d hit someone head-on after a mile or so.
Still, as I sit and type today, I know for certain that if something “significant” had happened in Swansea, I would have figured out how to get there. I would have done it.