The first major scholar to tell Fanny’s story is Janet Todd (mentioned here before) whose wonderful book Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle appeared in 2007. Naturally, I didn’t get around to reading it until March of this year, once I’d embarked on the serialization of this memoir (which, I’ve realized as I’ve written, is going to need some serious revision before I launch it into the world later this year—or early next year).
Todd’s book is not lengthy. The text ends on page 264, though more than thirty pages of back matter are there, too (note, bibliography, index). She says in her Preface, “I have been haunted by the figure” of Fanny. And she notes that there is no picture of her (none that we know of). And she admits so much about her is unknown—and will probably stay that way. We’re not even certain where she’s buried—it was probably an unmarked pauper’s grave. Godwin, as I’ve said, was horrified not just at her suicide but at how that suicide would affect him and his other loved ones.
Like other biographers of people we wish we knew more about—people as revered as Shakespeare, as little-known as Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin—Todd, ruing the lack of direct information about her, must proceed by creating the worlds she lived in, by describing the people around her, and trusting that all of this will sharpen the focus on the fuzziest of images in the Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle.
And so she alternates chapters, directing our attention to Godwin, to his second wife (Mary Jane Clairmont), to Bysshe Shelley, to Mary Godwin Shelley, and others. “Fanny” is the title of only thirteen of the thirty-three chapters. Yes, Todd of course alludes to her in the other sections, but this is just one indication about how pathetically little we know about her.
Shelley did begin a poem to her—but he could not finish it. Todd reproduces it for us:
Thy little footsteps on the sands
Of a remote and lonely shore –
The twinkling of thine infant hands
Where now the worm will feed no more.
They look of mingled love and glee
When one returned to gaze on thee –
These footsteps on the sands are fled,
Thine eyes are dark – thy hands are cold,
And she is dead – and thou art dead –
Todd is not easy on the men—or the women—who lived with Fanny. Todd also makes it quite clear that Fanny, like the other young women in the house, was smitten by Bysshe Shelley, who, as we know, did not invite her to join Mary and Claire as they rushed off to the Continent in 1814. Fanny remained behind, as I’ve said, to endure all the bitterness and recrimination.
And so … off she went to Swansea, on the Welsh coast, nearly 200 miles west from London. Where on October 9, 1816, she took a room in an inn, the Mackworth Arms on Wind Street. Where she wrote and left a note. Where she drank an overdose of (probably) laudanum (alcohol and opium). Where she lay down and drifted into death.
Here’s the note, reproduced in Todd from the way it had appeared in the local newspaper:
I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as
We don’t know who tore off the rest. But we do know that until Janet Todd, many biographers and scholars have done the equivalent.
After I finished her book, I sent an email to Prof. Todd, thanking her for what she had done. She wrote back a kind reply—and added: I found some of the research especially in Swansea very difficult to do without choking up at the idea of Fanny's last hours.