More about the life and death of Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin.
As some of you know, I published a YA biography of Mary Shelley on Kindle Direct in 2012 (link to that book). While I’ve been writing now about Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin—her sad life, her sadder end—I began wondering what I’d said about her death in that biography. Below, I’ve pasted in what I wrote—and I should remind readers that I wrote this before I’d read Janet Todd’s book about her.
But back in England, things were not so carefree. Fanny Godwin—the only other daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft—was very unhappy. She had been away from home in 1814 when Mary and Claire had first run away with Shelley, and when Fanny returned, she heard many angry outbursts from Godwin and Mary Jane. Fanny was trapped: She loved her sisters but she did not want to disobey Godwin, who refused communication with them. And then  Mary and Claire had gone off to Switzerland for the summer with the romantic Lord Byron. While she stayed at home to work in the shop for Mrs. Godwin, who was not an easy employer.
Godwin himself loved Fanny very much—even though she was Gilbert Imlay’s daughter. Like her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny was moody and often depressed. And she felt insecure. Both Mary and Claire tried to cheer her up in their letters. “For heaven’s sake be cheerful,” urged Claire. But Fanny was sure that her sisters were untrue to her. She thought they were laughing at her. And while Mary and Claire were in Switzerland, Fanny wrote: “I am not well; my mind always keeps my body in a fever; but never mind me.”
Now that Fanny was in her early twenties, the Godwins were trying to find employment for her. One possibility was for her to join her aunts Eliza and Everina, who were running a school together in Dublin. Perhaps Fanny could join them and become a teacher.
But when the aunts arrived for a visit, something went wrong. They decided not to take Fanny with them. On 8 October, she suddenly left London, heading west for Bath, where Mary and Shelley were staying. No one knows if Fanny stopped to see them. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she asked to be allowed to live with them. Perhaps they refused her. Perhaps she argued with them about the Godwins. No one knows.
But she traveled on to Bristol, about 120 miles west of London. There she wrote quick letters to Mary and to the Godwins. Mary said theirs was “very alarming”—and it was: Fanny wrote that she was going to kill herself. Shelley raced to Bristol, but at 2 a.m., he returned with no news.
The next day, Shelley went back to Bristol. This time, he was gone two days, and when he returned, Mary wrote a brief note in her journal: “The worst account—a miserable day—”And so it was. Fanny Imlay Godwin had taken her own life.
At Swansea, a Welsh seaport about fifty miles farther west from Bristol, she had taken a room at an inn. When she did not come down the next morning, the innkeeper forced open her door and found her dead. Beside her on a table were a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note.
To protect her family from embarrassment, Fanny had not signed the note and had left no other forms of identification except for the letter “G” on her stockings and the letters “MW” (her mother’s initials) on her corset. She also had with her a small gold watch that Mary and Shelley had bought for her in Switzerland.
Her suicide note was inexpressibly sad:
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 endeavoring [trying] to promote her welfare.
An inquest in Swansea came up with a simple verdict: “found dead.” There was no official speculation about suicide. Godwin was worried that news of the death would have a terrible effect on his already low reputation. He wrote to Shelley: “Go not to Swansea; disturb not the silent dead ….” He said that he would probably tell people that Fanny had gone to Ireland to be with Everina and Eliza.
There was another reason to make sure Fanny’s death was not declared a suicide: The law (until 1823) required a suicide to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. The stake supposedly kept the ghost in the ground, and the crossroads spread the evil influence in four directions.
So Fanny was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Such a lonely fate for the woman, who, as a little girl had been such a happy child. Mary Wollstonecraft had written of Fanny when she was only four months old: “Besides looking at me, there are three other things, which delight her—to ride in a coach, to look at a scarlet waistcoat [vest], and hear loud music ….”