In the summer of 1997—that’s right, 1997—a previously unknown work by Mary Shelley was discovered among some old family papers in Italy. A year later it was published (edited by the noted literary scholar Claire Tomalin) as Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot. (Cot is an abbreviation for cottage.)
Shelley scholars think Mary wrote the story in the early days of August 1820, a story for Laurette Mason, one of the young daughters of a family friend who had known Mary virtually her entire life. Known now as “Mrs. Mason,” she had once been Margaret King, one of the Irish daughters of the enormously wealthy Robert and Caroline King (Lord and Lady Kingsborough), a daughter for whom Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had served as governess back in 1786.
She later married the 2nd Earl Mount Cashell (thus becoming Countess of Mount Cashell), had more than a half-dozen children, then, on a European holiday in 1802, met George William Tighe, fell in love, left her family for him, and they stayed in Pisa, living with the names “Mr. and Mrs. Mason,” a surname she had lifted from a little children’s book by Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), a book, as I’ve said, that was illustrated by William Blake when a second edition appeared in 1791. (Link to Blake's illustrations for the book.)
|one of Blake's illustrations|
Anyway, in late September 1819, Mary and Bysshe Shelley had met in Pisa with Mrs. Mason, who was thrilled to meet the daughter of the woman—the tutor—who had meant so much to her as a young girl. They would stay in touch throughout the Shelleys’ Italian sojourn. And not quite a year later, Mary wrote Maurice for Laurette’s eleventh birthday on July 19, 1820 (though the gift came a little bit late). And then the story lay, forgotten, for nearly 180 years.