But Love Is Blind (as we’ve all heard), and Mary was always more impressed with talent than with looks—with a glaring exception, Gilbert Imlay, of whom I’ve written extensively earlier in this endless draft. But even in Imlay’s case, it was his publication and travel experiences that attracted her as much as his good looks—well, reported good looks: No authentic image of him has ever surfaced, as I’ve mentioned.
So Mary Wollstonecraft, already embracing the sort of free-love/marriage-is-a-bogus-institution beliefs that would later draw her to William Godwin (a fellow believer), made a rather frank suggestion to Sophia Fuseli, the painter’s wife. Mary would join their household. They would … share … Henry. (Yes, in that way.) Sophia, startled, quickly rejected the proposal and told Mary she was no longer welcome in their home.
Here’s how Wollstonecraft biographer Janet Todd describes what ensued: She [Mary] was humiliated, bested by a woman with half her significance [in Mary’s view]. … Presumably Fuseli made no effort to contradict the banishment; Wollstonecraft left with neither hope nor dignity. There was nothing to do but retire.
In her 2005 biography of Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon is not so sure there was a sexual dimension to all of this. In her own terms, she writes, Mary’s proposal was innocent; the leer came from Fuseli. … Whatever the truth, this is a complex relationship, but there’s enough to question Fuseli’s insinuations.
We’ll probably never know. The evidence is slight (letters are missing, journal entries), and it’s unlikely anything new will appear to confirm or dismiss either vision of these events. To me, however, it seems unlikely that Sophia would banish her for anything but a sexual reason.
All right. Time to return to Mary Shelley’s story—to her efforts to become a playwright.
by John Opie, ca. 1797,
the year of her daughter's birth and of her own death