Some final words about Mary's play Midas and the writing that ensued ...
A couple of hundred pages ago, I mentioned that Mary’s father, William Godwin, had published a novel in 1799 not long after the death of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, in September 1797. St Leon, you’ll recall, tells the story of a man who learns both the secret of eternal earthly life and of the “philosopher’s stone”—a way to transform base metal into gold. That pretty much fixes him for this sublunary life! It’s from a strange, dying old man that he learns these things, by the way—an old man who swears St Leon to secrecy about the art of multiplying gold, and the power of living for ever.
If you’re wondering why the old man didn’t keep himself alive via the same technique. Well, Godwin explains it: The health of the stranger visibly declined; but this was a circumstance which he evidently regarded with complacency. The old man is tormented by the losses he has suffered—the deaths of loved ones especially. And he just does not want to live any longer in a world where those loved ones do not exist. (St Leon will grow to understand this.)
Of course, his eternal youth complicates St Leon’s love and family life. (His seventeen-year-old son would run away—as Godwin’s daughter, Mary, did in 1814; did he remember the St Leon episode when he discovered Mary’s absence?) And St Leon’s wife, Marguerite, is incredulous about the story he tells about how he’s suddenly acquired so much money. I commented earlier about how Godwin wrote about the death of Marguerite with a passion and poignancy that surely approached his own when his own wife died.
Anyway, the relevance here: Mary’s short play Midas is clearly based on her father’s children’s book Pantheon. We know as well that Mary repeatedly read her parents’ books, so she also knew the story of St Leon, the man who, to some degree, shared Midas’ gift—and problems.
After Bysshe Shelley drowned in the summer of 1822, Mary was initially too distraught to do any writing. Lord Byron aided her by giving her some copying work to do. Making “fair copies” was a tedious necessity in the pre-Xerox and word-processing era: Writers would have to rewrite entire novels (in their most legible penmanship)—often twice (once for a prospective publisher, once for themselves); wealthy writers (like Byron) could hire scriveners to do the drudgery for them. Mary—who had a very legible hand—did good work for Byron, and she’d done fair copies for her husband’s verse, as well—not to mention her own novels and other work.
But by the start of the new year of 1823, still in Italy, Mary had begun writing once again.