But by the start of the new year of 1823, still in Italy, Mary had begun writing once again. Sometime during that year she began a story, now titled by its editor “An Eighteenth Century Tale: A Fragment.” It takes place in Buckinghamshire, along the Thames between Marlow (where Mary had lived with Bysshe) and Henley. In the opening paragraph, Mary describes the bucolic wonders of the area and of the visitors who came to the lady’s home to amuse themselves and to enjoy the short season of heat as pleasantly as they could.
One day, relaxing under an umbrageous oak after a morning on the river, the lady’s companions ask her to tell about the strange events that had occurred in her life—if the remembrance would not distress her. She agrees—but only if her guests will reciprocate.
Just this far along (the first page of the two-page fragment) I’m reminded, of course, of the “Frankenstein summer” of 1816 when Byron, Mary, Bysshe, Claire Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidori gathered in Byron’s villa (Villa Diodati) above Lake Geneva and heard its owner suggest they all write a ghost story.
Anyway, the guests in Mary’s story all agree (after some discussion), and the lady declares that she will begin—that I may set a good example for the others. She proposes that they meet each day in the same spot, devoting each day to the tale(s) of a different guest. (Reminders of Scherezade, as well—though no execution looms.)
She begins, saying that her parents had died before she was ten—and she remembers only her mother. (Mary, of course, had no memories of her living mother, Mary Wollstonecraft—just of her words on the page, words that Mary had read and would read repeatedly throughout her life.)
She says that she was brought up by an aunt who had a tender affection for me. And then the story abruptly terminates, mid-sentence: and she spared no pains in teaching me the rudiments of all the fashionable ….
Who knows why writers lay aside their work? There are all sort of reasons, of course, ranging from the feeling/knowledge that the story is going nowhere to the bite of a better idea. And there are reasons of physical and mental health. Perhaps Mary had wished to have these stories deal in a fundamental way with her own losses—but just could not proceed?
Editor Charles E. Robinson says in his notes that he has been unable to determine if she finished the story, if she published it anonymously somewhere, if ….
Some scholars believe that she’d perhaps dropped the story because she’d turned to one that was flowing more fluently from her imagination and pen—“The Heir of Mondolfo”—a story set in Italy, in countryside she knew well, near Naples.