I forget exactly when I stumbled upon this relationship between the widow Mary Shelley (1797–1851) and Washington Irving (1783–1859), whose fiancée, Matilda Hoffman (b. 1791), had died in 1809 before they married. He remained unwed his entire life—though there was at least one another relationship, years later, when he misread a friendship with a much younger woman.
Checking back, I see it was quite early in my research. As I’ve said before, the first biography of Mary that I read was in January 1997 (the month I retired from public school teaching)—Emily W. Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989). Sunstein deals briefly with the Shelly–Irving story—and I, just checking, see that I underlined it heavily when I read it. Unfortunately, I did not commence my detailed journal until February that year, so I can’t add much more.
I’ve told the story (fairly fully) of Mary and Irving in my biography of Mary (The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Kindle Direct, 2012--link), but here’s an abridgment.
In April 1904 an auction house in Philadelphia was offering various literary items. Among them is this: Lot No. 539. A love correspondence between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley … and John Howard Payne; in which Washington Irving is somewhat involved.
Well, let’s get Payne’s story out first. As I mentioned above, he saw Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with Mary in December 1823, and it seems that the young American fell for her—and hard. (To be honest, who wouldn’t?) Payne, born on Long Island in 1791 (so … six years younger than Mary), fell in love with the theater and began performing in New York. A co-manager of one of the theaters was Thomas Cooper, who, as a boy, had been a student of … William Godwin. (Networking!)
Payne was a good actor—and, in fact, he was the first American to play Hamlet in a major production. And his co-star in that? Elizabeth Poe. Edgar’s mother. So—bizarrely—we have a connection here among Poe, Shelley, and Irving, three of literary history’s most celebrated writers of tales of the macabre, of horror (though Irving spent the vast majority of his time writing other things—as did Mary Shelley).
At 22, Payne, having recently performed at the White House for President Madison, headed to London, where, in those days, the “real” theaters were. He was a confident young man, but he could not have arrived at a worse time. A hot new star was illuminating the London stage: Edmund Kean. No one wanted to see anyone else (including Mary, who adored Kean’s work).
So Payne turned to playwriting. And one of his efforts starred … Edmund Kean.
But Payne was continually in debt—and even spent some time in the Fleet (a debtors’ prison), where one of his frequent visitors was William Godwin, Jr., Mary’s half brother. At the time (1820–21) Mary was still in Italy, but her Frankenstein (1818), as we’ve seen, was already a sensation. So surely Payne was already curious about the author—especially since he was friends with her brother.