Normally a narrative about a quiet girl, alternatively ignored and put upon by all whom she loves, killing herself alone in a pub and having her suicide note tampered with – these would the ingredients of fiction. Not in Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens, a book I was sent for review a shamefully long time ago. This biography of the Shelley/Wollstonecraft circle focalises the dysfunctional bunch around the figure of the least well-known: Fanny Wollstonecraft. Daughter of one famous Mary, sister to another, sister-in-law to Percy Shelley and observer of a whole crowd of renowned figures, Fanny’s life and death remain much less documented. Todd redresses this, but uses Fanny’s life as a viewpoint rather than the be and end all of this deeply researched but eminently approachable book.
Todd opens the book with this suicide (so I’m not giving anything away), and there is a constant understated thread throughout, as the reader tries to understand what could lead a girl in her early 20s to commit this act.
She was born to Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft, famous authoress of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (which I have started reading in a tatty Dover Thrift Edition) amongst other things, and soon step-daughter to William Godwin, whose Political Justice was busy inspiring a generation of young idealists, including one Percy Bysshe Shelley. Though Shelley never swayed from his ‘ideal’, the rest of the world did –
‘In Political Justice [Godwin] had declared the love of fame a delusion; yet he was finding it difficult to adapt to his changed public position, no longer London’s pre-eminent intellectual but simply a cultural anachronism, his great work, which had seared the minds of so many in the radical 1790s, now largely unread and his frank Memoirs a byword for indelicacy.’
It was in these Memoirs that anyone who wasn’t already aware could discover news of Fanny’s illegitimacy. No secrecy there. She grew up with an unfriendly stepmother, Mary having died in childbirth to another Mary, and the pity, scorn or envy of a public which couldn’t imagine itself in her position. Fanny certainly shared some of her parents’ views, often with fervour, but was never allowed to be in the position to exercise them. Much of her life is summarised when Todd writes: ‘Fanny’s quotidian life might be dismal but the imaginative life fed by poetic visions could be rich indeed’
These poetic visions came partly in the form of Shelley, who initially wished to meet Godwin, and Wollstonecraft’s progeny, but ended up in an abscondment with Fanny’s two sisters, Mary and Claire. Not, one notes, Fanny – who was often a go-between, ferrying messages or bearing disapproval, but never a true confidante. Todd speculates as to whether or not Fanny loved Shelley – something perhaps even she didn’t know, but characteristic of a book which doesn’t sweep away human emotions simply because they are inexact.
Shelley wrote to Fanny at one point that, ‘despite being “one of those formidable & long clawed animals called a Man”, he was inoffensive and lived on vegetables.‘ You and me both, Percy – but the self-portraits he painted were often delusional. He claimed in Defence of Poetry, as Todd cites, that the Poet “is more delicately organized than other men, and sensible to pain and pleasure, both his own and that of others, in a degree unknown to them.” What price self-knowledge! Shelley, at least the Shelley we see in Death and the Maidens, was not sensible in any sense of the word – forever acting in his own interests (thinly disguised as being his ideals) he left one wife while pregnant, had numerous affairs, continually tried to lure his sisters and other young girls from those who loved them, and bewailed his own situation whenever it stepped lower than blissful. The most discordant aspect of his character is that he continued to pay Godwin money – for no other apparent reason than appreciation of his talent – long after Godwin refused to give audience to Shelley.
According to Hogg (and also quoted by Todd), Shelley was ‘altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life’. It is to Todd’s great credit that the reverse is true for her – what could have become sensationalised or hand-wringing is, in fact, told with a caring honesty. Death and the Maidens does not fall into the other trap, which much literary biography does, of dryness and dullness – though the research is doubtless impeccable, Todd does not write this work in an overly-scholarly manner. By that I mean it is perfectly permissable to start sentences “Fanny must have felt…” or “Perhaps she would have…” – in a determinedly highbrow work, these might have been axed. As it is, Death and the Maidens is informal enough that, while intelligent research is never compromised, it is a much more approachable work than many on the period.
Wherever Fanny went and whatever she did, the dual curses of being notorious in public and ignored in private plagued her – she was continually thrust into the background of the limelight, as it were, an unhappy compromise. Had she been raised in a normal, average family, she had the temperament to live a long and fairly insignificant life. She was intelligent without being a genius; emotional without being unstably passionate. Janet Todd produces a fascinating work which shows both the tragedy and beauty of Fanny’s short life, and offers a strikingly unique angle on some of the period’s most prominent figures.