Monday 16 October 2017

Guest Post ~ Forgotten History, Frances Imlay #Shelley #history @YeOldeHistorian

It is with the greatest of pleasures that I welcome The History Cupboard onto the blog today.
The History Cupboard, founded in 2013, is described by its founder as “…a mishmash of facts about everything you could think about, almost like a stash of niknaks in the back of a cupboard.” 
Over to you...
The Tragic Existence Of 
Frances Imlay
Fanny’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Unfortunately no images of Fanny survive.

‘I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed…’

It has been 200 years since these heartwrenching words were written in the final letter of Fanny Imlay. Today, she is a little known figure, overshadowed by her more famous relations and friends, just as she was for most of her life. Cornered in a difficult situation by those she held most dear, her despair inevitably ended in tragedy. On 9th October, 1816, Fanny Imlay, alone in her inn room, took her own life, even her death a selfless action in an attempt to elevate the pain of those she loved. Now, in the bicentennial year of this tragic event, I hope to remember Fanny and her short life by telling her story here.

Frances Imlay was born on 14th May, 1794, the first child of radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Two years previously, Wollstonecraft had published her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and since then had travelled to France in the midst of the French Revolution. Here, she met and fell in love with American businessman Gilbert Imlay, and the couple embarked on an affair. Having already caused much scandal by the publication of her radical views, Wollstonecraft only increased this by becoming pregnant. Born out of wedlock, Fanny’s very birth was a scandal. The situation became increasingly heightened, when, soon after Fanny was born, Imlay, who had fashioned Wollstonecraft as his wife, abandoned them both, leaving Wollstonecraft heartbroken.

Portrait of William Godwin’ by James Northcote, 1802
With her mother suffering from depression, Fanny’s life was already becoming shadowed by the grief that was to follow her. Mary tried twice to commit suicide by jumping into the River Thames, but thankfully both were unsuccessful. Despite her own personal troubles, she cherished her little daughter, and soon found happiness with fellow radical, philosopher and author William Godwin. Again becoming pregnant out of wedlock, this time she was married, and her second daughter, named Mary after herself, was born legitimately on 30th August, 1797, when Fanny was three years old. For a while things looked bright for the little girl, now settled in a loving family, but sadly, all was not to last. On 10th September, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft died following complications after the birth of her daughter, aged just 38. She left behind the toddling Fanny, the one month old Mary, and a distraught husband.
Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Jane (later Claire) Clairmont
Despite Fanny not being his child, William had grown to love her like his own. He did initially make an attempt to contact her father, but he showed little interest in his daughter, so William single handedly cared for the two little girls he now found in his care. Four years after the death of his first wife, William remarried in 1801, to Mary Jane Clairmont, giving Mary and Fanny a stepmother. Mary Jane had two children of her own, Jane and Charles, then aged three and six, who would grow up alongside the Godwin girls, and they were soon joined by William, the only child of the marriage. It must have been an odd household to live in, with children from four different unions joined together, and as these children grew older, tensions began to rise. Mary and Fanny never got on well with their stepmother, particularly Mary who seems to have despised her.
‘Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley’ by Alfred Clint, 1819

As Fanny grew, she found more and more responsibility landed upon her young shoulders. Her stepfather began to rely heavily on her aid in securing him money from wealthy benefactors in order to pay his debts. One such future benefactor was the Romantic poet  Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great admirer of William Godwin’s work. The contact between the two initially began when Shelley asked if Fanny might come and live with him, his young wife Harriet and her sister Eliza, having long been fascinated by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. At only eighteen, Godwin refused to allow Fanny to go, knowing that Shelley had eloped with Harriet when she was just sixteen. But it did result in a friendship establishing between the two families, and Shelley began to make regular visits to the Godwin household.
He became particularly fond of Fanny, but when she was sent away to Wales by her stepfather, his attentions turned inevitably to her younger half-sister, seventeen year old Mary, who was far more confident and bold than the quiet Fanny. Before she returned from her sojourn, she received news from William that Mary and her step sister Jane (who had now changed her name to Claire) had eloped with Percy to the Continent. To make matters worse, young William had also gone missing. With her adopted family despairing, she was immediately called upon to help out in this disastrous situation, which brought great shame upon the Godwin family name.
Poor Fanny found dealing with the situation a great struggle, with both sides wishing her to help them, but both wanting her help solely for themselves. Fanny was greatly torn between the man who had raised her and adopted her as his own daughter, and the sisters whom she had grown to love. Not knowing what to do, she displeased both by continuing to help William, whilst also keeping up a correspondence with Percy and her sisters. Tensions were now at their highest, and Fanny, the most innocent of the party, bore the brunt of everyone’s anger.

William Shelley
Mary (who was now pregnant with Percy’s child), Claire and Percy returned to England a few months after causing such devastation. With their return, it brought increased pressure upon Fanny, but ever faithful to those she loved, she aided the still teenage Mary when she and her newborn baby were ill, and supported her through the trauma of the little baby’s death. However, Mary soon became pregnant once again, and gave birth to a boy on 24th January, 1816, whom the couple named William after her father, despite the soured relationship between them. The scandal becoming increasingly worse, the group proceeded to return to the Continent to join poet Lord Byron, with little baby William in tow. They left Fanny upset after falling out with Mary.
With her family abandoning her once again to single handedly deal with the frustrated William Godwin and his wife, Fanny began to feel a deep longing to join her siblings on their adventures, and a great desire to heal the disagreement with her sister. She pleaded numerous times to Percy that he might allow her to do so, but despite all of the trouble she had gone through to help them, they denied her of the opportunity, and she was left feeling helpless and alone, with grief, in its worse guise, having finally caught up with her.

The guilty party, who had unintentionally caused Fanny so much heartache and toil, returned to England after a few months in Europe, during which time Mary had begun to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. But little did they realise in their creative bubble quite what a despairing situation Fanny was truly in. Unable to cope any longer, and with no way of escaping from the bitter influences around her, Fanny set out for Swansea, alone. When she arrived, she settled in the Mackworth Arms, having already sent out two letters to her stepfather and to Mary from Bristol. By the time the two received their letters, Fanny was dead.

Both William and Percy set out immediately for Bristol, shocked by the words Fanny had written. By the time they made it to Swansea, Fanny had been dead for days, having taken an overdose of laudanum. Behind her, she left the note that began this post.

Eager to minimise the resulting scandal, William ordered Percy to cover up the suicide as much as possible, which may be the reason part of the note is now missing. The rest of her story is uncertain, and even her reason for taking her life is much disputed. However, from the note she left behind, I think we can conclude that she had reached such a state of desperation that she felt she could no longer go on, and that it would be a relief to those whom she believed she had failed to please. So eager to help others, she had given little care to her own well-being. But we can’t suppose that she never had a happy time in her life. She had a great many friends who enjoyed her company, and she experienced much happiness in life away from the troubles she toiled with.

There is no record of Fanny’s burial or where her grave lies. Her anonymity remains to this day, the twenty two year old’s suicide more often than not only given a brief mention in books written about her famous family. But she had dedicated her life to helping them, and without her, no matter how little they recognised it, their life’s would have been far more difficult. Following her untimely death, Percy wrote a short verse about Fanny, maybe finally realising how good she had really been:

‘On Fanny Godwin
Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken,
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery–Oh Misery,
 This world is all too wide for thee.’

And this brings my post to an end, the tragic tale of a young woman who felt she was of so little importance, when she was, in fact, the only thing holding the crumbling Shelley and Godwin households together…

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the heartbreaking story of Frances Imlay.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx