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Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circleby Janet Todd
Synopses & Reviews
From the Romantic period's star circle, the story of its saddest casualty — Fanny Wollstonecraft, daughter of an original feminist, sister of a literary star, and hopeful object of a poet's affection, dead of suicide at the age of nineteen.
Little contemporary information was written about Fanny Wollstonecraft, whose mother Mary Wollstonecraft's scandalous life scarred Fanny's possibilities before she was even born. Deserted by her father, yet reared by Mary's husband William Godwin, Fanny barely had a chance to adjust when her mother died from giving birth to the legitimate and lovely Mary. Fanny was always considered the ungainly one, the plain one, the less intelligent one. Finally her imagination was sparked by the arrival of Percy Bysshe Shelley to the Godwin household. Her infatuation was quickly shattered when Shelley, like so many before him, chose the company of her sister instead, and though Fanny bore this rejection bravely, she was never quite the same after Mary and Shelley eloped along with her step-sister Claire — who would later track down and seduce Lord Byron.
Awash in a sea of sexual radicals, Fanny acted as personal assistant and go-between to this den of hedonists, shuttling information from one faction to the other, covering her sister's lies and creating fabrications of her own. She ultimately ended her life alone in a Welsh seaside hotel, an empty bottle of laudanum and an unsigned note by her side.
Janet Todd's meticulously researched and brilliantly told rendering of this life give fresh and fascinating insight to the Shelley-Byron world even as it draws Fanny out of the shadows of her mother's and sister's stunning careers.
"'It is little surprise that there has been no major biography of Fanny Wollstonecraft — first daughter, by an American lover, of brilliant feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and elder half-sister of Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Fanny produced no books, lived in the shadow of others and found her feelings for Percy Bysshe Shelley ignored, as the poet favored, then married, Mary. Fanny spent a great deal of time as a go-between, helping smooth over the endless sexual and social intrigues of the Shelley and Byron circle. Realizing none of her own dreams, she committed suicide in 1816 at the age of 22. There are moments of terrific insight, such as Mary's odd, confused reaction to Fanny's death and her transforming Fanny into the ill-fated servant girl Justine in Frankenstein, who is unjustly accused of killing a child. Todd has rescued Fanny from ill-deserved obscurity, yet the biography is more of a meditation on the role of all of the women in Byron and Shelley's circle, and its power lies in Todd's soundly and generously feminist reimagining of these women's lives. Not only a splendid work of feminist history, this is an important addition to late 18th- and early 19-century literary criticism.' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"How many deaths can be laid at Percy Bysshe Shelley's door? Possibly his own, along with those of the two men who drowned with him when their yacht sank off the Italian coast. But before that, there was his young wife, Harriet, who committed suicide after he abandoned her. And if one is feeling censorious (and one is), most of his children with his second wife, 'Frankenstein' creator Mary Shelley:... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Three of them died by the age of 3 after needless travel made at his poetical whim. Now, with 'Death and the Maidens,' English scholar Janet Todd is here to remind us of one more casualty of Shelley's unconventional ways: Fanny Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's half sister. 'A small, tragic figure,' Fanny killed herself at the age of 22. She left little behind: a suicide note with her name ripped off, some letters. Todd constructed her biography from the lives of those around her. Fanny's story, she writes, 'must be a group story, a narrative of one of the first families of Romanticism.' As Todd paints it, Fanny was a victim of genius, or at least of the romantic idea of genius. She lived in a time, the beginning of the 19th century, that saw 'the emergence of a cult of genius — the veneration of genius as something that exempted its possessor from the moral and social principles that governed everyday humanity.' Her great misfortune was to have four such exalted beings dominate her short life: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women,' was Fanny's mother, and the radical intellectual William Godwin was her stepfather. Mary Shelley was their daughter. Her birth caused Wollstonecraft's death when Fanny was 3, after which Godwin raised her as his own. Percy Shelley arrived on the scene initially as a rapturous fan of Godwin's, but he stayed on to become the debt-ridden thinker's primary financial supporter (geniuses don't get paying jobs) and Fanny's dear friend. Of all the household — which also included Godwin's unpleasant second wife and her two difficult children, Claire and Charles — Fanny was the least literary and most conventional. 'Skinner Street,' where they lived in London, 'had never been an easy place in which to think well of oneself artistically or intellectually; there were too many egos around, too many visiting celebrities competing for expression and influence.' Fanny tended to recede into the background, running the household and serving as peacemaker. 'When Mary and Claire mouthed progressive views of female independence and rights,' writes Todd, 'Fanny argued that a woman might yearn for a purely domestic existence.' Yet poor Fanny — and it is difficult not to think of her as poor Fanny — would never achieve the domestic stability she craved. She was not related by blood to anyone in the family except Mary, and her position became ever more precarious as Godwin's finances brought him closer to debtors' prison. The one bit of money that was her own, a legacy from her mother's publisher, was swallowed up in her stepfather's debts. Financially dependent, she was also doomed socially, for Godwin had the tremendous bad judgment to reveal in a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft that Fanny was born out of wedlock. Shelley, she came to believe, was her one shot at escape. She may have even loved him. 'It is unlikely that (anybody) could have known for sure,' explains Todd. 'Fanny had had no confidant.' When he ran off to Europe with her 16-year-old sister Mary, and took along stepsister Claire as well, she was devastated. It wasn't the scandal that upset her so much as being left behind, though so were Shelley's wife, Harriet, and their children. 'Fanny never considered herself or expected to become a genius,' according to Todd. But she 'wished to be worthy of genius.' Apparently, Shelley did not think she was. Despite the scandal the elopement created and the strife it caused among her family — Godwin wouldn't speak to his daughter but continued to hound Shelley for money — Fanny did not condemn Shelley's behavior (or even Mary's or Claire's), for she believed wholeheartedly in his genius, and Godwin's. Shelley 'was worthy of the highest esteem: what he did must be right on some higher level,' is how Todd interprets Fanny's reaction. Todd has no patience with the liberties accorded to genius. To her, Shelley bears 'a striking resemblance to the old-style eighteenth-century aristocratic libertine. Yet the artistic glamour of the genius gave Shelley the cult-leader's ability to draw young women of middle-class background not simply into his bed but into the insecurity and infamy of an itinerant sexual commune.' She barely mentions his poetry. Godwin fares no better, 'a shabby, rather absurd and shuffling figure, bereft of the dignity he continued to claim and unworthy of present homage.' Her sympathies lie with Fanny and the other young women who 'knew or were learning the difference between male and female narratives, the coincidence of free love and pregnancy for women, the male ability to skip out of family and country when matters became too complicated.' On Oct. 12, 1816, caught between harping stepparents who found her a financial burden and the genius who would not take her in despite her last desperate pleadings, Fanny swallowed a fatal dose of laudanum at a hotel in Swansea, Wales. In her suicide note, she wrote that she had 'long determined ... 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.' In a final insult, Shelley could have claimed Fanny's body, Todd argues, but let her be buried in an unmarked grave and ripped her signature off the suicide note to avoid scandal. Such are the privileges of genius." Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea, who is a senior editor at The Washington Post Book World, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A sad but intriguing book." Library Journal
"Todd carefully documents poet Shelley's wildly indulgent and destructive relationships and Fanny's thwarted efforts to be part of his and Mary's world." Booklist
About the Author
Janet Todd is Professor of English Literature at the University of Aberdeen, and the author of many books on early women writers, including the biographies Mary Wollstonecraft and The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and Cambridge, England.
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