Read The Monsters Online

Authors: Dorothy Hoobler

The Monsters (7 page)

Using collected letters and notes, Godwin described all of Mary’s lovers, with a candor that ignored common delicacy. He sought
letters from those other lovers; one was Henry Fuseli, who opened a drawer and showed him a bundle of Mary’s correspondence
but then slammed it shut, saying, “Damn you, that is all that you will see of them.” Besides Mary’s love life, Godwin discussed
her suicide attempts and pregnancies, and praised her rejection of Christianity. (This was not actually true; she had retained
her faith in the Church of England.) The intensity of Godwin’s sorrow is reflected in the great detail he devotes in the
Memoirs
to his daughter’s birth and his wife’s death. Writing in a white heat, he finished the manuscript in less than three months;
it was published in January 1798.

Godwin’s painfully candid
Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”
caused a sensation. His revelations about Mary Wollstonecraft’s love affairs with other men caused a scandal in the increasingly
conservative England. The Tory press had a field day, calling Mary a whore and Godwin a pimp. The
European Magazine
wrote that the
Memoirs
would be read “with disgust by every female who had pretensions to delicacy; with detestation by everyone attached to the
interests of religion and morality; and with indignation by anyone who might feel any regard for the unhappy woman, whose
frailties should have been buried in oblivion.” Even more biting was the
Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine,
which summed up its editors’ feelings about the book with this ditty:

For Mary verily would wear the breeches

God help poor silly men from such usurping b——s.

Richard Polwhele, a poet and clergyman, in his antifeminist poem
The Unsex’d Females,
gave voice to sentiments that many people felt but refrained from saying: “I cannot but think that the Hand of Providence
is visible in her life, her death, and in the Memoirs themselves. As she was given up to her ‘heart’s lusts,’ and let ‘to
follow her own imaginations,’ that the fallacy of her doctrines and the effects of an irreligious conduct might be manifested
to the world.” Others were appalled that Godwin could expose his dead wife to such scorn. Wollstonecraft’s friend William
Roscoe wrote:

Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life,

As daughter, sister, parent, friend and wife

But harder still in death thy fate we own,

Mourn’d by thy Godwin—with a heart of stone.

Wollstonecraft’s reputation would remain tarnished by Godwin’s
Memoirs
until the middle of the twentieth century. Wollstonecraft’s ideas of equality were so severely mocked by critics of Godwin’s
intended memorial that subsequently feminists would choose narrower goals, such as suffrage for women, rather than the broad
demand for equal rights that Wollstonecraft had recommended. Though her daughter did not read the criticisms at the time they
were published, she became aware of them, and even suffered personally. The
Memoirs
and her mother’s reputation for immoral sexual behavior gave little Mary an unsavory notoriety even as a child. The world
truly was aware of her before she was aware of the world.

G
odwin was truly shocked by the response to his tribute, and it deepened his sorrow and depression over his wife’s death. Having
enjoyed his marriage, and wanting to find a mother for his two children, Godwin began to court a Mrs. Elwes, a widow, in the
spring of 1799. His attentions cooled when he learned that his neighbor Maria Reveley’s husband had died, and Godwin proposed
to her. Though she had enjoyed caring for the children, she had no desire to marry Godwin. When he shifted his attentions
back to Mrs. Elwes, she also turned him down. Next he tried to revive a friendship with the writer Elizabeth Inchbald by sending
her an advance copy of his novel
St. Leon
with a note asking to visit her. She answered that she could only see him in company. “While I retain the memory of all your
good qualities,” she wrote, “I trust you will allow me not to forget your bad ones.” This was hardly the response that Godwin
had hoped for; worse yet, she enclosed an unfavorable critique of the book. Godwin was crushed—so depressed that he could
barely go outside. He wrote in his journal, “This day I was desirous of calling on someone, to learn more exactly the character
of the book, but had not the courage . . . to look an acquaintance in the face.”

Godwin’s declining fame and influence brought about a loss of self-confidence that led to the deterioration of his health.
The first symptoms were seen at Johnson’s dinner parties, where he would drop off to sleep or lose consciousness. It was the
onset of narcolepsy, which would worsen over the years. During an attack, he would lose control of his muscles, his jaw would
drop, his legs lose their strength, and then he would crumple into sleep. He had the first of these fits in February 1800,
and they would recur sporadically for the rest of his life.

Some of his old friends now were shunning him for political reasons. The French Revolution which he so admired had mutated
into an aggressive nationalistic crusade. French troops were fighting successfully all over Europe, and in England as well
as other countries, revolutionary supporters such as Godwin were reviled. Godwin was spat on in the street—to many English,
he represented atheism, sexual immorality, and treason.

He was no less hard on himself than others were. In 1798, he made a personal assessment of his character:

I am tormented about the opinion others may entertain of me; fearful of intruding myself, and cooperating in my own humiliation
. . . and by my fear producing the thing I fear. . . . This, and perhaps only this, renders me often cold, uninviting and
unconciliating in society. . . . My nervous character . . . often deprives me of self possession, when I should repel injury
or correct what I disapprove. Experience of this renders me, in the first case a frightened fool, and in the last a passionate
ass.

Godwin hired a female housekeeper to take care of the children while he was working. His friend James Marshall, who often
served as Godwin’s secretary and literary agent, took the place of a parent when Godwin was away on long trips. Godwin tried
to keep in touch with his family through letters. On one occasion he wrote to Marshall:

Their talking about me, as you say they do, makes me wish to be with them, and will probably have some effect in inducing
me to shorten my visit. It is the first time I have been seriously separated from them since they lost their mother. . . .
Tell Mary I will not give her away, and she shall be nobody’s little girl but papa’s. Papa is gone away, but papa will very
soon come back again.

As Mary grew from infancy to childhood, she desperately wanted to please her father and resented his offering any attention
to others. His method of disciplining her when he disapproved of her behavior was to retreat into a calm silence. Such treatment
devastated Mary. Craving affection, she received coldness. Later, in her most personal novel,
Mathilda,
written at a time of loss and desolation in her private life, she would portray an incestuous father-daughter relationship.
Mathilda’s mother died a few days after her birth, intensifying the relationship between father and daughter, which appears
to have been close to wish fulfillment.

W
hen Mary was four, Godwin found a second wife—or rather, she found him. At the time, the Godwins lived at the Polygon, a recently
built housing development on the outskirts of London. The community was a set of balconied houses on the edge of a field.
One day in 1801, Godwin’s new next-door neighbor, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties named Mary Jane Clairmont, called
to him from her balcony: “Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?” What man could resist?

Clairmont was a bit of a mystery woman. She called herself a widow, but the identity (and fate) of her two children’s father
or fathers is uncertain. Even her last name is in doubt—she registered herself under two different names when she and Godwin
were married. Clairmont had a three-year-old daughter named Clara Mary Jane; this child would later call herself Claire. Mrs.
Clairmont also had a son about Fanny’s age named Charles. Charles was apparently the son of Karl Gaulis, a Swiss, but Clara
Mary Jane may have had a different father. In later life Claire tried many times to find out the secrets of her birth, apparently
without success.

Godwin was quite a catch for Mary Jane Clairmont, and she soon reeled him in. They were married in a church, apparently the
bride’s decision, in December of that year. James Marshall was the only witness present. The new Mrs. Godwin soon expelled
him from the household.

Four-year-old Mary was devastated by her father’s remarriage. She resented having to share his love with another and was jealous
of her new mother. Moreover, there were obvious signs of the new bond between husband and wife: Jane was soon pregnant. Their
first child was stillborn, but that was followed by a second child, born March 28, 1803. He was christened William—the namesake
that William Godwin had expected from his first wife, the boy that little Mary had not been.

In Mary’s eyes, Jane Clairmont would always compete with her mother’s ghost. The two women were very different people—Wollstonecraft
was emotional, almost manic-depressive, but Clairmont was shrewd and competent, ambitious, and a manager. She proved to have
a head for business, but lacked warmth, at least toward her stepchildren. Many of Godwin’s friends shared his daughter’s dislike
for her new mother. The children’s book author Charles Lamb referred to her as the “widow with green spectacles,” comparing
her to Robespierre, who was also noted for wearing tinted eyeglasses. Usually generous in his opinions, Lamb called her “That
damn’d infernal bitch Mrs. Godwin.” Another visitor was more unkind, calling her “a pustule of vanity.”

Mary grew up in a strange blended family of five children with no child having the same two parents. First there was Mary’s
older half-sister Fanny, who was quiet and withdrawn. Fanny’s biological father had by now vanished, never to be heard from
again, and Godwin brought her up as his own child, not revealing the truth until she was about eleven; she was called Fanny
Godwin. In his novel
St. Leon,
Godwin describes a character who bears an eerie likeness to Fanny; the passage contains a key to her ultimate fate: “Uncommonly
mild and affectionate. . . . She appeared little formed to struggle with the difficulties of life and frowns of the world;
but, in periods of quietness and tranquillity nothing could exceed the sweetness of her character and the fascination of her
manners.”

Mary’s new step-siblings, Charles and Clara Jane, visibly reflected the fact that each had different fathers: Charles was
fair while the boisterous, temperamental Clara Jane had dark hair and eyes. Finally there was Mary’s half brother William,
the baby of the family, who was doted on by the second Mrs. Godwin. Mary had plenty of competition for her father’s attention.

Aaron Burr, the former United States vice president, visited the Godwin family and found the household charming. He referred
to the girls in mock-French as “les goddesses,” and recalled that the children often gave little performances and lectures.
He noted that eight-year-old William read “from a little pulpit . . . with great gravity and decorum” just as William Sr.
had in his childhood. After little William’s “sermon,” the family had tea and “the girls sang and danced an hour.” Fanny and
Mary, he reported, were talented in drawing and Clara had a lovely singing voice.

The household’s routine was organized around Godwin’s work needs. In the mornings everyone was expected to be quiet while
he wrote in his study. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after a visit to the Godwin home, described it as having a “cadaverous
silence . . . quite catacombish.” After lunch, Godwin would take the children for a walk, which he used for imparting lessons
of natural history. Clara would recall that she and the others worked at “learning and studying . . . we all took the liveliest
interest in the great questions of the day—common topics, gossiping, scandal, found no entrance in our circle.”

In Godwin’s philosophy, self-examination was the principal means of improvement. Once a person had concluded that his or her
actions were correct, then he or she might disregard the criticism, indeed even the condemnation, of others. Mary would follow
this philosophy to a fault. Clara Jane Clairmont, who was also raised according to Godwin’s principles, recalled later in
life: “Nothing could be more refined and amiable than the doctrines instilled into us—only they were utterly erroneous.”

Though the two boys went to school, Godwin taught the girls personally, giving them the essentials of literacy and basic mathematics,
the history of Greece, Rome, and England, as well as literature in both Latin and English. (Mary thus did not get the advantage
of attending a coeducational school outside the home, which her mother had advocated in the
Vindication
.) The only outside teacher for the girls was a man who came to teach singing and reading music once a week. Even Clara was
sent to a boarding school for a while, but Mary’s teacher was the man she revered, her father. Years later, Mary admitted
that Godwin “was too minute in his censures, too grave and severe.” Yet she also wrote of him that “Until I knew Shelley,
I may justly say that he was my God.”

There were constant reminders of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Godwin home. Over the mantel hung a large portrait of her, which
had been painted by Wollstonecraft’s friend John Opie. Visitors to the house saw it when they entered, and it often stimulated
stories and memories of her, while little Mary sat listening. Godwin himself continued to idolize her even though he had remarried.

One of Mary’s earliest memories was of her father taking her to her mother’s grave, teaching Mary to spell her own name by
tracing the letters on the tombstone, which read:

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