Sacred Monuments: Mary Shelley's Lives of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft
Michael Rossington, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
||What constitutes a life, how to conceive it, and how to give it form in writing, are all issues at the center of Mary Shelley's oeuvre. Many of her novels are modelled on lives, lived or imagined, but her biographical writings including five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French men and women of letters contributed to Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopædia in the 1830s are now rightly seen as amongst her greatest achievements, finally given the scholarly attention they deserve through the editorial labours of Nora Crook and others. As well as testifying to the depth of her literary and historical knowledge, Shelley's biographies demonstrate her convictions about the relationship between the public and the private, the responsibilitiesand vulnerabilityof the writer, and about feminism and republican values. Life-writing may be seen as that space in which the dissolution of the boundaries between fiction and history enables Shelley to discover her own distinctive, creative voice.|
||An appetite for reading and writing lives was undoubtedly fostered by Shelley's parents. William Godwin's unpublished essay "Of History and Romance" (1797) gives precedence to "the study of individual man" over "general history" and his view of the type of life worth remembering is expressed in an explicitly republican idiom: "Those histories alone are worthy of attentive and persevering study that treat of the development of great genius, or the exhibition of bold and masculine virtues." On returning to London after eloping to the Continent with her future husband Percy Shelley in the autumn of 1814, the seventeen-year-old Mary Godwin's journal records an intensive reading of memoirs by women and men of the French Revolution including such anti-Jacobin works as The Female Revolutionary Plutarch. These studies culminate with her starting to write a life of the Girondin journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray (1760-97) whose translated memoirs her father read and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, helped Joseph Johnson to publish in 1795. The preoccupation with public virtue in her own mature biographical writing of the 1830s owes its origins, then, to her parents' evident interest in the moral and imaginative force of variously exemplary lives. And this bequest is restored to them by their daughter in the way she, in turn, memorializes their lives as republican heroes.|
||On her return to London from Italy in the summer of 1823, Mary Shelley recalled of her and Percy nine years before: "at this seasondid we first meet& these were the very scenes In That churchyard with it[s] sacred tomb was the spot where first love shone in you dear eyes." The appointed venue for their first expression of love on 27 June 1814 the memorial headstone to Wollstonecraftsuggests an act of piety, a desire on the part of the lovers to both imitate and be integrated within the memory of a union they regarded as sacred. The inscription on the plain monument, designed by Godwin, "MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN, | AUTHOR OF | A VINDICATION | OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN" succeeds in memorializing both this union (which had taken place in St Pancras church six months before she died) and the most celebrated critique of the typical institutionalized relationship between the sexes, marriage.|
The notoriety of Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft must have reinforced upon his daughter a sense in which her mother's life was public, published and shaped by her father. It is striking that the only sustained public writing about her mother appears within biographical accounts of her father including the "Memoirs of William Godwin" published in the Bentley's Standard Novels edition of Caleb Williams (1831). Here her language echoes Godwin's Memoirs:
The writings of this celebrated woman are monuments of her moral and intellectual superiority. Her lofty spirit, her eager assertion of the claims of her sex, animate the Vindication of the Rights of Woman;' while the sweetness and taste displayed in her Letters from Norway' depict the softer qualities of her admirable character. Even now, those who have survived her so many years, never speak of her but with uncontrollable enthusiasm. Her unwearied exertions for the benefit of others, her rectitude, her independence, joined to a warm affectionate heart, and the most refined softness of manners, made her the idol of all who knew her.The later incomplete and unpublished Life of William Godwin (1836-40) places this combination of public virtue ("rectitude") and the "softness" of Wollstonecraft's private manners within the context of her personal circumstances in 1796:
"Open as day to melting charity"with a heart brimful to bursting with generous affection& yearning for sympathyshe had fallen on evil days and her life had been one course of hardship, povertylonely struggle & bitter disappointment . . . Difficultiesworldly difficulties indeed she set at nought compared with her despair of good, her confidence betrayedand when once she could conquer the misery that clung to her heart, she struggled cheerfully to meet the poverty that was her inheritance & to do her duty by her darling child.The allusion to Milton's "though fallen on evil days, / On evil days though fallen" demonstrates Shelley's wish to identify her mother's fortitude in the face of adversity with a celebrated model of English republican heroism.
After another visit to St Pancras churchyard in October 1814, Mary and Percy read Godwin's edition of her Posthumous Works containing the letters to Imlay. These may be seen as instructive for the couple not on account of their cruel poignancy (the recipient's rank unworthiness) but in terms of the model of self-analysis they offer. Wollstonecraft articulates a morality of love in which commerce and the "systematic tyranny" of men are critiqued even as the beneficent vitality of the independent imagination is promoted:
Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous.The jointly-written account of their elopement in the summer of 1814, History of a Six Weeks' Tour (anonymously published in 1817), is modelled on the Letters from Norway in its observation of striking features of Alpine nature and culture and its deployment of a liberationist language of the imagination. Wollstonecraft's tale of unreciprocated love in a cold climate is thereby revisited in a dialogue of mutual respect. Moreover, both this journey and the move to Italy with Percy in the spring of 1818 may be seen as fulfilling her mother's ambition to travel to central and southern Europe.
Later, aspects of Wollstonecraft are embodied in the largely respectful account of Madame Roland in Lives who is described as looking forward "to a life of activity and usefulness on a grand scale," and in one of her most compelling fictional heroines, Fanny Derham in Lodore (1835). In the following passage from the novel Derham speaks, as Lisa Vargo points out, as "a follower of the ideas of Godwin and Wollstonecraft":
Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world's great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and the oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots, they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail.In the refusal to disclose Fanny Derham's fate in its Conclusion, the novel gestures towards an exemplary life of the kind Wollstonecraft advocated in Vindication of the Rights of Woman , a life that the fiction-reading public, over forty years later, it is suggested, may still not yet be ready for:
In after times . . . the life of Fanny Derham [may] be presented as a useful lesson, at once to teach what goodness and genius can achieve in palliating the woes of life, and to encourage those, who would in any way imitate her, by an example of calumny refuted by patience, errors, rectified by charity, and the passions of our nature purified and ennobled by an undeviating observance of those moral laws on which all human excellence is founded a love of truth in ourselves, and a sincere sympathy with our fellow-creatures.
Mary Shelley's view of the aims of biography, as expressed in the following passage from her life of Metastasio, shows her debt to her father's respect for the genre and to dominant eighteenth-century models:
It is from passages such as these, interspersed in his letters, that we can collect the peculiar character of the man his difference from others and the mechanisms of being that rendered him the individual that he was. Such, Dr Johnson remarks, is the true end of biography, and he recommends the bringing forward of minute, yet characteristic details, as essential to this style of history; to follow which precept has been the aim and desire of the writer of these pages.
In other ways, though, Lives measures its subjects against often exacting standards of virtuous behaviour in public and private. Take the early nineteenth-century Italian poet Monti whom Shelley vilifies for his political tergiversation:
He had not that zeal and ardour of feeling resulting from a conviction that, however perilous the passage from slavery to liberty, it must be attempted and persevered in, with all its attendant evils, if men are to be brought back from that cowardice, indolence, and selfishness which mark the slave, to the heroism, patience, and intellectual activity which characterise the freeman.Even while some, like Rousseau and Roland, score highly in certain regards, Shelley is uninhibited in exposing their failings. Her object is to teach that writers have responsibilities to conduct themselves as enlightened citizenslike Petrarch who is lauded for being "a patriot in an elevated sense of the word: he exerted himself to civilise his country, and to spread abroad the blessings of knowledge."
Yet there is also a sense that Shelley is conscious of the role of both writer and reader in creating, not simply recording, the subjects of life-writing. Recognizing the success of Rousseau's enterprise to project a singular version of his life, she comments, "Every word we read stamps the 'Confessions' with truth, and animates them with a living image." Rousseau's Confessions supplies a model of the writer carefully laying before the reader materials which will allow judgments to be made, a model she apparently seeks to follow in her life of Machiavelli:
The question of whether he sat down in cold blood, and as approving them, or whether he wrote in irony, the detestable maxims he boldly and explicitly urges, has been disputed by many...It is a curious question, to be determined only by the author himself. We must seek in the actions of his life, and in his letters, for a solution of the mystery. Ample materials are afforded, and if we are unable to throw a clear light on the subject, at least we shall adduce all the evidence, and, after summing it up impartially, leave the jury of readers to decide.
|10.||A desire to "leave the jury of readers to decide" on the basis of "ample materials . . . afforded" sums up the motives behind her unfinished Life of Godwin. In her published "Memoirs," she had described him, because of his reading of the Roman historians, as "early in life a republican in theory." But the major objective of the Life was not simply to provide a narrative of his professional development consistent with his intellectual principles. As Pamela Clemit puts it, "she provides a rehabilitation of Godwin as a private man," and does so by rendering his personal and public life consistent with one another on the model of the most heroic subjects of the Lives. One of the main issues with which she had to contend in the Life was what might seem to others to be his vanity: "There was within him an anticipation of future greatness. Even as a child, I have heard him say, that he was often influenced by the reflection 'How would such or such an act look in the history of my life?'" That Godwin's life was conducted, even orchestrated, for posterity on his own terms (that is the republican values which his writings profess) at once enables and, perhaps, might seem to burden his biographer. In 1838, two years after his death, Mary Shelley wrote, "I was nursed and fed with a love of glory. To be something great and good was the precept given me by my father: Shelley reiterated it." That fulfilment lay in expressing through the biography of her father the values she shared with him, as well as Percy and Mary Wollstonecraft, is not the act of self-sacrifice which it might appear to be.|
|11.||During the period of intense grief after her husband's death in July 1822, Mary Shelley came to see writing his life as a means to self-repair: "I shall write his life& thus occupy myself in the only manner from which I can derive consolation," a view echoed in her comment on Lardner's commission in the 1830s, "my life & reason have been saved by these 'Lives'." But as well as a solace, biography also constitutes a duty, indeed the ultimate act of responsibility towards posterity: "his private life would remain unknown & many of his most excellent qualities sleep with his beloved ashes if I did not fulfil the task of recording them." In 1845, just over five years before she died, she wrote to a friend: "My health has not been at all good lately & I am obliged to postpone all idea of writing myself the Memoirs of my fatherwhich I still look upon as a sacred task devolved on me& I hope one day to acquire strength to fulfil it." Neither her husband's nor her father's lives were written by her in the form she anticipated. Yet theirs and her mother's life are everywhere memorialized in the language of the unique republic of letters which constitutes her oeuvre.|
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