"In 1816 Shelley’s 21-year-old wife Harriet, whom he had deserted for Godwin’s daughter Mary, committed suicide. Her death came only a few weeks after 22-year-old Fanny’s. In the world of pragmatic compromise envisaged by Jane Austen at about the same time, enthusiastic Harriet as Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility should have lived to find a kinder man, while compassionate Fanny could and should have gained the rewards earned by her namesake Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Instead both encountered Shelley’s Utopian absolutism."
Fanny Wollstonecraft was Mary Wollstonecraft's illegitimate daughter by a faithless lover, and Harriet Westbrook Shelley was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's first wife. There are, I believe, no surviving portraits of either of them.
Poor Fanny grew up in a blended household. Her step-father was the philosopher William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft was briefly his lover, then his wife. She died after giving birth to Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. Godwin later married a neighbor who had two children by two different fathers, leading to a household in which none of the six children had the same set of parents.
Janet Todd uses the surviving written records and makes intelligent surmises to fill in the gaps, recreating the emotions and attitudes of the unhappy, cash-pinched household on Skinner Street and the fatal last journey that Fanny took before she killed herself.
Pretty young Harriet Westbrook, Shelley's first wife, has had her defenders and detractors and her story is also told here, including what her detractors said about her final months, versus what is actually known. Harriet fell under Shelley's spell when she was a teenager. I have sometimes thought about her emotional journey; she was a runaway bride at 16 and a suicide at 21. She would have started out idolizing her husband and believing that he was destined to do great things with his poetry, and bring about a new world based on equality and freedom. She enthusiastically adopted his political views and tried to learn Greek and Latin. Then she would have slowly realized that he could not handle money or make rational decisions about where to live or who to live with. Perhaps she came to see that his judgement about people was not infallible; or at least, she might have noticed that he had a tendency to go from enthusiastically praising someone to scornfully rejecting them. Certainly once she became a mother she had to come down from Shelley's elevated spiritual plane and worry about practical matters, such as paying the bills.
I also enjoyed learning additional details about the school teacher Eliza Hitchener, who went from being idolized to being detested by Shelley, as well as more about Mary Wollstonecraft's sisters Eliza and Everina who had to distance themselves from their sister's reputation, and what this meant for their niece Fanny.
This might not be the book you turn to for an introduction to the story of Shelley and his circle, nor, I think, is it intended to be. Its focus is to respectfully and sympathetically tell the story of Fanny and Harriet, who certainly deserve to be remembered.
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