Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle

Overview

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 ...

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Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley circle

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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 Frankensteinauthor 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. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

October 1816: a young woman is found dead at a Welsh seaside inn. Her death is ruled a suicide, and she is buried in a pauper's grave. This troubled woman had spent her life near the periphery of a famous group of literary celebrities. Fanny Wollstonecraft was born illegitimately to feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was her half-sister; the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her brother-in-law. Todd (English literature, Univ. of Aberdeen; Mary Wollstonecraft) recounts the story of this unfortunate person who was maltreated and often ignored by her famous relatives. Not much has been written about Fanny, and no portraits of her exist. Even her suicide was covered up to avoid embarrassing a family not immune to scandal. Todd fills this void by poignantly depicting Fanny's tragic life. Each chapter focuses on various individuals who touched her in some way. Ostracized in her sister's shadow, Fanny was further devastated when her love for Shelley was not returned, and the poet instead married her sister. A sad but intriguing book recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—Erica Swenson Danowitz

Kirkus Reviews
A meticulously researched retelling of the tumult of the early 19th century through the most tumultuous family of them all. Despite the countless chronicles written about the lives and times-and primarily, the scandals-of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley family, Todd (Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation, 2004, etc.) unearths yet another in this story of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft's eldest daughter Fanny, who committed suicide at the age of 22. Born out of wedlock to Wollstonecraft and the American cad Gilbert Imlay, Fanny was just three years old when her beloved mother died giving birth to her half-sister Mary, who would become famous both as the author of Frankenstein and for her elopement with the fatally attractive Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was just 16. Shortly after Wollstonecraft's early death, her husband, the famed political writer William Godwin, published a biography in which every detail of Wollstonecraft's sexual indiscretions (including those with him) were laid bare, dooming Fanny to life as a known bastard. But Fanny's real tragedy, it seemed, was to be the dull one in a family toward whose society everyone in the known world was irresistibly drawn, from Shelley to Lord Byron to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Aaron Burr. In a family of writers, she alone seemed to lack facility with the pen, and, while her half- and step-sisters engaged in scandalous sexual adventures, Fanny was kept duty-bound at home. Because so little is known about the melancholy young woman, Todd is forced to speculate on several key points-for example, what exactly caused her to commit her final act-but she wisely structures thenarrative like a mystery, finely drawing out the tension until the end. Fanny remains largely an excuse to tell the story, and the anonymous suicide who was buried in a pauper's grave remains a cipher. An engaging account of the pain of anonymity in the presence of selfish genius.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582433394
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet 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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