Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Little Sprite

I’ve just finished reading Janet Todd’s marvellous Death and the Maidens. The story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny is one of the saddest I have ever come across.

Fanny seems to have been one of those people who everyone took advantage of and no one cared for. When, at the age of 19 she committed suicide in an inn in Swansea, her body was unclaimed by the Shelleys or Godwins and she was given a pauper’s burial. Her relatives persisted in lying about her death – and indeed her existence – for years after. It was six weeks before her aunts in Ireland were informed of her passing. Godwin claimed that she had gone to visit friends in Wales and died of a cold. Her step brother Charles received a letter from his sister Claire a few weeks after Fanny’s death which did not mention it. Ten months later he wrote asking after her, and a year after that he had still not been told she was dead. In a memoir of Godwin her sister Mary (Shelley) left Fanny out of their father’s story, implying that she was his only daughter. Each had his or her own interests at heart; none it seems had Fanny’s.

It was a tragic outcome for the mother’s “little darling” who “grows every day more dear”, the “sweet child”, the “little sprite” who was “all life and motion, and her eyes are not the eyes of a fool – I will swear”. But Fanny’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to Mary and was not there when Fanny needed her.

I was staying in Bloomsbury while I was reading Todd’s book, only a ten minute walk from Somers Town where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin lived during their short marriage. I walked where Mary and Fanny had walked; passed the church where Godwin and Wollstonecraft married; the churchyard where Wollstonecraft was buried (her remains have since been moved to Bournemouth), and where Shelley and Mary met to plan their elopement. Their ghosts clutched at me as I hurried to and from Euston, so much so that one afternoon I decided to walk to Somers Town and see the wraiths close up.

I already knew that the terrace of eighteenth-century dwellings known as the Polygon had been demolished long since, remaining like a ghost of itself only in a street name. Gone, too, were the two fields across which the family would see their home drawing closer as they came home from an outing. On the council flats at Oakshott Court there is a brown, circular plaque recording that Mary Wollstonecraft lived in a house near the site. I don’t recall seeing any mention of Godwin. There is nothing here that Mary and Fanny set eyes on, except perhaps the sky, and no doubt that has changed as the quality of air pollutants has altered.

Even so, Mary Wollstonecraft was a vivid presence to me. I wondered how differently things might have turned out for Fanny, for all of the people at 29 Polygon, if Mary Wollstonecraft had lived. I wondered what, as a grand old dame of letters, she would have thought of having Charles Dickens for a neighbour when his family lodged at No 17. I wondered how she would have felt if she had been able to look back from the afterlife and watch her sweet child’s struggles. I wondered what she might make of the paths women have taken if she could see the sex shops and lap dancing clubs, the raucous, plaid-skirted girls tumbling out of school, the bag lady shuffling up the steps of St Pancras Church.

There are as many stories as there are people, and more, for lives are retold as the present requires, or as memories change, or as others bend them to their own will. Todd suggests that none of the people who surrounded Fanny were altogether innocent of her death. I am sure there are others who will not agree with her portrayals of Shelley, Godwin, Mary, or Claire. But it was not their stories I was thinking of last weekend. It was a memory of Mary and Fanny Wollstonecraft, mother and daughter, I carried with me along those Somers Town streets.

Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle, Janet Todd, Profile Books 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft: The Collected Letters, ed Janet Todd, Penguin Classics, 2004

Shelley: poet, predator and prey – review of Death and the Maidens, The Observer, 1 July 2007 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jul/01/poetry.features

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