I've always been intrigued by the members of the Shelley Circle: the literary talents, the dramatic personalities, the entangled love affairs, jealousies, and tragedies. It's easy to understand why these figures are compelling subjects for historical fiction writers. Today Suzanne Burdon, author of Almost Invincible, takes a close look at Mary Shelley's fraught relationship with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont.
Mary Shelley’s Real Demon
Mary Shelley is fascinating because of her authorship, as a girl of eighteen, of the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein. She is also remembered as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. My book, Almost Invincible, is a reimagining of the nine years of her relationship with the poet.
There was though, one aspect of Mary's story, a particularly toxic relationship, which fascinated me above all. ‘Don't leave me alone with her. She’s been the bane of my life since I was three years old!’ were the words of Mary when in her fifties, and her step-sister, Claire, proposed a visit. As I continued to research her story, I noticed how much the tension and animosity caused by Claire was a continuous sore that infected almost everything that happened to Mary.
In 1814, when Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, they took Claire with them. It was a bad decision. There was already plenty of scandal in the elopement of a sixteen-year-old girl with a man who was already a husband and father. Shelley’s reputation as an unprincipled atheist led London society to assume the worst, and the rumour was that Mary’s father, William Godwin, always in debt, had sold the girls to Shelley – Mary for £800 and Claire for £700. What was worse, from Mary’s perspective, was that Claire was also in love with Shelley and thereafter devoted herself to undermining Mary in Shelley’s eyes.
Mary was the daughter of two literary superstars, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, who wrote a radical treatise called Political Justice, famous in its day. Mary Shelley was expected to have strong creative genes, which she eventually realised in writing Frankenstein and several other novels and stories. Her heritage was one of her early attractions for Shelley. Claire was the daughter of William Godwin’s venal second wife and one of her mother’s previous lovers. She had literary aspirations herself and was jealous of the general assumption of Mary’s intellectual superiority.
Claire lived with Mary and Shelley during most of their relationship. She had more stamina than Mary, who was often sick, especially when pregnant. Shelley hated to go out alone, and there was always Claire ready and willing to accompany him. Claire and Shelley would stay up late discussing utopias when Mary had to go to bed early. Claire was also less inhibited than Mary – once, for instance, she was happy to bathe naked in a stream with Shelley while Mary refused. Shelley took responsibility for Claire since, in his eyes, although she was the same age as Mary, she was a sweet, if sometimes wrong-headed child who needed rescuing from her appalling mother, and could be educated out of her temper tantrums and vitriolic outbursts toward Mary. Although she was mainly confident of Shelley's preference, Mary had to fight against her own jealousy as she tried to keep the moral high ground. On a few occasions, though, she snapped and made Shelley send Claire away for a while with a classic 'her or me' threat.
|author Suzanne Burdon|
When Claire had Byron’s child, much of Mary and Shelley’s life was dictated by the need to conceal the existence of the child from their families and society and to mediate between Byron and Claire as to the child’s welfare. Byron took responsibility for his daughter but refused to see Claire, whom he called ‘a damned bitch’. Taking the child to Byron in Italy was one of the main reasons for leaving England in 1819, and the consequences included the death of Mary’s baby in Venice.
Fortunately, for Mary and Shelley, their writing was what kept them sane through all their trials and was the bedrock of their relationship. They had great faith in each other's literary genius. Ultimately, it was the one area that Claire could not manipulate or undermine.
The title of the book Almost Invincible is taken from a letter that Mary's father wrote to friends whom Mary was to visit, describing his daughter. He said: 'She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.' Mary certainly had to prove that prophecy in the nine years she spent with Shelley.
It took me four years to research the book, and I visited many sites that are relevant to her story – in the UK, Italy and Switzerland – as well as the major collections of original documents, in Oxford and New York. It was a pleasure getting to know Mary Shelley.
Suzanne Burdon is a social researcher and author. Born in London, she now lives in Sydney. Her website is www.suzanneburdon.com. Almost Invincible was published by Criteria Publishing in October at £9.99/$16.99 in trade paper / $7.99 ebook.