Monday, November 03, 2014

Mary Shelley's real demon: A guest essay by Suzanne Burdon

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
Suzanne Burdon

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.

When I started to research beyond those well-known aspects of her life, I found a complex story. She was a strong but vulnerable woman living in an unsympathetic society, and most of what she did was controversial. She was a teenage rebel, a grieving mother, a determined author, and a long-suffering lover of a man with ideas well ahead of his time. Her life was operatic perhaps more like a soap opera! There were more scandals, deaths, tortured relationships, loves and losses than in several seasons of Desperate Housewives. It was full of crises and high-flown emotions passion, jealousy, grief and hate. As you might imagine, many aspects of it resonated strongly with modern life.

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
Even the writing of Frankenstein is in some ways a result of Claire's influence. Because she was jealous of Mary’s relationship with Shelley, she tried to outdo her by seducing Lord Byron. When Byron fled London for the continent, Claire persuaded Mary and Shelley that they should go too, partly because she knew Byron was already tired of her and that meeting Shelley would be a fresh attraction. Famously, in Byron’s Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, during the long, dark, ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, Byron threw out the challenge of writing ghost stories, and Frankenstein was conceived.

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.comAlmost Invincible was published by Criteria Publishing in October at £9.99/$16.99 in trade paper / $7.99 ebook.


  1. Wow -- this sounds incredible (one of those situations where the reality really outshines what one could imagine!). Dying to get my hands on this book -- perfect for the dark winter. Thanks for highlighting this one, Sarah!

  2. I've long felt that Richard Holme's biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, is not only Holmes's finest work, may be the most penetrating and compassionate vision of these three and their fraught relationships with each other and the others in their circles such as Byron. It is certainly more generous to Claire Clairemont than almost any other work. Claire is someone women today love to hate on, it seems, judging by many a woman writer of my acquaintance -- she does provide them a great deal of ammunition. :)

    Holmes is particularly penetrating in his recognition of very, very young all three of them were when they met, and the initial effect of that emotional and physical immaturity upon their behaviors, escapades and work.

    He's also splendid at relating all this to class relationships (particularly that between Shelley himself and Byron) and the intellectual legacy for these young persons of burning mind and imagination of the French Revolution.

    Love, C.

  3. Endlessly fascinating. And yes: relationships that drive us crazy, literature that keeps us sane.

  4. Anonymous8:54 PM

    This was so interesting! Thank you for hosting Suzanne, Sarah.

  5. Thanks for all of your comments on Suzanne's post.

    Claire does get a bad rap these days, for her insistence on inveigling herself into the Shelleys' lives, but her story isn't completely unsympathetic. You can weigh that against how she must have felt, seeing how Byron treated their daughter (a tragic story). She fascinates me because of her later travels (she became a governess in Russia) but also because she outlived them all and left a venomous memoir, which was only recently discovered and confirmed. It makes you realize there's a lot to their story that's still unknown and untold.

  6. Anonymous4:42 AM

    I have to disagree with your assessment of Claire as manipulative and undermining in regard to her role as the "plus one" in Mary and Shelley's relationship. I have devoured books and essays and journals about the Shelleys and Claire since I was in my twenties (I am now sixty three) and although my first sympathies were solidly on Mary's side when it came to her sometimes toxic relationship with Claire, I have of late switched my allegiance to Claire, having realized that Mary was the one whose own insecurity and jealousy provoked much of the tension between herself and Claire. Claire was, from the outset, a much stronger and more primal force than Mary, but Mary's deep intelligence, coupled with her literary heritage, was an irresistible draw for Shelley. Nevertheless, he understood and loved Claire, and their bond irritated Mary, who knew of her mate's propensity for "collecting and protecting" women. Claire and Mary, being very different personalities and de facto sisters as well, fought and squabbled the way two women often do in that situation. But I have never found any evidence that Claire undermined anything in Mary's relationship with Shelley. The death of little Clara in Pisa was entirely due to Shelley's impulsive decision to arrange things so that Claire's reputation would not be tarnished. It was nothing that Claire herself demanded that he do. Shelley, though usually well-intentioned, was famous for his impetuosity and many people suffered for it. The very fact that Mary named their daughter "Clara" shows that her attitude to her stepsister was not one of unbroken resentment at all. As for Mary's "she had been the bane of my life" comment in regard to Claire's proposed visit some years later, Mary was at that point very fragile and probably already feeling the effects of the tumor that would eventually take her life. In her journal at that time, she had written of her regret for the way she and Shelley had treated Harriet and wondered if her own lack of happiness had been in some way connected to the pain inflicted on Shelley's first wife.