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Death & the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle Hardcover – 28 Jun 2007
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About the Author
Janet Todd is Professor of English at Aberdeen University. She has written numerous books including celebrated biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn, the first professional woman playwright. She is the general editor of the definitive edition of Jane Austen.
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The writing is sometimes poorly edited and events are not followed up chronologically, characters sometimes appearing to be in two places at once and she fails to introduce new characters adequately as they enter the story. So at times the narration is confused and repetitive. There is the impression of a certain haste in the writing of the book and sentences are sometimes inelegantly constructed, detracting from the scholarly effect of the writing. Nonetheless, a feeling for the excitement of the times and the lives of the young people involved makes for an enjoyable and informative read.
Janet Todd is a great literary biographer: precise, methodologically impeccable, lively and empathetic. The problem with this book, though, is the dearth of material on Fanny Wollstonecraft. So Todd does what she can but this is basically another biography of the Shelley circle and, sadly, not the best.
The attempt to reclaim Fanny and give her back a life of her own is an admirable aim, but we would need more original sources than we have.
So if you are interested in the extended Shelley circle - Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Byron, and Fanny - then this is an engaging read but far less detailed than Holmes' magisterial Shelley: The Pursuit. But if you specifically want to know more about Fanny then this is unsatisfying but is, realistically, probably the closest we can get to the woman herself.
Although little is known about Fanny, Todd painstakingly reconstructs her movements and imagines what her feelings must have been in her melodramatic circumstances. Todd writes, "What is distinctive in the lives of these extraordinary young people is their literariness, their refusal to separate life and literature." Indeed, this account of the poets and their circle of female acolytes reads like a novel. These events have been recounted many times - but never before told from the viewpoint of Fanny.
Todd presents the actions of Shelley and his circle in the context of what she calls a new, emerging cult of genius. Genius was venerated, and seen as exempt from "the moral and social principles that governed everyday humanity...Genius was a new form of aristocracy." Shelley had egalitarian principles, but his dazzling combination of high social standing and genius enabled him to carry out moral experiments that William Godwin, the "bourgeois radical" thinker who inspired him, did not attempt himself. And Godwin's daughter Mary could not, as Todd observes, have been an easy sister for Fanny in a family of which it was said, "if you cannot write an epic poem, or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on its head, you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging." At 16, the brilliant Mary eloped with Shelley, with whom her father was involved in a "parasitic tie." Godwin believed the world owed him a living, and Shelley was his disciple and his financial patron. Ironically, Godwin was horrified to see his own principles of free love coming home to roost when Shelley seduced his teenage daughter.
Shelley had what Todd calls "the cult-leader's ability to draw young women of middle class background not simply into his bed but into the insecurity and infamy of an itinerant sexual commune." He already had a teenage wife, who was the mother of one child and expecting another, when he deserted her for Mary. Mary and her younger stepsister Claire Clairmont left the Godwin home and journeyed with Shelley to the Continent, but the older, plainer Fanny was left behind, though evidently all three girls were infatuated with the charismatic genius. After the travelers returned, the poor and dependent Fanny, rejected by Shelley, felt that nothing remained for her but death. On 12 October 1816 she was found dead in a coaching inn, having taken laudanum. She left a suicide note, but mysteriously, the signature was torn off. As nobody claimed the body, she was buried in a pauper's grave. Todd conjectures that Shelley himself was responsible for destroying the signature, and suppressing Fanny's identity.
Fanny's life has long been obscure, but the detective work Janet Todd has done is intuitive and insightful in revealing her in her own right, and in the context of a masterly impression of this circle of young people, geniuses and otherwise. The entitled behavior of the aristocratic Shelley and Byron, and the attachment of their "groupie" girls, brings to mind a modern cult. It is through these high dramatic and literary events that we can glimpse the sad life of Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin.
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