Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Slight Spark of Life


The above is a excerpt from a diary kept by the late 18th century-early 19th century English  intellectual radical William Godwin, covering the last few days of August and the first few days of September in the year 1797. The fourth entry down on the left-hand side describes what was going on in Godwin's life on the 30th, exactly 223 years ago today. It reads:

Mary, p. 116. Barnes R Fell & Dyson calls: dine at Reveley's: Fenwicks & M. sup: Blenkinsop. Birth  of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night. From 7 to 10, Evesham Buildings.

So what's all that mean? Well, scholars who have looked into the matter believe Mary, p.116  refers to a 1788 novel Godwin was reading titled Mary: A Fiction, written by the 18th century radical feminist (by the standards of the day) writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whom Godwin had in fact married only five months earlier. Barnes is crossed out so we won't worry about that individual (if it is indeed an individual.) Fell, Dyson, Reveley, Fenwick and M. were all friends or acquaintances of Godwin's. Scholars can't identify Blenkinsop, but Godwin apparently ate supper with him (or her.) Skipping the second sentence for just a moment, Evesham Buildings refers to Godwin's residence, where he was at from 7 to 10. AM or PM? Assuming this diary entry is chronological in nature, I'm thinking it's AM (in which case it's now the 31st.) I say that because Mary is born 20 minutes after 11 at night, hence PM, and we all know 11 comes after 7 (and, for that matter, 10.) So who is Mary? Obviously not Wollstonecraft, who was by then 38. In fact, it's Wollstonecraft's and Godfrey's daughter, the reason the two tied the knot in the first place (though if you do the math, you'll see it's a somewhat belated knot.)

I'd like to report that Godwin's, Wollstonecraft's, and little Mary's story from that point on was one of familial bliss, but, unfortunately, I can't, for 11 days later there was this entry:

                 20 minutes before 8. _________________________ 

 Godwin was now a widower with one daughter and and one stepdaughter (Fanny, Wollstonecraft's daughter from a previous relationship.) He soon remarried a woman with two children of her own, though young Mary was said to have had an uneasy relationship with her stepmother. Hey, it's not always the Brady Bunch.

Godwin for his part doted on Mary, plied her with books, and raised her to be a radical intellectual like himself. He did such a thorough job that she fell in love with an up-and-coming radical intellectual...


….Percy Shelley, who set forth his radical views in rhyme. Mary and Percy actually met through Godwin, for whom the young poet had a great deal of admiration. Godwin seems to have been less than flattered, as he opposed Mary and Percy's eventual marriage. Part of it was that Shelley, a scion of a wealthy family, had promised to pay off Godwin's many debts, only to renege after his parents cut off his purse strings. The other part was that Shelly was already married, a marriage that only ended when his wife drown herself in the Serpentine, a recreational lake in London's Hyde Park.

And so Percy and Mary tied the knot. It was said to be an open marriage, though biographers agree that  he was more enthusiastic about free love than her. Whoever they were sleeping with, when together they enjoyed each other's company. One moment of togetherness had them holed up in a Swiss chalet with Percy's good friend Lord Byron and a Doctor Polidori during a spell of particularly nasty weather. To kill time they decided each would write a horror story. Though Percy and Byron were both published writers at that point, Mary was the only one to actually finish a story. Percy liked it so much that he encouraged her to expand it into a novel. And so she did. A horror novel with an intellectual bent, though for those who haven't read it but recognize the title, it may be more resonant of black-and-white Hollywood and Halloween costumes:

These days, Mary Shelley is more well-known than either William Godwin or Mary Wollstonecraft. Still, she needed their genes. Writers are born, not made.




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