Tag Archives: Fanny Burney

New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

___________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley

The Sylph: The Duchess of Devonshire’s pre-Gothic and pre-Romantic Novel

In recent years, Georgiana Cavendish, nee Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, has enjoyed renewed interest due to the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, as well as her being an ancestral aunt to the late Princess Diana. But it was not until my friend and fellow literary scholar, Ellen Moody, author of Trollope on the Net, told me that it was believed the Duchess had also written a novel that I really became interested in learning more about her.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess is the alleged author of the epistolary novel The Sylph (1779), which was published anonymously because of her social position and also because of its subject matter, presenting the unhappy marriage of a woman whose husband is a rake, adulterer, and gambler, which in many ways paralleled her own marriage. Speculation exists that the novel was actually written by Sophia Briscoe, a contemporary novelist, but the Duchess in private is said to have acknowledged she was its author. To this day, her family denies her writing the book. I am not surprised, however, by the possibility that she is the author considering she was also the aunt to Lady Caroline Lamb, author of the fabulously interesting Gothic novel Glenarvon about her own love affair with Lord Byron. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb learned a few things from her aunt, although I think the Duchess’ novel superior in many ways.

The Sylph’s title is a reference to the sylphs that appear in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, in which they are depicted as fairy-like creatures who look after the female protagonist. The Duchess quotes from The Rape of the Lock as the frontispiece to the novel, describing sylphs’ roles:

“Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give ear,
Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Demons, hear!
Ye know the spheres, and various tasks assign’d
By laws eternal to th’aërial kind:
Some in the fields of purest æther play,
And bask, and whiten, in the blaze of day;
Some guide the course of wand’ring orbs on high,
Or roll the planets thro’ the boundless sky:
Our humbler province is to tend the Fair,
Not a less pleasing, nor less glorious care.”

In the Duchess’ novel, the Sylph also takes on the role of protector to a young lady. Because it is difficult to find information about the novel online, I will briefly summarize the plot. The book is available at Project Gutenberg and in print copies, but little has been written about it in terms of literary criticism.

The novel begins with a letter by Sir William Stanley describing an accident he has that requires him to recuperate in the country where he becomes acquainted with the Grenville daughters. Of course, he quickly falls in love with one sister, Julia, who is our protagonist and whose letters make up the bulk of the novel. Julia agrees to marry Sir William, and he takes her off to London to live. Her adventures are then revealed through her letters to her sister Louisa, with letters included from Louisa, as well as from several of Sir William’s male friends and acquaintances describing the adventures in further detail, as well as their plots against Julia.

The novel in many ways can be compared to Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778). Julia, like Evelina, finds herself in London learning about the wickedness of that city and trying to maintain her morals. Many difficulties ensue for Julia, including attending a masquerade ball and returning with a masked man she believes is her husband but turns out to be Lord Biddulph; he seeks to have his way with her in her bedroom, but fortunately, she escapes his wiles. Julia then tells Sir William what has happened, but he is under the thumb of Biddulph because he is a terrible gambler and deeply in debt. His debt is so bad that when Julia offers her jewels to Sir William to pay his debts, she learns he has already sold them and replaced them with glass and paste jewels, which she is too naive to have realized.

Early in her entrance into wicked London life, Julia begins to receive letters from an anonymous writer who describes himself as the Sylph. This character is fascinating because he keeps his identity secret, but he tells Julia he can see what she does and even know the thoughts of her mind. It is worth quoting this passage at length to understand his supernatural claims:

“I am a Rosicrusian by principle; I need hardly tell you, they are a sect of philosophers, who by a life of virtue and self-denial have obtained an heavenly intercourse with aërial beings;—as my internal knowledge of you (to use the expression) is in consequence of my connexion with the Sylphiad tribe, I have assumed the title of my familiar counsellor. This, however, is but as a preface to what I mean to say to you;—I have hinted, I knew you well;—when I thus expressed myself, it should be understood, I spoke in the person of the Sylph, which I shall occasionally do, as it will be writing with more perspicuity in the first instance; and, as he is employed by me, I may, without the appearance of robbery, safely appropriate to myself the knowledge he gains.

“Every human being has a guardian angel; my skill has discovered your’s; my power has made him obedient to my will; I have a right to avail myself of the intelligences he gains; and by him I have learnt every thing that has passed since your birth;—what your future fortune is to be, even he cannot tell; his view is circumscribed to a small point of time; he only can tell what will be the consequence of taking this or that step, but your free-agency prevents his impelling you to act otherwise than as you see fit. I move upon a more enlarged sphere; he tells me what will happen; and as I see the remote, as well as immediate consequence, I shall, from time to time, give you my advice.—Advice, however, when asked, is seldom adhered to; but when given voluntarily, the receiver has no obligation to follow it.—I shall in a moment discover how this is received by you; and your deviation from the rules I shall prescribe will be a hint for me to withdraw my counsel where it is not acceptable. All that then will remain for me, will be to deplore your too early initiation in a vicious world, where to escape unhurt or uncontaminated is next to a miracle.

“I said, I should soon discover whether my advice would be taken in the friendly part it is offered: I shall perceive it the next time I have the happiness of beholding you, and I see you every day; I am never one moment absent from you in idea, and in my mind’s eye I see you each moment; only while I conceal myself from you, can I be of service to you;—press not then to discover who I am; but be convinced—nay, I shall take every opportunity to convince you, that I am the most sincere and disinterested of your friends; I am a friend to your soul, my Julia, and I flatter myself mine is congenial with your’s.”

The reader, however, realizes the Sylph is not really a supernatural being but a human who must be close enough to Julia to see her and know what she is doing. He writes several letters of advice to her and she responds, and although he cannot always rescue her from evil, he is a wise counselor to her.

In the end, Sir William’s debt gets the better of him and a truly horrid situation results. Lord Biddulph agrees to rescue him from debt in exchange that he divorce Julia so Lord Biddulph can marry her. Sir William refuses to sell his wife in this manner and ends up committing suicide. Julia writes to her sister, asking that she and her father receive “your poor wanderer” and she returns to them in the country. The Sylph now writes to tell her she no longer needs his services since she is returning to the “peaceful vale of innocence.”

But the Sylph returns in a new appearance soon after. Early in the novel is a letter from Woodley, a childhood friend of Julia’s who moved away but has now grown up and returned, hoping to marry her, but he arrives just after she has married Sir William. Realizing the mistake in choosing a husband that Julia has made, Woodley has bided his time and is the Sylph who has sought her welfare through all her trials. Now it is revealed to her that he has been disguised as the Baron Ton-hausen, a friend of hers in London whom she thought a foreigner and whom she admired and almost wished she had chosen over Sir William as a husband. Woodley has had smallpox and changed over the years since childhood so she did not recognize him, but her friendship with the baron allowed him to be close enough to observe and advise her.

When Woodley’s identity as the Sylph is revealed, Julia calls him “Proteus,” and “three in one” and a “variable being.” Proteus, from Homer’s Iliad, was able to change or metamorphose his form. She also compares herself and Woodley to Henry and Emma, the title characters of a poem by Matthew Prior. (Today, the poem is best known for being alluded to in Jane Austen’s Persuasion).

Of course, once she gets over her surprise, Julia agrees to marry Woodley and we can assume they live happily ever after.

I find The Sylph to be a remarkable novel for many reasons. The novel reminds me of Burney’s novels, including Evelina as I already mentioned, but also Burney’s later novels. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced Burney to some degree. The horrible results of debt in the novel remind me of Cecilia (1782), in which Cecilia tries to pay the debts of a man who threatens suicide if she does not. More importantly, I think the magical depiction of the Sylph, though a male in this novel, is very similar to the more extensive idea of a supernatural being who can metamorphose herself in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). In that novel, Burney draws upon the wanderer theme of Gothic and Romantic literature (note above that I quoted Julia as describing herself as a “wanderer”), and especially the Wandering Jew. Burney’s heroine, Juliet is known through most of the novel as Ellis; she hides her identity from others, and plays so many different roles that she might have been seen as a female “Proteus,” although instead, Burney refers to her as a “wandering Jewess,” and one of the characters in the novel remarks of Juliet:

“You have been bruised and beaten; and dirty and clean; and ragged and whole; and wounded and healed; and a European and a Creole, in less than a week. I suppose, next, you will dwindle into a dwarf; and then perhaps, find some surprising contrivance to shoot up into a giantess. There is nothing that can be too much to expect from so great an adept in metamorphoses.”

A more in-depth discussion of Juliet’s metamorphoses and Burney’s use of the Gothic Wandering Jew theme can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

I really don’t know what kind of influence The Sylph had upon its contemporaries, but it certainly is a remarkable novel of the period, and many of the themes in it became significant ones for the Gothic novel, including gambling, the idea of metamorphosed identities, Rosicrucianism, and depictions of Jews. There is only one reference to Jews in the novel when Julia writes that her husband is surrounded by “Jew-brokers” who are “such wretches” and “infernal agents,” but it’s interesting that they are included as being responsible for Sir William’s downfall. Biddulph is also an interesting Gothic wanderer type villain; he is largely the cause of Sir William’s death. At first, he feels haunted by Sir William’s suicide, and recalling Milton’s Satan who has “hell within him,” Biddulph remarks, “my mind is a hell,” but Biddulph is also partially in denial of his responsibility in Sir William’s death, saying how thankful he is that he didn’t seduce Julia (regardless, he still caused Sir William’s death).

Also interesting about the novel is how it builds on the Romantic Myth of Consciousness, where someone begins in stage of innocence, moves into experience, and then seeks to escape the miseries of being experienced about life by entering into wise innocence. When Julia finally returns home, Woodley as the Sylph, remarks that she is returning to a “vale of innocence,” but really it is wise innocence she seeks. The use of the word “vale” is interesting here too, not only because of its religious implications, but because Woodley’s family originally owned the land where Julia’s family lives, so the area is known as “Woodley-vale.” So in marrying Woodley, Julia is able to enter into the vale—Woodley becomes her vale, her refuge of wise innocence. Woodley’s name also recalls the role of Nature in Romantic poetry since she finds her refuge in a wooded vale or forest, far from the wickedness of city life.

The Sylph is a remarkable novel that deserves far more attention than it has received over the years. The Duchess of Devonshire is truly a foremother of the Gothic and Romantic traditions as well as a fascinating novelist in her own right. I highly recommend the novel to readers.

________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy: The Children of Arthur, Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

9 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, The Wandering Jew