October 9, 2016 – Today, oddly enough the anniversary of the death of Mary Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, the anthology ‘Eternal Frankenstein’ is officially released in bookstores, on line, and on kindle and other e-reader platforms. ‘Mary Shelley’s Body,’ my novella, is the final of 16 stories in the collection.
It’s all very exciting.
But before fully celebrating the release of the book, it feels appropriate to write a bit about Mary’s tragic older sister, who her mother (the writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) had out-of-wedlock with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Not long after marrying the English author William Godwin, who quickly adopted his wife’s illegitimate daughter, Fanny’s mother tragically died, a few days after giving birth to Mary Godwin. Later, Mr. Godwin would marry again, a woman with her own illegitimate daughter, Claire Clairemont.
The three mismatched sisters were, by all accounts, relatively happy until their teen years, when Mary ran away (at the age of 16) with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, throwing the family into turmoil, and setting up a series of events in which Fanny became the intermediary between Mary and Claire (who often accompanied Percy and Mary on their adventures) and their angry, unforgiving parents.
Fanny, according to her writings, keenly felt the isolation of living in a family in which she was not technically related to anyone, at least not by blood. She always felt lesser than, though no one did more to take care of Mr. and Mrs. Godwin’s needs than she. Desperately hoping Mary and Percy would somehow save her from the Godwins, she eventually ran away, and – two hundred years ago today – took her own life.
Here’s how I write about it in my novella, beginning with a reference to Harriet, Percy’s wife, who in December would drown herself, finally freeing up Percy to marry Mary.
“If there were ever such a thing as ghosts . . . vengeful spirits seeking justice . . . Harriet surely had reason to come back as one long ago . . . to haunt me, to punish me for loving her husband more than he loved her. And I dare say she would not have been the only spirit eager to settle old business with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Fanny, my half-sister, my mother’s first-born, you took laudanum in Swansea, alone in a tiny room at the Mackworth Arms, an anguished, half-finished note lying at your side. I know I broke your heart, leaving as I did with Shelley and Claire, abandoning you to the Godwins.”
Fanny, who had mailed letters to Mary and to William Godwin just before fleeing to a room at the Mackworth Arms, in Swansea, indicated that she was seriously considering doing herself harm. By the time her hiding place was discovered, she was dead, having left a poignantly unfinished suicide note by the side of her bed.
“I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as …”
Mary was bereft, and ever after blamed herself, in part, for having not done more to save her sweet but frail and clearly badly-treated sister. At the time, Mary was 19, and hard at work on ‘Frankenstein,’ while also taking care of the child she shared with Percy.
Percy Shelley was equally saddened at Fanny’s death.
He composed a short poem for her.
On Fanny Godwin
Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
This world is all too wide for thee.
Though I believe that it is only coincidental that Word Horde chose to release ‘Eternal Frankenstein’ today, of all days, it is fitting enough a date, I think, for the publication of my story, in which, like her sad and tragic life, she gets a mention—but is once again denied a starring role.