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Lost Tale of a Lost Child

In November 1997 the British biographer Claire Tomalin received a fax from a small Italian town in the Apennine hills above Pistoia. It announced that a neat, handbound manuscript of a long-lost story by Mary Shelley had been unearthed in a family trunk belonging to descendants of the Shelleys’ Tuscan friend Lady Mountcashell. It was dedicated to Lady Mountcashell’s little daughter, Laurette, and had lain forgotten for over 170 years.

As she recounts in her introduction, itself a wonderful piece of Romantic storytelling, Tomalin was soon on the trail of this biographical prize.

Sleet was falling, and the road was slippery and rose in sharp bends. At moments I could see lights gleaming on the plain below; then they were lost. There was fog about too. When we reached San Marcello, the driver had to ask for the hotel, Il Cacciatore—“The Hunter.”

The story, now published for the first time, is the tale of a lost child and opens with a small boy in tears following a coffin. It is set on the coast in Devonshire, and is suffused with imagery of the sea. It was written in Pisa in 1820, about a year after Mary Shelley had lost her own child, little William Shelley, to a lethal fever; and almost exactly two years before she lost her husband, Percy Shelley, in the sea off Viareggio. The child in the story, Maurice, is befriended by a kindly old fisherman and is eventually found by his loving father. But the story is, altogether, full of curious resonances and prophecies.

The discovery of any new work by Mary Shelley, however short—and The Fisher’s Cot[tage] is a mere thirty-nine manuscript pages—gives one pause for thought about the puzzling literary career of the author of Frankenstein. For a start, she wrote far more than is generally recognized: six novels, five volumes of biographical essays, two “mythological dramas” in verse, a score of short stories, and two volumes of very engaging travelogue, Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), with much else besides. (The novels and a selection of the other writings have been republished in a fine new collection under the general editorship of Betty T. Bennett and Nora Crook.1 )

Then there is the still astonishing fact that she wrote most of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), her first fiction, before the age of twenty. Its instant mastery of the Gothic form, a highly visualized narrative carrying overpowering and almost operatic emotions, remains gripping and impressive.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

But it seems equally astonishing that, having made such an assured debut, nothing she wrote in the next thirty years quite matched it. Claims have been made for The Last Man (1826), the apocalyptic account of a plague that wipes out the population of the world. But despite its contemporary echoes, it seems diffuse and bombastic by comparison.2 Only two works really come near it in imaginative intensity, and both have an interesting connection with the new story.

One is a strange, almost hysterical novella, Mathilda. It was written in autumn 1819, less than nine months before the short story. This was a time of extreme depression for Mary Shelley, after the death of both her surviving children in Italy: baby Clara at Venice and adored young William Shelley at Rome. Though a new child was born in November, her marriage to Percy Shelley and their whole Italian enterprise together seemed called into question. The novella presents itself as a “confessional” fiction of a father’s incestuous passion for his teenage daughter, and it introduces a prophetic idea that was to haunt Mary Shelley’s life, that of a suicidal drowning both as fact and as metaphor.

In Mathilda it is the father who actually drowns himself, and the daughter who is psychologically overwhelmed.

But days of peaceful melancholy were of rare occurrence they were often broken in upon by gusts of passion that drove me as a weak boat on a stormy sea to seek a cove for shelter; but the winds blew from my native harbour and I was cast far, far out until shattered I perished when the tempest had passed and the sea was apparently calm.

Mary Shelley regarded Mathilda as therapy, and her own father, William Godwin, advised against publication; it did not appear in print until 1959.3 Biographically it is hard to interpret (the father seems to be as much Shelley as Godwin), but imaginatively it is extraordinarily strong and disturbing.

The second work connected with Maurice is explicitly nonfiction, and also serves to place the new story in a chronological context. It, too, had a curious publication history. For years after her return to England as a widow in 1823, Mary Shelley wanted to write a biography of her husband. She was prevented by her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, for reasons of social discretion. But in 1839 she edited a full edition of Shelley’s Poems, and skillfully evaded her father-in-law’s ban by appending a series of biographical notes, printed discreetly after each section.

They are brilliantly vivid and intelligent. Were they ever to be pulled together and published as a consecutive narrative, I think they would be revealed as one of the most striking and moving of all early Victorian memoirs. But to date they remain spliced and woven into the current Oxford edition of the Poems, though perhaps some modern publisher will one day recover them.

Here, for example, is a relevant passage from the closing section:

[Shelley] had, as it now seems, almost anticipated his own destiny; and, when the mind figures his skiff wrapped from sight by the thunder-storm, as it was last seen upon the purple sea, and then, as the cloud of the tempest passed away, no sign remained of where it had been—who but will regard as a prophecy the last stanza of the Adonais?

The biographical notes are not least remarkable for their shifts of narrative pace and tone. Romantic travelogue alternates with reflective analysis, tenderness with sharp criticism, and elegy with moments of high, delicious farce. It is at such a moment that her note on the writing of “Swellfoot the Tyrant” in August 1820 at Pisa brings us unexpectedly back to the new story.

We were then at the Baths of San Giuliano [near Pisa]. A friend came to visit us on the day when a fair was held in the square, beneath our windows: Shelley read to us his Ode to Liberty; and was riotously accompanied by the grunting of a quantity of pigs brought for sale to the fair. He compared it to the “chorus of frogs” in the satiric drama of Aristophanes; and, it being an hour of merriment, and one ludicrous association suggesting another, he imagined a political- satirical drama on the circumstances of the day, to which the pigs would serve as chorus—and “Swellfoot” was begun.

This hot, happy summer’s day in 1820 at the Bagni di Pisa now turns out to be memorable for quite another reason. From Claire Clairmont’s contemporary diary it can be shown that the visiting “friend” was none other than Lady Mountcashell, accompanied by her two children, Nerina and Laurette, and their tutor, Miss Field. Thanks to the researches of Claire Tomalin, we can pinpoint this as the very moment that the lost and hitherto unknown short story by Mary Shelley was handed over as a birthday present to the eleven-year-old Laurette.

Because it was a children’s story (the only one that Mary Shelley ever wrote) the tale is superficially a happy one. Maurice is described as a beautiful and intelligent boy, determined to make his own way in the world as an orphan, and delighting in his seaside life with the old fisherman, Barnet (a tenderly drawn figure reminiscent of Dickens’s Mr. Peggotty at Yarmouth). His true father has never given up searching for him, and their reunion at the shoreside cottage (after old Barnet’s death) is never really in doubt, and brings a flood of tears and an outpouring of affirming love when it is reached. One could say that it is Mary Shelley’s fictional resurrection of her dead son.

But the story has other, stranger shadows. Barnet’s cottage itself is described in vividly realized terms that amazingly foretell the Shelleys’ last house at San Terenzo in 1822, the Casa Magni, where they were living when Shelley was drowned.

…The spring tide comes up almost to the steps of the door; and when the wind blows the spray of the sea is dashed against the windows. We neighbours often wondered how so old a cot could stand the stress of weather; or being so near the sea that some high south winds do not blow the waves entirely over it; but it is sheltered by the crag, and…it stands there, as I have known it stand ever since I was born…. Beside it is a little cove where the fishing boat is kept, and there is an outhouse where the nets and sails were placed when the old man returned from the sea. A little freshwater brook trickles from the cliff, close to it, down into the sea, and when I was a boy I used often to go and place paper boats in this rill and watch them sailing down to the sea where they were soon lost in the great waves.

At the end of the story the cottage, the real symbol of Maurice’s happiness, is indeed destroyed by the wind and sea. “…By degrees it fell all to pieces, and the sea washed it away as it fell, so that it quite disappeared.” There is even a final reference to another poor fisherman, who “lost his boat in a storm” and was “scarcely saved from drowning himself,” though interestingly Mary Shelley deleted the latter part of this sentence in the manuscript (which is otherwise virtually a clean copy).

Claire Tomalin, as editor, restores it without comment, but her sensitive response to the whole text goes straight to its heart. “Maurice has a formally happy ending, but what struck me most on this first reading was its melancholy. It starts with a funeral and finishes with the crumbling away of the cottage that has sheltered Maurice. The theme is loss.”

In the rest of her introduction, Tomalin has concentrated less on the story than on that of its recipient, little Laurette. With great skill, and drawing on archives as remote as the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, she unearths the checkered, colorful biography of a young woman who grows up to marry a rancorous Corsican diplomat, just fails to meet Stendhal in Rome, has a lasting love affair with an Italian academic, Professore Tardy, and herself becomes a novelist—though not of a very distinguished kind. (“Before starting to read Laurette Tardy’s work I hoped she might turn out to be an Italian George Eliot. I was wildly off the mark.”)

But what remains is the mystery of Mary Shelley’s creative powers: at once so strong, so mysteriously autobiographical, and so curiously frustrated or unfulfilled in later life. The melancholy, prophetic subtext of The Fisher’s Cot may finally suggest some thoughts on this.

There is some evidence that Mary Shelley became almost fearful of her gift of prophesying events in her early fiction. In 1823 she wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne, after Shelley’s death,

It seems to me that in what I have hitherto written I have done nothing but prophecy what has arrived to [sic]. Matilda fortells even many small circumstances most truly—& the whole of it is a monument of what now is.

In 1824 after Byron’s death she wrote to Teresa Guiccioli, his last mistress:

How much you feared this voyage! Every day I am more certain that God has endowed us with the power to foresee our misfortunes. But we are all Cassandras; and we are so blind that we do not give heed to the silent voice that makes itself heard within our soul. We then know the truth when the prophecies are fulfilled.

It has been suggested by modern critics that while the life-myth that fed her husband was that of Prometheus (whose foresight and imagination bring liberty), Mary Shelley’s life-myth was indeed that of Cassandra, whose imaginative vision always brings sadness, horror, and destruction.4

When she wrote Frankenstein she was an innocent Cassandra; by the time she wrote Percy Shelley’s Life, in those carefully fragmented and elliptical notes, she was a fearfully experienced one. Perhaps what lay between was doomed to be nothing but a collection of fictional hauntings, uneasy shadows, and autobiographical displacements. But of course, such is the deep unfolding power of the Romantic imagination, their time may yet come. It is curious how one now reads Maurice with a tragic sense of déjà vu, and one wonders if the grown-up Laurette came to feel the same, and quietly hid the little manuscript away. Perhaps it is the known that most requires rediscovery.

Letters

Good News! June 10, 1999

  1. 1

    The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, 8 vols. (Ashgate, 1996).

  2. 2

    An intriguing account of the novel, and its various interpretations, is given by Morton D. Paley, “The Last Man: Apocalypse Without Millennium,” in The Other Mary Shelley, edited by Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor (Oxford University Press, 1993).

  3. 3

    Republished in Novels and Selected Works, Vol. 2.

  4. 4

    See Barbara Jane O’Sullivan, “Beatrice in Valperga: A New Cassandra,” in The Other Mary Shelley.

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