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. )

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 …

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Letters

Good News! June 10, 1999