Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Here's a story almost too romantic for Real Life: In the summer of 1997, an Italian woman, Cristina Dazzi, discovered the ms of a story by Mary Shelley in the family archives, tucked away with some old letters. It seems that Mary Shelley had written a story for Dazzi's husband's great-great grandmother. The existence of the story had been known to scholars but been assumed to be lost, for Shelley had referred in her journals to writing the story over a period of three days, but her father, William Godwin, had deemed it too short for publication, and so it had never seen print. The ms is in longhand-- recognizably Mary Shelley's-- and "tied in two thin bindings with a pale blue cover," with the words "For Laurette from her friend Mrs. Shelley" written at the top of the first page.
The story is well-written and entertaining (though also rather romantic: a boy is snatched from his well-off, middle-class parents as a baby, raised in harsh, impoverished circumstances (but turns out well, nevertheless:presumably because of his true parentage), and discovered by his father many years later. What interests me most about the book containing this story [published by the University of Chicago Press, titled Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot: A Tale] is that the introduction by Claire Tomalin, which situates the ms and Mary Shelley's history with Laurette and her parents, is not only longer than the story itself, but also more fascinating (for me, at least). Laurette's mother, who was for a time the Countess of Mountcashell, had been a pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley's mother) and had taken on board many of Wollstonecraft's ideas and values, with the result that she ended up parted from all seven of the children she had had with the Earl of Mountcashell and forced to live abroad because neither Irish nor English aristocratic society would have anything to do with a woman who flaunted her independence. Ironically, the man she chose to live with, Colonel George Tighe, for a time at least regretted that she hadn't chosen to obey her husband.
Having recently read Naomi Novick's The Black Powder War, I was interested to read that the Countess and Tighe were in in Germany in general and Jena in particular in 1806, when Novick's characters were-- in fact, judging by a poem Tighe wrote, present at the battle of Jena. The intersection of Novick's fictional world with that of an aristocratic woman living in exile because she is no longer "respectable" fascinates me. The reality of the conditions under which women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and the Countess of Mountcashell lived, oftentimes on the verge of starvation-- all intelligent, well-educated, and even studious, all living their feminist principles beyond the limits of "respectability"-- sheds light on that peculiar nexus of imaginative choices made within a context of seemingly impossible constraints.
One last note, about the story itself. I was bemused when the narrative characterizes the wife of Barnet, the fisherman who takes in Maurice, "of little help to him not being able to move from her armchair without great difficulty"-- while it shows her not only making a home for him, feeding him, tending his nets, etc., but also educating the children in the neighborhood (which work the neighbors repay with fresh produce). And when she dies, Barnet has such a difficult time managing that he almost decides to give up fishing:
[A]fter her death when he returned from sea he was obliged to go hungry and sometimes dripping wet to the market at this town; and when he returned he was not handy at cooking his food or cleaning his room: besides he was no obliged to mend his nets for himself, and that took up a great deal of his time so that he did not catch so much fish as before.
In what sense, I wonder, was she "of little help to him"? He obviously can't pursue his livelihood without her labor backing him up. When Maurice arrives on the scene, he basically takes over her duties and saves Barnet from having to retire. But note: Maurice gets no pay for his labor, it's considered so negligble. He receives room and board (such as it is!). (Being a "good boy" he's very happy with the arrangement.) And is allowed to take nothing from the cottage when Barnet dies-- not even the geraniums he'd tended!