Was Mary Shelley a feminist?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you. A woman whose father was a radical philosopher who believed in the equality of the sexes, and whose mother was a pioneering vindicator of women’s rights. How could the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin not be every inch the feminist her parents would have wanted her to be? And yet I’m not so sure.
I spent upwards of a year in Mrs Shelley’s company while writing A Treacherous Likeness, and during my research I read all her surviving letters, her journals, and Miranda Seymour’s outstanding biography. So I base what I’m writing here not on any academic analysis as to Mary Shelley’s views but on that curious intimacy which the fictionalising of a historical figure inevitably generates between author and character. I didn’t like her much, by the end, I’ll freely admit that. One cannot but pity her for the sorrows she had passed, but as a personality I found her a fascinating but ultimately unsympathetic conundrum. Passionate but cold, courageous but arrogant, ferociously intelligent, without question, but jealous and suspicious to an extraordinary degree, especially when it came to her step-sister Claire Clairmont. But even if all I’ve just said is true (and you may well not agree with me), none of it would stand in the way of her being not just a feminist, but as much of a trailblazer as her mother had been. At least in theory.
The extra piquancy here, of course, is that I’m sure Mary Shelley herself would have claimed to be a feminist, even though the word itself was not coined until the end of the 19th century. She took huge pride in the intellectual legacy and status she inherited from both her parents: in the 1823 poem The Choice, she wrote “from great parents sprung I dared to boast, and talked often of the comet that was seen in the skies at her birth. But how far did she put her parents’ principles into practice in her own life?
She certainly believed in the equality of the sexes when it came to sex: when she met first Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814, at the age of only 16, she acted no demure maiden but was as forthright in declaring her passion as he was – indeed it seems she rather made the running than followed it (his wife later said Mary was “determined to seduce him. She is to blame”). And Mary certainly didn’t let the fact that Shelley had a pregnant wife and a baby daughter get in the way either; as her father boasted (though in a very different context), “her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible”. Does this make her a feminist? Personally, I think it makes her thoughtless and selfish, as she would have been only too aware that her actions would leave the 19-year-old Harriet Shelley condemned to a miserable future with no prospect of either independence or re-marriage. And yes, Mary was even younger than that at the time, but she had been educated to an acute awareness of the rights of others, so neither ignorance nor youth are an excuse in her particular case.
After the elopement, when the money ran out and the lovers were forced to return to London, Mary complained bitterly that her acquaintances shunned her, questioning how those who claimed to share Mary Wollstonecraft’s belief in free love could then ostracise her daughter merely for acting according to the same credo. She had a point, of course, but when it came to free love, did Mary Shelley herself practise what she preached? When Harriet killed herself in 1816, both Mary and her father put enormous pressure on Shelley to regularise the relationship and marry her, and despite Shelley’s ideological objections – and a plea to postpone the ceremony for at least a year out of respect for the dead – the wedding did indeed take place less than a month after Harriet’s body was found. According to Mary’s stepmother (who is admittedly not the most objective of witnesses), Shelley was only finally induced to marry Mary when she threatened to kill herself and the child she was by then carrying. Soon after the wedding, Mary wrote to Lord Byron showing off her new signature as ‘Mary W Shelley’. Her mother, by contrast, had never taken her husband’s name.
And yet in other respects Mary Shelley was clearly both a free-thinker and what we would now call a feminist. Much later in life, she connived in obtaining a false passport for a female friend so that she could travel to Europe as the ‘husband’ of another woman (there’s more on this fascinating episode in Seymour’s biography). And of course she was one of a very small number of women who earned their own living at that time, writing being one of the few professions where that was possible. Though even this claim to feminist iconicism is more ambivalent than it seems, since she resented the constant labour this entailed, and may well have chosen to write far less if she had received the more generous allowance from her father-in-law which she was always hoping for.
So what are we to conclude about Mary Shelley? A woman with an unimpeachable feminist pedigree, who could not wait to marry and take her husband’s name. A woman who was forthright about her own sexual needs and willing to flout social convention to fulfil them, but who then did everything she could to separate her step-sister from her own – much beloved – illegitimate child. A woman who was all too often cold and insensitive towards her sisters (Fanny Imlay, her half-sister, as well as Claire), but who supported other women who were courageous enough to wish to live in same-sex relationships at a time when this was absolutely taboo. A woman, finally, who when asked about the question of women’s rights that had been so passionately espoused by her own mother, answered, “I am not a person of opinions. On some topics (especially with regard to my own sex), I am far from making up my mind.”
So was she a feminist – or not? I know which I would opt for, but I will let you decide.
This post was written for the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association of the UK and Ireland website http://fwsablog.org.uk/