And if that weren't bad enough, there was the issue of money. Even with two fewer mouths to feed, and despite occasional infusions of cash from Percy, Godwin's financial predicament continued to worsen. Fanny, who was tasked with visiting Percy to wrangle money out of him, knew full well how badly her father was doing and must've been aware that she was a burden on him. And by this point she had reached the age of majority, which meant that whatever obligation Godwin felt towards her had become pure charity.
But her prospects in the outside world were miserable. She was virtually unmarriageable in middle class society -- although memories of Wollstonecraft had faded by this point, any family of decent standing would've asked into Fanny's background before permitting a wedding, and with Godwin's biography of Wollstonecraft out there, it would've been easy for them to learn the truth. The same held true for positions as a governess -- after the scandal with Byron, Claire had to travel all the way to Russia to find a family ignorant of her background, and she was let go as soon as somebody uncovered her past. A position in a shop or as a school teacher would've come with less scrutiny, but Fanny still would've been let go if anyone ever figured out who her mother was.
With no good options, Fanny began corresponding with her aunts, Eliza and Everina. By this point they were running at a school in Ireland, and it appears they arranged a position for her there.
But then news out of Geneva reached Britain. Everyone began gossiping about the Godwin sisters and their wild orgies with Byron and Shelley, and of course people dug up old stories about Wollstonecraft as well. Mary's antics proved that bad behavior ran in the family, and surely any girl raised by a radical like Godwin would turn out just as bad. What exactly happened with Fanny's aunts is uncertain, but very likely they rescinded their offer. Whatever chance Fanny had of starting a life on her own were ruined.
The Shelley menage returned from the Continent in September 1816 and settled in Bath, hoping to stay out of the limelight until Claire, whose pregnancy was still a secret, gave birth and something could be arranged for the child. When Percy visited London on business, Fanny came to see him, likely to ask him to take her in. But Percy, like her sisters, believed Fanny was Godwin's creature, and if she discovered Claire's pregnancy she'd rat them out. He didn't turn her down directly, but put the matter off.
After that meeting, stories began to make their way around London about Jane's attitude towards her daughters and Percy, stories that portrayed her like the tyrannical figure who persecuted Caleb Williams in Godwin's novel. When these stories got back to Jane, she was furious, especially since it was obvious that they originated with Fanny -- she had told them to Percy in an attempt to prove herself sympathetic to him and Mary. Now he had spread them on the wind, and Fanny took the blame.
At the same time, Percy's promise to provide Godwin with £300 fell through because Percy could only scare up £248. Despite that, Percy forwarded £200 to Godwin. But Godwin was so desperate at this point that the amount was nowhere near enough.
With home life unbearable and sure to get worse, Fanny went up to Bath to see if anything could be salvaged of her relationship with her sisters. But Mary wouldn't even see her, and Fanny ended up going out with Percy to talk. The only record of their talk is a short, fragmentary poem by Percy:
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.
Misery -- oh misery
This world is all too wide to thee!
Whatever they discussed, it was not what Fanny wanted to hear, and immediately after finishing their conversation, Fanny boarded a coach to Swansea in Wales. At a stop along the way, she dropped two letters in the mail, one to Mary and Percy, the other to Godwin.
Percy received his letter first, and upon reading it he set out immediately to Swansea. He was already too late. By the time he arrived, Fanny was dead from a laudanum overdose.
Fearing yet another scandal, Percy set about covering things up. He obtained Fanny's suicide note from the landlord and mutilated it to remove her name and any explanation she gave, then he bribed local officials to declare her simply "dead" rather than a suicide. She was buried anonymously in a pauper's grave.
The Godwins followed his lead and made up stories about where Fanny had gone -- off to the country for some fresh air, or to Ireland to live with her aunts, or even to America to start a new life. Anything but the truth.
But while they were circumspect in keeping Fanny's suicide quiet, the next death to strike would cause an unavoidable scandal, and their coverup would require destroying the reputation of a good woman who had been screwed over by Percy.
NEXT TIME: The Desecration of Harriet Shelley
Post a Comment