by Richard Rothwell, 1839-40
the years after Percy Shelley's death in 1822, Mary Shelley
went through a self-identification crisis. Did she later conform
to the ways of the proper lady after all?
Mary's defiant behavior in her late-teens and early-twenties
thrust her from society's inner-circle. Her father, William
Godwin, completely dismissed Mary and claimed that "he
did not know her very well," according to historian Mary
Poovey. However, Mary was not phased by his views or the pressures
of society to conform, and she did as she pleased, running
of with Percy Shelley.
after his death, Mary's foundation crumbled. She had gone
through the death of a child and two suicides in her family,
her father ended all communication with Mary, and she seemed
very much alone in the world. At this point in time, Mary
felt it was time for a social makeover.
do this, Mary Shelley used her authority as an author to change
people's perception of herself. Her last three novels, Warbeck
(1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837), all
have "thinly disguised autobiographical characterizations
of herself as a docile, domestic heroine," and because
of this, she was able to "court the approval of a middle-class,
largely female audience" (Poovey 117).
a 1838 journal entry, Mary wrote phrases such as, "I
am not a person of opinions," "I am not for violent
extremes," and "I am far from making up my mind."
It almost seems an oxymoron that Mary Shelley is saying this
about herself. Clearly, she was one of the most progressive
female thinkers of her era. Why would she claim not to have
opinions or that she was indecisive? She was attempting to
persuade herself into being the proper lady.
Shelley was caught in a trap. "On the one hand, she repeatedly
bowed to the conventional prejudice against aggressive women
by apologizing for or punishing her self-assertion.... On
the other hand,...Mary Shelley demonstrated that imaginative
self-expression was for her an important vehicle for proving
her worth and, in that sense, defining herself." (Poovey
could infer that Mary possibly regretted her early life full
of spontaneity and rebellion. However, when reading Mary's
journal entries before 1822, it seems like Mary could be in
no happier place in her life. However, once she was left to
face life on her own, Mary clearly struggled to live up to
society's expectations, and she fought an inner-battle over
how she would present herself to the world.