Some say that Mary Shelley chose her only surviving child’s wife for him—a woman like herself a young widow in whose home she hoped she might have a peaceful place to die, and she did, and she did. And some say that this wife, Lady Jane Shelley, née Gibson, and formerly St. John, used automatic writing to attempt communion with her mother-in-law following Mary Shelley’s death. Come to think of it, you could also say that the business of preserving and protecting her in-laws’ reputations was Lady Jane’s life’s work. But none of this really gets at the question of what women might mean to one another.
When I call Jane Shelley Lady Jane, the curator corrects me: it’s Jane, Lady Shelley, because she wasn’t born to it. Because it looks like it might rain, she tells me, stay dry. Because he can sense how in awe I am of her encyclopedic knowledge, when we pass the curator on 5th Avenue, my son blows raspberries. When she asks him what he’s doing, he says, I’m making water come out of my tongue.
In seminar, my students decide Marianne Dashwood becomes pregnant by Willoughby and either miscarries the fetus or induces an abortion. If the miscarriage is somatic, sensibility triumphs. If the abortion is induced, she’s saved by sense. We collaborate on an article, which I edit in a coffee shop. I email them about their preferred names. Kate says she wants to be Kathleen G. O’Donnell, because I think that makes me sound like a 35-year-old woman who has her life together and enjoys yoga, and that’s my life goal, soooooo… My husband says, that’s who they think you are. I say, nobody enjoys yoga.
I have been catching myself in the act, lately, of thinking about representative women. Instagram moms in their Valencia auras, their topknots reaching up to heaven. Ivanka as Kantian lobster, the cruelty of the cold ideal, all that whiteness. On The Bachelorette, a man calls a woman what I want to be my fiancé.
Mary Shelley made Jane, Lady Shelley her death and Jane, Lady Shelley made Mary Shelley her life. You could call that love or you could say they made use of each other.
On the occasion of Mary Shelley’s death, writing to her mother-in-law’s childhood friend, Jane, Lady Shelley wrote, “…to me, she was everything—mother, sister, friend—our angel of love + gentleness, who made our home a paradise!” In other letters from other times, she refers to her “devoted love for Mrs. Shelleys [sic] memory” and to “the miseries she [Mary Shelley] had to contend with all through life—”
Jane, Lady Shelley wrote a poem; it might be the only one; it was in a travel journal held, until very recently, in a private collection; I am not sure who read it before I did, or when:
From the home of my childhood thus young am I driven
To learn as I wander on life’s stony road
How salt is the bread from the stranger’s hand given
How steep are the steps of the Stranger’s abode.
But first shall my prayers to yon sky brightly starred
Where the hopes of the friendship are anchored he said
And there wild flowers I’ll plant by the Yew Trees which guard
With their dark-spreading branches the graves of the dead.
It’s not a great poem. I mean, we could call the country a “Stranger’s abode” but that’s facile, right? We could spin the word salt.
Private collections being what they are, the poem finds me unbiased and is largely uninterpreted. It has not yet become overdetermined; I can, in fact might, choose not to determine it at all.
But it’s not the poem that found me; once I heard about it, I came looking.
Why did I do so? What is the poem about, and what am I really about? Mary Shelley and Jane, Lady Shelley became overdetermined for one another. But is Mary Shelley overdetermined for me? Like Jane, I can make Mary Shelley mean anything; I am in fact practiced at doing so. I fracture the light through her crystalline profile.
Where the hopes of the friendship are anchored he said. I was pretty sure it was he, that he said it, but Jane’s handwriting isn’t perfect and I’ve made mistakes before, so I asked the curator, who agreed, but it makes no sense and it doesn’t, because who would say that the hopes of the friendship are anchored to yon sky brightly starred? Unless it’s Percy Florence, Mary Shelley’s only surviving child and Jane, Lady Shelley’s only surviving spouse, catching her hand on an evening walk as they ramble beneath the canopy of the past, noting that this friendship, their friendship, is yoked to some spangled angel, some dead mother.*
Rachel Feder is an assistant professor of English and literary arts at the University of Denver and the author of Harvester of Hearts: Motherhood under the Sign of Frankenstein (Northwestern University Press, 2018).
*The archival materials cited in this essay belong to The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Jane, Lady Shelley refers to Mary Shelley as an “angel” in [ALS to Mrs. Boothe, February 20, 1851-24, Chester Square]. She refers to Mary Shelley’s “memory” in [ALS to Leigh Hunt Boscombe, July 7, 1858] and to her “miseries” in [ALS to Mrs. Rashleigh [no date]]. Jane, Lady Shelley’s poem appears in [Yachting diary of Jane, Lady Shelley, 1852-1860]. I am grateful to Elizabeth Denlinger for her help with the transcription.