A meticulously researched retelling of the tumult of the early 19th century through the most tumultuous family of them all.
Despite the countless chronicles written about the lives and times—and primarily, the scandals—of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley family, Todd (Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation, 2004, etc.) unearths yet another in this story of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s eldest daughter Fanny, who committed suicide at the age of 22. Born out of wedlock to Wollstonecraft and the American cad Gilbert Imlay, Fanny was just three years old when her beloved mother died giving birth to her half-sister Mary, who would become famous both as the author of Frankenstein and for her elopement with the fatally attractive Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was just 16. Shortly after Wollstonecraft’s early death, her husband, the famed political writer William Godwin, published a biography in which every detail of Wollstonecraft’s sexual indiscretions (including those with him) were laid bare, dooming Fanny to life as a known bastard. But Fanny’s real tragedy, it seemed, was to be the dull one in a family toward whose society everyone in the known world was irresistibly drawn, from Shelley to Lord Byron to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Aaron Burr. In a family of writers, she alone seemed to lack facility with the pen, and, while her half- and step-sisters engaged in scandalous sexual adventures, Fanny was kept duty-bound at home. Because so little is known about the melancholy young woman, Todd is forced to speculate on several key points—for example, what exactly caused her to commit her final act—but she wisely structures the narrative like a mystery, finely drawing out the tension until the end. Fanny remains largely an excuse to tell the story, and the anonymous suicide who was buried in a pauper’s grave remains a cipher.
An engaging account of the pain of anonymity in the presence of selfish genius.