After a short break, we are back, with the second instalment of Katie Watson’s article on Mary Shelley. Katie graduated with a BA Honours in English and Drama and is currently studying an MA in English Studies.
Continuing my discussion of Mary Shelley and the monstrous woman, I wish to digress further into the feminist movements that surrounded Shelley and led to a great many other women to be deemed monsters.
The 1790s saw the first real rise of the radical woman. There had been intellectual women in the past with an agenda for achieving better rights for women but this decade saw a vast increase in the publication of texts with a feminist agenda, both fictional and theoretical, for example, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Mary Hays’s A Victim of Justice (1799). The former text was written by none other than Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The pioneer of feminism, Wollstonecraft strove for the education of females, equal rights and the abolition of marriage as a patriarchal institute.
This rise of feminism directly confronted the entire male hegemony that had dominated society for millennia, thus, unfortunately, with this literary movement, came the social portrayal of these radicals as monsters.
Wollstonecraft’s reputation was systematically destroyed by reviews and social gossip. She went against the tide not only in her literature; she practiced what she preached, giving birth to a bastard child, Fanny Imlay, attempting suicide twice and spending time alone and unmarried, with men. This destruction culminated after her death when her husband, William Godwin, published her Memoirs. In this he revealed all the aforementioned information that had remained concealed until then. Wollstonecraft became a “hyena in petticoats” (Mills, C. 2015) according to our most beloved gothic father, Horace Walpole. She was nothing more than an animal, a bestial creature in the guise of a woman, a monster.
This divergence from the social norm spread to everyone around her. You need only refer to my previous article to see how her famous daughter strove against conformity. Her first daughter, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide as a young woman, the ultimate act of monstrosity: self-murder and sacrilege. Folklore told that suicides may indeed come back as vampires, and so to prevent any more claims of monstrosity being thrown towards the family, William Godwin and Percy Shelley worked to cover up the girl’s death, claiming it was the result of a short illness.
Finally is Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont. After Wollstonecraft’s death Godwin married his neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. Clairmont’s daughter eloped with Mary and Percy Shelley in 1813. She later had an affair with Byron which resulted in the birth of their daughter. Godwin and her mother, however, believed the child to be Percy Shelley’s as rumours of their behaviour as the league of incest grew in England. Jane Clairmont was deeply struck by Wollstonecraft, she changed her name to Claire in defiance of her mother and took on Wollstonecraft’s birthday as her own.
Thus it is often the case that with the rise of feminism, be it first, second or third wave, there is also the rise of the monstrous woman. The hegemonic male fear of the woman’s power, both seductive and intellectual. These women were struck down and cast out of the society they desperately tried to change for the better. Ignored was their intellectual capability, highlighted was their deviation from the norm. So always remember, ladies, patriarchy hates deviance.
Mills, C. (2015) Mary Wollstonecraft: A Hyena in petticoats, or just misunderstood? Available at: http://www.headstuff.org/2015/01/mary-wollstonecraft-hyena-petticoats-just-misunderstood/ (Accessed: 28 July 2016).