Fanny Imlay

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Frances "Fanny" Imlay (born May 14, 1794 in Le Havre , † October 9, 1816 in Swansea ), actually Fanny Wollstonecraft , because of her unofficial adoption by William Godwin sometimes called Fanny Godwin , was the illegitimate daughter of the British writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the American speculator Gilbert Imlay .

Fanny Imlay did not leave any literary works. However, she belongs to a group of people who significantly influenced English literature and philosophy at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Due to her social background, Fanny Imlay's short life is of interest to literary and social history.

Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote one of the fundamental works of the women's rights movement in 1792, Defense of Women's Rights. Her stepfather, William Godwin, was an influential social philosopher and for a time the leading theorist of the liberal Whig party . He is considered a thought leader in political anarchism . Her half-sister Mary Godwin went down in literary history under the name Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus , one of the most famous works of fantastic literature. The publisher Joseph Johnson temporarily managed part of the maternal inheritance for Fanny Imlay; Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the poets of English Romanticism and Claire Clairmont was one of Lord Byron's lovers .


Although her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay, had a happy relationship for a brief period before and after the birth of Fanny Imlay, Gilbert Imlay separated from Mary Wollstonecraft in 1795. She married William Godwin in 1797 and died that same year of the aftermath of the birth of Mary Godwin (later known as Mary Shelley). Fanny Imlay grew up with William Godwin, who entered into a second marriage with Mary Jane Clairmont four years after the death of his first wife. She brought two children into the marriage. While Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin were critical of their stepmother, their relationship with their stepsister Claire Clairmont was close. However, William Godwin's growing indebtedness resulted in increasing tension within the Godwin family. In 1814 the two teenagers Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont secretly left the family, traveled to parts of the European continent with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and then settled with him in England. Fanny Imlay, who remained with the family, committed suicide in 1816 at the age of 22.


Mary Wollstonecraft , painted by her friend John Opie . She was pregnant with Fanny Imlay's half-sister Mary Godwin at the time

Fanny Imlay's parents had settled independently in France during the French Revolution . Gilbert Imlay was in France on business. Mary Wollstonecraft had moved to France after the publication of her influential and widely read book Defense of Women's Rights (published 1792) in the hope of seeing the dawn of a new civil society that would grant women equal rights. The turmoil of the French Revolution temporarily hampered the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay. For some time Gilbert Imlay was forbidden to leave the urban area of ​​Paris, or for Mary Wollstonecraft not possible to travel to Paris. Because of this, Mary Wollstonecraft occasionally met her lover at a customs post on the city limits between Paris and probably Neuilly-sur-Seine . Fanny Imlay was conceived there, which was later the reason for her stepfather William Godwin to refer to her as a “border child”. Although not married to Gilbert Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft took his last name. She was thus able to evade an order of the convention that provided for the arrest of all Englishmen living in France. A simple certificate from the American legation was sufficient for the name change.

Early childhood

Gilbert Imlay quickly grew tired of his partner and family life. He left Mary Wollstonecraft and Fanny Imlay alone for longer and longer periods of time and eventually left the two to live with an actress. In April 1795 Mary Wollstonecraft returned to London with her daughter. Gilbert Imlay, whom she visited in London, refused to live with his former lover again. In order to win him back, Mary Wollstonecraft traveled to Scandinavia from June to September 1795 with the meanwhile one-year-old Fanny Imlay and a maid to do business for her former lover. The trip is not only a testament to courage because it took place during the coalition wars. Scandinavia was considered an uncivilized and harsh country and women seldom traveled without a male companion at the time. Based on the diaries and letters written during the trip, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the travel report Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), in which she also praised motherhood, among other things. Her loving relationship with Fanny Imlay plays a major role in this last completed work. At one point, her daughter is a reason to reflect on the importance society accorded a woman:

Before one of her suicide attempts, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote on the first page of her work Lessons : The first book in a series that I actually wanted to write for my unhappy daughter
[…] As a woman I am particularly attached to her [Fanny Imlay] - I feel more than just the tenderness and concern of a mother when I think about the dependent and oppressed status of her gender. I fear that one day she will be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or her principles to her heart. Trembling, I will draw on sensitivity here and delight in its sensitivity, because while I am giving the roses a new color, I will also sharpen the thorns that will one day injure the chest, over which I watch with so much joy - I fear to sharpen her mind because it will potentially make her unfit for the world she will live in - poor woman! What a fate awaits you!

While Mary Wollstonecraft spoke directly about her daughter in her travelogue, Fanny Imlay was the reason for two more unfinished works by her mother. Mary Wollstonecraft began working on Letters on the Management of Infants and Lessons based on her experiences in raising her daughter. Lessons is a book with which children should receive their first reading lessons.

In 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft renewed her acquaintance with the influential social philosopher and thought leader of anarchism , William Godwin . She had first met him in 1791 at a dinner her publisher and close friend Joseph Johnson was giving for Thomas Paine . Both belonged to the circle of radical thought leaders, attached great importance to independence and were critical of the institution of marriage. For this reason, they initially ran separate households. It was not until March 29, 1797, shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft discovered that she was pregnant again, that the two married to avoid social ostracism. William Godwin had already started to develop a close relationship with the almost three-year-old Fanny Imlay even before the marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft died in September 1797 as a result of the birth of Mary Godwin. After her death, William Godwin and Joseph Johnson contacted Gilbert Imlay. This was probably more out of a sense of duty to the biological father than because of the desire to evade Fanny Imlay's upbringing. For example, both made inquiries about the character of the woman Gilbert Imlay was living with at the time. Gilbert Imlay, however, showed no interest in raising his daughter, whom he had not seen since 1796. Eliza Bishop and Everina Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft's two sisters, would have gladly taken their niece in and offered this to William Godwin several times. William Godwin, who did not appreciate both women, always turned down their offers. Ultimately, Fanny Imlay was unofficially adopted by her stepfather and from then on bore the surname Godwin. Joseph Johnson unofficially took on the role of asset manager for Fanny Imlay. He even bequeathed her £ 200 in his will. However, when Joseph Johnson died in 1809, William Godwin was so deeply indebted to him that Johnson's heirs asked William Godwin to use that money to pay at least part of his debt.

According to the prevailing interpretation of William Godwin's diaries, Fanny Imlay grew up until she was twelve, convinced that she was William Godwin's biological daughter. However, William Godwin had published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798 . In it he frankly mentioned numerous details from the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Not only was it described her obsessive passion for the married painter Johann Heinrich Füssli , but also that she had a child from Gilbert Imlay, that she had tried to commit suicide when he left her, that she was pregnant by William Godwin was before they married, and that she had refused any religious assistance while she was still on her death camp. Fanny Imlay's only biographer, Janet Todd , therefore considers it unlikely that Fanny Imlay could grow up in the liberal household of William Godwin without being aware of her true origins. She suspects that the conversation with 12-year-old Fanny Imlay, recorded in William Godwin's diary, was about her future life.


Despite a warm relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft's two daughters, William Godwin was too busy to raise the children himself. Housekeepers took care of them. William Godwin usually only saw the two girls for a few, predetermined hours. When he was working, the main thing was to be quiet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge , himself the father of a young boy, criticized the silence in the Godwin family as grave-like. However, the numerous letters William Godwin wrote to the two little girls during a trip to Dublin also testify to how much he missed the girls when they were not around.

Portrait of William Godwin ( James Northcote , oil on canvas, 1802, National Portrait Gallery , London)

On December 21, 1801, William Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who lived in the neighborhood and who was pregnant by him. She had made it appear to her neighbors that she was a widow. However, the two children she brought into the marriage were born out of wedlock and were descended from two different fathers. Fanny Imlay was seven years old at the time of the marriage. Her new step-siblings were three-year-old Claire and six-year-old Charles Clairmont. Although Mary Jane Clairmont was well educated and widely traveled, most people around William Godwin found his new wife vulgar and dishonest. Many of them expressed amazement that William Godwin had chosen her as their new partner after marrying Mary Wollstonecraft. William St. Clair, one of the biographers of the Shelley and Godwin families, however, points out the risk that a biographer overweight the opinion of those who wrote it down. Mary Jane Clairmont's acceptance may therefore have been greater than the surviving evidence suggests. However, Fanny Imlay and her half-sister Mary Godwin had a long-term split relationship with their stepmother and complained several times that she preferred her own children to them. The child who was the cause of the marriage died in childbirth. On March 28, 1803, the fifth child, William Godwin, was born to be raised in the Godwin household.

The extent to which William Godwin followed the educational principles required by Mary Wollstonecraft is debatable. William Godwin read Fanny Imlay and his daughter Mary Godwin from Sarah Trimmer's Fabulous Histories (1786) and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Lessons for Children (1778–1779). Otherwise, according to Fanny Imlay's biographer Jane Todd, he made little effort to give the two girls a good education. He ignored the books Mary Wollstonecraft had written for her daughter Fanny. William St. Clair, on the other hand, has argued in his biography of the Godwin and Shelley families that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft had long discussions about what upbringing their children should receive. These discussions are also reflected in William Godwin's book The Enquirer . After Mary Wollstonecraft's death, William Godwin even contacted Lady Mount Cashell, who had previously been one of Wollstonecraft's students, and asked her advice on how to raise his daughters. Miranda Seymour also shares William St. Clair's opinion in her biography of Mary Godwin, arguing that “everything we know about his daughters' early years suggests that they were raised in a manner their mother consented to Miranda Seymour points out that the two had a governess, a tutor, a French-speaking stepmother, and a (step-) father who wrote children's books and usually read the first drafts to his own offspring first. However, it was the new stepmother who mainly took care of the upbringing of the children, and her daughter Claire Clairmont received the most complete education. She was the only one of the girls to learn more than just basic French. Given the financial situation of the Godwin household, a solid knowledge of French would have been necessary for both Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin to be able to make a living as governesses one day. While Claire Clairmont and Mary Godwin attended a girls' boarding school, at least for a time, Fanny Imlay was the only one to receive home schooling. Nonetheless, C. Kegan Paul, one of William Godwin's first biographers, describes the adult Fanny Imlay as an educated, lively, intelligent young woman, whose letters show good style and who knew how to run a household. Fanny Imlay was also good at drawing and had been trained in music. Although William Godwin was atheist , all children occasionally attended Anglican churches.

The growing Fanny Imlay

The polygon on the left in Somers Town, London , between Camden Town and St Pancras , was the house where Fanny Imlay grew up

Seldom reticent, William Godwin wrote of the differences between Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin:

My own daughter [Mary] is vastly superior in her ability to what her mother had before. Fanny, the eldest, is of a quiet, modest, reserved manner, a little prone to laziness, which is her greatest flaw, but sober, attentive, remarkably clear and discerning in her memories, able to form her own opinion and hers Judgment to follow. Mary, my daughter, is her opposite in many ways. She is bold, a little bossy, and has a keen mind. Her desire for knowledge is great and she shows unwavering perseverance in everything she does. My own daughter, I think, is very pretty; Fanny, on the other hand, is by no means, but on the whole has a pleasant appearance.

The Godwin family was constantly in debt, as works such as An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice or William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams were influential but generated little income. In search of a new source of income, William Godwin and his second wife founded a publishing bookstore in 1805, for which he also wrote children's books himself. In 1807 - Fanny Imlay was now 13 - the family moved from the polygon in which Fanny Imlay had previously grown up to 41 Skinner Street, a street near Clerkenwell, the district where the London booksellers were traditionally based. The Godwin family had their new apartment above the shop where they sold their books. It was mostly Mrs. Godwin, and later Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin, who worked downstairs in the shop. Although William Godwin's small company was initially profitable, commercial success failed to materialize in the medium term. William Godwin continued to borrow more money from wealthy acquaintances like publisher Joseph Johnson and admirers like Francis Place than he could realistically repay. Janet Todd describes the aging William Godwin as a shabbily clad, shuffling man who, in an almost absurd way, demanded respect for his earlier intellectual achievements and begged for money from his patrons in self-pitying letters. The older Fanny Imlay got, the more her stepfather relied on Fanny Imlay to put off the traders whose bills had remained unpaid. She was also the one who William Godwin sent begging letters to men like Francis Place. Jane Todd and Miranda Seymour argue in their biographies that Fanny Imlay was convinced, until the end of their lives, of her stepfather's theory that great thinkers and artists were entitled to the support of wealthy patrons, and that she counted her stepfather among them , even if many people around them no longer shared this view.

Countless intellectuals, poets, journalists, philosophers, politicians and men of letters continued to frequent the house of Godwin, who was once considered a leading theoretician of the liberal Whig Party. Former US Vice President Aaron Burr had settled in England after his acquittal of treason and the scandal over his duel with Alexander Hamilton . He was a frequent guest of the Godwins. He was a great admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft and had raised his daughter on the rules Mary Wollstonecraft had described in Defense of Women's Rights . It was important to him to get to know their daughters and referred to Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin and even Claire Clairmont as "goddesses". His surviving letters give an insight into the family life of the Godwins between 1809 and 1811. After that, the three half-sisters and step-sisters got along well. Fanny Imlay was Aaron Burr's preferred interlocutor and, based on his descriptions, was full of intellectual curiosity. Aaron Burr even went to the trouble of taking her to the model school that Quaker Joseph Lancaster had built in Southwark .

Percy B. Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont

Percy Bysshe Shelley (portrait by Amelia Curran , 1819).

However, it was not Aaron Burr who had the greatest influence on Fanny Imlay's life, but the poet and writer Percy Bysshe Shelley . He had dealt with William's work An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice (published 1793). Deeply impressed by the text, one of the earliest theoretical representations of socialism and anarchism , Percey Shelley contacted William Godwin by letter and the two corresponded for a long time. In 1812 Shelley asked William Godwin whether the now 18-year-old Fanny Imlay would not like to live with him, his wife and their sister for a while. An invitation to live with another family as a houseguest for several weeks was not uncommon among English families at the beginning of the 19th century. Mary Godwin, for example, spent the summer and fall of 1812 with a Scottish family whom William Godwin was acquainted with. William Godwin had also stated in his major work, An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice : It is meaningless that I am the parent of a child if it is established that the child will get more benefit from living under the supervision of a stranger. In the case of Percy B. Shelley, however, William Godwin declined the invitation. The fact that Percy B. Shelley's life so far has not been without scandals may have played a role in the rejection. He had previously had to leave University College in Oxford after he and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg published a pamphlet on the "necessity of atheism". The marriage between the baronet heir Percy Shelley and the daughter of a wealthy London coffeehouse owner caused an even greater stir. Harriet Westbrook, only sixteen, had been boarding school friends of Shelley's younger sisters and was so uncomfortable at boarding school that she considered suicide. Percy B. Shelley fled spontaneously with her in August 1811 to Edinburgh and married her there without her parents' consent.

Percy B. Shelley first visited the Godwins in November 1812, and during the summer of 1814 - a time when Shelley had become very much estranged from his wife, Harriet - he spent a great deal of time with the Godwins. All three daughters of the Godwin family were very taken with the charismatic young poet. Fanny Imlay in particular was very fond of him. Both spent a lot of time discussing controversial political issues of their time. He and Fanny Imlay may develop more intense feelings for one another. Claire Clairmont later claimed they were in love with each other. Fanny Imlay was sent to Wales in May of this year to live for some time. Janet Todd and Alexander Puchmann take the view in their respective biographies about Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin that this was initiated by their stepmother in order to prevent Fanny Imlay from becoming too close to the married Shelley. Tensions grew at the same time within the Godwin family, as William Godwin was increasingly in debt and the relationship between Mary Godwin and her stepmother became increasingly hostile. Sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin found support from Percy B. Shelley and they both began a love affair. When Percy Shelley B. informed William Godwin of his feelings for Mary Godwin, William Godwin reacted angrily and accepted Shelley's promise to "return to virtue and renounce his vicious love." William Godwin's reaction to Percy B. Shelley's confession may have been different from what he expected. In the oldest edition of An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice , William Godwin rejected marriage and called for sexual freedom. In later editions he had not only represented far less radical views. His theories have always assumed rational action in a more developed society, while Shelley had to assume exclusively hedonistic motives. At the same time, William Godwin was dependent on the money that Shelley was able to make available to him as the heir to a large fortune and which, despite his own financial problems, actually lent to the Godwin family on July 19, 1814. The separation that William Godwin believed he had ensured between his daughter and Percy B. Shelley did not last long.

Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont left secretly on June 28, 1814 to settle on the European continent for a few weeks. William Godwin ordered Fanny Imlay back from Wales to help him cope with this crisis: Against the background of the moral standards of the time, both girls were exposed to social ostracism. Fanny Imlay's chances of finding a job as a governess anywhere also fell considerably due to the escapade of Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont. Her stepmother wrote that Fanny Imlay was deeply shocked by the behavior of her two step-sisters. In the midst of this family crisis, one of William Godwin's protégés committed suicide and the youngest family member, young William Godwin, ran away from home and was only found two days later. Finally the news of the two girls who had run away got to the press, which attacked William Godwin heavily.

Mary Godwin , later wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and future author of Frankenstein ( Reginald Easton , c. 1857)

Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Percy B. Shelley returned from the continent to England in September 1814 and moved into a house in London together. William Godwin did not want any contact with his two daughters. Fanny Imlay, on the other hand, felt a duty of loyalty to both her sisters and her father. Both sides charged her equally with not wanting to take a stand in this family drama. The Godwin family wanted her to stay away from Percy Shelley's corrupting influence, while her sisters and Percy B. Shelley criticized each other for fear of breaking social conventions. At the same time, her aunts Eliza Bishop and Elvirina Wollstonecraft actually wanted to put her in a teaching position, which became increasingly difficult in the face of the scandal that brought William Godwin's shocking memories of the author of the Defense of Women's Rights (published 1798) back into the public mind had called. Fanny Imlay's few visits to Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont's London home were a sign of courage because of the breach of social conventions. However, she received little thanks for this from her stepsisters. Her attempts to persuade at least Claire Clairmont to return to the bosom of the family convinced Percy Bysshe Shelley that Fanny Imlay was more on the side of the Godwin family, and he grew increasingly suspicious of her. At the same time Fanny Imlay tried to borrow money from Percy B. Shelley in order to be able to put off other debtors of her stepfather. Although Percy B. Shelley ran away with two of his daughters, William Godwin accepted a £ 1,200 loan from him. Shelley's own financial situation was quite complex. His father refused to keep giving him child support. As heir to an aristocratic family, however, unlike William Godwin, he was able to issue promissory notes on his future wealth.

In February 1815, Mary Godwin gave birth to their daughter Clara. Both she and the baby were in poor health and Fanny Imlay visited her several times. William Godwin heavily criticized Fanny Imlay for disregarding his ban on visiting her half-sister. Although it made her own situation worse, her visits became even more numerous after little Clara died on March 6th. A few months later, Claire Clairmont began a love affair with Lord Byron, and on January 24, 1816, Mary Godwin and Percy B. Shelley, still married to Harriet Shelley, had a second child. It was baptized after his grandfather, William. William Godwin's debts had grown even larger in the past few months, and while he still refused to see Percy Shelley, his daughter, and grandson, he continued to seek financial assistance from Percy B. Shelley. Around the same time, Charles Clairmont, Fanny Imlay's eldest stepbrother, separated from the family. Frustrated with the constant tension in the Godwin family, he went to France and refused to serve his family any further. At almost the same time, Claire Clairmont, Mary Godwin and Percy B. Shelley also left England to join Lord Byron on the European continent. William Godwin was deeply affected by this further development. He had relied on Shelley's continued financial support, and the fact that Percy Shelley's group now joined the scandalous Lord Byron made the Godwin family's loss of reputation even worse.

Despite all these family dramas, Fanny Imlay still found time to pursue her intellectual hobbies. The social reformer Robert Owen visited the Godwin family in the summer of 1816. He and Fanny Imlay had a series of conversations about the difficult situation of the working class in Great Britain. She did not agree with all of Owen's proposals, but found some of his ideas too "romantic" because they were based on the idea that the wealthy would voluntarily share their wealth with the poor. That same summer, Fanny Imlay first met George Blood. He was the brother of Fanny Blood , a friend of her mother who had died before she was born and with whom she had briefly run a girls' school. Mary Wollstonecraft had named her daughter Fanny in memory of her friend. Conversations with George Blood revolved around Mary Wollstonecraft, and following the meeting, Fanny Imlay wrote to Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley:

I am determined never to lead a life that would dishonor such a mother ... I have also come to believe that if I strive to overcome my mistakes, I will find beings who will love and appreciate me .
Claire Clairmont ( Amelia Curran , 1819)

Shortly before the second departure of Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Percy B. Shelley to the European continent, Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin had argued violently. There was no longer any reconciliation between the half-sisters. Fanny Imlay tried to heal the break in her letters to Mary Godwin, but it was clear from her letters that she felt lonely and isolated in London. In letters to Mary Godwin she described the terrible emotional state from which I generally suffer & which I try in vain to get rid of . A number of literary scholars attribute Fanny Imlay's growing oppression to her stepmother's hostility towards her. Others such as Paul C. Kegan argue that Fanny Imlay, like her mother, suffered periods of depression. However, her half-sister was too busy with her own problems to cheer up Fanny Imlay in letters: her life in Switzerland turned out to be more complicated than she had hoped, her relationship with Percy B. Shelley was in a deep phase and at the same time she had started to write her novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus . When the three returned to England, Claire Clairmont was pregnant by Lord Byron. To keep Claire Clairmont's pregnancy a secret, they settled in Bath. Janet Todd concluded from the surviving letters from Fanny Imlay that she met Percy B. Shelley twice in September 1816. She had previously tried in her letters to get an invitation from the three of them to join them in Europe, and tried again when she met Percy Shelley in London. Based on her analysis of surviving letters, Janet Todd has come to the conclusion that Fanny Imlay found life in the Godwin's home increasingly unbearable because of her stepmother's constant financial worries and persistent criminal sermons. Percy Shelley declined to have Fanny Imlay join them. In Todd's view, the decisive factor was that Percy B. Shelley wanted to keep Claire Clairmont's pregnancy a secret from someone like Fanny Imlay, who, in his opinion, felt so indebted to William Godwin that she soon made him aware of his daughter's condition would put.



Fanny Imlay left the Godwin's home in London at the beginning of October 1816. She committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum at an inn in Swansea , south Wales, on October 9th . She was 22 years old.

The motives for her death and the details of the suicide are controversial. Most of the letters relating to Fanny Imlay's suicide were either later destroyed or lost. In the article Fanny Godwin's Suicide Re-examined , published in 1965, PR Bolin compiled all the main theses on Fanny Imlay's suicide. To this day, they are among the common explanations for their suicide:

  • Fanny Imlay only found out shortly before that she was born out of wedlock.
  • After Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont ran away from home, Fanny Imlay faced increasing hostility from her stepmother.
  • Fanny Imlay had not been given the job of teacher at her aunts' school that she had hoped for.
  • She suffered from depression which the living conditions in the Godwin's house made worse.
  • Fanny Imlay was in love with Percy B. Shelley and desperate that he had turned to her half-sister.

Like most modern biographers, BR Pollin rejects the thesis that Fanny Imlay committed suicide because of her illegitimate birth. Fanny Imlay had access to her mother's letters and records, and William Godwin had written very openly , in reminiscent of the Defender of Women author, about her being out of wedlock. In letters to her sisters, Fanny Imlay even suggests that they were contrary to her marital parentage.

BR Pollin is also skeptical of the statement that her stepmother's hostilities drove Fanny Imlay to her death. He refers to a letter to Mary Godwin written on October 3, 1816, in which Fanny Imlay defends her stepmother to her half-sister: Mrs. Godwin would not willingly wrong any of you. Mamma and I are not great friends, but I am so aware of their virtues that I have to defend them against an accusation that so little corresponds to their character ...

BR Pollin has found no evidence that Fanny Imlay was refused a job at her aunts' school. According to his analyzes, Fanny Imlay was only considering such a position. Miranda Seymour, however, gives the thesis in her Mary Godwin biography some probability. William St Clair, on the other hand, is of the opinion that Fanny Imlay was already on the trip to see her aunts when she decided to take her own life. He assumes that Fanny Imlay should initially teach at the Irish school on a trial basis. Richard Holmes, one of William Godwin's youngest biographers, even completely dismisses this explanation for Fanny Imlay's suicide.

After analyzing letters from family members of the Godwins and Shelleys, BR Pollin rejects the thesis that Fanny Imlay suffered from depression. She is regularly described in these letters as balanced and forward-looking. She, too, describes herself similarly in her own letters. Phases of melancholy and sadness are always related to certain events or illnesses. Richard Holmes suspects in his Percy Shelley biography that the main motive for the suicide was that Fanny Imlay was torn between the two families for an excruciatingly long time. Alexander Pechmann suspects that it was rather the feeling of not being able to meet the high demands of her stepfather and of being just a useless burden for a family, with whose fate she was only connected by chance , that drove Fanny Imlay to suicide.

Both BR Pollin and Janet Todd suspect that Fanny Imlay met Percy B. Shelley one last time in Bath - which is between Swansea and London - and that the subject of the conversation during that meeting ultimately drove Fanny Imlay to suicide. Like others, Miranda Seymour suspected that PB Shelley simply did not want to provide the financial means that he had promised William Godwin. Janet Todd, however, goes on. Based on lines of poetry by Percy B. Shelley, which Shelley wrote shortly after Fanny Imlay's death, she suspects that Fanny Imlay begged Percy B. Shelley one last time in Bath to take her into his household. Because he had to protect Claire Clairmont's reputation and he had to avoid another scandal because of his wife Harriet's complaint because of his wanton abandonment, he rejected Fanny Imlay's request again. According to Janet Todd, it was this renewed rejection that drove Fanny Imlay to her death.

The suicide

On the night of October 9, 1816, Fanny Imlay took a room at the Mackworth Arms Inn in Swansea and instructed the housekeeper not to disturb her. That same night, Mary Godwin, who was in Bath with Percy B. Shelley, received a letter from Fanny Imlay, who had previously sent it from Bristol. William Godwin in London also received a similar letter. The tone of the two letters prompted both William Godwin and Percy B. Shelley to travel to Bristol immediately. Both arrived in Swansea on October 11th and were too late to intervene. Fanny Imlay was found dead in her room on October 10th. The cause of death was an overdose of laudanum . William Godwin left immediately. It was only Percy B. Shelley left to take care of matters. Fanny Imlay had left a goodbye note that wasn't addressed to any specific person.

I have long since decided that the best I can do myself is to put an end to the life of someone whose birth was marred by unhappiness, and whose life is to those who ruined their health to care for their well-being , only brought endless suffering. Perhaps the news of my death will hurt you, but soon you will be blessed to forget that such a being ever existed ...

The fact that Fanny Imlay calls herself "born unhappiness" may be an allusion to the fact that her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, referred to her as "my unhappy girl" in a note prior to one of her suicide attempts. The little farewell letter seems to have been signed initially. However, the signature had been torn off to prevent identification of her body. The news about the suicide, which appeared in the local newspaper The Cambrian , is accordingly not named by Fanny Imlay.

In the subsequent official investigation, Fanny Imlay was only declared "dead". This spared her corpse a series of degradations that were common among suicide victims. In the worst case, the body of a suicide victim was covered with slaked lime and buried at an intersection at night. In the best case scenario, the body would be buried in the remote corner of a cemetery and labeled so that it was recognizable as the grave of a suicidal person. Janet Todd assumes that it was Percy B. Shelley who made sure that the official investigation did not come to the cause of death suicide and who also removed everything from the dead that would have allowed the body to be identified. He would have been the one who would have torn off the signature under the closing letter. Janet Todd also believes that in order to protect the bereaved, he waived the right to claim the body. Since no one else did either, Fanny Imlay was probably buried in a poor grave. William Godwin later wrote to Percy B. Shelley:

Don't do anything that destroys the anonymity she so desired and which is now so obscuring this case. It was, as I said, her last wish ... Think about the situation my wife and I find ourselves in now that all of our children except for little William have been torn from us and do not expose ourselves to the idle questions that we have for us who agonize over it is one of the worst trials.

Suicide was still so scandalous and sinful in English society at the beginning of the 19th century that the family circulated a series of stories to hide the truth: Fanny Imlay had gone on a journey, she was in Wales at one She died of a cold or a fever or she was living with her aunts on the maternal side. When family members could not help admitting Fanny Imlay's suicide, they explained that Fanny Imlay chose suicide because Percy B. Shelley loved Mary Godwin and not her. Neither Percy B. Shelley nor Mary Godwin mention Fanny Imlay's death in their surviving letters. Claire Clairmont stated in a letter to Lord Byron that Percy B. Shelley was so depressed by her death that he fell ill. The Shelley biographer Holmes points out, however, that there is no evidence to support this claim. Don Locke, on the other hand, noted in his biography of William Godwin that Percy B. Shelley told Lord Byron that he suffered more from Fanny Imlay's suicide than from that of his own wife Harriet, which occurred two months later.

No portrait of Fanny Imlay has survived. A few months after her death, Percy B. Shelley wrote a poem that was later published by Mary Godwin without further comment. It is generally assumed to refer to his last meeting with Fanny Imlay.

On Fanny Godwin
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 — O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Individual evidence

  1. a b Pechmann, p. 10
  2. Pechmann, p. 8
  3. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 39.
  4. Melanie Phillips: The Ascent of Woman - A History of the Suffragette Movement and the ideas behind it. Time Warner Book Group, London 2003. ISBN 0-349-11660-1 , p. 9.
  5. St Clair, p. 182; Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 54.
  6. Pechmann, p. 27
  7. a b Melanie Phillips: The Ascent of Woman - A History of the Suffragette Movement and the ideas behind it. Time Warner Book Group, London 2003. ISBN 0-349-11660-1 , p. 13.
  8. Tomalin, 225-31; Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , 311ff; Todd, Death and the Maidens , 22-23.
  9. William Godwin, who acted as her publisher after the death of his wife, assumed that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this note in October 1795.
  10. the english rose is a phrase that is often used symbolically for English women.
  11. Quoted in Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , pp. 326-27. The original quote is: You know that as a female I am particularly attached to her - I feel more than a mother's fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment, read, whilst I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard - I dread to unfold her mind, read it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit - Hapless woman! what a fate is thine!
  12. Tomalin, 249; Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , 259-60; Seymour, Jan.
  13. Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , 439-42; Todd, Death and the Maidens , 30; Locke, 130; Seymour, Jan.
  14. St Clair, p. 296; Tomalin, p. 287; Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 31-32.
  15. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 35-36 and 52ff; Seymour, 38, 40-41; and Locke 218.
  16. Tomalin, 271 ff .; Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , 448 ff .; Todd, Death and the Maidens , Jan.
  17. St Clair, p. 305; Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 67.
  18. St Clair, 180; Tomalin, 286-87; Seymour, 82-83.
  19. Melanie Phillips: The Ascent of Woman - A History of the Suffragette Movement and the ideas behind it. Time Warner Book Group, London 2003, ISBN 0-349-11660-1 , p. 14.
  20. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 54-55.
  21. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 46-47.
  22. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 48-49; Seymour, pp. 41-42.
  23. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 56-58; Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , 170; St Clair, 241.
  24. St. Clair, p. 242 and p. 246.
  25. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 56-57.
  26. St Clair, 242.
  27. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 45-46, pp. 63.
  28. St Clair, pp. 280-81.
  29. Seymour, p. 53
  30. Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 63
  31. a b Paul, C. Kegan. William Godwin . Accessed June 1, 2007.
  32. a b St Clair, p. 399.
  33. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 63-64.
  34. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 64.
  35. Quoted from Locke, p. 219; The original quote is: My own daughter [Mary] is considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before. Fanny, the eldest, is of a quiet, modest, unshowy disposition, somewhat given to indolence, which is her greatest fault, but sober, observing, peculiarly clear and distinct in the faculty of memory, and disposed to exercise her own thoughts and follow her own judgment. Mary, my daughter, is the reverse of her in many particulars. She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty; Fanny is handsome by no means, but in general prepossessing .
  36. Pechmann, p. 35
  37. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 61; St Clair, 284-86, 290-96.
  38. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 61-62 and pp. 66-68.
  39. Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 78. Your description is in the original: … a shabby, rather absurd and shuffling figure, bereft of the dignity he continued to claim and unworthy of present homage. [Fanny Imlay] ... was fully aware of the cringing, boastful, self-pitying modes in which he cajoled and begged for his family
  40. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 76-79; Seymour, pp. 168-69.
  41. ^ Pechmann, p. 18 and p. 34
  42. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 77 ff.
  43. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 74-75.
  44. Pechmann, p. 20
  45. Pechmann, p. 36
  46. Quoted from Pechmann, p. 36
  47. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 91-92; Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , p. 147; Locke, p. 248; Seymour, p. 67 ff .; St Clair, p. 330.
  48. Pechmann, pp. 40-43.
  49. Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , pp. 169-70; Locke, pp. 248-49.
  50. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 97-99; and Seymour, pp. 68-69.
  51. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 111-12, 118-19.
  52. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 125-28; Pechmann, p. 50
  53. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , 120-21.
  54. William Godwin in a letter to one of his acquaintances, quoted from Pechmann, p. 51.
  55. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 9, p. 133
  56. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 129-36; Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , pp. 231-34; Locke, pp. 251-54; Seymour, p. 99
  57. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 138 and 139; Seymour, p. 99.
  58. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 139; Seymour, pp. 99-100; St Clair, pp. 362-63.
  59. Seymour, p. 115; Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 146; Seymour, p. 121; Locke, pp. 270-71.
  60. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 151-53; and Gittings and Manton, pp. 18-25; Locke, pp. 256-68; St Clair, pp. 372-73.
  61. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 152-53; see also Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , pp. 311-13.
  62. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 160-162; see also Seymour, p. 121, pp. 128-29.
  63. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 176; Seymour, p. 143.
  64. ^ A b Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 182.
  65. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , 185-86.
  66. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 190; Locke, 271.
  67. Pechmann, p. 24
  68. ^ Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft , p. 258
  69. quoted from Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 203; but also see Locke, p. 271. In the original the quote is: I have determined never to live to be a disgrace to “such a mother” ... I have found that if I will endeavor to overcome my faults I shall find being's [ sic ] to love and esteem me . The emphasis is on the fanny imlays in the original text.
  70. Quoted from Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 206. The original quote is: the dreadful state of mind I generally labor under & which I in vain endeavor to get rid of ; see also pp. 208–09 or Seymour, p. 152.
  71. ^ Todd, Death and the Maidens , 206-07.
  72. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 207-208, pp. 213-214.
  73. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 215-224; Locke, pp. 271-72.
  74. Pollin, 265-66; Seymour, 169-70.
  75. ^ A b Pollin, 258.
  76. Pollin, pp. 259-261
  77. Quoted from Pollin, p. 261. The original quote is: Mrs. Godwin would never do either of you a deliberate injury. Mamma and I are not great friends, but always alive to her virtues, I am anxious to defend her from a charge so foreign to her character .
  78. Pollin, p. 262; Seymour, p. 168.
  79. St Clair, pp. 398-408.
  80. Locke, 274.
  81. Pollin, 263-64.
  82. Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , p. 347
  83. ^ Pechmann, p. 81.
  84. ^ Pollin, 268.
  85. ^ Seymour, p. 169
  86. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 223-226
  87. a b Pollin, p. 260.
  88. Quoted from Pechmann, p. 81
  89. St Clair, pp. 411-412; Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 3-4; Seymour, pp. 169-171; Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , pp. 347-348; Locke, pp. 272-274.
  90. Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 233; Gittings and Manton, p. 36.
  91. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 135 and pp. 236-237.
  92. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 236-237.
  93. Todd, Death and the Maidens , 3; Seymour, 171.
  94. Quoted from Todd, Death and the Maidens , p. 239; According to Miranda Seymour, William Godwin addressed this letter not to Percy B. Shelley but to his daughter Mary Godwin. In the original the quote is: Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired, that now rests upon the event. It was, as I said, her last wish .... Think what is the situation of my wife & myself, now deprived of all our children but the youngest [William]; & do not expose us to those idle questions, which to a mind in anguish is one of the severest trials.
  95. Todd, Death and the Maidens , pp. 242-243; Gittings and Manton, p. 36; Seymour, p. 171.
  96. Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit , pp. 347-348.
  97. Locke, pp. 274-275; and Pollin, p. 267.
  98. Seymour, p. 170.


  • Robert Gitting, Jo Manton: Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys 1798–1879 . Oxford University Press, New York 1995, ISBN 0-19-818351-8 .
  • Richard Holmes: Footsteps. Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. Viking, New York 1985, ISBN 0-670-32353-5 .
  • Richard Holmes: Shelley. The pursuit . 1974, Harper Perennial, London 2005, ISBN 0-00-720458-2 .
  • Don Locke: A Fantasy of Reason. The Life and Thought of William Godwin . Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1980, ISBN 0-7100-0387-0 .
  • Alexander Pechmann: Mary Shelley. Life and work . Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf 2006, ISBN 3-538-07239-6
  • BR Pollin: Fanny Godwin's Suicide Re-examined . In: Études Anglaises . Volume 18, No. 3, 1965, pp. 258-268.
  • Miranda Seymour : Mary Shelley . John Murray, London 2000, ISBN 0-7195-5711-9 .
  • William St Clair: The Godwins and the Shelleys. The biography of a family . WW Norton & Co., New York 1989, ISBN 0-393-02783-X .
  • Janet Todd : Death & the Maidens. Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle . Counterpoint, Berkeley 2007, ISBN 978-1-58243-339-4 .
  • Janet Todd: Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life . Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 2000, ISBN 0-231-12184-9 .
  • Claire Tomalin : The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft . Rev. ed., Penguin, New York 1992, ISBN 0-14-016761-7 .
  • Wil Verhoeven: Gilbert Imlay. Citizen of the World . Pickering & Chatto, London 2007, ISBN 978-1-85196-859-6 .