Bloody Valentines: Mary Shelley’s Tell-Tale Heart

 

We all know that Mary Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, a phenomenal work of Gothic horror. But did you know that the gory details of Mary Shelley’s life itself read better than any novel? Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that she kept her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, carrying it with her and storing it in her drawer until her own death in 1851!

In honor of Valentine’s Day and my February Women in Horror Series, I would be remiss if I did not include the strange, romantic and horrific life of Mary Shelley.

In her short lifetime, Mary Godwin Shelley saw a great deal of death: her mother, three of her own children, her half sister Fanny Imlay, her husband Percy Shelley, her step-mother, her father and father-in-law. It comes as no surprise that the woman who experienced a cavalcade of grim reapers became obsessed with resurrecting and recreating life. Her character, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, was the embodiment of this obsession.

Bleak Beginnings

Mary Godwin’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and free thinker. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argued that women, given the proper education, were “intellectually equivalent” to men –  a “radical” idea for the times.

Mary Wollstonecraft died of a post partum infection when daughter Mary was less than a month old. Little Mary’s father, William Godwin, a political activist and publisher, raised her along with her half sister Fanny Imlay – a child from another of Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationships. Godwin took a new wife –  one Mary Jane Clairmont – who had two children of her own, Claire and Charles. The family set up housekeeping in London where William opened a publishing company that eventually went bankrupt.

Young Mary was given a somewhat radical education by her free-thinking father. When she was just seventeen, she became acquainted with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley – a friend and “political disciple” of William Godwin. Percy was twenty-two.

Percy and Mary fell deeply in love. The only problem was, Percy was already married. His wife was a woman named Harriet Westbrook – with whom he had eloped when she was just sixteen and he nineteen – much to the dismay of Percy’s aristocratic family. They subsequently cut him off from his inheritance, although Percy loved to flaunt his wealthy roots and often claimed that large sums of money would eventually be his. Percy and Harriet had one child, and to make matters worse, Harriet was pregnant!

Cemetery Trysts and Love Triangles

Nonetheless, Mary and Percy began having secret meetings in – of all great Gothic places — Saint Pancras Cemetery where Mary’s mother was buried!

Percy said he could not hide his “ardent passion” for her. Mary wrote she was attracted to Percy’s “wild, intellectual, unearthly look.”

The two made love for the first time in the cemetery. Mary lost her virginity to Percy.  After that, forget it. Mary was ruined. RUINED, I tell you!!!! Call in the National Guard! Mary was now a social pariah, a leper among women!! (I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Remember, in Victorian times, virginity was a big deal. No way in hell could Mary get away with this!) Even the so-called liberal thinking and politically radical William Godwin disapproved of their relationship.

The only sensible thing to do was run away. And so, Mary and Percy ran away to France. They took Mary’s step-sister Claire (daughter of her step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont) along with them. According to Percy, this was because Claire was “the only one among them who could speak French.” However, Claire and Percy reportedly had many “excursions” together, and historians believe the two were lovers as well.

Furthermore, older sister Fanny Imlay who was left behind, also expressed having feelings for Percy.  He may have been three timing the sisters. Of course, Percy’s pregnant wife Harriet also got left behind.

Mary, Claire and Percy traveled together throughout France and Switzerland until, being broke and destitute, they could no longer survive. They then returned to England. Mary was pregnant. Mary’s father – apparently growing more traditional by the minute – still disapproved of their relationship and refused to take them in. The baby was born premature and died shortly after. Mary became pregnant again and in 1816 gave birth to a son, named William.

That same year, Mary, Percy, little William and Claire all traveled back to Switzerland. Soon after they were joined by Percy’s friends, the poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori. It was a meeting of the minds.

There, in Geneva, the group passed one of the coldest summers ever by telling ghost stories around the fire and challenging each other to write horror. It was one of these challenges that led 18 year old Mary to write her masterpiece Frankenstein.

Mary became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter – but both children would be dead within two years. In the meantime, Mary completed Frankenstein and had it first published anonymously in 1818.

The couple returned to England in September, 1816.  They settled in Bath with Claire Clairmont – who was now (ironically) pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Mary then received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who alluded to her “unhappy life”. The letter was apparently so alarming that, on October 9, Percy took it upon himself to go looking for Fanny, worried about her state of mind. He never found her. On the morning of October 10, Fanny Imlay was found dead in a room at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She left a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum.

Fanny was not the only suicide that year.  On December 10, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, was discovered drowned in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It seems the two women who got left behind decided to leave forever.

Both suicides were hushed up, as suicide in Victorian times was illegal, considered disgraceful, and brought great shame to the families.

Percy, for his part, tried to gain custody of his two children by Harriet. His lawyers told him it would be a good idea for him to take a wife, so he finally married Mary on December 30, 1816 at St Mildred’s Church in London. Although Harriet’s family gained custody of their children, the couple remained in London and attempted their new married life.

It was not long before Percy’s debt collectors came calling. The couple left England again, this time bound for Italy, with Claire and her new born daughter Allegra (the child of Lord Byron, who would later claim her) in tow.

In Italy, Mary’s two children developed malaria and died. On November 12, 1819, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one who would survive to adulthood.  Mary became pregnant again in 1822. She suffered a miscarriage and almost bled to death. Percy, too distraught to call a doctor, put Mary in a tub of ice water to staunch the bleeding. It was later agreed that he had saved his wife’s life.

That same year, Percy Shelly set out on a sailing adventure from which he would never return.

The Heart That Would Not Die

On July 1, 1822, Percy Shelley, Edward Ellerker Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed south down the coast to Livorno. On July 8, he and Edward Williams set out on the return journey to Lerici — minus the captain — but with an eighteen-year-old boatboy, Charles Vivian. They were detained by a storm and lost at sea. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.

Percy Shelley’s body was only identifiable by his clothing and a book of John Keats’ poetry that he had stashed away in his pocket.

It was decided that Percy’s body would be cremated on the beach at Viareggio. However, something bizarre happened.

His heart would not burn.

Before we get too carried away with supernatural implications, it is only fair to say that modern-day physicians believe the heart may have calcified due to an earlier bout with tuberculosis – thus rendering it inflammable.  Whatever the reason, Mary Shelley decided to save and preserve her husband’s heart.

Mary kept the heart as a prized possession, wrapping it a silken shroud. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.

In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in Mary’s desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais – a tribute to John Keats.

Interesting aside —  when Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones died in 1969 by drowning in his own swimming pool, it was the poem Adonais that Mick Jagger chose to read at his memorial service.

“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife…”

Another interesting aside: Brian Jones died of drowning. Harriet Shelley died of drowning. Percy Shelley died of drowning. Harriet died in a lake in Hyde Park. Brian Jones’ Memorial Service was held in Hyde Park.

See how that works? I suspect Mick saw some significance in this.

The entire poem can be read HERE.

Author Legacy

Although Mary is most remembered for Frankenstein, it was by no means the full extent of her writing career. After the death of Percy, Mary was active as a writer and editor. She wrote the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French authors to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote short stories, including sixteen for The Keepsake. She also championed Percy Shelley’s poetry, promoting its publication and quoting it in her writing. By 1837, Percy’s works were well-known and increasingly admired.

Believe it or not, in 1830, financially strapped, Mary sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein for only £60!

In the summer of 1838 Edward Moxon (the publisher of Tennyson and the son-in-law of Charles Lamb) proposed publishing the collected works of Percy Shelley.  Mary was paid £500 to edit the collection, called Poetical Works (1838).

Tragic Endings

Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body.  On  February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the young age of fifty-three from a brain tumor. Her son and daughter in law had her buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, although Mary’s request was to be buried at Saint Pancras near her mother.  (She obviously had fond memories of the place.)  However, Mary’s daughter in law, Jane Shelley, had decided that by then Saint Pancras was simply “too dreadful” a place to bury her.

On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to open Mary’s box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, the tell-tale heart!

 

 

 

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Mermaids and Muses

 

“When first the sisters had permission to rise to the surface, they were each delighted with the new and beautiful sights they saw; but now, as grown-up girls, they could go when they pleased, and they had become indifferent about it. They wished themselves back again in the water, and after a month had passed they said it was much more beautiful down below, and pleasanter to be at home.

Yet often, in the evening hours, the five sisters would twine their arms round each other, and rise to the surface, in a row. They had more beautiful voices than any human being could have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea…” —  Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

This lovely 1886 painting titled The Sea Maidens was done by female Pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919.)  It was meant to depict the mermaid sisters in Andersen’s fairy tale.

Evelyn De Morgan (born Mary Evelyn Pickering)  was home schooled and began her drawing lessons at the tender age of fifteen.  Her work dealt mostly with mythological, biblical and literary themes. She was greatly influenced by Pre-Raph giant Edward Burne Jones. At age eighteen she enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London — although she, like many other Pre-Raph artists, objected to the formal curriculum and never finished her degree.

Evelyn married the ceramicist William De Morgan in 1887. The couple were pro-peace, pro-women activists, objecting to wars and advocating for women’s right to vote.

If the mermaids in this painting all look alike, there is a reason for it — they are all actually the same model, Jane Mary Hales.  Interestingly, according to ART UK, Evelyn had a “very close and passionate relationship” with Jane.  When she died, Evelyn was actually buried in between her husband, William, and Jane, at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.   Jane is referred to as “companion, model and muse”.

Pretty heavy stuff for a Victorian woman, eh?

Evelyn once wrote in her diary: “Art is eternal, but life is short. I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.”

Evelyn de Morgan

 

 

Happy Birthday Christina Rossetti

 

She was the sister of that somewhat roguish and notorious Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and she often seems to be left in the shadows, both in life and death. But Christina Rossetti was an accomplished Victorian poet in her own right. Born on this day, December 5, 1830, she is best known for her collections of romantic and devotional poems.

Christina Rossetti was born in Charlotte Street in London, to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and physician, John William Polidori. With a pedigree like that, perhaps the Rossetti children were destined for greatness  

Christina was home schooled and by all accounts was a bright and lively child. She took  an early interest in poetry, especially that of John Keats, Sir Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe. The family situation, however, was not always stable and they suffered extreme financial difficulties. In the 1840’s, her father had to leave his teaching position at King’s College due to health problems. Christina’s teenage years seem to have been clouded by isolation, poverty, depression and mental illness. (All of which are the fuel of great poetry!)

Christina served as an artist’s model for her brother Gabriel on several occasions. The most famous of these portraits  is Ecce Ancilla Domini (Latin: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”), or The Annunciation, in which she portrays the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ecce Ancilla Domini! - Google Art Project.jpg

Christina Rossetti’s poems began to receive recognition in 1848, when she was just 18 years old. She published several sonnets and ballads, and wrote for literary magazines. In 1862 her most famous work,  Goblin Market and Other Poems, was first published.  It received widespread recognition and was praised by literary giants Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manly Hopkins. Christina was considered one of the best female poets of her time.

The title poem, Goblin Market, has been interpreted in various ways. Upon first glance, it may appear to be a children’s poem about misadventures with goblins. Two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, hear the call of the goblin men, selling fruit in the market:

Morning and evening 
Maids heard the goblins cry: 
“Come buy our orchard fruits, 
Come buy, come buy: 
“Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.”

However, upon closer look we see that this is no children’s poem. It is a complicated work, full of double entendre as well as dark, erotic imagery.

“We must not look at goblin men, 
We must not buy their fruits: 
Who knows upon what soil they fed 
Their hungry thirsty roots?” 
“Come buy,” call the goblins 

Hobbling down the glen.

As the poem continues, the girls succumb to the temptation of the goblins and their fruit: We are told they’d “never tasted such before… She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more, fruits which that unknown orchard bore, She sucked until her lips were sore.”
 

Some critics have interpreted the poem as an allegory about temptation and salvation. It has also been seen as a commentary on Victorian gender roles — the girls being forbidden from the market in much the same way Victorian women were forbidden from many aspects of life. Others say it is a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Christina was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes. Some historians and critics have suggested Goblin Market may have been inspired by the “fallen women” she came to know.

In the scary world of Victoriana, with dangers lurking all about, Jack the Ripper on the loose and the daily horrors of poverty and the industrial revolution, The Goblin Market can be seen in many disturbing ways.

But don’t take their word for it! Decide for yourself…  Read the entire poem here.

In her lifetime, Rossetti supported several social causes. She spoke out against slavery, advocated for animal rights, and opposed the exploitation of young girls forced into prostitution. (She had, no doubt witnessed a good deal of this exploitation during her volunteer days at Mary Magdalene.)  Rossetti was a strong voice for women of the repressive Victorian Era.

She remained single throughout her lifetime, turning down three proposals of marriage. One was from the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson, a colleague of her brother Gabriel. Another was from the linguist Charles Cayley. The third offer came from another painter, John Brett, whom she also turned down. This would have been pretty outrageous, considering the fact that most Victorian women had the “life style choices”  of wife, nun or whore. Yet Christina somehow managed to establish herself as a writer and poet.

In later life, Christina suffered from Graves Disease and breast cancer. She died in Bloomsbury December 29, 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.

The poet leaves us with these words:

When I am dead, my dearest,
         Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
         Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
         With showers and dewdrops wet:
And if thou wilt, remember,
         And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
         I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
         Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
         That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
         And haply may forget.

Happy Birthday Christina.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

LewisCarroll3

It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

real

Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

matrix

At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

alice-vogue