Mary Shelley's Lost Children's Story Found in Italian Palazzo

05 Ottobre 2004

A LONG-LOST story for children by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, has been discovered in the private archives of an Italian family in their palazzo in the Tuscany hills, where it has lain unread and unnoticed for more than 150 years.

The story, entitled Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot consists of 39 closely written pages in Mary Shelley's handwriting. Set on the Devon coast near Torquay, it is dated 1820 and was found in a wooden chest in a neglected box room by Cristina Dazzi and her husband, Andrea, who is descended from a member of the Shelleys' Italian circle.

The manuscript has been authenticated by two experts: Claire Tomalin, the author and co-organiser of a new London exhibition devoted to Shelley and her mother, the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft; and Catherine Payling, curator of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome.

Mrs Tomalin, author of Shelley and his World and The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, described it as "a very exciting find. Scholars have quite wrongly assumed the story to be lost." Ms Payling said the story was mentioned in Mary Shelley's journal, but had never been found. "The discovery adds greatly to our understanding of Mary Shelley's mind and imagination," she said.

The story was written for Laura, known as Lauretta (or Laurette), the 11-year-old daughter of Lady Mountcashell, a close friend of Mary and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, during their exile in Italy in the early 19th century. Lady Mountcashell ‚ who as a girl had been taught by Mary Wollstonecraft ‚ was also in exile at the time, having separated from her Irish husband and eloped with her lover, George Tighe, settling in Tuscany under the name "Mrs Mason". An entry in Mary Shelley's journal for 10 August 1820 ‚ just before her 23rd birthday ‚ reads: "Write a story for Laurette. Walk in the mountains ... The weather is warm and delightful."

She did not name the story, but Mrs Tomalin and Ms Payling said the evidence was "overwhelming" that the reference was to Maurice. Mrs Tomalin said that Mary Shelley had shown Maurice to her father, William Godwin, the philosopher and publisher, but he considered it "too short for publication". The handwriting is identical to that of manuscripts by Mary Shelley brought from the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome for comparison. "Its provenance is impeccable," Ms Payling said.

Written two years after the publication of Frankenstein, the story is a sentimental morality tale about a boy who runs away from his presumed parents, is adopted by an old fisherman and lives in a cottage ‚ the "cot" of the subtitle ‚ on the coast near Torquay.

Laura was one of Lady Mountcashell's two daughters by Tighe. Perhaps inspired by the Shelleys, she later wrote novels under her married name, Sara Tardy.

[From Richard Owen, featured in The Times 10/11/97]