Trail that led to Mary Shelley's story

05 Ottobre 2004

The home of Signora Cristina Dazzi

RETURNING from abroad ten days ago I found in the long loop of faxes delivered during my absence one from Italy. It was from Signora Cristina Dazzi, quite unknown to me, telling me she thought she had come upon a "novel autograph unpublished by Mary Shelley".

She gave its title (Maurice or the Fisher's Cot), described it as "a little book of a few pages, sewed with a string and covered by a thicker paper, inside the cover the words 'alla Signora Shelley', perhaps it was a paper bundle piece which Mary used to sew the little leaves, and at the top of the first page: 'For Laurette from her friend Mrs Shelley' ". She mentioned too that her husband's family, the Cinis, had been close to the Shelleys in the 1820s; and she asked for my advice.

The coincidence seemed almost too good to be true. Mary Shelley has been in my mind most of this year while I have helped to organise an exhibition devoted to her and her equally famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, which opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on November 28. To have news at this moment of the possible discovery of a story by her, written 170 years ago and believed lost, was like a dream.

We know from Mary Shelley's own Italian journal that she did write a story "for Laurette" on August 10, 1820, and that in October 1821 she sent a copy of a story called Maurice to her father, William Godwin, who ran a children's publishing company. He pronounced it too short for publication and that is the last anyone has ever heard of Maurice until now.

After consulting Nora Crook, editor of the eight-volume edition of Mary Shelley's novels, I decided I must go to Italy. I also spoke to Catherine Payling, curator of the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome, who had given my name to Signora Dazzi.

Signor and Signora Dazzi were understandably cautious about an influx of visitors. They nevertheless greeted us with the greatest politeness and allowed us to examine the precious booklet. I sat at a table by a window overlooking their "English garden" while they brought out other treasures, and appalled when they offered me coffee on the same table on which the manuscript lay. No ink, no coffee, nothing that could mark it must come near, I insisted.

I found the manuscript exactly as Signora Dazzi had described it. It is written in ink on white paper. I could see no watermarks, although the binding made it hard to open it and be sure. There are very few crossings out. The handwriting is entirely legible and shows the characteristic letter formations of Mary Shelley. The story is told in three parts and divided into two booklets, the whole work only 39 pages long.

If Mary Shelley wrote it in a single day, as her journal suggests, she must have meditated it in advance, perhaps when Laurette visited her in July on the coast at Livorno.

Its significance as a gift to this particular child at this particular moment is touching and important. For Laurette was the illegitimate daughter of Lady Mountcashell, who had herself been the pupil of Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The story is a piece in a long and fascinating chain of events linking the two families.

It began thirty years earlier, in 1788, when Mary Wollstonecraft travelled to Ireland to be governess in the family of Robert King, Earl of Kingston. His eldest daughter Margaret became her favourite pupil, and when Wollstonecraft was dismissed, she continued a clandestine correspondence with her.

Five years later, Margaret married another Irish peer, the Earl of Mountcashell. She was a clever young woman with political interests, "a democrat and republican" (like Wollstonecraft), and took little interest in her husband or the many children she bore him. In 1804 she met another Irishman, William Tighe, and in due course separated from her husband and went off to Italy with Tighe.

In Italy they called themselves Mr and Mrs Mason, the name taken from Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories written for children, in which the wise governess is called Mrs Mason. By now Mary Wollstonecraft was dead. She had married William Godwin, and died giving birth to the younger Mary in 1797. Subsequently, Godwin and "Mrs Mason" became friends and when she in turn wrote a story for children, he published it.

Two daughters were born to the Masons, Laurette in 1809 and Nerina in 1815. And when Mary Shelley and her poet husband set off for Italy in 1818, they carried with them a letter of introduction from Godwin to "Mrs Mason".

They took up the introduction in Pisa in September 1819, and quickly became close friends. Mrs Mason clearly saw herself in the role of a second mother to the child of her one-time governess and offered good advice on medical and personal matters to Mary and her step-sister Claire Clairmont, and also to Shelley. Under Mrs Mason's influence, Mary also re-read all her mother's works in the spring of 1820.

Mary was at this time sunk in depression. She was only 22. She had eloped with Shelley at 16, borne him three children and seen them all die, most recently their adored son William.

A fourth child, Percy Florence, was born in November 1819, and Mary was now nursing him but had not emerged from her depression. Despite this, she kept up a steady programme of reading and writing. She found work a distraction and immediately after Percy's birth wrote her novella Matilda, a story of father-daughter incest that remained unpublished until this century.

Maurice was her next story. It was, of course, intended for a child of 11, as Laurette then was, and told with simplicity and attention to the details a child would find attractive: she wrote of flowers, of the appearance of the seashore and waves, the coral necklace belonging to a stolen child, the preparation of potatoes for a simple meal, the stories told by an old woman, Goody Two Shoes and The Ballad of Chevy Chase.

At the same time, there is a current of melancholy running through the story. It begins with a funeral. It concerns a child who has lost his parents, and a father who has lost his son.

Through hard years as a farm labourer and working for a fisherman the boy Henry ‚ who is now called Maurice ‚ remains charming, attractive, pious and good, he says his prayers, is always merry, always at work.

We may wonder that Mary Shelley shows him as unaffected by his harsh and unloving upbringing, since one of the themes of her Frankenstein is that the monster is made bad by the ill-treatment he receives. We may also be surprised that the happy ending, when Maurice/Henry is recognised by his true father, shows him being sent to Eton, a school so detested by Shelley. The end is happy for the reunited father and son, but the fisherman's cottage which the boy loved so much is shown falling into ruins. The rain gets into the roof; the walls crumble; and as the years go by it disappears altogether. So the story is coloured by Mary Shelley's melancholy even though she makes it suitable for a child.

When Laurette died, her husband, Professor Tardi of Genoa, went to live with her sister Nerina's family, the Cinis of Pistoia; and it is their direct descendants who have found the story.

Before I left the Dazzis, I was taken to meet Signor Dazzi's mother. She told me she remembered Professor Tardi, who died in 1914, very well. I reflected as I said goodbye that I had shaken the hand of someone who had known the husband of little Laurette ‚ and that Laurette knew Percy Bysshe Shelley in his annus mirabilis, when he was writing The Mask of Anarchy, the Ode to a Skylark, the Letter to Maria Gisborne and many other great works. And that she was the recipient of a clear, simple and moving story, stamped by Mary Shelley's particular sensibility, which she had the good sense to value and keep. A hundred and seventy years suddenly seemed quite a short time.