It has recently come to light that Sir John Lethbridge of Sandhill Park fathered an illegitimate daughter with Mary Jane Vial, who married her neighbor, the gothic novelist and anarchist (!), William Godwin. He was the widower of Mary Wollenstonecraft. Most of Godwin’s friends despised his new wife.
Charles Lamb called her a bitch.
Mary Jane’s daughter was then known as Jane. She was a hurly-burly, forward sort of girl who somehow managed to form a close relationship with her new stepsister, the reserved Mary Godwin. No sort of adventure was beyond Jane. They say she promoted her stepsister’s elopement with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, if only to get away from home. Those six weeks they trekked across Europe are summed up in Jane’s observation of her prim stepsister:
..we came to a clear running shallow stream, and Shelley entreated the Driver to stop while he from under a bank could bathe himself – and he wanted Mary to do the same as the Bank sheltered one from every eye – but Mary would not – first, she said it would be most indecent, and then also she had no towel and could not dry herself – He said he would gather leaves from the trees and she could dry herself with those but she refused and said how could he think of such a thing?
— from “Claire Clairmont and Mary Shelley: identification and rivalry within the ‘tribe of the Otaheite philosopher’s’ ” by Deidre Coleman
They were all reading entirely too much Rousseau, who liked to explore alternative domestic arrangements, particularly in his Confessions: La Nouvelle Heloise. The female characters of Confessions seemed very like the two stepsisters. Julie was prim like Mary and naturally Jane saw herself as vivacious Clara. She began to call herself Claire, longing to act out Rousseau’s drama with her stepsister and husband, as a “household for three.”
But there was conflict, and instead it was a love triangle.
Shelley rather saw himself and his wife as a tranquil constellation upset by the importunities of his fair sister-in-law, disruptive as a comet:
“Comet beautiful and fierce/Who drew the heart of this frail Universe/ Towards thine own; till/ wrecked in that convulsion/Alternating attraction and repulsion/ Thine went astray and that was rent in twain.” — Epipsychidion
The trio eventually returned to England ignominiously and without funds. Much had been made of their relationship. Shelley’s friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, chortled that Shelley had two wives. Coleman offers another theory: that the love triangle was not seen by Claire with the male “on top.” Her position in the triangle was, predictably, at the apex point.
Restless, Claire set off an adventure of her own. She sought out Lord Byron to initiate an affair with him. He was later to protest to his disapproving half-sister:
“What could I do? — a foolish girl — in spite of all I could say or do — would come after me — or rather went before me — for I found her here … I could not exactly play the Stoic with a woman — who had scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me.”
Again, a triangular relationship reemerges at Claire’s instigation. Shelley absolutely worshipped Byron. Yet it was not he Claire brought to the Great One’s notice–it was her half-sister she would draw into his orbit, writing:
“[Y]ou will I dare say fall in love with her; she is very handsome & very amiable & you will no doubt be blest in your attachment.”
But what men may indulge, women may not dream of. Byron called her a “little fiend” and her unconventional ways served to isolate her from others. Her predilection for the love triangle may have faded by the time became a governess in Russia, for she spurned two men at once, joking:
“I must really take great care of my poor heart lest I should not only fall in love with one but perhaps with both at once.”