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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)/Chapter 14

< Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)

CHAPTER XIV.

LAST MONTHS: DEATH.

1797.

During the month of June of this year, Godwin made a pleasure trip into Staffordshire with Basil Montague. The two friends went in a carriage, staying over night at the houses of different acquaintances, and were absent for a little more than a fortnight. Godwin, while away, made his usual concise entries in his diary, but to his wife he wrote long and detailed accounts of his travels. The guide-book style of his letters is somewhat redeemed by occasional outbursts of tenderness, pleasant to read as evidences that he could give Mary the demonstrations of affection which to her were so indispensable. By his playful messages to little Fanny, and his interest in his unborn child, it can be seen that, despite his bachelor habits, domestic life had become very dear to him. He warns Mary to be careful of herself, assuring her that he remembers at all times the condition of her health, and wishes he could hear from moment to moment how she feels.

But even his tenderness is regulated by his philosophy. The lover becomes the philosopher quite unconsciously. He writes in another letter:—

One of the pleasures I promised myself in my excursion was to increase my value in your estimation, and I am not disappointed. What we possess without intermission, we inevitably hold light; it is a refinement in voluptuousness to submit to voluntary privations. Separation is the image of death, but it is death stripped of all that is most tremendous, and his dart purged of its deadly venom. I always thought St. Paul's rule, that we should die daily, an exquisite Epicurean maxim. The practice of it would give to life a double relish.

Imlay, too, had found absence a stimulus to love, but there was this difference in what at first appears to be a similarity of opinion between himself and Godwin; while the former sought it that he might not tire of Mary, the latter hoped it would keep her from growing tired of him.

Mary's letters to her husband are full of the tender love which no woman knew how to express as well as she did. They are not as passionate and burning as those to Imlay, but they are sincerely and lovingly affectionate, and reveal an ever-increasing devotion and a calmer happiness than that she had derived from her first union.

Once during this trip the peaceful intercourse between husband and wife was interrupted. Godwin might philosophize to his heart's content about the advantages of separation, but Mary could not be so sure of them. Absence in Imlay's case had not in the end brought about very good results; and as the days went by, Godwin's letters, at least so it seemed to her, became more descriptive and statistical, and less tender and affectionate. Interest in Dr. Parr and the Wedgwoods and the country through which he was travelling overshadowed for the time being matters of mere sentiment. With the memory of another correspondence from which love had gradually disappeared, still fresh, she felt this change bitterly, and reproached Godwin for it in very plain language.

This misunderstanding, however, was not of long duration. The "little rift" in their case never widened to make their life-music mute. Godwin returned to London, his love in no wise diminished, and all ill-feeling and doubts were completely effaced from Mary's mind. His shortcomings were, after all, not due to any change in his affections, nor to the slightest suspicion of satiety. By writing long letters with careful description of everything he saw and did, he was treating Mary as he would have desired to be treated himself. His "icy philosophy," which made him so undemonstrative, was not altogether to her liking, but it was incomparably better than the warmth of a man like Imlay, who was too indifferent as to the individuality of the object of his demonstrations. The uprightness of Godwin precluded all possibility of infidelity, and once Mary's first disappointment at some new sign of his coldness was over, her confidence in him was unabated. After this short interruption to their semi-domestic life, they both resumed their old habits. Their separate establishments were still kept lap, their social amusements continued, though Mary, because of the condition of her health, could not now enter into them quite so freely, and the little notes again began to pass between them. These were as amicable as they had ever been.

But a short period of happiness now remained to them. Mary expected to be confined about the end of August, and she awaited that event with no misgivings. She had been perfectly strong and well when Fanny was born. She considered women's illness on such occasions due much more to imaginative than to physical causes, and her health through the past few months had been, save for one or two trifling ailments, uncommonly good. There was really no reason for her to fear the consequences. Both she and Godwin looked forward with pleasure to the arrival of their first son, as they hoped the child would prove to be.

She was taken ill early on Wednesday morning, the 30th of August, and sent at once for Mrs. Blenkinsop, matron and midwife to the Westminster Lying-in Hospital. Godwin says that, "influenced by ideas of decorum, which certainly ought to have no place, at least in cases of danger, she determined to have a woman to attend her in the capacity of midwife." But it seems much more in keeping with her character that the engagement of Mrs. Blenkinsop was due, not so much to motives of decorum as to her desire to uphold women in a sphere of action for which she believed them eminently fitted. Godwin went, as usual, to his rooms in the Evesham Buildings. Mary specially desired that he should not remain in the house, and, to reassure him that all was well, she wrote him several notes during the course of the morning.

Finally, in the night of August 30th, 1797, at twenty minutes after eleven, the child—not the William talked of for months, but a daughter, afterwards to be Mrs. Shelley—was born. Godwin was now sitting in the parlour below, waiting the, as he never doubted, happy end. But shortly after two o'clock he received the alarming news that the patient was in some danger. He went immediately and summoned Dr. Poignard, physician to the Westminster Hospital, who hastened to the assistance of Mrs. Blenkinsop, and by eight o'clock the next morning the peril was thought safely over. Mary having expressed a wish to see Dr. Fordyce, who was her friend as well as a prominent physician, Godwin sent for him, in spite of some objections to his so doing on the part of Dr. Poignard. Dr. Fordyce was very well satisfied with her condition, and later, in the afternoon, mentioned as a proof of the propriety of employing midwives on such occasions, for which practice he was a strong advocate, that Mrs. Godwin "had had a woman, and was doing extremely well." For a day or two Godwin was so anxious that he did not leave the house; but Mary's progress seemed thoroughly satisfactory, and on Sunday he went with a friend to pay some visits, going as far even as Kensington, and did not return until dinner-time. His home-coming was a sad one. Mary had been much worse, and in her increasing illness had worried because of his long absence. He did not leave her again, for from this time until her death on the following Sunday, the physicians could give him but the faintest shadow of a hope.

The week that intervened was long and suffering for the sick woman, and heart-breaking for the watcher. Every possible effort was made to save her; and if medical skill and the devotion of friends could have availed, she must have lived. Dr, Fordyce and Dr. Clarke were in constant attendance. Mr.—afterwards Sir—Anthony Carlisle, who had of his own accord already called once or twice, was summoned professionally on Wednesday evening, September 6th, and remained by her side until all was over. Godwin never left her room except to snatch a few moments of sleep that he might be better able to attend to her slightest wants. His loving care during these miserable days could not have been surpassed. Mary, had she been the nurse, and he the patient, could not have been more tender and devoted. But his curious want of sentiment, and the eminently practical bent of his mind, manifested themselves even at this sad and solemn time. Once when Mary was given an anodyne to quiet her well-nigh unendurable pain, the relief that followed was so great that she exclaimed to her husband, "Oh, Godwin, I am in heaven!" But, as Mr. Kegan Paul says, "even at that moment Godwin declined to be entrapped into the admission that heaven existed." His immediate reply was, "You mean, my dear, that your physical sensations are somewhat easier."

Mrs. Fenwick and Miss Hayes, two good true friends, nursed her and took charge of the sick-room. Mr. Fenwick, Mr. Basil Montague, Mr. Marshal, and Mr. Dyson established themselves in the lower part of the house that they might be ready and on hand for any emergency. It is in the hour of trouble that friendship receives its strongest test. Mary's friends, when it came, were not found wanting.

"Nothing," Godwin says, "could exceed the equanimity, the patience, and affectionateness of the poor sufferer. I entreated her to recover; I dwelt with trembling fondness on every favourable circumstance; and, as far as it was possible in so dreadful a situation, she, by her smiles and kind speeches, rewarded my affection." After the first night of her illness she told him that she would have died during its agony had she not been determined not to leave him. Throughout her sickness she was considerate of those around her. Her ruling passion was strong in death. When her attendants recommended her to sleep, she tried to obey, though her disease made this almost impossible. She was gentle even in her complaints. Expostulation and contradiction were peculiarly irritating to her in her then nervous condition; but one night, when a servant heedlessly expostulated with her, all she said was, "Pray, pray do not let her reason with me!" Religion was not once, to use Godwin's expression, a torment to her. Her religious views had modified since the days long past when she had sermonized so earnestly to George Blood. She had never, however, despite Godwin's atheism, lost her belief in God nor her reliance upon Him. But, at no time an adherent to mere form, she was not disturbed in her last moments by a desire to conform to church ceremonies. Religion was at this crisis, as it had always been, a source of comfort and not of worry. She had invariably preferred virtue to vice, and she was not now afraid of reaping the reward of her actions. The probability of her approaching death did not occur to her until the last two days, and then she was so enfeebled that she was not harassed by the thought as she had been at first. On Saturday, the 9th, Godwin, who had been warned by Mr. Carlisle that her hours were numbered, and who wished to ascertain if she had any directions to leave, consulted her about the future of the two children. The physician had particularly charged him not to startle her, for she was too weak to bear any excitement. He therefore spoke as if he wished to arrange for the time of her illness and convalescence. But she understood his real motive. "I know what you are thinking of," she told him. But she added that she had nothing to communicate upon the subject. Her faith in him and in his wisdom was entire. "He is the kindest, best man in the world," were among the very last words she uttered before she lost consciousness. Her survival from day to day seemed almost miraculous to the physicians who attended her. Mr. Carlisle refused, until the very end, to lose all hope. "Perhaps one in a million of persons in her state might possibly recover," he said. But his hopes were in vain. At six o'clock on Sunday morning, the 10th, he was obliged to summon Godwin, who had retired for a few hours' sleep, to his wife's bedside. At twenty minutes before eight the same morning, Mary died.

A somewhat different version of Mary's last hours and of the immediate cause of her death is given in some manuscript Notes and Observations on the Shelley Memorials, written by Mr. H. W. Reveley, son of the Mrs. Reveley who was Godwin's great friend. His account is as follows:—

When Mrs. Godwin was confined of her daughter, the late Mary Shelley, she was very ill; and my mother, then Mrs. Reveley, was constantly visiting her until her death, eight days after her confinement. I was often there with my mother, and I saw Mrs. Godwin the day before her death, when she was considered much better and quite out of danger. Her death was occasioned by a dreadful fright, in this manner. At the time of her confinement a gentleman and lady lodged in the first floor, whether as visitors or otherwise I cannot say, but that they were intruders in some way I am certain. The husband was continually beating his wife, and at last there was a violent contest between them, owing to his endeavouring to throw his wife over the balcony into the street. Her screams, of course, attracted a crowd in front of the house. Mrs. Godwin heard the lady's shrieks and the shouts of the crowd that a man was throwing his wife out of the window, and the next day Mrs. Godwin died. What became of that miscreant and his wife I never knew.

There may have been some foundation for this story. An ill-tempered husband may have had lodgings in the same house; but it is extremely doubtful that his ill-temper had so fatal an effect on Mary. Godwin would certainly have recorded the fact had it been true, for his Memoir gives the minutest details of his wife's illness. The very day on which Mr. Reveley says Mary was out of danger was that on which Godwin was asking her for final instructions about her children, so sure were the physicians that her end was near. Mr. Reveley was very young at the time. His observations were not written until he was quite an old man. It would not be unlikely, then, that his memory played him false in this particular.

Mary was thirty-eight years of age, in the full prime of her powers. Her best work probably remained to be done; for her talents, like her beauty, were late in maturing. Her style had already greatly improved since she first began to write. Constant communication with Godwin would no doubt have developed her intellect, and the calm created by her more happy circumstances would have lessened her pessimistic tendencies. Moreover, life, just as she lost it, promised to be brighter than it had ever been before. Godwin's after career shows that he would not have proved unworthy of her love. Domestic pleasures were as dear to her as intellectual pursuits. In her own house, surrounded by husband and children, she would have been not only a great but a happy woman. It is at least a satisfaction to know that her last year was content and peaceful. Few have needed happiness more than she did, for to few has it been given to suffer the hardships that fell to her share.

The very same day, Godwin himself wrote to announce his wife's death to several of his friends. It was characteristic of the man to be systematic even in his grief, which was sincere. He recorded in his diary the details of each day during Mary's illness, and it was not until the last that he shrank from coldly stating events to him so truly tragic. The only dashes which occur in his diary follow the date of Sunday, Sept. 10, 1797. Mr. Kegan Paul says that writing to his friends "was probably an attempt to be stoical, but a real indulgence in the luxury of woe." To Holcroft, who, he knew, could appreciate his sorrow, he said, "I firmly believe that there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." Mrs. Inchbald was another to whom he at once sent the melancholy news. "I always thought you used her ill, but I forgive you," he told her in his note. Now that Mary was dead he felt the insult that had been shown her even more keenly than at the time. His words roused all Mrs. Inchbald's ill-feeling, and, with a singular want of consideration, she sent with her condolences an elaborate explanation of her own conduct. Two or three more notes passed between them. Godwin's plain-speaking—he told his correspondent very clearly what he thought of her—is excusable. But her arguments in self-justification and her want of respect for the dead are unpardonable.

Mrs. Fenwick was entrusted with the duty of informing the Wollstonecrafts, through Everina, of Mary's death.

Sept. 12, 1797.

I am a stranger to you, Miss Wollstonecraft, and at present greatly enfeebled both in mind and body; but when Mr. Godwin desired that I would inform you of the death of his most beloved and most excellent wife, I was willing to undertake the task, because it is some consolation to render him the slightest service, and because my thoughts perpetually dwell upon her virtues and her loss. Mr. Godwin himself cannot, upon this occasion, write to you.

Mrs. Godwin died on Sunday, September 10, about eight in the morning. I was with her at the time of her delivery, and with very little intermission until the moment of her death. Every skilful effort that medical knowledge of the highest class could make was exerted to save her. It is not possible to describe the unremitting and devoted attentions of her husband. Nor is it easy to give you an adequate idea of the affectionate zeal of many of her friends, who were on the watch night and day to seize on an opportunity of contributing towards her recovery, and to lessen her sufferings.

No woman was ever more happy in marriage than Mrs. Godwin. Who ever endured more anguish than Mr. Godwin endures? Her description of him in the very last moments of her recollection was, "He is the kindest, best man in the world."

I know of no consolations for myself, but in remembering how happy she had lately been, and how much she was admired and almost idolised by some of the most eminent and best of human beings.

The children are both well, the infant in particular. It is the finest baby I ever saw. Wishing you peace and prosperity, I remain your humble servant,

Eliza Fenwick.

Mr. Godwin requests you will make Mrs. Bishop acquainted with the particulars of this afflicting event. He tells me that Mrs. Godwin entertained a sincere and earnest affection for Mrs. Bishop.

The funeral was arranged by Mr. Basil Montague and Mr. Marshal for Friday, the 15th. All Godwin's and Mary's intimate acquaintances were invited to be present. Among these was Mr. Tuthil, whose views were identical with Godwin's. This invitation gave rise to another short correspondence, unfortunate at such a time. Mr. Tuthil considered it inconsistent with his principles, if not immoral, to take part in any religious ceremonies; and Godwin, while he respected his scruples, disapproved of his coldness, which made such a decision possible. But he was the only one who refused to show this mark of respect to Mary's memory. Godwin himself was too exhausted mentally and physically to appear at the funeral. When Friday morning came he shut himself up in Marshal's rooms and unburdened his heavy heart by writing to Mr. Carlisle. At the same hour Mary was buried at old Saint Pancras, the church where but a few short months before she had been married. A monument was afterwards erected over her willow-shadowed grave. It bore this inscription:—

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN,

AUTHOR OF

A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN,

BORN XVII. APRIL, MDCCLIX.

DIED X. SEPTEMBER, MDCCXCVII.

Many years later, when Godwin's body lay by her side, the quiet old churchyard was ruined by the building of the Metropolitan and Midland Railways. But there were those living who loved their memory too dearly to allow their graves to be so ruthlessly disturbed. The remains of both were removed by Sir Percy Shelley to Bournemouth, where his mother, Mary Godwin Shelley, was already laid. "There," Mr. Kegan Paul writes, "on a sunny bank sloping to the west, among the rose-wreathed crosses of many who have died in more orthodox beliefs, lie those who at least might each of them have said,—

'Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.'"

Mary's death was followed by exhaustive discussion not only of her work but of her character. The result was, as Dr. Beloe affirms, "not very honourable to her fair fame as a woman, whatever it might be to her reputation as an author."

It was to silence all calumnies that Godwin wrote his Memoirs, and this was undoubtedly the wisest way to answer Mary's critics. As he says of Marguerite in St. Leon, "The story of her life is the best record of her virtues. Her defects, if defects she had, drew their pedigree from rectitude of sentiment and perception, from the most generous sensibility, from a heart pervaded and leavened with tenderness." That truth is mighty above all things is shown by this story to have been her creed. By it she regulated her feelings, her thoughts, and her deeds. Whether her principles and conduct be applauded or condemned, she must always be honoured for her integrity of motive, her fearlessness of action, and her faithful devotion to the cause of humanity.

 


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