Before Brexit: What Freedom of Movement in Europe Did for Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley


Prior to the twentieth century, there were no immigration laws. People were free to live and work where they wanted when they wanted. Some of the most famous and influential British authors of the period took full advantage of this freedom of movement, especially in Europe. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley in anticipation of a trip to Geneva. I cannot imagine their work could be anywhere near as challenging if they had not both spent long periods of time in Europe.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Painting of Mary Wollstonecraft by John OpieMary Wollstonecraft, Britain’s first feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, embarked on three extended trips to countries that are currently part of the European Union. In 1786, she went to Ireland to work as a governess for ten months, where she came face to face with an aristocratic mistress who became the inspiration for many of Wollstonecraft’s critiques of the upper class. During her time in Ireland, Wollstonecraft satirically fictionalized Lady Kingsborough in her novel Mary: A Fiction. The eldest of her charges, Margaret Kingsborough, was so inspired by Wollstonecraft’s kindness toward her and rebelliousness toward social convention that when she found herself in an unhappy marriage, she ran away to Germany and disguised herself as a man in order to train as a doctor. Margaret later became a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s when both of them were living in Italy.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft went to Paris for a little over a year to write as a correspondent for the radical Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft threw herself wholeheartedly into enjoying and reporting on society there and it was in Paris that she began her relationship with the American businessman, Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft lived there through some of the worst violence and during that period, Helen Maria Williams, another Englishwoman reporting sympathetically on the Revolution, was imprisoned. Imlay had since left Paris to pursue business elsewhere, but Wollstonecraft followed him at the first chance regardless of some early signs of his diminishing interest in the relationship with her. She was pregnant with her first daughter Fanny at this time. Wollstonecraft’s time in Paris also led to the publication of An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has produced in Europe, her extended critique of the events she witnessed first hand.

Wollstonecraft’s third period of European residence was driven by her disappointment in Imlay’s increasing lack of interest in maintaining a committed relationship with her. She had attempted to commit suicide as a result of her growing depression but instead of staying close to her, Imlay chose to send Wollstonecraft to search for a missing trading ship worth a great deal of money to him. She travelled with Fanny and her maid Marguerite through Scandinavia for four months, interviewing Imlay’s contacts, interacting with the local people and writing letters home to Imlay. These were later revised into Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark and published in January 1796. William Godwin, who would marry Wollstonecraft in 1797, claimed that this book made him fall in love with her.

If Wollstonecraft had not been personally oppressed by an aristocratic mistress, would she have written such scathing critiques of the aristocracy? Would she have gone to Paris to report on the revolution that aimed at overturning the power of such aristocrats? If Wollstonecraft had not visited Scandinavia in 1795 and published her letters, would Godwin, who had previously met her and intensely disliked her, have fallen in love with her? If this relationship had not succeeded, Mary Shelley would never have been born and nineteenth-century English literature, science fiction and Gothic novels would all belong to a different literary history.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Photo by Mont Blanc by Indrik MyneurIn 1814, sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin ran away with Percy Shelley, who was already married to another woman as well as the father of two children. Like her mother, Mary Godwin did not see marriage as a necessity and, like her mother, she left England for the first time to go to Paris. The scandal Mary and Percy caused was far more widely known in London than Europe, making their departure seem a sensible decision, but the Paris they encountered was very different from that of her Wollstonecraft’s experience. The buzz and glamour the expected to find had vanished and they encountered further effects of the recent Napoleonic Wars in the countryside. Shelley, Mary and Jane Clairmont, who also ran away from the Godwins’ home to accompany them, decided to head for Switzerland instead. They read Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Rousseau’s works along the way and Mary and Shelley published their joint work History of a Six Weeks’ Tour after their return to Britain. This included their journal, letters about their time in Geneva and Shelley’s most famous poem ‘Mont Blanc’.

Two years later, when Claire Clairmont was angling to continue her relationship with Lord Byron, she convinced Mary and Percy to accompany her for an extended stay in Geneva, where Lord Byron was also staying for the summer. Had the scandal of Mary and Percy’s elopement not still been simmering in London and had the Alps not been a particular place of Romantic interest, the most famous story of literary inspiration would never have occurred. Byron established himself and his entourage at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. There Mary, Percy, Claire, Byron and Byron’s physician John Polidori would spend the evenings together discussing the work of William Lawrence, Erasmus Darwin, and the ability to stimulate flesh with electricity, topics that became the content of Frankenstein. The extent of the influence of Percy and the others in the conception and writing of Frankenstein has been a matter of debate and I address this issue in another post.

On the stormy evening of the 16th June 1816, Byron challenged them all to a ghost story writing contest. He wanted to experience something more frightening than the German and French ghosts stories they had to hand at the Villa Diodati. The men quickly forgot about this challenge but Mary spent days looking for inspiration until a Romantic vision overcame her. With ‘a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie’ she saw ‘the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion’. Mary was released from the vision desperate to ‘contrive [a story] which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!’ Two years later the first edition of Frankenstein was published, taking Geneva and environs as one of its main settings. Frankenstein and Clerval trace Mary, Percy and Claire’s steps as they returned to England on their first visit to Geneva. On the Mer de Glace near Mont Blanc, Frankenstein and the creature have the critical confrontation that results in the agreement that Frankenstein will create a female companion for the creature.

From 1818 until Percy’s death by drowning in 1822, the Shelleys lived in Italy, usually with Claire and near English friends. Geneva, Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace loom much larger than any Italian setting in the work of Mary Shelley but she did do a significant amount of writing about Italy. Mary worked on her Italian historical novel Valperga during this time and she would return much later with her grown son Percy, a trip that made up the content of her second travel narrative Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. For both the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, Italy was a place where the scandal of their relationship did not matter so much. Mary and Percy had only married after Percy’s first wife committed suicide and, regardless of the marriage, Percy’s children with his first wife were not given into his custody. Claire had also had a child with Lord Byron by this time, who died of typhus in a convent.

If the Shelleys hadn’t had the opportunity to spend large periods of time in Europe, we may never have seen the publication of Frankenstein, one of the most famous novels of the nineteenth century. The novel is so deeply rooted in its story of freedom of movement, with Victor Frankenstein studying and living in Switzerland, Germany and Britain and the creature leading a continual chase around the entire globe, it is almost impossible to conceive of the novel without it. Europe also offered these writers the opportunity to live a life free from a lot the effects of the scandals their independent behaviour caused.

Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley were deeply influenced by their time in Europe, something that was available to everyone in the nineteenth century and that is currently available to everyone in the European Union. What will be the effect on creative work of all types if this freedom of movement vanishes?

Image Credits

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

Mont Blanc by Indrik Myneur. Reproduced without change under a CC Licence.