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William Godwin & Mary Shelley

William Godwin's later years and the account of his life by Mary Shelley

‘... my father, whose passion was posthumous fame ...’

Mary Shelley to E. J. Trelawny, 1837

William Godwin lived for another forty years after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft. When his popularity as a philosopher waned, he and his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, established a business writing and selling children’s books; but he was in debt for much of the last part of his life. His relationship with his daughter during her years with Shelley was never easy; but after the poet’s death he and Mary became much closer.

Godwin died in 1836, aged eighty. He had carefully built up an extensive archive of correspondence and literary manuscripts in anticipation of posthumous fame. He had composed a number of autobiographical fragments covering his early years, and methodically maintained his journal. He had appointed his daughter as his literary executor, so in addition to Shelley's papers, Mary was faced with her father's enormous archive. Out of duty to her father, and to support her widowed stepmother, Mary agreed to go through Godwin's papers with a view to their publication. In July 1836 a publisher's contract was drawn up with Mrs. Godwin for a two-volume edition by Mary of his memoirs and correspondence.

Unlike her editions of Shelley, however, this project was never completed. Mary not only found the process exhausting and upsetting, but feared that by publishing her father's radical and atheistic beliefs, she would draw attention to herself and her son, provoke public opinion, and antagonize Sir Timothy Shelley.

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