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“Stripping His Dead Wife Naked”

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Things seemed to be going well for William Godwin: he had achieved the status he had yearned for his entire life; was in love with a beautiful, brilliant woman; and their child was on the way. But, like many great romances, this one was tragically short-lived. Just 10 days after the birth of their daughter, the future Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever.

Published only four months after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been called the first modern biography. At the time, however, its frankness and emotional candor provoked general outrage. Godwin did not hesitate to include the most painful and scandalous episodes of Mary’s life: her brutal, drunken father; her affair with Gilbert Imlay and the birth of their illegitimate daughter, Fanny; her two suicide attempts; her unconventional religious faith; and the ghastly details of her death. The poet Robert Southey condemned Godwin for “stripping his dead wife naked.”

Fanny Imlay committed suicide in Swansea in October 1816, aged 22. Her quiet character had attracted little attention, and her reasons for taking her own life remain obscure. Before taking an overdose of laudanum, she composed a final note: “I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series [source?] of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.” Fearing scandal, a distraught Godwin urged Shelley to say nothing of the tragedy, writing to his son-in-law, in the letter shown here, that Fanny’s death was to be kept a secret.