Mary Jane Vial is better known to history as Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow who became the second Mrs William Godwin. Little is known of her life before she met Godwin: even her year of birth is uncertain, believed to be either 1766 or 1768. She was English, of French ancestry, and spent part of her youth on the Continent. She was an educated woman, fluent in French and English. She had two sisters who were known to Godwin: Sophia de Vial, born in 1762, who married Edward Pilcher in 1792; and Charlotte de Vial/Vialle, born in 1777, who was married in France to Pierre de Valette in 1804. (The de Valettes moved to England in 1820).
When William Godwin first encountered Mary Jane as his neighbour at The Polygon, Somers Town in May 1801, she was known as Mrs Clairmont, a widow with two children, living in reduced circumstances. Biographer William St. Clair  commented:
— (St. Clair, 1989. p.247)The version of her life story that Mary Jane Vial would have her family and friends believe was that she was the (illegitimate) daughter of “noble Huguenot immigrants to Geneva” (Sunstein, 1989, p.29), born in England. She told her new husband that she took herself off to the Continent at the age of 11 years to find her family, and claimed to have lived and been educated as a gentlewoman in Europe. She apparently fled to a merchant brother in Cadiz at the outbreak of war, finally returning to England in 1794-5, where she gave birth to a son, Charles Gaulis Clairmont, in 1795, and a daughter, Mary Jane Clairmont, in 1798.
Mrs. Godwin led both her children to believe that their father was actually Charles Abram Marc Gaulis, a merchant and member of a prominent Swiss family, who she met in Cadiz. She claimed she and Gaulis then travelled to Bristol, where he anglicized his name to Charles Clairmont. Mary Jane's son Charles Gaulis Clairmont was born in Bridge St, Bristol on 4 June 1795. Her daughter was born three years later in Brislington, near Bristol. Mrs. Godwin told her children that their father died of cholera in 1798 while visiting Hamburg. Charles and Claire were aware from childhood that Gaulis’ sister Albertina Marianna (d. 7 Feb 1798) was married to Robert Trefusis, 17th Baron Clinton, the biggest landowner in Devonshire. (He died in 1797).
We now know from the Lethbridge letters that Mary Jane Vial’s daughter was fathered by John Lethbridge, and that she was rescued from poverty and debt by the patronage of an unidentified aristocratic benefactor, who helped her to secure the promise of ongoing financial support for her son, and a respectable situation for herself in London. She went to London some time after August 1800, and as far as we know probably undertook some work of a minor literary nature.
The popular version of “Mrs Clairmont’s” first meeting with Godwin has her rather boldly thrusting herself into his notice.
As Godwin sat on his balcony one evening, she is said to have introduced herself from her own balcony, with the words, ‘Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?’ In another version she waited until Godwin took his regular evening walk in his garden before walking up and down in her own garden across the wall clasping her hands and audible murmuring, ‘You great Being how I adore you’, and it was only when these more tactful approaches produced no response that she is said to have accosted him in the street with the words, ‘Mr Godwin I have compromised myself for I adore you’.
--- (St. Clair, 1989, p.248)
At that time, Godwin’s brilliant first wife Mary Wollstonecraft had been dead for nearly four years, leaving Godwin with the care of both their infant daughter Mary and his wife’s illegitimate daughter Fanny Imlay, now aged 3 and 7 respectively. Godwin and Mrs Clairmont commenced an affair, and married on 21 December 1801 when Mary Jane found herself pregnant.
The baby, baptized William, arrived in May/June 1802 and died very soon after birth. Mrs Godwin conceived again almost immediately, and the second infant William was born on 28 March 1803.
It would seem that rumours of Mrs Godwin’s true background eventually began to circulate in society. Henry Crabb Robinson, diarist and contemporary of the Godwins, approximated the truth when wrote of her:
— (Henry Crabb Robinson, quoted in St. Clair, 1989, p.248)
The second Mrs Godwin’s contemporaneous and historical reputation was bound to suffer by comparison to her stellar predecessor. Godwin’s circle of friends and admirers were largely less than kindly disposed toward her: she was deeply resented by Godwin’s daughter Mary, who had been accustomed to indulgence and possibly uncritical admiration from her father’s circle. Moreover, Mary Jane displayed the manners and etiquette typical of fashionable society, and was not overly respectful of the truth. This did not endear her to Godwin’s circle, who valued truth and sincerity. By all accounts she was elegant and accomplished (in the conventional meaning of the time), but also temperamental and sharp-tongued. James Marshall, an old friend of Godwin’s, described her as a “clever, bustling, second-rate woman […] with a complete absence of all the finer sensibilities”: Charles Lamb called her a bitch (quoted in St. Clair, p.245).
However, contemporary accounts are virtually unanimous in granting that Mary Jane was a loving and meritorious wife. Her driving energy and singlemindedness were largely responsible for maintaining the family finances. She was primarily responsible for the establishment of the Godwin’s successful children’s publishing house, M J Godwin and Co.’s Juvenile Library, her acumen and energy making up for her husband’s rather improvident, limp and parasitic approach to finances.
She was something of a tigress mother, taking steps regarded as unseemly by her husband to secure a place for her son Charles at a good school, and placing her daughter in a girl’s boarding school for a time. Some historians consider that she favoured her own children over her stepdaughters Mary and Fanny, while other sources allow for the effect of Mary’s jealous resentment in colouring posterity’s view.
Claire’s elopement to Europe with Mary and her lover Percy Shelley in 1814 proved to be something of a watershed in Mary Jane’s relationship with her daughter. She refused to return to the family home afterward, and Shelley undertook to support Claire. For the rest of her mother’s life, Claire seems to have been estranged from her mother and stepfather. She managed to conceal the birth of her daughter by Lord Byron from both Godwins, and only returned to England to care for her widowed mother in her last years. Godwin died in 1836, and Mary Jane in 1841.
Inscription on Mary Jane Godwin's grave, St. Pancras Old Church.
(Photograph 2011, courtesy of Sven)
St Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The biography of a family, London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and reality. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
Huscher, Herbert. 'Charles Gaulis Clairmont', Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, VIII 1957 (now Keats Shelley Review)
—— 'The Clairmont Enigma', Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, XI, 1960