Mary Jane Vial: secrets and lies

"The de Vials all had a lot to hide, especially in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary times, and 
concealment, lies and illegitimacy were evidently all strong family traditions."


There is comparatively little verified information about the life of Mary Jane Vial before she met William Godwin. Much of what Vial disclosed to her contemporaries, even her closest family, has not withstood later scrutiny: nevertheless the normal difficulties encountered by modern researchers reliant on old records are compounded by Vial’s deliberate concealment and falsification.

Tantalising questions that might yet yield to further delving into primary sources include:
    • Do we know for certain who Mary Jane Vial’s parents were, and how much do we know about them? 
    • What did she do in the period when she claimed to have lived on the Continent? 
    • What was the nature of her relationship with Charles Gaulis? 
    • What did Mary Jane do between 1794 and Claire’s birth in 1798? Who was the lady “A C” who wrote to her in Bristol in 1797? 
    • What evidence might be found in the Brislington parish records?
    • Who was the nobleman from Yorkshire who interceded for her and her son, and secured financial support?
    • Did ‘Mrs Bicknell’ exist? Was Peter de Vial of Islington her brother? 

In attempting now to construct a biographical sketch, I have used two main sources:
  • reputable published biographies and historical research 
  • public records e.g. parish registers, state archives, birth, marriage and death registers, contemporary publications. 

Of the first category, I have relied primarily on the excellent biographies
  • The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family by William St. Clair (1989), and 
  • Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality by Emily W. Sunstein (1989). 

Invaluable information from primary sources was discovered by Professor Herbert Huscher and published in two articles in the Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin:
  • “Charles Gaulis Clairmont”, Vol. VIII, 1957, pp.9–19 
  • “The Clairmont Enigma”, Vol. XI, 1960, pp.13-20 

Where possible I have attempted to locate and verify the primary sources cited by the above authors.  As well, I have attempted to discover any further records and publications that might yield clues or connections.  As I am in Australia, I have relied largely on indirect access to public records via digitised copies and online indexes and databases, from both publicly accessible and commercial sources e.g. Ancestry.com, the LDS Church Family Search database.  I have obtained hard copies (either facsimile or transcription) where necessary, and am grateful for the fine professional services provided by the research archivists in the Record Offices of Devon and Somerset.  Doubtless, scholars and historians with the means to dig deeper and make physical searches of records will succeed in filling in some more blank pages.





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