4. Marriage to Godwin

William Godwin and the pregnant Mary Jane Vial married on 21 December 1801.

Whether William Godwin believed that 'Charles Clairmont' had been the father of Charles and Claire is not known.  However, it is certain that he knew his wife had not been a widow when they married.  As well as a ceremony at St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, where the register shows that William Godwin married ‘Mary Clairmont, widow of this parish’, a second wedding took place on the same day at St Mary’s, Whitechapel.  Here, the bride is ‘Mary Vial of St. Mary le Bone, spinster’.  The inescapable conclusion is that the second, secret ceremony was intended to insure against the possibility of the first being voided on the grounds of false declarations.

Marriage licence of William Godwin and Mary Vial, spinster, St Mary Le Bone, 21 December 1801


Once married to Godwin, Mary Jane acquired a public profile that was not always flattering. Her life from the time of her marriage is fairly well documented. While her habitual lying and dissembling continued to obscure much of her background, some of her family connections were confirmed. 

Sophia de Vial married Edward Pilcher in Devon in January 1792. Their children Edward, Peter and Sophia were baptised in Barnstaple in July 1796. Godwin first met Mrs and Mrs Pilcher at the end of 1807 (St. Clair p.251). At that time the Pilchers were living at ‘The Vines’, a large and important house in Rochester, Kent. It is not clear whether Mary Jane had maintained contact with her sister from the time she returned to England: there is no indication in her Lethbridge letters that she appealed to Edward and Sophia for assistance. It is possible that she did not want to damage her sister’s reputation or relationship with her husband. The Godwins and the Pilchers visited with each other over the years, although Godwin was not fond of his brother-in-law.

Mary Jane’s sister Charlotte went to France with her mother Catherine in 1801, during the Peace of Amiens (St. Clair, p.251). Charlotte married Pierre de Valette, an armaments merchant of St. Etienne. Resumption of the war separated the Godwins and the de Valettes for 15 years. Eventually they came to England, and their son Marc attended school with young William Godwin.

Mary Jane alluded, in a letter to Lady Mount Cashell, to a sister who lived in Lynmouth. St. Clair and others concluded that the sister was a fiction: however, the fate of the de Vial daughter Julian Catherine remains a mystery.