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Claire Clairmont: who was she?

Mary Jane Clairmont (1798 – 1879), who called herself Claire, was the stepsister of writer Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and best known as the author of Frankenstein), and mother of Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra.

Claire’s mother Mary Jane Vial (?1768 – 1841) was the second wife of writer and political philosopher William Godwin (1756 – 1836).  As well as the child Mary Jane, the erstwhile Mrs. Clairmont was the mother of a son, Charles Gaulis Clairmont (1795 – 1850).  Godwin’s first wife (and Mary Shelley’s mother) was the writer, philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), who died from complications after her daughter’s birth.  She also left an elder illegitimate daughter, Fanny Imlay (1794 – 1816).  The second Mrs. Godwin gave birth to a son, William, in 1803.  best known as the author of Frankenstein), and mother of Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra.

 Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont developed a close relationship with her stepsister Mary.  When Mary, not yet 17, eloped in 1814 with her father’s close friend, the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire went too, and traveled with them through France and Europe.  When lack of money forced the trio to return to England, the Godwins failed to persuade Claire to come home.  Shelley took on the responsibility for supporting and providing for Claire, which he did faithfully until his death.  Two years after her return to England, a bored and infatuated Claire threw herself into a liaison with the poet Lord Byron.  That summer of 1816, again travelling with the Shelleys (who needed her skill with languages), she persuaded them to meet up with Byron in Switzerland.  They spent the summer near Geneva in a rented house next to Byron and his physician John Polidori.  During this time, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein.  

Claire conceived a child to Byron, and returned to England to give birth in January 1817 to a daughter she called Alba, later baptised Clara Allegra.  (The Godwins were kept in ignorance of the birth, and apparently were never to know of Claire's child).  Byron (now living in Venice) rejected any further relationship with Claire, but demanded custody of his child.  When Claire and the Shelleys went to Italy in the spring of 1818, Byron took Allegra into his care, only to place her soon after in a convent in Bagnacavallo, Italy.  Claire was allowed only a few visits to her dearly loved daughter, and was utterly opposed to her placement away from a parent's care.  When Allegra died of a fever in 1822 (aged 5 years), Claire blamed Byron totally for their child's death and never ceased to hate him thereafter.

Memorial plaque to Allegra, Claire's daughter by Byron,
at St. Mary's Church, Harrow-on-the-Hill School

(Photograh 2011, courtesy of Sven)

Claire and the Shelleys lived in Italy from 1818 until Shelley's death in 1822.  While in Pisa in 1820, Claire and Mary became close to Lady Margaret Mount Cashel, who lived there under the name 'Mrs Mason' with her lover, George Tighe, and their two daughters.  Lady Mount Cashel had been a pupil and friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, and took a maternal interest in the two young women.  (She was also a writer for Mrs Godwin's children's publishing house). After Percy Shelley's death by drowning in 1822, Mary Shelley returned to England.  

Claire Clairmont's personal characteristics were well documented.  She was lively and pretty, with curling black hair, a lovely complexion and very bright black eyes.  She was imaginative, emotional and dramatic in her moods and impulses, with a lively sense of humour.  Her singing voice was greatly admired, not least by Shelley and Byron, and she became an accomplished pianist.  She was regarded as a vivacious, intelligent and attractive companion. 

Charles Gaulis Clairmont

However, at the age of 24, Claire Clairmont, alone and virtually penniless, went to Vienna to live with her brother Charles and seek a livelihood as a governess.  After a difficult year she then went to Russia, where she worked as a governess, and later lived in Dresden, employed as a companion-housekeeper.  Claire was fully conscious of the tenuousness of the means of her survival should her reputation be less than irreproachable.  She apparently was resigned to eschewing romantic entanglements, even rejecting repeated proposals of marriage from the poet Edward John Trelawny, although she remained his friend to end of her life.  After a short period in Naples in 1831, about which little is known, Claire moved on to Pisa to live with 'Mr and Mrs Mason' and their two daughters, while she worked as a non-resident governess.  She went with her employers to Paris in 1836 then on to England in 1837, where she helped to care for her widowed mother in her last years.  

After Mary Jane Godwin's death in 1841, Claire lived in Paris for a time, apparently casting prudence aside to a degree and enjoying a secret affair with an unidentified lover. She spent some time in England after receiving a sizable bequest from Shelley's estate upon the death of his father at the age of 90.  A conflict with Mary Shelley's possessive and jealous daughter-in-law Jane Gibson St John saw Claire sent away from the Shelley home, Field Place: she did not see Mary Shelley again before her death in 1850. Claire gave up England, travelling first to Baden-Baden then finally to Florence.  Her niece Pauline cared for her at the end of her life.  Claire Clairmont died on 19 March 1879, aged 80 years.

The unanswered question

The complex lives and careers of the various members of William Godwin’s extended family circle have received as much intensive scholarly interest as their published works, and a mass of both academic and popular literature exists.  Claire Clairmont’s life has been the subject of several biographies[1], as have those of the Godwin-Shelley circle individually and collectively[2].  Claire’s journals and the extant Clairmont correspondence have been edited and published[3] [4].   Brief accounts of her life are easily accessed on the web, for example the Wikipedia entry for her [5]

 However, despite the sheer volume of research, the mystery has remained — who was Mary Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont’s father?


[1] See, for example,:

      Gittings, Robert and Jo Manton. Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

      Grylls, R. Glynn. Claire Clairmont, Mother of Byron’s Allegra. London: John Murray, 1939.

      Kingston, Marion. Claire Clairmont: A Biographical and Critical Study.  Dule University, 1952.

[2] For example:

      St. Clair, William.  The Godwins and the Shelleys. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.

      Sunstein, Emily W.  Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

[3] Stocking, Marion Kingston, ed. The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin. 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 

[4] Stocking, Marion Kingston, ed. The Journals of Claire Clairmont. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Clairmont

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