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'Lost and Found'Mary Shelley, Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot: A Tale. Edited with an Introduction by Claire Tomalin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. ISBN: 0 375 40473 2 (hardback). Price: US$20 (£9.99).

  • A. A. Markley

…plus d’informations

  • A. A. Markley
    Penn State University, Delaware County

On November 10, 1997, readers of the London Times opened their newspapers to find Mary Shelley leading the day's headlines. A long-lost story had been found in an old box of papers in the home of an old Tuscan family. The manuscript that had resurfaced, Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot, is a children's story that Mary Shelley wrote in 1820 as a present for Laurette Tighe, the daughter of the Shelleys' friend and fellow ex-patriot in Italy, Lady Mountcashell. The Times' response to this event, which included their funding of Claire Tomalin's journey to Italy to inspect the manuscript, not to mention Alfred A. Knopf's response in preparing a beautifully designed hardback edition of the story, is a real testament to the blossoming of Mary Shelley's popularity over the past few years surrounding her bicentennial.

Any reader of Mary Shelley's fiction will immediately recognize Maurice as her own. Like Frankenstein, and many of her tales, Shelley frames her narrative in an intriguing way, and spins her tale through the voice of more than one narrator. Cleverly dividing the story into three parts in order to create a children's version of the triple-decker novel, Shelley opens the tale with a countryman's description of a traveller, and explains the traveller's interest in a young boy he sees walking by in a funeral procession. The traveller asks the boy's history, and learns of Maurice's previous life with the elderly fisherman Barnet. In Part 2, the traveller meets Maurice, who is soon to be evicted from Barnet's cottage by the old man's relations. In the third section, the traveller tells his own history, and after describing the circumstances in which an infant son was stolen from him, Maurice puts the pieces of the mystery together and identifies himself as the traveller's long-lost son.

The plot is predictable, and traces of the contemporary taste for high sentiment are certainly palpable, but Maurice is nevertheless a fascinating piece of work for a number of reasons. First, it allows us to see Mary Shelley in a new light as the author of a children's book. Shelley's gentle addresses to the reader evoke a narrative voice that was obviously designed for young readers. Her only other known children's story, "Cecil," likewise a tale of a young boy that focuses on his family life and education, is unfinished, and affords much less insight into the degree to which Shelley altered her narrative style in composing for children. Tomalin's edition includes a useful second printing of the text of Maurice, "showing the author's original lineation, pagination, spelling, corrections and emendations," which offers a view of Shelley's manner of composition, and an impression of the state of the actual manuscript.

"It is a small work, but touched with the same spirit as the greater ones it stands among," (18) Tomalin writes in her Introduction, comparing Maurice to the "high tide" of Romantic literature that was flourishing in 1820. Most perceptive is her discussion of the story's relationship to Wordsworth's works, in its emphasis on simple scenes of rural life, in its focus on the emotions conjured by the picturesque fisher's cot in which Maurice makes his home, and in Shelley's often exquisitely drawn portraits of aspects of the natural world. Tomalin discusses the fact that the character of Maurice is designed as an exemplar of ideal behavior for a child; strange perhaps when one considers that this very male-oriented tale was composed as a gift for a little girl. She points out that, like the heroines of Mary Wollstonecraft's novels, Maurice is endowed with both humility and a sincere devotion to serving the poor. Finally, Tomalin delineates traces of Percy Bysshe Shelley's personality in the work, in Maurice's dislike of those who shoot birds, and his refusal to catch fish because of his wish to avoid causing pain to living things (15).

Maurice will certainly be of interest to Mary Shelley scholars for its relationship with her other works. As Tomalin suggests, the story can be compared to Frankenstein, published just two years earlier, in the sense that it may be read as offering an alternative view of the nature versus nurture debate. Tomalin argues that unlike Frankenstein's creature, whose abandonment and ordeals urge him to criminal acts, Maurice's innate goodness is unaffected by his separation from his family and by the many ordeals he goes through. Nevertheless, the importance of proper parenting and education is stressed throughout the story, from the depiction of the wise old Mrs. Barnet who reads stories to the neighborhood children, to Maurice's real father's emphasis on education, in the telling of his own history and in his sending his son to Eton at the end of the tale.

Maurice can also fruitfully be compared to Shelley's novel Matilda, at which she was also at work in 1819-20. In many ways the story functions as a rewriting of Matilda, in which a long deferred reunion of father and child is orchestrated with happy rather than tragic results. Matilda's self-imposed exile in her cottage following the tragedy of her reunion with her father parallels Maurice's exile from his family in the fisher's cot at the beginning of the tale. In 1820 Mary Shelley also wrote her mythological drama Proserpine; thus the issue of separation of child and parent was much on her mind during this period. Shelley's tales "The Mourner," "The Evil Eye," and "The Pilgrims," as well as her 1835 novel Lodore, all explore estrangement between parent and child. Why so many tales of loss? Again, Tomalin does well to remind us of the many lost children in the Shelley circle in 1820—the deaths of the Shelleys' children Clara and William in 1818 and 1819, and Claire Clairmont's loss of her daughter Allegra to Lord Byron's guardianship during these same years. (One might also recall the rather strained nature of Mary Shelley's relationship with her own father during this period.) Tomalin also points out the importance of this theme in Laurette Tighe's own life; her mother, Lady Mountcashell, had painfully given up eight children in deciding to leave her husband and to begin a new life in Italy with George William Tighe in 1807.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume for Romantic scholars lies in Tomalin's vivid depiction of Lady Mountcashell, who had the benefit of Mary Wollstonecraft as a governess, who dressed in men's clothing to study medicine at Jena, and who walked away from an unhappy life as an Irish countess to build a life more aligned with her values and beliefs living as "Mr. and Mrs. Mason" with her second husband Tighe in Pisa. Tomalin provides carefully researched accounts of the lives of the "Masons" and their two daughters, Nerina and Laurette; Laurette's career as a writer is of particular interest as Mary Shelley was to attempt to translate her Italian novel Inez de Medine for the English press in the late 1840s. The inclusion of Lady Mountcashell's "Twelve Cogent Reasons for Supposing P. B. Sh-ll-y to be the D-v-l Inc-rn-t- ," also taken from the same family archive that produced Maurice, contributes to a portrait of a truly remarkable woman who veritably steps off of the page of Tomalin's thorough and highly readable introduction.

For the light that the discovery of this long-lost tale sheds on the Shelleys' relationship with Lady Mountcashell and her family, and for what it adds to our impression of Mary Shelley as a maturing author in 1820, we can be quite glad that Maurice has at long last been restored to the corpus of her works.