My Scandalous woman today is Claire (Jane) Clairmont – Byron’s mistress and Mary Shelley’s (who wrote Frankenstein) stepsister

Jane (later Claire)Clairmont

Well, my title has kind of given away what made Claire scandalous, but there was far more than her affair with Lord Byron, the infamous poet and seducer. So let’s begin at the beginning.

I mentioned Claire last week, when I told her other stepsister’s, Fanny Imlay’s, sad story.

Claire was born, Jane Clairmont, and grew up being called Jane.

Claire was three when her mother, Mary Jane Vial Clairmont, married, Mary’s father, William Godwin, and Claire was the youngest of the girls, but only eight months younger than her stepsister, Mary Godwin (later Shelley).

If you didn’t read my blog last week, then for your benefit, Claire also had a second stepsister, who was Fanny Imlay as mentioned above, a half-brother, and a half-brother who was born from the marriage between Claire’s and Mary’s parents.

Like Fanny, Claire had conspicuous beginnings, she was illegitimate. Her father is now known to be Sir John Lethbridge of Sandhill Park. Her mother had hidden both Claire’s and her brother’s illegitimacy, changing their surnames to Clairmont and moving away from the locality she grew up in. Perhaps Claire never even knew she was illegitimate.

The relationship between Claire’s mother and her stepfather was known to be volatile, to say the least. Both were intelligent and outspoken, and frequently argued, and Claire’s mother never held back on her opinions and openly favoured her children over Mary and Fanny.

In his younger days William Godwin had been politically active and preached anarchy, when Claire was growing up though he wrote and published children’s books with Claire’s mother.

Through her mother’s preference for her, for a while Claire was able to attend boarding school without the other girls, and she learned to speak French fluently and is known to have spoken other languages in later life. So clearly she had inherited her mother’s intelligence.

But Claire was caught up in the Regency whirl of romance in the 1800’s when she fell into the orbit of the poet Shelley. Shelley respected Claire’s stepfather’s views on anarchy, and he preached free-love.

Oh you thought that was invented in the 60’s? No. It’s just in the 60’s women could then cease falling pregnant as a consequence.

Percy Shelley

In the early 1800s Shelley, preached communal living, and spoke of the rights of women to choose their lovers and instigate affairs. (Mary’s and Fanny’s mother had written on the subject of the freedom of women, which was another reason why Shelley had sought the family out only to make friends with the three girls).

Can you imagine Claire and Mary, who knew Shelley from the age of fifteen, sitting in their small family parlour, watching and listening to Shelley speaking to their older sister, Fanny, avidly engaged, as he discussed his beliefs and debated with Fanny on her mother’s writing. Let’s remember Shelley was a celebrity of the time and famous for his romantic poems and gothic tales at this early stage in his life.

When Fanny was sent away by her father, perhaps because William Godwin feared an affair, Shelley turned his quixotic (love that word, it means dreamy, imaginable, romantic) attentions on Mary.

But intelligent, exuberant Claire was not to be set aside. She was not to be cut off from this beautiful exciting world which she had only just begun picturing.

Mary Godwin later Shelley

Each generation thinks it invents ways of life, but if you have followed my blogs for a while you’ll know my abiding theory is that people now are exactly as people have been all the way back through history, it is only our environments and the rules about us which have changed. People did and thought the same things back then as we do now.

Claire was a groupie, wrapt up in Shelley’s ideal, of course she was not about to let herself be excluded, she’d do anything to be kept in the loop. So she took on the role of co-conspirator when Mary and Shelley’s affair began, encouraging and supporting their budding love, enjoying and revelling in the intrigue.

When Shelley then planned to run away with Mary, leaving his wife and children, whom he’d already separated from, behind, Claire ensured she was a part of the plan.

They left the country, leaving Fanny, who’d thought herself loved by Shelley, behind and excluded, still banished in Wales.

Claire’s mother followed them, not necessarily to urge Shelley and Mary to come back, Shelley was paying William Godwin money after all and helping to support him and keep his increasing debts at bay, but she desperately wanted to save her own daughter from such disgrace.

In true rebellious teenager style, Claire was not to be persuaded. She had an exciting life ahead of her with beautiful horizons of a romantic dashing life, in which she would become notable, famous and remembered. Why would she go back?

Her mother returned from Calais without Claire, but then she had walked the path of mistress, she must have known what Claire was getting herself into, and if Claire did know her origins, then she would have had a strong argument not to be persuaded. Her mother could hardly judge.

She, Mary and Shelley then progressed on a tour of the war-torn continent. It was not a time for travel, there were food and accommodation shortages, and they mention in their journals walking through villages burned to the ground. But Shelley ‘and his two wives’ fancied themselves in a romantic novel and read and wrote their way through Europe. You can still read their Journals of the time.

Claire clearly had a fanciful imagination but lacked the family talent for writing. A clue as to the state of her imagination and her involvement in romantic notions was what she wrote in her journal when reading King Lear, ‘What shall poor Cordelia do – Love & be silent’ and ‘Oh this is true – Real Love will never show itself to the eye of broad day – it courts the secret glades

Mmm, I wonder if she was in fact speaking of her own affection for Shelley. Despite rumour saying he slept with both girls, and Claire actively imagining herself, and proudly believing herself, the third in their free love relationship. There is no evidence there was anything beyond friendship between Shelley and Claire. However comments such as this and something I’ll mention later do sort of imply there was something.

It was during this time that Claire, changed her name from Jane Clairmont to Claire, which she considered more romantic, she had tried Clara first.

Lord Byron

When Shelley and Mary returned to England, Claire continued to live with her stepsister and her stepsister’s lover, supported by Shelley and revelling in the infamous indecency of their relationship.

But living in her sister’s and Shelley’s shadows perhaps began to gall. Or maybe she no longer liked playing second fiddle to her sister and wished to have pride of place with someone. So she sought to snare a poet for herself and shamelessly threw herself at Lord Byron.

By then eighteen, Claire wrote to him daily, initially asking for his advice on becoming an actress or a writer, and then gradually becoming more and more blatant in her interest and her offers.

At the beginning she proclaimed that when she saw him she only wished to sit on a stool at his feet – human instinct – exactly the same in the 1800s as 2012 -(I’ll talk far more about this in my new book blog at some point). Then later she told him he only need accept ‘that which it has long been the passionate wish of my heart to give you’.  The little Groupie.


Byron did indeed eventually accept, but like her mother there was a consequence for Claire, who still imagined herself in love and hoped for far more than Byron gave.

She was nothing to him, Claire was not her sister, Mary.

Claire had possibly hoped to win Byron’s undying love. She only earned his almost immediate desertion.

Her affair with Byron occurred in his last months in England, at the time scandal raged about him. He’d declared himself depressed and Claire was probably only a moment’s entertainment to take his mind from his woes. Soon after their affair began he left the country for Europe in self-imposed exile.

But still enthused by romantic fiction and blissful illusions of excitement and grandeur Claire refused to be separated from him and urged Shelley to follow, Shelley was after all of a similar mind to Byron, a political revolutionary. So once again Claire, Mary and Shelley set off for the continent.

We can only guess whether or not Claire knew she was carrying Byron’s child at the time, but if she did not know already, she learned the truth on her travels, as did Mary and Shelley. By this time Mary had already born Shelley’s illegitimate child.

Byron had made it clear to Claire he had no further interest in her before he’d left England, but he was a man who inspired fixation (more on that in later blogs). He knew how to charm women (huh-hum and potentially men).  Scandal and desperation followed him like a plague.

Byron recorded his opinion on the subject of Claire and her presence in Europe in a letter dated 20, January 1817;

‘You know, and I believe, saw once that odd-headed girl, who introduced herself to me shortly before I left England, but you do not know, that I found her with Shelley and her sister at Geneva. I never loved her nor pretended to love her, but a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night, there is but one way, the suite of all this is that she was with child, and returned to England to assist in peopling that desolate island. This comes of “putting it about” (as Jackson calls it) and be damned to it, and thus people come into the world.’

Now do you see what I mean about people being the same then as now. Could that not have been written yesterday, apart from the structure of the language. The thought is the same.

I bet you assumed the phrase ‘putting it about’ recently invented, as you did free love.

Well poor old misguided Claire, had, put it about, as Byron so bluntly described, and despite taking her to his bed again to end her endurance in persuasion, he still then turned her away once more.

To set this in context it was in this period that Shelley and Byron, Mary and Claire, concocted awful gothic stories for entertainment to terrify one another, and it was in this period the idea of Frankenstein was born in Mary’s head.

When Claire’s cast for Byron failed again, Shelley brought her home to England to birth the child. He smuggled her back into the country in secrecy and hid her away in Bath, seeking to keep the pregnancy quiet. He had his own battles to fight and needed no further scandal linked to him at the time.

It was during Claire’s pregnancy that Fanny, her eldest stepsister committed suicide, as I spoke of last week.

Shelley’s wife also committed suicide within two months.

He must have thought himself heavily burdened at the time.

Heaven knows what Claire thought now facing the consequences of the pleasure of free love. In later life she was known to say her affair with Byron had ‘given her only a few minutes of pleasure but a lifetime of trouble’.

Allegra Byron

When the child was born, with Shelley deeply in debt, as was Claire’s stepfather, and Mary and Shelley married, the trio set off abroad again, taking Byron’s daughter, Allegra, with them. They thought the child would have a better life with her father, although Claire probably also still hoped that she too might have a future with Byron. She did not.

All through her pregnancy Claire had continued to seek Byron’s attention and affections, writing to him frequently without any recognition and when she caught up with him on the continent, he initially refused to have anything to do with the child. But eventually Claire, or perhaps Shelley, persuaded Byron to take Allegra. It meant though that Claire must cut herself off from her daughter and cease her obsessive pursuit of Byron. It was the condition by which he took the child––that Claire leave him alone. (Yes there were stalkers in the 1800s too).

Claire consented, though afterwards she was horrified by Byron’s ill-treatment of Allegra, I doubt he felt any affection for the daughter his brief liaison with Claire had created. He packed Allegra off to a house he didn’t live in, to be brought up by servants, and later had her placed in a convent where she died at the age of five. Claire had seen her daughter a couple of times but not for two years at the point Byron admitted her to the convent. Claire had sought to plot to steal her away from the convent but Shelley would not agree to the plan and she did not feel able to do it alone.

Here is a link to a copy of the letter Claire wrote to Byron when he told her he was putting Allegra in a convent.

And here a link of Byron’s reply, refusing to communicate with Claire.

Also another link to a letter written by Allegra to her mother, click on the transcript tab for the content of the letter.

After her affair with Byron, Claire remained with Shelley and Mary until Shelley’s death.

Whether or not there was anything between Shelley and Mary physically who knows? But there were rumours that Claire bore Shelley a child, which Byron publicly believed and he had spent time with the three of them.

We learnt in my last blog that Shelley was quite capable of subterfuge when he covered up Fanny’s death so the scandal would not reflect on him. Did he therefore do the same in Naples in 1818. He is known to have registered the birth of a child on the 27th December, the mother’s name was given as an Italian woman. The child was immediately placed in foster care in the city at the time and although Mary denied any possibility of the child being Claire’s, Claire was known to have been ill within hours of the child being registered. Perhaps? Certainly Shelley left Claire a generous sum in his will. For favours rendered?

That child also died, left behind in Naples, the child only reached the age of one.

In a letter on the link  below, there his a rather odd plea from Shelley, who was at the time again in the company of Byron, claiming to Mary that if she has heard that anything has occurred between himself and Claire, it is not true. (Me thinks the man doth protest too much).

As Claire grew older though, after such bitter experiences and such public rejection from Byron, her desire for men waned. After Shelley’s death, Claire separated from Mary and lived more peacefully adopting the life of a governess and companion in a number of positions, with various families who treated her well.

When she wrote to her sister, Mary, of men she joked about their interest, but expressed little return affection, joking once that two men had commented on her disdain, and that therefore she might shock them and fall for them both at once. At one point in letters she mentioned an idea to write a story expressing the ‘erroneous opinions’ about male and female relationships, planning to cite the beliefs of both Byron and Shelley. Clearly she was no longer blinded by her youthful infatuation for romantic poets and their free love principles.

Still Claire, unlike many of my stories of scandalous women, had a happier ending, out living most of Byron’s and Shelley’s set and living a contented, more simple and peaceful life, less scandalous and more inconspicuous certainly.

She died at the age of eighty.

I have not read Mary’s Journal, I am going to, and next week I’ll tell Mary’s story. I love these juicy real life tales. Sad though when you think of the person who endured this life in reality. Clearly Claire found some happiness in the end but I suspect her youthful rebellion left her bitter and injured emotionally.

The Marlow Intrigues

Discover hours of period drama (2)


The Lost Love of Soldier ~ The Prequel

The Illicit Love of a Courtesan  

The Passionate Love of a Rake

The Scandalous Love of a Duke

The Dangerous Love of a Rogue 

The Secret Love of a Gentleman  

The Reckless Love of an Heir 

The Tainted Love of a Captain 

Jane’s books can be ordered from booksellers in ebook or paperback


The scandalous story of Mary Imlay, Mary Shelley’s (the author of Frankenstein’s) half-sister

I thought today, as I’d mentioned Mary Shelley (Godwin) in my Halloween blog, that I would start the stories of the sisters of the Godwin household in this weekend’s tale of scandalous women from history. I’ll begin with Fanny Imlay’s Story, Mary’s older half-sister.

Let me begin though by telling a little of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s history before he met Fanny and Mary.

Percy Shelley

Shelley published two gothic novels while at Oxford, in 1810 and 1811, while also writing anti-war and atheist based pamphlets. These earned him an expulsion from Oxford and when he refused his father’s help to return to Oxford a separation from his family.

He eloped to Scotland in 1811, four months after his expulsion from Oxford and married Harriette Westbrook. He knew Harriette Westbrook through his sisters who attend the same school. Shelley was heir to a Baronete, her father owned a tavern, needless to say Shelley’s father was not best pleased and cut off Shelley’s allowance.

Shelley did not even particularly care for Hariette but she had poured out her heart to him in letters claiming misery and of course I have often said before men of Shelley’s era loved to play the gallant. He saw himself as her rescuer. But he had not anticipated that Harriette would insist her elder sister, who Shelley did not like, would live with them. He was disappointed in life again when his best friend showed his true colours and sought to seduce Hareitte when he came to stay.

Seeing himself as a political radical, another romantic notion of the era, Shelley sought mental stimulation of men of a similar mind and began leaving his wife behind.

He accused Harriette of marrying him for his money and built questionable friendships with women with more stimulating conversations and more active minds. While equalling haunting the company of William Godwin a man who had published political work whose leanings Shelley favoured, although Godwin was equally more interested in Shelley’s money than his views. However Godwin had three daughters, Fanny Imlay, Claire Clairmont and Mary, who later became Shelley’s wife.

So let me now begin the story of these sisters.

Mary Wollstonecraft – Fanny Imlay’s and Mary Godwin’s mother

Fanny Imlay was the eldest, she was not William Godwin’s daughter but an illegitimate child her mother had conceived during in an affair with an American entrepreneur. They had commenced the affair during the French Revolution and Fanny was conceived on the border where her parents met regularly.

Her father had gone to France to seek commercial opportunity, while her mother was there to promote feminism, having written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792. Her mother’s family thought the pair married. They were not and the affair ended badly. Fanny’s father left only to be pursued by her mother who tried to commit suicide on two occasions when he would not have her back. She failed.

Then Fanny’s mother met William Godwin and fell in love again, she also fell pregnant with his child but Godwin did marry her. She died shortly after though, giving birth to William Godwin’s daughter, Mary. Fanny was only three at the time and so was raised by a man who was no relation to her.

William Godwin remarried four years after the death of his first wife, and his second wife brought another daughter in the household, Jane (who later renamed herself, Claire) as well as a son. Godwin then had another child, a son, with his new wife.

William Godwin once described Fanny and Mary,

‘My own daughter (Mary) is considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before. Fanny, the eldest, is of a quiet, modest, unshowy disposition, somewhat given to indolence, which is her greatest fault, but sober, observing, peculiarly clear and distinct in the faculty of memory, and disposed to exercise her own thoughts and follow her own judgment. Mary, my daughter, is the reverse of her in many particulars. She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty; Fanny is by no means handsome, but in general prepossessing.’

But despite this slightly disparaging account of Fanny, it was Fanny he leaned upon, it was Fanny who helped him manage money and support the family. There are copies of letters Fanny wrote to several wealthy benefactors, begging money, which is rather sour when you learn that her own inheritance of £200 was lost due to her step-father’s debts.

When Shelley first made contact with Godwin his initial interest was in Fanny who was then 18. Before he had even met her, he asked if she might be allowed stay with himself and Hariette, solely because he admired her mother’s writing. Godwin did not agree because he had no cause to trust Shelley when it was widely known he had eloped to take his wife.

But Shelley then began spending time with the Godwins and at this time most of his attention was focused on Fanny. She had enlightened and spirited conversations with him, discussing politics. But then Godwin sent Fanny away to Wales and we can only speculate on why, but perhaps it was because he feared she was at risk of being sucked into an affair, and of course as Shelley was already married it could have had no happy end.

But while Fanny was away Shelley fell in love with Mary, Fanny’s half-sister, (whose story I’ll tell in a couple of weeks).

Mary Godwin later Shelley

With Fanny gone, her father fell further into debt and her step-mother grew more intolerable, and both Mary, who was 16, and her step-sister Jane, desired to escape. Shelley gave them the means and the opportunity for an exiting romantic escape. They fled with him to the continent, leaving Fanny behind alone in Wales. This all occurred in 1814.

Fanny was immediately called back to London to support her father in clearing his debts and help her step-mother run the house and look after the two boys in face of scandal and humiliation.

Godwin was a man who was widely known and well-respected, with two of his daughters running off with a married man he was a mockery and increasingly embarrassed as they stayed abroad.

Fanny was placed in the untenable position of having to write to Shelley and continue to beg money from him. It left her in the middle of a bitter separation as she sought to keep her relationship with her sisters while trying to continue to support the man who had raised her as his daughter.

Jane (later Claire)Clairmont

When Mary, Claire and Shelley returned to London in September 1814, Fanny was in the difficult position of wishing to see her sisters without upsetting their father and she balanced both relationships poorly, angering Godwin if she saw her sisters while her sisters ridiculed her for not having the courage to simply leave him and move in with them and Shelley. All through this time Fanny continued to beg Shelley to give Godwin money, while pressured by the fact both men were deeply in debt.

In February 1815 Mary gave birth to a child who later died and it was Fanny she called upon to support her through the episode, which only brought more of Godwin’s wrath down upon Fanny. Charles, Jane’s/Claire’s brother then also left home.

In January 1816 Mary gave birth to a second surviving child, whom she called William after her father. After this though Shelley, Mary and Claire left England once more, escaping debts and seeking to join Lord Byron abroad.

Shelley’s departure increased Godwin’s state of poverty and pressure on Fanny grew.

She argued with Mary before she left and they separated on ill-terms, but Fanny, ever the peacekeeper sought to repair the relationship in letters to her sisters. Again her gestures of affection and her desire to keep a close relationship with them was ignored.

Life became so difficult for Fanny in the Godwin household while they were away that when they returned again and took up residence in Bath, she began asking if she might join them in letters, and stating she wished to escape.

She was not welcomed, and on the 9th October 1816 Fanny took her own life.

She left her father’s house and went to Swansea, and her suicide must have been planned and long considered I should imagine. She posted letters to both her father and Mary in the midst of her journey to Swansea, from Bristol, writing to the two people who had torn her apart as she stood in the middle of their bitter war and scandal.

It is distressing to think she was born the daughter of a woman who had so strongly and publicly declared a desire for women to be free of the rule of men, and then both herself and her mother had ended up being ill-used by men, her mother by Fanny’s father, and Fanny by her mother’s second lover.

Whatever those letters said, and no one now knows as they were destroyed, both Shelley and her father were so disturbed by them they immediately set out for Swansea. They were too late.

Fanny took and overdose of laudanum to end her life. She had taken a room in an inn, the Mackworth Arms, and instructed the chambermaid not to disturb her. She was found dead the next day. Shelley and her father arrived the day after and Shelley was left to cover up her death, removing her name from her suicide note, and any evidence which might associate her name with her father or himself (suicide was an unbearable sin in those days and both Godwin and Shelley bore enough scandal they did not wish more).

She was buried without being recognized by either man and probably lies in an unmarked grave.

Another sorry end I’m afraid.

Mary’s suicide note –

‘I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as…’

The poem Shelley composed after her suicide which was written amongst various scribblings and doodles on a sheet of paper –

‘On Fanny Godwin

Her voice did quiver as we parted,

Yet knew I not that heart was broken,

From which it came, and I departed

Heeding not the words then spoken.

Misery–Oh Misery,

This world is all too wide for thee.’


Sadly there are no pictures of Fanny, perhaps a reflection of how little she was appreciated by her family. But if you follow this link you can see the image of the letter Fanny’s father wrote to Shelley after her death, click on transcript to read the letter.

And on this link is the letter Fanny wrote to Mary when Mary and Shelley left for the continent a second time and they had fallen out, which indicates the rope she played in the family’s tug of war.

The Marlow Intrigues

Discover hours of period drama (2)


The Lost Love of Soldier ~ The Prequel

The Illicit Love of a Courtesan  

The Passionate Love of a Rake

The Scandalous Love of a Duke

The Dangerous Love of a Rogue 

The Secret Love of a Gentleman  

The Reckless Love of an Heir 

The Tainted Love of a Captain 

Jane’s books can be ordered from booksellers in ebook or paperback