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Godwin, Frances [Fanny; known as Fanny Imlay] (1794–1816), adopted daughter of William Godwin, was born on 14 May 1794 at Maison Commune, Le Havre, France, the daughter of , writer and advocate of women's rights, and , an American-born revolutionary soldier and commercial adventurer. In December 1792 Wollstonecraft had travelled to Paris where, early the following year, she met and fell in love with Imlay, a notoriously self-interested individual motivated principally by money-making ventures. Wollstonecraft followed Imlay to Le Havre where their daughter was born and named Françoise Imlay. While pregnant Wollstonecraft had written to Imlay of her realization ‘that I am nourishing a creature who will soon be sensible of my care.—This thought has … produced an overflowing of tenderness to you’ (November 1793, Todd, Letters, 232–3). However, her affection was not reciprocated and, following the couple's return to London, Imlay requested that Wollstonecraft—accompanied by their daughter and a maid—travel to Norway to resolve a business misadventure. This Wollstonecraft did, but she finally broke from Imlay on her return in October 1795, having learned of his involvement with another woman. In England the child Françoise came to be known as Frances, which was in turn shortened to Fanny in memory of Wollstonecraft's closest friend, Fanny Blood, who had died in childbirth in 1785.

In 1796 Wollstonecraft began a relationship with the philosopher and novelist , whom she married in March 1797. On 30 August she gave birth to their child, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin [see ]; however, complications following the delivery led to Wollstonecraft's death eleven days later. Fanny was now adopted by Godwin and brought up in his household at the Polygon, Somerstown, London, with her half-sister Mary. In 1801 Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont [see ], who brought her two children, Charles and ; the fifth and final child of the Godwin household, junior, was born in 1803. As a result of Fanny's complicated upbringing she has been known to later writers by several names, including Fanny Imlay and Imlay-Wollstonecraft, though Fanny Godwin was the name she herself used.

As a baby Fanny Godwin was robust, bold, and full of joy. From Le Havre, Wollstonecraft wrote to Imlay of ‘the little damsel … [who] has been almost springing out of my arm—she certainly looks very like you’ (20 Aug 1794, Todd, Letters, 261). A month later she wrote to her sister Everina:
I want you to see my little girl, who is more like a boy—She is ready to fly away with spirits—and has eloquent health in her cheeks and eyes—She does not promise to be a beauty; but appears wonderfully intelligent; and, though I am sure she has her father's quick temper and feelings, her good humour runs away with all the credit of my good nursing.(20 Sept 1794, ibid., 262)
Following Wollstonecraft's death, Godwin was genuinely loving towards his adopted daughter. Between 1797 and 1800 he was assisted by Louisa Jones, a friend of Godwin's sister, who fulfilled the role of foster-mother and housekeeper at the Polygon. Writing to Godwin on 9 March 1798, Jones described how Fanny's ‘animation exceeds any description I can attempt to offer you’ (quoted in Hindle, 339). Another glimpse of her character comes from Godwin's close friend, Charles Lamb, who in late 1805 described Fanny sitting for a portrait (whereabouts unknown) by the artist Elizabeth Dawe: ‘Miss Dawe is about a portrait of sulky Fanny Imlay alias Godwin: but Miss Dawe is of the opinion that her subject is neither reserved nor sullen’ (letter to William Hazlitt, 11 Nov 1805, in E. W. Marrs, 2.188). Earlier that year Godwin had refused a proposal from Eliza and Everina Wollstonecraft that their niece, now aged eleven, attend the school they ran in Dublin. In response he committed himself to educate Fanny at home and on 8 February 1806 according to his diary Godwin undertook an ‘explanation with Fanny’ (the underlining denoting the event's significance), in which he revealed that he was not her natural father and explained her true parentage (Mellor, 14).

Godwin's diaries reveal his high regard for Fanny's opinions (for example, 3 May 1812, following their conversation ‘on justice’). Even so, from 1806 Fanny's role as the eldest child became increasingly one of household management and providing for her adoptive father on whose income the family depended. From 1805 their financial position was made more precarious by losses suffered by the children's book-publishing venture, M. J. Godwin & Co., which William and Mary Jane had established. In July 1814 Fanny's half-sister brought scandal on the family when she eloped to the continent with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while in spring 1816 her stepsister Claire Clairmont began a relationship with Lord Byron. By the mid-1810s Fanny appears to have seen herself as increasingly responsible for alleviating Godwin's poverty and as a positive burden on the household. Nor were there any likely prospects for making her own way, for in 1815 her maternal aunts refused to fulfil their promise to employ her as a teacher in Dublin.

Fanny Godwin's last letters to her half-sister reveal the uncomfortable role she was forced to play, acting as the intermediary between William Godwin and Shelley, who had promised Godwin money to ease his crushing business debts. Her most direct, and desperate, plea to Mary came on 3 October 1816:
It is very painful for me to have to mention papa's affairs—particularly as you appear to wish to avoid them … [Y]ou know he cannot write when pecuniary circumstance's overwhelm him, you know that it is of the utmost consequence for his own and the world's sake that he should finish his novel and is it not your and Shelley's duty to consider these things? (Clairmont Correspondence, 1.81)
On 8 October 1816 Fanny Godwin boarded the coach for Bristol en route to Swansea. Her suicide note, written on 9 October at the Mackworth Arms inn, Swansea, explains clearly that she intended to take an overdose of laudanum not for her own sake, but for the good of others:
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(quoted in St Clair, 411)
Her signature was missing, having been torn from the note possibly by staff at the inn aware of ‘the indignities which the law commanded for suicides’ (ibid.). On 9 and 10 October respectively Shelley and Godwin travelled to Bristol to find Fanny, each having received letters that indicated her wish to die. On 11 October Shelley reached Swansea where he learned of Fanny's death the previous day. On the following day an article in the Swansea newspaper, The Cambrian, described the discovery of the unidentified body of a woman ‘about 23 years of age, with long brown hair, [and] dark complexion’; the article reported that the woman's stockings were marked ‘with the letter G [Godwin]’ and ‘on her stays the letters M. W. [Mary Wollstonecraft] are visible’ (Stocking, 1.87). On 13 October Godwin learned of Fanny's death from Shelley and wrote to him expressing his ‘horror’ that the ‘public papers’ should find out about the suicide. He begged the poet to ‘avoid anything that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea; disturb not the silent dead’ (13 October 1816, quoted in St Clair, 412). Shelley complied, and neither he, nor any member of Fanny's family, claimed her body. Indeed, the suicide was so successfully hushed up that Fanny's stepbrother, Charles Clairmont, had not learned of her death a year later. It is thought that she was buried at St John's Church, Swansea, which was rebuilt and renamed St Matthew's in the following decade. In February 1817 Henry Crabb Robinson, having been told of the suicide by Charles Lamb, described Fanny Godwin in his diary as ‘very plain, but upright and generous. She adopted Godwin's opinions and justified Mary Godwin in her elopement with Shelley. She was pitied and respected’ (Clairmont Correspondence, 1.89). Shelley's short poem, ‘Friend, had I Known thy Grief’, his only written response to Fanny Godwin's suicide, was published posthumously by Mary Shelley in 1839.

Michelle Faubert


The Clairmont correspondence: letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, ed. M. K. Stocking, 2 vols. (1995) · M. Hindle, ‘Victim of romance: the life and death of Fanny Godwin’, Women's Writing, 13 (2006), 331–47 · The letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. W. Marrs, 3 vols. (1975–8) · A. K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: her life, her fiction, her monsters (1988) · B. Pollin, ‘Fanny Godwin's suicide re-examined’, Études Anglaises: Grande-Bretagne, États-Unis, 18 (1965), 258–68 · W. St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: the biography of a family (1989) · E. W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: romance and reality (1989) · J. Todd, ed., The collected letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (2003) · diary of William Godwin, Bodl. Oxf.; godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/index2.html, accessed on 16 July 2012