Frankenstein: The prequel: Governess service

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Author: Stephen Bates
Date: Summer 2008
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 32, Issue 3)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Brief article
Length: 307 words

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Mary Wollstonecraff, the 18th-century feminist and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, spent a melancholy year in her mid-20s as a governess. In 1786, Wollstonecraft joined the staff of Lord Kingsborough, the wealthiest man in Ireland. Wollstonecraft looked after the dozen Kingsborough children, Ruth Brandon writes in Governess (Walker), while Lady Kingsborough baby-talked to her dogs.

When she played with the children, Wollstonecraft wrote, "something like maternal fondness fills my bosom." She found little else to like, though. The food was "rather of the grosser kind." Though the Kingsboroughs included her in parties and dinners, she could not "be flattered by the respect of people whose judgment I do not care a fig for." Lord Kingsborough, according to village gossip, had had an affair with an earlier nanny; now he seemed unduly fond of Wollstonecraft, which on one occasion made her "out-blush her ladyship's rouge." She left after a year.

Wollstonecraft went on to achieve renown for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. In a chapter on child raising, she disparages parents who employ governesses. If you have 'hirelings" raise your children, she writes, you'll "miss the reward" of "filial duty."

After two ill-advised romances and two suicide attempts, Wollstonecraft married philosopher William Godwin in 1797. On August 30 of that year, she gave birth to a daughter. Ten days later, she died of septicemia.

In the eyes of literary critic Ellen Moers, these circumstances of Mary Shelley's birth plainly inspired her masterwork: "No outside influence need be sought to explain Mary Shelley's fantasy of the newborn as at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parent abandonment."

But Frankenstein came later. In 1797, the newly widowed Godwin, distraught and overwhelmed, hired Louisa Jones. For the first three years of her life, Mary Shelley was raised by a nanny.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A181952717