Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The heights of amateurism

This title is meant as high praise, for there is high excitement at Wollstonecraft Towers. A Vicki Parslow Stafford has stumbled upon the secret to the paternity of the elder daughter of Mary Jane Vial! She is the one who quickly married widower Godwin, when he decided he needed a mother to his children -- though no one could fill the place of Mary Wollstonecraft:
Claire Clairmont was a central, if minor, figure in the Romantic Era intellectual and literary circle of the Godwins, Shelleys and Byron:  stepdaughter of William Godwin, stepsister and confidante of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, close friend and inspiration to poet Percy Shelley, paramour of Lord Byron and mother of his infant daughter Allegra.  Although her life has been closely studied, her true paternity seemed to be a secret that died with her mother -- until now.
Where the professionals had failed, the amateur triumphs! Psychologist and disability specialist by day, VPS turns into a masked crusader of genealogy by night! Remember my working definition of the amateur: someone doing it for love, not money. 

Not only has VPS discovered the hidden truth, she has also tied up the package by creating a very tidy little website explaining it all.  Mary Jane's Daughter is a model of its kind, everything it needs to be and nothing extra. She modestly presents it to the world thus:
I would like to bring to the attention of Romantic scholars, historians and biographers a collection of letters held by the Somerset Record Office which establishes the identity of the father of Mary Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont...
Imagine that email landing --THWAP -- in your inbox, amidst the departmental memos and students' excuses. Really, one could not ask for a better present. 

Whoever gets their PhD out of this discovery ought to offer her proper homage: a stonking fee to be keynote speaker at top conferences. An honorary degree. Naming an asteroid after her. I believe the eldest son used to be deemed a suitable sacrifice, but of course we can't have that these days; far too sexist.

For the record, I have never been in touch with VPS, nor to the best of my knowledge with anyone who knows her, but I intend to set right that omission. Three thousand cheers for her.

(Of course, the entire thing could be a fraud, and the letters made up out of whole cloth. Short of traipsing down to Somerset Record Office, how am I ever to know? If I merely phone or email, what does that prove -- they could be in on the joke too.  Ha ha. Not that I am bitter about being taken in by Gay Girl in Damascus or anything.)

Portrait by Amelia Curran (1775-1849) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thank you very much for those kind comments, Roberta. My day has carried a lovely warm glow since I read them. As you very properly note, sacrificing the eldest son might be ethically dubious these days, but I would be prepared to stretch the point and offer my elder brother (I still owe him a few from his bullying childhood days). I'm enjoying reading your blog. Cheers,
    Vicki PS

  2. I do know (and have known Vicki for many years). She has one of the finest minds I know and when she is 'following up a lead' she is very thorough and persistent - some might say obsessively so...

    The internet has given her a whole world of information to trawl through.

  3. I am so glad to hear from you, Vicki! I was just going to email you. I notice your MJD website doesn't include the address, but I found it by a little light googling. (Mine's on the "me" page.) I am in awe of your tenacity. The moment that goes untold is when you received the papers, and realised they were not what you had sent off half way across the world for. The "wrong" Mary Jane Vial meant your hunt for your ancestress had gone cold. I can picture (amateur) (scholarly) despair, gnashing of teeth, throwing of body onto velvet chaise longue, sobbing, thoughts of jumping off Putney Bridge, etc. But then! The instinct awakens: "Haven't I heard those other names before?" And light gradually dawns.... I might adapt it into a scene in Mary: the movie. (There's a frame story, set in our times.)

    Almost anyone else would have given up when they realised they were barking up the wrong genealogical tree; you persisted; for that I commend you, and I won't be the only one.

    Leanne, thanks for dropping by too! Obsession is a very good thing, if properly channelled. I find nothing troubling in stalking the dead, to the edification of the living.

    Both of you -- you comments would be very welcome elsewhere in this blog.

  4. I admire your lively dramatic imagination, Roberta, but I have to say that by the time I actually sent for copies of the letters I was pretty certain that they would add nothing to my family tree: I had already made the Clairmont link and hoped to have it confirmed when I read the letters. I was far too excited to much care about MY Mary Vial by that time. Half the fun of genealogical research is turning up interesting but unrelated facts. I will take great pleasure in mooching through the rest of your blog, Roberta. (By the way, you should only believe the good things Leanne has to say about me).

  5. For those interested, I have added 5 new pages to the Mary Jane's Daughter web site. The additions comprise a biographical sketch of Mary Jane Vial, and some of the evidence (or lack thereof) pointing to gaps and contradictions in her life story. Surely an eager grad. student somewhere would like to delve a little deeper? To view the new pages, go to https://sites.google.com/site/maryjanesdaughter/home/mary-jane-s-daughter
    and follow the links.

  6. Oh Vicki, fear not, your work will be expanded on by "an eager grad student somewhere", and you will be lauded! Here is your link:More on Mary Jane's Daughter