Godwin, Mary Jane née Vial, previously Clairmont, 1766—1841
by Benjamin Colbert
Mary Jane Vial Godwin was probably born in Exeter, the daughter of Peter de Vial (d. 1791), a French ordinance merchant, and his first wife, Mary de Vial, née Tremlett (1740–1774). Around 1777, she emigrated to France and may have remained there until the Revolution when she and her sister fled to Cadiz where a brother lived. There she formed a liaison with a Swiss citizen, Karl Abram Marc Gaulis (d. 1796), who took the anglicized name of Charles when they returned to Bristol in 1794. Though unmarried, Mary Jane Vial gave birth to a son in 1795, named after his father; Gaulis himself died the following year while on a visit to Silesia. A second liaison in 1797 with a baronet, Sir John Lethbridge, resulted in a second child born out of wedlock, Clara Mary Jane (later Claire) Clairmont (1798-1879; ODNB), whom her father begrudgingly acknowledged only in 1800 and supported financially in return for Mary Jane Vial’s silence on their affair.
While negotiating with Lethbridge, Mary Jane Vial lived hand to mouth at a number of addresses in Somerset and South Wales, eventually being imprisoned for debt at Ilchester gaol from April to August 1799. Upon her release and once the question of support with Lethbridge was settled, she moved in 1800 to London where she passed as a widow under several pseudonyms. There she met the writer and philosopher, William Godwin (1756-1836; ODNB), still unattached after the death of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797; ODNB). By October 1801 their friendship had ripened and she found herself pregnant. This time, however, she and William Godwin married in December, forming a household that included Fanny Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), Charles Clairmont, Clara Clairmont, and eventually William Godwin Jr, no two of which children had the same parents.
Though secure in marriage, Mary Jane Godwin shared William Godwin’s continual financial insecurity. Early in the marriage, she turned her linguistic talents to profit as a translator; among other projects, she undertook for the publisher George Robinson a translation of Johann Christian von Struve’s Travels in the Crimea (1802) and possibly another of Sylvain de Golbéry’s Travels in Africa (two competing translations appeared with different publishers in 1802 and 1803, but nothing from Robinson). In 1807, Mary Jane Godwin and William Godwin founded a children’s booksellers and publishing house, M. J. Godwin & Co., whose titles included the perennially popular Family Robinson Crusoe (renamed, Swiss Family Robinson). Though the bookshop was profitable, the cycle of debt in which the Godwins were caught seemed never ending, and Mary Jane Godwin’s travel book, written at the age of 70, Picture of the New Town of Herne Bay (1835), may itself have been an effort to improve their solvency notwithstanding William Godwin’s receipt of a government pension in 1833. After William Godwin’s death in 1836, Mary Jane Godwin continued to reside in London. She died in 1841.
Bentley, G. E, Jr. ‘Copyright Documents in the George Robinson Archive: William Godwin and Others 1713-1820’. Studies in Bibliography 35 (1982): 67-110. Print.
Jump, Harriet Devine. ‘"A Meritorious Wife"; or, Mrs Godwin and the Donkey’. Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 90 (April 1995): 73-85. Print.
Perkins, Pam. 'Godwin [formerly Clairmont; née de Vial], Mary Jane (1768–1841), translator and bookseller'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 25 Sept. 2014. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/67901
St Clair, William, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family. London: Faber & Faber, 1989. 238-54. Print.
Stafford, Vicki Parslow. Claire Clairmont, Mary Jane’s Daughter: New Correspondence with Claire’s Father. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
|A Picture of the New Town of Herne Bay||1835|
|Travels in the Crimea||1802||Translator|