Did Mary Shelley and Jane Austen ever meet?

Jane Austen and Mary ShelleyAn interesting question, as these two most prominent women authors who have survived in popularity to today were being published as contemporaries. The short answer is probably not. There is no record or mention of one another and they were not in the same circles. But it is a tantalizing question anyway. Mary Shelley recorded most of what she read in her diaries, and there is nothing regarding anything of Austen. And Shelley’s interest in reading tended much more to the classical and philosophical, then the popular. And they were almost polar opposites in life experience and artistic sensibility. Austen came from a country life and wrote of themes of obtaining a good marriage and keeping a good name, in a comedic tone. Mary Shelley spent her formative life in a city environment surrounded by radical philosophers and her work was intellectual and dark, with tragedy at its core.

Yet, there are intersections of commonalities. Mary Shelley wrote her famous work when she was eighteen years old and revised it over years. Jane Austen wrote the first drafts of her most prominent works when she was twenty to twenty-two and revised them over years.

Austen began her first novels in the form of a series of letters. Shelley begins Frankenstein as a series of letters. Austen’s parents were from Bath and environs, and she lived there for several years. Mary Shelley’s parents were from Bath and she lived there for several months.

Okay, these are curious intersections, more having to do with the nature of women authors in their times. Could they ever have been in the same society? Austen lived in Bath from 1800 to 1809; Shelley wasn’t a resident until 1816.

Austen was being published in her lifetime beginning in 1811 until 1816. The first publishing of Frankenstein was in April 1818, several months after Austen had died on July 18, 1817. But yet, there are some connections where, if not encountering in person, they could have been aware of one another. Beginning with that summer trip of 1814 to France and Switzerland, Mary’s diaries made a fairly precise record of what she read daily, even in the circumstances of the greatest tragedies, but what she was reading before that is not detailed, and she was an ardent reader.

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility first appeared in October 1811, published by Thomas Egerton. It had favorable reviews and the novel became fashionable among the young aristocratic class and the first edition sold out. Pride and Prejudice followed in January 1813, was widely advertised and sold well. Mary Shelley was the daughter of publishers and surrounded by writers. She was beginning her early attempts at writing at least by 1812. Surely she must have been aware of a successful authoress, though her peers may have looked down on work like Austen’s. The kind of societal focus on marriage central to her stories was the philosophical opposite of Mary’s father’s ideas. Even Austen’s most formative works included a satirical sendup of the kind of historical biography William Godwin was writing, though he would not have seen it.

After Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park came out in May of 1814, at about the time Mary and Percy Shelley were becoming involved and her step-sister Jane (Claire) was taking an avid interest in the fashions of the time. Austen’s third novel was not so well reviewed, but sold out. Austen’s writings became popular enough that the Prince Regent was counted as a fan and a reportedly kept a set of her novels at his residences. In mid-1815, Jane Austen changed publishers from Thomas Egerton to John Murray for her anticipated new novel Emma.

Austen had occasion to come to London in November of 1815, when the prince’s librarian the Rev. James Stanier Clarke invited her to visit Carlton House, the Prince Regent’s London residence, and hinted Austen should dedicate the forthcoming novel Emma to the Prince. Austen resided at 23 Hans Place in Knightsbridge while in London corresponding with Murray regarding a special limited edition of Emma dedicated to His Royal Highness, to be issue before public distribution of the novel.

Whether she visited the publisher while in London is not recorded, but Murray was well known for his salons of prominent writers gathering for meetings at his 50 Albemarle Street address in Mayfair. It was nearly the epicenter of the London publishing world. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, friend of the Godwins and the Shelleys was also being published by John Murray II, and William Godwin had many dealing with him as a writer and publishing competitor.

John Murray was the publisher of Lord Byron. The Shelleys became good friends with Bryon the summer of 1816 and on their return to England from Switzerland, Shelley took on the task of supervising the publishing of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Third Canto with Murray. Austen had completed a draft of Persuasion (The Elliots) in July of 1816 with the intention of publishing with Murray, but was having financial difficulties with the failure of her brother Henry’s bank in March of 1816. Austen was dealing with Murray by correspondence while her brother may have been the conduit of manuscripts, though she very likely met the publisher in person, at least enough to write in a letter to her sister Cassandra in October of 1816, “He is a rogue of course, but a civil one.” This was at the same time Shelley was complaining to Murray that he had not been dealing appropriately with the proofs of Childe Harold which Byron had entrusted to him and may have visited Murray that October in London while he was staying in Marlow and meeting with Leigh Hunt.

Austen’s health was failing in 1816. She completed two revision drafts Persuasion by August of 1816. She began another work, Sandition, but stopped writing in March of 1817. She died on July 18, 1817 in Winchester. Percy Shelley began submitting the draft of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in note book form to publishers beginning in May of 1817. First offering it to Murray, then to Charles Ollier, both of whom declined to publish. Shelley did not reveal to who the author was, only saying it was the work of a friend. It was finally accepted by George Lackington of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, printed in November of 1817 and published with anonymous author in April of 1818.

So, did Mary Shelley meet Jane Austen, not likely, but she must have known of her work. Could she have been encouraged or inspired by the success of a woman author of her day like Jane Austen? She never mentioned it. Was Jane Austen familiar with Mary’s mother’s writing, Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, when Austen was 17? She never mentioned it.

William Godwin published his memoir about Mary Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, when Jane Austen was at the height of her creative energy, writing about the fear of loss of reputation, when one of the pre-eminent woman authors of the day found her reputation sent her into dustbin by the resulting scandal of the baring of her affair with Gilbert Imlay and illegitimate birth of her daughter. There is some suggestion that an acquaintance of Austen’s father, was a friend of the Wollstonecraft family, and the salacious  scandal of the daughter of eminent author and radical philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, eloping with Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron could not have escaped her. But she never mentioned it. After all, it was far from her country world of polite manners, and probably best not to mention it.