Letters written by three different women (including Mary Shelley) form a new modern gateway to the closing chapters of Volume 1.
One of the greatest things about the magnificent Internet Archive is its collections of digitized old books from libraries of all kinds, all over the world. You can visit for the endpapers, or for the illustrations. When pursuing a literary project such as this one, based on Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, you can see the original edition. And, occasionally, when the stars align, you will also be able to read a letter written by Mary Shelley, in her own hand, and preserved within the book by a collector:
My dear Sir,
A young friend of mine, of talent, has sent to your House a Romance called “Lincoln Vorne [?] or the Royal Ward [?].” I have not seen the MSS myself—but may I beg your immediate attention to it—and as favorable a report as possible. To facilitate your labors I send you a list, made out by the Author, of such Chapters as will enable you most readily to glean the style and character of the novel.
Should it meet with an acceptance, I will be very glad—If otherwise let your refusal arrive as speedily as you possibly can—And give it at any rate a fair judgment—I can in no way assist you to form it, it is true, as I have not read, (at the author’s request) an [illegible] of its pages
[illegible] Y. truly
33 Somerset N.
Wednesday 26 Feb.
Many thanks for the Browne, which is one of the best of copies—full of sense and interest—I will return it soon—Meanwhile [illegible] !
I am first of all happy to see Mary Shelley misspell and then correct the word judgment the same way I do, every time. The very end of the postscript I can’t decipher, yet it strikes me as a play on words, maybe a jokey popular reference—or maybe a reference to Browne, whom I’m assuming is Thomas Browne, the 17th-century English author of Urn-Burial (a meditation on ancient gravesites and their discovery which is indeed full of sense and interest) and much else I haven’t read. The end of the letter proper is also playful in tone, though similarly illegible. Not much easier to make out is the title of the book she gives in the first paragraph. I’ve made my best guess and searched under many variations, but it looks as if it never made it into print.
33 Somerset Street, Portman Square, the return address, dates the letter to sometime between May 1829, when she moved there after a succession of different London abodes, and May 1833. Four years was a long time in one place for Mary Shelley, who kept up in widowhood the habit of constant restless dislocation that had marked her marriage so fatally. Today’s readers might say she was working through codependency issues; coming into her own, she’d also begun to slow down, settle. She left Portman Square for a house near Harrow, her son Percy Florence’s school; she enrolled him as a day student to economize. His father, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had attended Eton (as will Idris and Lionel’s older son in The Last Man). She wanted her boy to go there, too, but the baronet, Percy’s father, refused to finance it.
When leaning towards biography this way, I’m indebted to the work of Shanon Lawson, an American scholar whose Mary Shelley Chronology & Resource site at Romantic Circles has been a help to people like me since 1998. Returning to the Brandeis letter, and the mysteriously shy author whose work Mary Shelley is touting to someone she knows at an unidentified publishing house, my search for a name led me back to the Internet Archive and into the sterling scholarship of Betty T. Bennett (born in Brooklyn!), who edited her complete letters in three volumes. Unfortunately, the second and third aren’t online, so I couldn’t look as deeply as I’d like. One candidate is “David Lyndsay,” the pen name of someone on whose behalf Mary Shelley is known to have interceded this way. In the course of her researches, Bennett discovered that this writer, whose name was Mary Diana Dods, used another male name and identity in her daily life: as Walter Sholto Douglas, she was the husband of one of Mary Shelley’s closest friends. Bennett’s book about the whole wild affair includes lists of Dods’s published and unpublished work under Lyndsay’s name; there’s nothing resembling the book title from the Brandeis letter. Nor was Lyndsay a novelist.
I believe I’ve found a clue to a better possibility: in a footnote to a letter from Mary Shelley to Maria Grisborne dated August 1832. The footnote, on page 247 of the Selected Letters, also edited by Betty Bennett, reads, “Mary Shelley was assisting Maria Gisborne’s efforts to publish some writing.” Maria Grisborne was a novelist, she’d written an unpublished novel years before. Maybe she’d written a new one. Granted, the letter refers to “a young friend, of talent, ” and Maria Gisborne was 27 years older than Mary Shelley—in fact, she might have been her stepmother, only she refused William Godwin when he proposed to her after Mary Wollstonecraft’s death. But saying “young” makes sense if there’s an effort here to conceal her identity; if not, it also reads as a kind of flip antiphrasis that’s in keeping with the letter’s general breezy, offhand, almost jocular tone.
Whatever her place in or out of the Brandeis letter, Maria Gisborne must have provided major inspiration for Evadne Zaimi’s story in The Last Man. She, too, had ties to Constantinople; she had lovers and “a good education. She showed a talent for painting, and grew up a beautiful and accomplished woman,” per Wikipedia. It’s really too bad her novels never got published.