Sunday 22 April 2018

When Mary Shelley met Lady Margaret

It's 200 years next month since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published. sarah mac donald explores the writer's romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the pair's friendship with an intriguing Irish couple

Frankenstein's mother: Mary Shelley
Frankenstein's mother: Mary Shelley
Lady Margaret Mount Cashell

A new biopic set to open in cinemas over Christmas recounts the story of the tumultuous love affair between Mary Shelley, the beautiful young author of Frankenstein and her muse, the renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was just 18 when she started writing her gothic thriller and the liaison was pivotal in inspiring her to pen her literary masterpiece.

Percy Shelley met Mary, the daughter of the eminent political philosopher William Goodwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1814.

As the bohemian poet was already married when he met Mary, the couple were ostracised and cut off from financial support - dogged by debt and chased by creditors. The Shelleys married in late 1817, after the suicide of Percy's wife, Harriet. In 1818, they left Britain for Italy, first settling in Florence and later Pisa.

And it was in the ancient Tuscan city famous for its Leaning Tower that an Irish couple came to play an important role in the Shelley story.

Twenty years ago, on November 10, 1997, The Times newspaper carried a front-page story about the discovery of a lost 170-year-old literary manuscript. It linked Shelley and her poet husband to an Irish couple who lived under the pseudonym 'Mr and Mrs Mason' in Pisa.

Cristina Dazzi, who sadly has since died, happened upon a handwritten book in a box of old papers among her family's archives at her Tuscan villa, Casa Cini in San Marcello Pistoiese. The box contained an unpublished children's story entitled Maurice or The Fisher's Cot by Shelley that had been long thought lost.

Of her find, Dazzi recalled: "A few pages written in orderly handwriting, tied in two thin bindings with a pale blue cover, which did little to please the eye". At the top of the first page, the dedication read: "For Laurette from her friend Mrs Shelley".

Laurette Tighe (1809-1890) was the 11-year-old daughter of Irish couple William Tighe and his partner Lady Margaret Mount Cashell - the mysterious 'Mr and Mrs Mason'. Cristina Dazzi's husband Andrea is a direct descendant of these Irish friends of the Shelleys through Laurette's sister, Nerina Tighe (1815-1874), who married into the Cinis of Pistoia.

It was January 1820 when the Shelleys moved to Pisa. Lady Mount Cashell, or 'Mrs Mason', was already living in the city and received a visit from Mary Shelley, whose mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had been Lady Mount Cashell's old governess. A favoured pupil, she and Wollstonecraft stayed in touch for many years after the governess left Ireland until Wollstonecraft died just after giving birth to Mary in 1797.

Seeing that Mary was in late pregnancy in 1819, Lady Mount Cashell encouraged her to settle in Pisa so that she could receive medical care from the renowned surgeon Dr Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri of the University of Pisa.

The Shelleys heeded her advice and rented accommodation at a number of locations in the city. At one stage in 1821, they leased Palazzo Lanfranchi on the fashionable Lungarno Mediceo, which had a 16th-century facade ascribed to Michelangelo. The Torre dei Gualandi in Pisa's stunning Piazza dei Cavalieri reputedly inspired Percy Shelley's poem 'Tower of Famine'.

While living in Pisa, Mary Shelley became extremely fond of the Masons' two daughters and Mary's step-sister, Claire Claremont, who was living with the Shelleys and had been romantically entangled with Lord Byron, became like an elder sister to Laurette, taking her to operas and the city's carnival.

An entry in Mary Shelley's diary for August 10, 1820, records: "Write a story for Laurette. Walk in the mountains … 'Le Buche delle Fate [fairy grottoes or caves] - The weather is warm & delightful." That was the fateful day Maurice, the lost manuscript, began to formulate itself in Mary Shelley's imagination.

So, who was Lady Margaret Mount Cashell and why was this Irish aristocrat living in Pisa as Mrs Mason, with a man who was not her husband? Percy Shelley had such admiration for her that she became "a lady, the wonder of her kind, whose form was up born by a lovely mind" in his poem 'The Sensitive Plant'. She herself wrote a book entitled Advice to Young Mothers on the Physical Education of Children, published in 1823.

Margaret Jane King was born in 1772 to Caroline FitzGerald and Robert King, Earl of Kingston, in Mitchelstown Castle, Co Cork. She was the second of 12 children and the eldest daughter. In 1791, at just 19, she married her neighbour, 21-year-old Stephen, second Earl of Mount Cashell.

He was handsome with an easy temper. However, Margaret soon realised that they had few interests in common and he disliked literature. She felt he was obsessed with wealth and titles. Together they had seven children. The couple entertained widely and guests included Henry Grattan, John Philpot Curran and Lord Edward FitzGerald - Margaret was a member of the United Irishmen and wrote against the Act of Union.

In December 1801, the Mount Cashells embarked on a grand tour of Europe as part of a group of 'nine Irish adventurers', which included Margaret's friend, the diarist Catherine Wilmot, who documented their travels in a series of letters. In Italy, Margaret met Irishman George William Tighe, a poet, classical scholar and agronomist. The two fell in love and she eloped with him in 1807, leaving her husband and children behind and creating a major scandal. She and her husband were legally separated in November 1812. Margaret was to receive £800 a year and a settlement of her accumulated debts. But she was never to see her children again.

In Pisa, Margaret and George called themselves 'Mr and Mrs Mason'. The name was chosen after the teacher and maternal figure in Wollstonecraft's collection of children's stories, Original Stories from Real Life. Margaret and Tighe married following the death of Earl Mount Cashell in 1822.

That very year, tragedy struck the Shelleys, who had made their home on the bay of Lerici, just north of Pisa. Percy Shelley drowned when his boat sank in a storm in the Gulf of La Spezia in July 1822. A year later, Mary Shelley returned to England.

The Masons lived out the rest of their lives in Pisa. Margaret died there on January 29, 1835. The monument erected on her grave in the Old English Cemetery, Livorno reads, 'Here Lie the Remains of Margaret Jane Countess of Mount Cashell: Born AD1773 - Died 29 January AD1835.' William Tighe lived another two years before he died in Pisa in March 1837.

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