The Suicide of Fanny Imlay

The date: October 9, 1816
“On Fanny Godwin”
Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the autumn following the vaunted “Year Without of Summer” of 1816 in which a ghost story pact spawned the writing of Frankenstein, tragedy struck the Shelleys: Fanny Imlay, half-sister to Mary, committed suicide. She was 22 years old when she checked into a Swansea, Wales inn and took an overdose of laudanum.

The circumstances surrounding her death and the note she left behind has caused much speculation:

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavoring to promote her welfare.

Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as…

The note refers directly to her “illegitimate” birth to Mary Wollstonecraft and American entrepeneur Gilbert Imlay, the latter of whom abandoned both Mary and Fanny shortly after Fanny’s birth. However, biographers and scholars have penned much ink speculating about other causes of her suicide, including that she was in love with Percy Shelley and that he did not return the affection. In any case, William Godwin, who had adopter her following his marriage to Mary Wollsonecraft, capitalized on the anonymity Fanny identifies in her note to keep her death and its circumstances quiet. He writes to P.B. Shelley:

My advice, & earnest prayer is, that you would avoid any thing that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea. Disturb not the silent dead. Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired, that now rests upon the event.

Shelley followed this advice, and though her death did not go entirely unnoticed, her family likely buried her in a pauper’s grave.