Scandalous Women in the News: Clelia Mosher, Claire Clairmont and Grace Kelly
Thanks to Janet Mullany over at the Risky Regencies for letting readers know that a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont, lover of Lord Byron and step-sister of Mary Shelley was recently found in The New York Public Library according to the Daily Mail in the UK You can read the article here. Interesting sidebar to this story, when Claire Clairmont was an elderly woman, living in Florence, she was contacted by an American Shelley groupie named Captain Edwards Silsbee. Silsbee was an absolute fanatic about all things Shelley. He was known to declaim lines of his poetry in the middle of dinner parties, wanted to own everything that Shelley wrote, own or touched. He had already bought a guitar that Jane Williams used to serenade the poet with. When he discovered that Claire Clairmont was still alive, he hightailed it to Florence to meet the woman who had been an intimate of Shelley and Byron (some say more than intimate with Shelley. Rumors abound that she had and Shelley were lovers and that she gave birth to his child).
It was 1878, Clairmont was living in Florence on a reduced income with only her spinster niece Paula as a companion. After the death of Shelley and her daughter by Byron, Allegra, Claire had worked for over twenty years as a governess and tutor in Vienna, Germany, Moscow and England. Shelley had left her 12,000 pounds when he died (which Mary Shelley tried to get reduced to 6,000 pounds) but she could only claim her inheritance after his father died which took over twenty years. Having lost most of her inheritance on the stock market, she had moved to Italy and converted to Catholicism. Although she had several romances after her affair with Byron ended, she never quite got over him, her love turning to hatred. Claire was unable to forgive him not only from keeping her from their daughter Allegra (Claire had given custody of the baby to Byron because she felt that he could give her a better life) but also for putting the little girl in a convent where she died from typhoid at the age of 5.
Silsbee managed to move into rooms in the same pension as Claire and her niece, where he systematically began to woo them both. He encouraged Clairmont to tell him stories about her friendship with Shelley. He also hoped to get his hands on the notebooks, letters, and the lock of Shelley's hair that she kept. For months, he never let the women out of his sight, hoping to buy the momentoes or at the worst steal them. He did get Claire to let him borrow one of the notebooks. After several months it seemed as if Claire would live forever. Silsbee went back to the States. While he was gone, Claire finally passed away on March 19, 1879. When Silsbee returned to Florence, hoping to negotiate with Paula Clairmont, he discovered that Paula was willing to let him have all the momentoes but only if he married her. This Silsbee was not willing to do, despite his great love for the poet. All his money yes, but not marriage to a middle-aged spinster. Silsbee returned to the states with the purloined notebook which he donated to Harvard. Paula sold Shelley's letters later to a collector, along with a miniature of Claire's daughter by Byron.
Henry James heard the story of Silsbee and Claire and her niece years later and adapted the story into his novella The Aspern Papers. Since Paula and Silsbee were still alive, he changed the characters into Americans and moved the action to Venice.
And the lovely and talented Grace Kelly is back in the news and on the cover of the May issue of Vanity Fair (what a great cover photo). The article, written by Laura Jacobs, came out to coincide with the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You can read more about the exhibition here.
I read "The Aspern Papers" some time back, but I had no idea it was based on a true story--and a quietly chilling one, at that.