I walked down Fifth Avenue, up the steps to the Public Library, had my bag checked by the library guard, and then could not find the cloak room or the elevators. I could not stand the delay. I was on a pilgrimage to visit Mary Shelley papers, including the diary, letters and unpublished recollections of Claire, Mary’s stepsister. I had been wanting to visit the Collection for over five years and now here I was stranded; this was not a good start. However, after interviewing the downstairs guards, I found the coat check and the stairs and finally arrived in room 319 where a young librarian had already lain the materials I wanted to see on a table, all stored neatly in manilla folders with the exception of the diary which was in a small brown box. Perhaps Claire’s own. When I took off the top, there it was, leatherbound, schoolgirl handwriting bubbling across the pages, rounded, hurried, enthusiastic.
The journal begins right after Mary and Claire ran away with Percy to France. Mary and Percy are in love. Sixteen year old Claire feels left out; she wants Percy’s attention. Why does everyone always like Mary better? Percy is glamorous and brilliant; he knows more about history and philosophy than anyone else in the world, of this she is sure. She tries to record his words, but these are my least favorite parts. I like it when I can hear Claire, unfiltered and alive. In one passage she uses a long list of florid adjectives to describe a sunset and then — here is the part I love –congratulates herself on the beauty of her writing. Later, she tells us that Shelley wanted Mary to swim naked with him in a woodland pool, but that Mary refused because she thought it would be improper. Mary was a fool, Claire thought. She, Claire, would have jumped right in. Unfortunately, at all the most interesting junctures, someone has torn out pages, not one or two, but twenty at a time. You can still see the edges of the paper, the start of some words still there, evidence of untold secrets.
At first, I stumbled over Claire’s handwriting, but the longer I read, the more I found myself fluent and fascinated. A year after after their return from France, Claire records a “Strange” story: A man lived with his wife and her sister. The sister fell in love with the man, but since the sisters loved one another, it was not a problem until their families found out. Then great suffering ensued. Is this not the story of Shelley and Mary and Claire? Is this not a version of their love triangle? I think it is. And now I think this is what Claire is trying to tell me. She and Shelley were lovers, too.