On This Day: Claire Clairmont’s Birthday – Thoughts on the Education of Stepdaughters

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27 April marks the alleged birthday of Claire Clairmont, best known for her liaison with Lord Byron! In this #OnThisDay post, Selina Packard discusses Clairmont and education.

A birthday is a convenient hook on which to hang a reflection on a significant figure, as this and other ‘On This Day’ projects evince. But it can also be of interest itself: no birth certificate or registration has been found for Claire Clairmont, and the mystery of her paternity – kept secret by her mother her whole life – has only been resolved this century.[1] For this reason, and its poetic coincidence with Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, it has been speculated that that she adopted the date as a tribute to the revered thinker.[2]

Claire Clairmont. Portrait now held at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Public Domain

Much has been written – understandably – about the relationship between Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Godwin, later Shelley. But less well-noted is that between Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont and her lost stepmother. For the young Clairmont, Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) was one of her favourite books. She described it idiosyncratically as ‘altogether a beautiful poem,’ when Shelley read it aloud during their harum-scarum 1814 tour of the continent.[3] But when she was older, forced by circumstance to become a governess, Clairmont also came to share Wollstonecraft’s interest in pedagogy.

In keeping with the revolutionary times, when education was seen by contemporary thinkers as key to social and political change, Wollstonecraft wrote variously on the topic, from her first book – the disappointingly unrevolutionary Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) – to the more developed views expounded in the second Vindication (1792). A central component of her argument in that work concerned the establishment of a national system of education based on reason, in which children ‘should be excited to think for themselves.’[4] Wollstonecraft decried a system in which ‘time is lost in teaching [children] to recite what they do not understand […] whilst seated on benches, all in their best array, the mammas listen in astonishment to the parrot-like prattle.’[5] Most importantly, girls should be taught alongside the boys, instead of the current regime in which, instead of being permitted to run freely ‘as nature directs to complete her own design’, girls are ‘obliged to pace with steady deportment stupidly backwards and forwards, holding up their heads and turning out their toes.’[6]

Clairmont was a teacher from her twenties to her early forties. She was a governess in Russia in the aftermath of Shelley’s death, then in Italy with an English family, before ending up back in London, looking after her ailing mother while working a punishing schedule. At the beginning of her career, at least, she had the time and inclination to reflect on her practice, which she did in several long letters from Russia.

She worked alongside the male tutor of the household (Herman Gambs, a German who fell quite in love with her) and had the opportunity to observe the differences in education for girls and boys from the point of view of an educator. ‘A tutor is ten thousand times happier than a governess,’ she reflected, ‘because boys may jump and play, but girls must always be in a perpetual state of etiquette, which constraint spoils their disposition, by forcing it from its natural channel into a narrow space.’ [7]

As did Wollstonecraft in her clashes with Lady Kingsborough during her own stint as a governess in Ireland in 1786, Clairmont often found herself at odds with her Russian employers, who had a quite different idea of education. They make, she wrote, ‘the external work upon the internal, which is, in fact, nothing but an education fit for monkies, and is a mere system of imitation.’ Whereas she wanted, ‘the internal to work upon the external; that is to say, that my pupil should be left at liberty as much as possible, and that her own reason should be the prompter of her actions’.[8] Clairmont in her views on education shows herself – even if self-consciously – the inheritor of Wollstonecraft’s thinking.

But both women were ambivalent about their teaching careers. In 1787 when Wollstonecraft returned from Ireland, she grasped the opportunity offered by the publisher Joseph Johnson to write for a living. Similarly, by the time Clairmont was in London in her early forties, slogging through a twelve-hour day involving a four-hour commute on the ‘vile omnibus,’[9] she was heartily sick of her profession. Following her mother’s death in 1841 Clairmont negotiated an income from the Shelley estate and stopped teaching for good.

We only have a few isolated years of Clairmont’s journals. She mentioned her birthday directly in two years – 1820 and 1821 – remarking briefly ‘Birthday’ and her age. There are entries for April 27th in preceding years that make no mention of a birthday. She famously once wrote of her talented family, ‘if you cannot write an epic poem or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging.’ [10] Perhaps amongst this intimidating milieu her invented birthday was a talismanic way of connecting herself to a worthy heritage. Clairmont after all had a symbolic, not to say superstitious, imagination.

Whatever the case – real or invented – Clairmont’s shared birthday with the stepmother she never knew, established a chain of connection she carried with her throughout her life, living a long independent existence into old age, living the life – at least in some respects – the previous generation had been unable to.

Selina Packard

Selina Packard is an archivist currently working on ‘Mapping Heritage’, a pilot project for the Open University exploring the relationship between places and ideas in the intellectual milieu of early nineteenth-century London. She has a PhD from Goldsmiths College on Mary Shelley’s fictional personae.


[1] Claire Clairmont, Mary Jane’s Daughter: New Correspondence with Claire’s Father (google.com)

[2] William St Clair, The Godwins and The Shelleys (London: Faber, 1989), p. 250

[3] The Journals of Claire Clairmont ed by Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 33

[4] Wollstonecraft, Mary, Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Vindication of the Rights of Men

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 241

[5] Ibid, p. 247

[6] Ibid, p. 248

[7] The Clairmont Correspondence ed by Marion Kingston Stocking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 215

[8] Ibid, p. 215

[9] Ibid, p. 355

[10] Ibid, p. 295