Mary Diana Dods was a footnote in the story of Mary Shelley until Betty T Bennett started investigating. The story she unveiled is a remarkable one.
Seeking to fully annotate her edition of Shelley’s correspondence Bennett became, in her words, irked that she could find no details on three figures. The writer David Lyndsay, the mysterious Walter Sholto Douglas and Miss Mary Dods. So she dug deeper.
This book Mary Diana Dods, A Gentleman and a Scholar skillfully reveals the true story entwined with a surprisingly gripping description of how Bennett undertook her research. Original letters were compared, sources cross-referenced and intuitive leaps led eventually to the realisation that Dods was responsible for the works published as by Lyndsay. Not an unusual 19th century scenario but still a secret for 150 years.
Meanwhile Mary Shelley had made friends with a young woman, Isabella Robinson. History records that Robinson married Walter Sholto Douglas and lived in Paris where he held diplomatic roles, and the couple mingled, via Shelley’s introductions, with Merimée and Stendhal.
The shock came, for Bennett and for us, with the researcher’s discovery that Douglas and Lyndsay were the same person. And with that the realisation that Isabella Robinson was ‘married’ to Mary Dods.
Gradually Bennett pieces together how these two women became involved. Dods was in her forties, Robinson 20 or so at the time. They met, probably, at a party but what developed was clearly less public. Eventually they needed help, which is where Mary Shelley comes in. A plan is hatched, Dods has already had a career as a male writer, and descriptions of her as looking misshapen particularly alongside the beautiful Robinson suggest disguise wasn’t difficult. With references from Mary Shelley a passport and other documents are produced for Walter Sholto Douglas.
Suddenly this mere footnote becomes an intriguing figure in Mary Shelley’s post-Percy life. A period often glossed over as less interesting has it’s own secret drama. The conventional wisdom of a more conservative Shelley after her radical husband’s death is questioned. Bennett casts light on a secret life, but also on the subtle ways in which social constructs allowed it to remain a secret. So secret that it took 12 years research to uncover it.
From there the story follows the Douglases in Paris going forward, but also back through Lyndsay’s career. Letters to the publisher Blackwood hint at a secret. One reveals that Lyndsay was known to Charles Lamb (but who wasn’t?) “under a different name.” The mature ambiguous Dods was the insecure one, sharp, young Robinson against stereotype the conspirator.
Betty T Bennett has written a detailed
account of academic historical research, a haunting Romantic mystery and a revealing addition to the life of a major literary figure in one deeply absorbing volume.