You ever imagine one of those so-crazy-no-editor-would-ever-buy-it romance plots? F/f regency romance with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a significant supporting character. Bastard daughter of a Scottish earl. Beautiful socialite whose baby-daddy fled to America. Marriage of convenience. Secret baby. Gender disguise. Beauty and the beast. Making a living by publishing under multiple pen names. Foreign travel. Brittle witty people engaging in flirtation and back-biting gossip in Parisian salons. Over-the-top Gothic poetry about dead loves. Mysterious chronic illness. Fleeing one step ahead of the creditors. Dying in a squalid debtor's prison.
One of the most consistent experiences I've had while working on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been: "How could I have had a book this marvelous sitting on my shelf for 20 years and never realized it?" I mean, really. I buy a lot of books. Books that look interesting, but then they get cataloged and put on the shelf and boxed and moved and boxed and moved. And then one day, for some reason, I pick them up and say, "Let's see what you've got." And sometimes what they've got is fireworks.
I knew--vaguely--what the topic of this book was. What I didn't realize until I started reading it was how wonderfully it was structured as a guided tour through the research process. What began as a quest to fill out the details of two footnotes turned into a research project that took over a decade and turned up a story so implausible that I'd have to tone it down to write it as fiction. I'd like to be clear that the story of Mary Diana Dods has not been proven to be a lesbian story--no more so than any early 19th century life involving romantic friendships, female husbands, and women's communities supporting each other. But it provides a model for how you could write a lesbian Regency romance that would blow expectations out of the water. I've previously emphasized how surprisingly easy it was to accomplish gender disguise in previous centuries. But Dods' story also points out how plausible it is for a passing woman to be supported in her disguise by friends and family. Too often, in historical fiction, we isolate our protagonists and depict them as struggling alone with a dangerous secret. Understanding that such protagonists could have been supported, encouraged, and protected by a community that knew all their secrets opens up a lot more plot possibilities. It also points out several avenues other than gender disguise that women could use to arrange to share independent lives together. Like: the number of women who seem to have moved to a new community and simply announced that they were wives of absent or deceased husbands and who thereafter achieved widow's privilege and respectability.
If, like me, you come out of the end of this academic mystery tour and want to look at the timeline of Dods' life in a more straightforward manner, I'll be posting my attempt at a rough timeline in a day or two and linking it both here and in the book entry below.
Bennett, Betty T. 1991. Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-4984-5
This is not so much a biography or historical study as it is a mystery novel. Rather than taking the results of a years’ long research project, organizing it logically, and then presenting it in a systematic manner, Bennett leads us step by step through the process of her research, from the first dangling threads that she tugged on, all the way through to pinning down the last details.
One thing this means is that the reader’s understanding of the historic events will shift and change along with Bennett’s pursuit through archives, publications, libraries, graveyards, and so forth. Occasionally she’ll slip up and foreshadow later discoveries, but mostly we get the same slow and confusing unfolding experience that she did. [Note: I’ll also caution that my write-up is based on the unfolding reading, so earlier material may be “wrong” in the context of the full story.] If you want to get a sense of the shape and nature of an academic research project—no matter what your subject matter interests are—this is an excellent and very readable example.
This research project began when Bennett was editing a collection of Mary Shelley’s letters. [Note: I’m going to assume that the reader either knows, or can refresh their memory, on who Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was, along with her historic and social context. To save my typing, I’m mostly going to abbreviate her as MS.] In compiling the footnotes to provide background and biographical information on the various people mentioned in the letters, she ran across two loose ends: David Lyndsay, an author of books, poems, and short stories with a growing literary reputation, and Walter Sholto Douglas, the husband of Shelley’s close friend Isabella Robinson Douglas, and an aspiring diplomat.
Lyndsay was mentioned in MS’s letters in 1822, Douglas in 1827. Around 1830, both disappeared from her letters, but left traces in history. Lyndsay continued to be mentioned in Romantic literature studies and Douglas was mentioned in various legal and biographical documents, primarily as the father of Adeline Douglas Wolff. All Bennett needed was a few more details to add to the footnotes for context. What she found connected the two men in an unexpected way. The other primary figures in the story are Mary Shelley, her beloved friend Isabella Robinson—described by many as the most beautiful woman they knew, and Mary Diana Dods, a brilliant, well-educated woman, though described as physically deformed in some way. The three women probably met around 1825 when they were all involved in salons held in London by Dr. William Kitchener. But they had other acquaintances in common, so other contexts are equally possible. By early winter of 1825, the three were close friends. By two and a half years later, the nature of their relationships were transformed. Mary Diana Dods had become both David Lyndsay and Walter Sholto Douglas.
[Note: For reasons that may not become apparent until the end of the book, it seems most reasonable to understand Mary Diana Dods as a woman who took on a male persona for economic and social reasons, rather than due to gender identity or for reasons related to sexuality. Although this is something of a “spoiler” for the book’s conclusion, I mention it here as context for how I treat Dods’ gender in this summary. I’ll be referring to Dods’ various aliases by their apparent gender with respect to the point in the unfolding story. However this is also a context where I'd like to note that Bennett’s handling of discussions of sexuality, gender identity, and possible intersex identity are not always up to today’s standards of sensitivity. While I don’t recall anything that was outright offensive, the terminology she uses is of the ‘90s, and some of her basic assumptions are narrow.]
Bennett’s research considers this story in the context of emerging studies of gender and sexuality, including the work of Helena Whitbread regarding Anne Lister, and studies of the “female husband” concept, which was not necessarily motivated by sexuality or gender identity, but often simply by economic pressure. There is a surprising amount of data on “female husbands”, which is important for the social and historical context of Dods’ life, in that the concept would have been quite familiar. Further evidence of familiarity comes from MS’s own writings involving cross-dressing (heterosexual) heroines, in her novels The Last Man and Perkin Warbeck.
Bennett began tracing the puzzle because she couldn’t find any basic biographical data for Douglas or Lyndsay. MS had written to Lyndsay’s publisher, saying that he was out of the country and acting as his go-between, so clearly he was someone she knew personally. Bennett then reviews the various works attributed to Lyndsay that he was trying to find publishers for. Bennett traced Lyndsay via those titles and found potential Scottish connections. This led to the National Library of Scotland, who turned up correspondence between Lyndsay and the publisher William Blackwood, mentioning other associates. In one of the letters, Lyndsay noted that author Charles Lamb knew him “but not as Lyndsay.” This was a clue that Lyndsay might well be a pen name, hence the lack of other references.
Having started down the track of David Lyndsay, Bennett now shifts her attention to Walter Sholto Douglas. An 1827 letter from MS mentions her good friend Isabella Douglas and her concerns about Mr. Douglas attending the funeral of “Lord M” from whose will “certainty will come” regarding their financial situation. The context suggests that the Douglases are relative newlyweds.
Bennett moves on to a general discussion of the financial difficulties that women faced at the time, as well as the pressures toward single-sex socializing. (It took more money to be able to host mixed-sex gatherings in a respectable fashion.) In addition, a male escort was necessary for a wide variety of public activities, such as attending performing arts events or travel. The near-impossibility of divorce also created difficulties. A woman who was separated from her husband and cohabiting with another man might present herself as married to her current partner in order to avoid ostracism. This, of course, was far more possible if one relocated and avoided former acquaintances.
Another of MS’s close female friends was Jane Hogg, who apparently knew all the details about the Douglases as her correspondence with MS mentioned them. MS wrote her about her emotional attachment to Isabella Douglas: “who I dearly love and who feels the liveliest affection for me.” [Note: Bennett presents herself as seeing these sentiments as potentially erotic at the time, then walking back the conclusion at a later date when she becomes more familiar with the conventions of romantic friendship.] Another letter of the time was to a male friend in London, asking a favor relating to passports. The Douglases were about to travel abroad and passports must be claimed in person in London to avoid the extra fee at the port itself. Could the friend find someone of appropriate description to go with him to the passport office in the names of Walter Sholto Douglas and his wife Isabella? MS provided examples of their signatures to forge when picking up the documents. The traveling party included on the passport consisted of the Douglases, their daughter, Sholto’s sister Mrs. Carter and her two sons, and originally was to include Shelley herself, though as it happened she traveled later.
Among other puzzles, in another letter around the context of these travel plans, MS mentions that Sholto “now seriously thinks of les coulottes” using the French for “the trousers.” Was this simply a reference to their French destination? Was it slang of some sort?
MS went to join the Douglases in Paris in 1828 in company with Isabella’s father and sister. MS had a large circle of acquaintances in Paris, some of whom mention Isabella in their letters of the time, calling her “coquettish and bored.” MS’s attachment to Isabella seems not to have extended to Sholto, whom she blamed for Isabella’s restlessness. And then after June 1828, her letters no longer mention the Douglases, although they do appear later in her journals.
The bond with Jane Hogg had begun as a romantic friendship, disrupted by Jane’s marriage. MS similarly seems to have had a romantic friendship with Isabella and later reflects that she could have been happy with her but “that dream is over.” By 1830, MS now sees Isabella as having “lost her fascination” and “not the being she once was.” What could have happened?
With regard to how MS and Isabella met, we go back to correspondence where she is speaking of her friendship with “the Robinsons” and her new delight in the friendship of Isabella’s sister Julia. MS’s father’s diaries mention entertaining “Robinson, père de Douglas” [i.e., father of Isabella Douglas] in combination with Julia Robinson and a Miss Figg. [Note: Miss Figg will become relevant again much later.] Background: Joshua Robinson was an Oxford graduate and a builder, who with his wife Rosetta had a large family, at least 5 girls and 4 boys. While poking around in various biographical dictionaries, Bennett also comes across the information that Adeline, daughter of Walter Sholto Douglas and Isabella Robinson Douglas married one Henry Drummond Wolff.
Bennett now turns to tracing the identity of the “Lord M” whose funeral and will were of interest to the Douglases. The dates and names matched that of George Douglas, earl of Morton. He left a widow but no male heirs and the estate went to his cousin George Sholto Douglas. The conjunction of names jumps out as intriguing, but a bit of research determined that the combination “Sholto Douglas” was popular in a number of Scottish families. There was no likely candidate for Walter in the Morton line. Could he be illegitimate? Bennett set out to track down Lord M’s will.
While that was in motion, Bennett had gained access to a collection of 32 letters from David Lyndsay in the Scottish archives, covering correspondence between 1821 and 1829 with the publisher Blackwood. Lyndsay’s tone is enthusiastic—a debut author flattered by the publisher’s attention and encouragement. Lyndsay suggests that correspondence to him be sent in care of a Mrs. Carter in London. He mentions various proposed publishing projects with themes that he acknowledges are parallel to some that Lord Byron was also working on, along with other authors – the Romantic authors were a bit notorious for such parallels.
A complex picture of Lyndsay emerges from the letters. He discusses publicity strategies and the importance of timing and the support of critics. He changes his in-care-of mailing address to a James Weale. He makes reference to his Scottish origins and “our nation” when addressing Blackwood. He proposes doing some theater criticism for Blackwood’s magazine, though none was ever published. In August 1822, Lyndsay makes reference to Lamb “not knowing him as Lyndsay” implying that Lyndsay was a pseudonym. He makes some snide references to Byron, Percy Shelley, and Hunt, implying that he is in their social circle. A month later Shelley dies. Lyndsay proposes providing some works translated from German, indicating fluency along with the fluency in French, Italian, and Latin that he’s already demonstrated. He refers to “my old friend Kitchener” the host of a prominent salon.
In 1825, Lyndsay mentions being acquainted with Lady Byron (in the context of Byron’s death) and “well acquainted” with Mary Shelley. He provides evidence for the latter in his discussions of her work.
And then comes the end of Lyndsay’s correspondence with Blackwood. He expresses disappointment that Blackwood hasn’t been interested in publishing any of his recent works. He spells his name Lindsay rather than Lyndsay. And the handwriting of the letter is entirely different.
Now we move to a different track. When encountering a letter to MS from a “M D Dods”, whom Bennett believed at the time to be a man, she noted that the signature had an elaborate “D” that was identical to that used by David Lyndsay. Comparing the handwriting of the two on a letter-by-letter and whole-word basis, Bennett came to the conclusion that the two hands were identical. The letters from Dods to MS were very intimate in tone, addressing her by her first name and calling her “meine Liebling” (my darling). Was Dods a previously unknown secret lover of Mary Shelley? Bennett started looking for candidates.
Now we’re back to the Blackwood correspondence, trying to find out more about Lyndsay. Blackwood contacts James Weale (Lyndsay’s mail drop) who denies being Lyndsay’s alias. Other historians had concluded that Weale wrote the Lyndsay letters himself, but that would mean that he also wrote the M D Dods letters. There were reasons to doubt that line of thinking. There follows a detailed discussion of Lyndsay’s works and thematic influences. Bennett suspects that Lyndsay (= M D Dods) may actually be the Reverend Marcus Dods, but what would the Reverend Dods, a respectable middle-aged married minister, be doing calling the widowed Mary Shelley “my darling” in German? [Note: the "Reverend Dods" connection was eventually found fruitless, but this isn't clear from the following summary.]
The earl of Morton’s will is identified and obtained, but it’s the wrong will! Dated 1858, it can’t be the will of the “Lord M” mentioned in 1827, but must instead be his heir. (This turns out to be due to a difference in how earls are numbered in Scottish records as opposed to English ones.) The will documents the magnitude of the Morton estates and includes references to lots of men named Sholto, but no Walter Sholto Douglas. The prior earl (who is the relevant Lord M) left bequests to his wife and to two married daughters, aside from the estate that went to the next earl. [Note: It is eventually determined that the earl married in 1814, so the "two married daughters" referenced in 1827 are highly unlikely to be his wife's offspring! Also, as we later see, only one of the daughters had been married at this point.] No mention of any brother or son named Walter Sholto, legitimate or otherwise. It’s the right will, the right Lord M, but no Walter Sholto Douglas granted the annuity whose continuance was eventually confirmed in the 1827 correspondence.
The pursuit of the identity of Dods was meeting with dead ends and the publication date for the edition of Shelley’s letters was approaching, so it would be left with incomplete data on the mystery correspondents.
Bennett had been pursuing the contexts for Lyndsay and Douglas as separate problems, but when the draft of the book went out for feedback, all the data was arranged in chronological order. The readers came back with a couple of questions. Bennett had tentatively identified the “Doddy” of the Douglas letters as the Reverend Marcus Dods appearing in the Lyndsay letters. But at one point MS referred to Isabella’s husband as both “D” and “Doddy,” clearly meaning Walter Sholto Douglas. But if Doddy was also the Reverend Dods, did that mean he’d left his family to elope with Isabella in a pretense of marriage? And based on the handwriting, that would also mean that Dods = Douglas = Lyndsay. Was that a possible association, much less a plausible one? And if so, what in the world was the connection with the earl of Morton?
The second review question pointed out that an 1827 letter from MS to Jane Hogg appeared to have female pronouns for a person referred to as “D” associated with Isabella Douglas. The context was possibly ambiguous. Bennett’s assumptions had led her to connect the female pronoun with Isabella but fresh eyes noted that it was much more naturally read as meaning D. But that would mean that D was a woman.
Bennett went back and read through all the evidence looking to falsify the possibility that David Lyndsay, Walter Sholto Douglas, M D Dods, Marcus Dods and Doddy were not only all the same person but that that person was female. Working through all the references in MS’s letters, only the specific references to Isabella’s “husband” and “sposo” conflict with the possibility. And to balance that, there were references such as “les coulottes” and the episode with the passport imposture that would suddenly make more sense if a cross-dressing woman were involved.
The 1827 letters build a picture. MS is in the south of England nursing an anxious and ailing Isabella until Mr. Douglas arrives with the results of Lord M’s will. Douglas is in company with a Mrs. Carter (the same name as Lyndsay’s mail-drop) who will travel with the Douglases to France, pending the arrival of the aforementioned passports. The travel party, as described in the letter talking about the passports, was to be Mr. and Mrs. Sholto Douglas (with Sholto described as “slim, dark with curly black hair”), a Mrs. Carter and her two children, and Mrs. Shelley and her son. If the passport dodge was not simply to save a little money and a trip to London, might it be to avoid having Mr. Douglas recognized as a woman? And the signature on the passport letter for Walter Sholto Douglas that their agent was to forge had the same elaborate capital D that appears in the letters of David Lyndsay and M. D. Dods.
There is a gap in the letters: the Douglases have gone on to Paris but MS arrives later and immediately falls ill with smallpox. There are rising irritations among the circle of friends. Isabella informs Shelley that Jane Hogg has been spreading gossip about the Shelleys (remember that Percy Shelley is dead at this point). MS records that she feels guilt about being “in some sort the cause” of Isabella’s “sufferings” which are not elaborated and that she will “try to extricate her”. What does she need extricating from? The Douglas marriage? But if MS is cooling toward Walter Sholto Douglas, at the very same time she is writing letters in support of David Lyndsay’s literary career.
In June 1828 we find the last reference in MS’s letters to the Douglases—a rather strange reference, written to Jane Hogg (who evidently was somewhat forgiven for the gossip?):
You speak of beings to whom I link myself—speak, I pray you, in the singular number—if Isabel has not answered your letter, she will—but the misery to which she is a victim is so dreadful and merciless, that she shrinks like a wounded person from every pang—and you must excuse her on the score of her matchless sufferings. What D. now is, I will not describe in a letter—one only trusts that the diseased body acts on the diseased mind, & that both may be at rest ere long.
It is two years before MS mentions Isabella again, and then it is in her private journal wondering, “is this the being I adored—she was ever false yet enchanting—now she has lost her fascinations—probably, because I can no longer serve her she take[s] no more trouble to please me—but also she surely is not the being she once was.”
More questions pour in. Did Joshua Robinson know that his daughter had married a woman? Why didn’t Isabella simply separate from “Doddy” if the marriage was unhappy? What was the falling out between Isabella and MS? There are no clear answers, but the many details do not falsify the hypothesis that Dods/Douglas/Lyndsay was a woman. And that hypothesis would make sense of some of the more cryptic references.
Bennett returns to the question of Lord M’s will. If Walter Sholto Douglas was a woman, how would she have been mentioned in the will, if at all? Bennett asks another researcher who has been studying the Douglas daughter Adeline and asks about anyone named Dods in connection with her research. She is immediately pointed to Miss Dods (Doddy) who is a character in Eliza Rennies book Traits of Character. The book describes Miss Dods in detail and notes that she is a good friend of Mary Shelley.
This new line of research turns fruitful after some sifting through the (non-indexed) book to determine that the reference is in the section on Viscount Dillon, not the one on Mary Shelley or the one on Dr. Kitchener. Eliza Rennie was an acquaintance and fan of MS, a member of the Kitchener circle, and makes reference to meeting MS in the company of “one whose romantic history, were it written, would transcend all of English or even French fiction” as well as a man who died before the “mystery which shadowed and surrounded him was elucidated.” Bennett speculates, could this be a reference to Mrs. and Mr. Douglas?
Looking through the decidedly gossipy memoir, there are continuing references to “a girl of the greatest beauty I ever saw” who must be Isabella, but no clear reference to Mr. Douglas. Finally, in the chapter on Viscount Dillon, the viscount urges Rennie to go to MS’s to meet Miss Dods, an “extraordinary person staying with her…so wonderfully clever and so queer-looking.” Rennie then describes Miss Dods: “Nature, in any of its wildest vagaries, never fashioned anything more grotesque-looking than was this Miss Dods.” Her hair is cropped, curly, short, and thick, “more resembling that of a man than of a woman” and Dods looks like “some one of the masculine gender” who had “indulged in the masquerade freak of feminine habiliments, and that ‘Miss Dods’ was an alias for Mr. ----.” Was this, then the answer? That Dods actually was a man but was at that time presenting as a woman? Rennie turns away from that description and continues the description of Miss Dods: “She had small petite features, very sharp and piercing black eyes, a complexion extremely pale and unhealthy, with that worn and suffering look in her face which so often and so truly—as it did, poor thing, in hers—tells of habitual pain and confirmed ill-health; her figure was short, and, instead of being in proportion, was entirely out of all proportion—the existence of some organic disease aiding this materially.” This general description does not conflict with the one given for the passport or with Lyndsay’s self-description to Blackwood. But the physical “disproportion” becomes a key clue.
[Note: I haven’t been able to find anywhere that Bennett goes into more detail on what this “disproportion” may have been, though goodness knows she speculates on a number of other points. While the description is far too meager for any hope of diagnosis, I confess that the combination of physical descriptions and “habitual pain” made me wonder if some sort of scoliosis were possible. But this is pure speculation on my part.]
Despite Dods’ physical appearance, Rennie is impressed with her talent, intellect, and faculty with languages (which correspond to Lyndsay’s skills). Rennie makes a cryptic reference that she will not “enter upon or touch” Dods’ “own wild and wonderful subsequent career.” That Dods “resided many years at Paris where ‘she died and was buried’.” (Scare-quotes on “she died and was buried” in the original text.)
Rennie describes Doddy as a woman who appears awkwardly masculine in appearance and accomplishments. This feeds into the theory that there was gender-crossing going on, but in which direction?
Additional documents relating to Lord M’s will arrive, with a codicil granting an annuity “for the love, favor, and affection which I have and bear to my reputed daughters, Mary Diana Dods and Georgiana Carter (formerly Georgiana Dods) widow of Captain John Carter.” Dods and Carter were to have equal shares of an annuity of 200 pounds. [Note: Despite the reference earlier to "two married daughters," this language makes clear that only one of them was married at the time the document was drawn up.]
That settles the question of what gender Dods was assigned at birth [note: my wording, not Bennett’s]. M D Dods and Mrs. Carter (who accompanied the Douglases to France) were both “reputed” (i.e., illegitimate) daughters of the earl of Morton. And there is the result of his will that the Douglases were waiting to hear before the traveled to France. And in the midst of it, clear proof that Mrs. Carter was quite aware of the gender-change that produced Walter Sholto Douglas, with a very sound argument that Isabella and MS were certainly aware as well. Yet the Douglases' marriage was clearly accepted by their acquaintances in Paris. Other than those who were a party to the gender change and marriage, was Douglas’s presentation a complete success? [Note: Bennett never seems to entertain the possibility that Douglas’s masculine identity was simply an accepted performance. That people might have known and chosen not to make an issue of it.] This does leave the idle question of just who was the biological father of Isabella’s daughter Adeline.
The next chapter digresses to examine the historic context of female same-sex relations, covering the illegality of male homosexuality (but not female) in England, the Ladies of Llangollen, and the separate axes of identity, desire, and performance with regard to both gender and sexuality. There is also a discussion of the position of aristocratic bastards in this era. They were typically raised in circumstances similar to that of legitimate children. The Dods sisters clearly received a quality education, even if they weren’t raised directly in their father’s household.
The topics are jumping around a bit now as Bennett works to fill in the remaining gaps in the story she’s trying to uncover. From here on out, the narrative will be a lot less coherent and much more repetitive as small bits of information are added to the existing framework.
In the next chapter Bennett explores social connections to the philanthropist Frances Wright who may have been one of the Douglases’ connections to Parisian society. Some of her interactions may shed light on the context of how MS fell out with the Douglases. Wright had become a close friend of the Douglases and picked up from them a negative impression of MS, despite being a great admirer of both of Mary Shelley’s parents. But when Wright met MS herself, that initial impression warmed and the implication is that the Douglases may have been estranged from MS and been trash-talking her. From Wright, the trail continues to her friends the Garretts, also in Paris.
The next chapter discusses a poem, handwritten on the endpaper of a copy of Lyndsay’s work that eventually ended up in MS’s possession. The poem is a lament on the death of a beloved and originally was attributed to Shelley herself, but both the date inscribed for the poem (before Percy Shelley’s death) and the handwriting convince Bennett this isn’t possible. The handwriting she now recognizes as Lyndsay’s/Dods’ own. This copy of Lyndsay’s work has annotations in two different hands, one clearly Dods (including the poem) which is largely corrections of the published text, and some notes by another hand (but not MS’s). The volume was probably Dods’ own copy, later given to MS. The poem is a Romantic cry of anguish about a “secret sorrow” that can be disclosed to none since the beloved is gone. It’s dated February 1822. [Note: I’m going to include the full text of the poem because it’s illuminating to read it through the lens of all the possible interpretations of Dods’ identity and orientation.]
There is an anguish in my Breast
A sorrow all undreamed, unguessed--
A war that I must ever feel--
a secret I must still conceal--
I stand upon the Earth alone
To none my secret spirit known
With none to sooth[e] the speechless stings
Of my wild heart’s imaginings
With none to glory in my fame
Or halo with sweet joy my name--
The Star of Love for me hath set
And I must live yet not forget
How once it shone upon my Brow
Though I am lorn and lonely now
A blighted Herb a blasted Tree
A living lie, a mockery--
A Lump of Earth that still, still glows
With so much perfume of the Rose
As will not let it meanly mete
With aught less lovely or less sweet--
Yes--thou art gone! O what to me
Can others admiration be
Then silent--sacred--on thy Bier
I place the strain thou canst not hear
To none the smile thou canst not give
My buried Love will I receive--
Genius and Taste, if such there be,
Too late, I consecrate to thee.
O what have I to do with pride
It withered when mine Angel died
And but one thought remains to me
My heart’s lone deep dull agony--
Bennett sees in the poem possible secret lesbian sentiments, disclosed in the poem knowing it would come to MS’s attention [note: but the book seems to have ended up in MS's possession much later and by chance?] or possibly imagining sentiments she believed MS might feel [note: same objection, and feel about whom at this particular date?]. But the language is hard to distinguish from that of romantic friendship and the hypothesis is put on hold. [Note: Bennett appears to draw a much stronger distinction between romantic friendship and lesbian love than I consider warranted. But see also my extensive comments on Faderman on the same topic.]
[Note: I think this is a dangling thread that Bennett failed to pursue sufficiently on its own, having picked a hypothetical interpretation already. If the poem is not simply an imaginative effort at effusive Romantic sentiment, who might Dods have felt this way about in February 1822 who had died at some date recent enough to inspire these feelings? Is the “secret I must still conceal” the literary masquerade? The date is long before Dods became Douglas in the flesh to be Isabella’s husband. Dods wished she had taken the chance to consecrate her work to...someone who is no longer alive to enjoy the honor. And Dods did have works out in the world that could have been dedicated to someone if she’d chosen to do so (and felt it appropriate). But by 1822 she felt her “star of love...had set” and she would be forever “lorn and lonely”. The relation to the poetic beloved has the solid feel of someone speaking of a woman--but perhaps I’m prejudiced in that line. One woman who appears regularly in Dods' correspondence is Charlotte Figg, but she was very much alive at this date. In any event, I think a closer consideration of this poem and the context in which it was written might shed more light on Dods’ internal life than all of Bennett’s speculations...on which more comments later.]
Returning to the salons of Paris, the evidence from the Garnett correspondence is provided via excerpts by a researcher on that topic which Bennett uses to track down the original context in the extensive correspondence. She notes that profusion of affectionate and intimate language used between women in these social circles. Bennett now recognizes that this style of language is simply the typical unmarked emotional register and not evidence of possible erotic relationships.
The next section and following chapters include a significant amount of imaginative speculation by Bennett on how various events might have happened and how those involved in them might have felt. While it makes for more interesting reading, it begins to detract from the scholarly nature of the book. We circle back again to the gathering in the south of England when the Douglases are preparing to present themselves to the world as a married couple.
Dods had perhaps a month to become accustomed to les coulottes before traveling to France. Not very long to learn a male presentation, but most people would be inclined to take clothing at face value. Bennett indulges in some dramatization of how those initial days of practice might have gone. As Isabella’s daughter Adeline was about a year old at this point, they would need to behave as if they’d been married for about two years to “make an honest woman” of Isabella. But their Parisian circle all seem to take Mr. Douglas’s gender at face value and the marriage as real and valid. We have one of the Garnetts describing Mr. Douglas as “a little deformed, but clever” (a description that echoes Rennie’s) and that the marriage is “a love match, he worships his little wife.”
Was Dods in love with Isabella? How did Isabella feel about the marriage other than relieved? Adeline is proof that Isabella had a previous hetrosexual encounter, but of course says nothing about its nature or Isabella’s desires. And Isabella’s later behavior indicates a hunger for male attention to the detriment of her female friendships.
In Paris, the Douglases are drawn into prominent intellectual circles, including that of Mary Clarke, whose letters give later evidence of their activities. There are regular references to health issues. Isabella “suffers” and Mr. Douglas “has wretched health...and may never be well.” (David Lyndsay’s letters to Blackwood made reference to suffering from a “liver ailment.”) Rennie had described Mary Dods as having “some organic disease” that contributed to her distorted body. When MS disparages Mr. Douglas later, she speaks of his “diseased body” acting to produce a “diseased mind”.
Harriet Garnett (who was at first much attached to the Douglases) now thinks Isabella “vain and affected” but notes that Mr. Douglas is “very clever and very kind” but “much out of health” and that he hopes to obtain a diplomatic position in Germany. As 1829 passes, the Garnetts are becoming less enamored of the Douglases. Isabella is becoming recognized as an incorrigible and dangerous flirt. Gossip and backbiting begin to sow discord among the various friends. Bennett speculates on Isabella’s motives: is she simply a hopeless flirt or is she actively tired of the pretense of her marriage? Is Douglas genuinely hurt by Isabella’s flirtations in front of him, or is he only concerned about how it affects his masculine image?
We again get much imaginative and fictionalized speculation from Bennett about how the Douglases might have behaved and how they might have felt about it.
After July 1829, the Douglases seem to disappear from mention among their Paris circle. There had been mentions of their plans to go to Hannover, but there is no reference to either of them by people in Hannover connected with their Paris circle, with whom they might reasonably have made connections. 1829 is also when David Lyndsay has his last correspondence with Blackwood--the letter that spells his name Lindsay and is not in his handwriting.
Isabella and her daughter are known to be in England in 1830 when MS makes a journal entry about encountering Isabella there. Bennett is about to turn her research to Parisian sources, but first there’s a literary digression and a consideration of the role that Mrs. Carter, Dods’ sister, played.
It is absolutely certain that Georgiana Carter knew about and abetted Dods’ transformation into Sholto Douglas. She traveled with the Douglases to France and was known there as Sholto’s sister. Sholto Douglas provided social cover and protection to Mrs. Carter just as he did to Isabella and Adeline. Even aside from any family loyalty, there were benefits to Mrs. Carter from going along with the marriage.
In 1828, Mrs. Carter indicated that she planned to say in Paris to be with her sons while they were in school there. But it was in Paris that she died, over a decade later, in 1842. Why did she stay well after her sons must have finished school?
Bennett searched the Paris death records for any possible trace of Dods or Douglas. There was a death certificate dated 1845 in the same set of records as the one for Mrs. Carter for a man named Douglas (no further name) born in Scotland, aged 46 years old. While the name, origin, and approximate age would work for Dods/Douglas there is no other information and no positive proof.
The last reference found for Mary Diana Dods (as opposed to any of her other identities) appears to be in June 1828 when Lord Dillon (remember it was he who introduced Rennie to Miss Dods in MS’s company) wrote to Mary Shelley sending regards to “Miss Dods” and asking her to send Dods’ contribution for a publication he was organizing. MS sent him some verses credited to “a friend writing as David Lindsay [sic].”
In November 1829, Lyndsay wrote his last letter to Blackwood in Scotland, giving a London reply address, but this letter is the one not in Lyndsay’s handwriting. So where was Lyndsay/Douglas at that time? Were they involve in writing that letter at all?
In November 1830, Isabella is back in London and MS calls her “false” and notes she’s of no further use to Isabella.
Looking through an index of Blackwood’s articles, Bennett finds an entry for a story called “My Transmogrifications” credited to a Mrs. Sholto Douglas in August 1826. This is striking because the Douglases first appear as a married couple in the fall of 1827. But a journal entry in May 1826 by Thomas Moore makes reference to Isabella being married. [Note: this would be around the time that Adeline may have been born, which would be the key date at which Isabella would want to put it about that she had been married in time for the conception.] Was the reference to a Mrs. Sholto Douglas a nonce invention by Dods for marketing purposes, or had Sholto been designated to be Isabella’s husband as early as May 1826, with the shift to Mr. Douglas making a physical appearance waiting for August 1827?
Note that by 1826, David Lyndsay’s work had stopped being accepted by Blackwood’s magazine. Perhaps that was why his writing (assuming it was his, which seems reasonable) was now being submitted by Douglas? The Douglas piece was a short first-person story of a boy growing to manhood. (A synopsis of the story is given.) The story may echo some aspects of Dods’ childhood, if she were something of a wild and transgressive child, although clearly not true in all elements. The letter from “Mrs. Sholto Douglas” accompanying the manuscript to Blackwood was found in the National Library of Scotland archives along with replies by Blackwood. Blackwood declines another story and makes reference to Mrs. Douglas’s planned trip to the continent. A June 1826 letter from Blackwood to Mrs. Douglas informs her that he’s accepted two works for publication. The July 1826 response from Mrs. Douglas is signed “Isabel Douglas” but she states that she is not the author of the work, but is only the secretary for her husband to whom she’s been married 6 months. (Having Isabella correspond with Blackwood may simply have been to avoid having him recognize Lyndsay’s distinctive handwriting.)
This date for their marriage is as false as any other (as it differs from the information given to Moore and Rennie) but is evidence that the idea was being entertained at that date. It may, however, indicate the date at which Isabella went into seclusion due to her pregnancy. In any event, they were acting as a married couple to some degree by the time Adeline was born ca. May-June 1826, though at that time there was no need for Sholto to have a physical presence. And no need to put the marriage about at all until Adeline was born alive and looking likely to survive. (Not at all a certain thing at the time.) In 1828, Isabella’s father appears to be on friendly terms with the Douglases, though there is evidence of a falling out between him and his daughter some time earlier. Due to the pregnancy? Due to knowing about the sham marriage?
The next chapter delves into the financial records of the earl of Morton and a cache of letters to him from Mary Dods and Georgiana Carter, as well as J. Aubin, one of his financial agents. The sisters take turns writing their father in begging and abject terms, asking for the regular payment of their allowance (which evidently was irregular), or for arrangements that fit better with their situation, or for lump sum payments or loans to settle their debts, which were complicated and constant. There are 39 letters in total dating between 1818 and 1824, but it took Bennett some time and access to the earl’s account ledgers to put them in order due to the lack of clear dates.
This minute accounting of the financial transactions between father and daughters is interrupted by the review of a set of copies of Blackwood’s end of the correspondence with Lyndsay dating to 1821-1829. (Blackwood kept copies of all of the letters he sent.) Initially he praises Lyndays work. He specifically notes that he’s fine with pen names (perhaps indicating he suspects Lyndsay is one such). He asks for more pieces to publish. The discussion of publishing details dovetail precisely with Lyndsay’s side of the conversation. But in early 1822, Blackwood’s enthusiasm begins to wane somewhat and he buys less of Lyndsay’s material. He has lost money on Lyndsay’s book and is hesitant to lose more, but rather than saying so outright, Blackwood more or less “ghosts” him, responding with longer delays and apologetic refusals. In mid 1824, Lyndsay mostly stops trying with him and finds another publisher. Bennett notes that there seems to be a gendered failure to read signals in the correspondence. Blackwood meant his politely distant replies to be clear refusal, but Dods failed to recognize the code and kept taking the “soft nos” as encouragement.
We return to the correspondence between the earl and his daughters which, though dry, is illuminative of their financial difficulties and the strategies they used to try to maintain themselves in the face of parental indifference. In their early life, they seem to have lived with their father in London and stayed in his home there in his absence, sometimes also living with him elsewhere, perhaps including Scotland. But around the time of his marriage (to a woman younger than themselves) in 1814, they seem to have been cut loose to live on their own. Georgiana left earlier, of course, as she married John Carter somewhere between 1808 and 1810. The Carters lived in India until at least 1815, but by 1818 Georgiana had returned to England. Her husband died that same year in India and she was left with two young sons.
After that, the two sisters mostly shared lodgings in various locations, sometimes with others. The letters are a constant litany of debt and begging for assistance, in part because of the unreliable receipt of their allowances. The Diana Dods who comes through in these letters is in strong contrast to the brash and confident persona of David Lyndsay who is being established at the same time. Dods regularly tells her father of her efforts to provide for herself financially. In addition to the writing (“not under my own name” she assures him) the two sisters set up a musical academy for young ladies with their friend Miss Figg. (Remember Miss Figg who was invited to dinner in company with Miss Robinson by Mary Shelley’s father in 1828?) In 1822, Dods mentions plans to her father for her and Miss Figg to move their music academy to Paris (around the same time that Lyndsay mentions going to France in one of his letters to Blackwood). The letters are a long tale of constant hand-to-mouth debt and dependence on a father who either had no idea what they needed to live on at even a minimal level, or simply didn’t care.
Having dipped into the early part of Dods’ life, Bennett now jumps back to the end and tries to put all the pieces together into a coherent story. She obsesses a little about trying to pin down the gender and sexuality issues, which involves a fair amount of imaginative speculation that I think she doesn’t have the theoretical background for. (Or that didn’t exist at the time she was writing about it.)
She tracks down Isabella’s fate: as Isabella Falconer, who died in Italy in 1869 at the age of 59. This item is somewhat out of place in the chronology, but I’m simply noting things in the order they appear in the book.
Bennett speculates that one purpose of the trip to Paris was to be able to establish new identities that could be based on personal contacts rather than on documentary history (that didn’t exist).
Isabella’s career in Paris in 1828 is traced by the commentary of Mary Clarke who was in love with a man who was enamored of (and evidently involved with) Isabella. So we get plenty of letters where Clarke complains to him about how much time he’s spending with Isabella. (Since Clarke had more or less proposed to him and he declined, she comes across as a bit stalkerish at this time.) In November 1829, Clarke writes her love interest with the news that Mr. Douglas is in prison for debt. She notes what appears to be a pointlessly frivolous request to a friend that he obtain for him false moustaches and sideburns--fashion accessories that were something of the rage at the time, but perhaps were more important to Douglas in maintaining the facade of masculinity.
Here Bennett includes some pointed speculation on Douglas’s mental state, deciding that he was more or less a broken man and no longer cared what happened to him. It is unclear where this diagnosis comes from. She is doing this sort of speculation more and more as the book comes to its conclusion.
Clarke’s note about the debtors’ prison comes two months after Lyndsay’s last vain letter to Blackwood offering a long poem for publication. But this is the letter that isn’t in Lyndsay’s handwriting, so Lyndsay/Douglas/Dods may not have been directly involved in writing it.
Clarke’s letters continue the complaints about Mrs. Douglas in 1832, after which neither Douglas is mentioned again among Parisian circles. But Isabella pops up again, at least in retrospect, when 1840 is given as the date of her marriage to Falconer. (Though no marriage record can be found for them and there is perhaps a question whether the marriage was formalized.) In any event, the presumption is that Walter Sholto Douglas is dead by then.
There are some interesting tidbits in British Record Office items relating to Isabella. They have her death certificate (mentioned above), a death certificate for her daughter Adeline in 1916, giving her age then as 89, and Adeline’s marriage certificate dated 1853 that lists her as a minor. But Adeline was born in 1826 (which aligns with the age given at her death) which would have made her around 27 at the time of her marriage. Why the completely implausible lie? Bennett suggests it was due to the lack of a birth record. To marry as an adult, Adeline would have needed to prove she was of the age of majority. But to marry as a minor, she only needed to prove she had her mother’s consent. Adeline’s marriage certificate includes a couple other benign fictions: the identification of Sholto Douglas as her father, and referring to him as “an officer in HM’s service.”
So, all in all, what was the reason and purpose for the various identities of Mary Diana Dods? Bennett discusses the place of women in Georgian society and how they struggled to establish identities of significance and independence in the face of legal and economic dependency. Women formed bonds to support each other emotionally and economically. The story of the “Douglases” paralleled that of Mary Shelly in a fashion, stepping outside the bounds of society, engaged in an irregular relationship, constrained in its options by the existence of an illegitimate child. MS was devoted to Isabella, perhaps seeing in her a kindred spirit as a single mother. But Isabella seems to have felt little in the way of faithfulness to any friendship or partner. MS may also have identified with Dods as a struggling author.
The bulk of this last chapter is speculation about motives. Bennett returns to the question of the relationship between romantic love (between any pairing of genders) and sexual desire. She seems determined to dismiss the possibility that Mary Shelly may have felt erotic desire (whether realized or not) for the female friends she expressed clear romantic feelings for. Bennett’s conclusion is that Isabella entered into marriage as Mrs. Douglas purely for the security and respectability it gave her, even though she immediately began violating those hypothetical marriage vows with other men.
Bennett engages in speculation about who the biological father of Adeline was, and comes up with a plausible candidate.
There is a discussion of passing women in general and the relatively minor overlap with lesbian identity. There is a sketchy high-level overview of the history of AFAB [my label] persons living as men, and their array of motivations. There is a discussion of the differences in British attitudes toward lesbian relationships versus passing women/trans men. Within the context of the 19th century, Bennett suggests that if Isabella Robinson and Diana Dods had been motivated by lesbian desire, their relationship would have been much more secure and discreet without any gender disguise. [Note: although this ignores Isabella's need to regularize her motherhood.] But when considering Dods as a possible trans man, Bennett finds no suggestion of masculine identity before the marriage other than Dods’ use of male pen names, which was relatively common among female authors at the time without any suggestion that it routinely indicated gender identity. And she notes that within the context of the 19th century, Dods would not have needed to envision herself as male to recognize and act on sexual desire for women (see, e.g., Anne Lister).
Unlike her sister Georgiana, Mary Dods never claimed a place in society via marriage. The regular reference to a physical “deformity” suggests a possible reason for not marrying, but whatever the reason, taking on a male identity gave Dods a place in the world and an independent role other than as her father’s dependent daughter. Walter Sholto Douglas and David Lyndsay were her own creations through which she could act in the world unconstrained by the limits on women.
And then we close with more imaginative speculations about how Dods may have understood herself.
* * *
For my own reference, I’ve put together a timeline of key dates and events. I’ll be posting it separately and linking it here.