“Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot” was originally written by Mary Shelley (1797– 1851) as a gift for Laurette Tighe, the daughter of Mrs. Mason (Lady Mountcashell), one of the Shelleys’ acquaintances in Pisa in 1820, and the former pupil of Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Denied publication by Shelley’s father, William Godwin, for his Juvenile Library, the story remained unpublished until it was discovered in 1997 by descendants of Laurette Tighe.
Written in three “volumes” in imitation of the popular novels of the day, and employing a modified version of the frame narrative Shelley had used in her well-known novel Frankenstein, “Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot” tells the story of its title character, who at the beginning of the story is participating in the funeral of Barnet, an old fisherman. A traveler who witnesses the funeral learns about young Maurice and is then introduced to him, and Maurice explains his decision to leave his parents because of the cruel mistreatment by his supposed father, Daddy Smithson. Changing his name from Henry to avoid detection, Maurice decides to make his own way and not return until he can support himself. His travels have taken him to the recently widowed Barnet, who agrees to let Maurice live with him in exchange for some minor chores and, more important, companionship. Maurice quickly becomes a favorite of the village, assuming in some ways the late Dame Barnet’s position in the community by reading from the Bible and teaching other children how to read. After Maurice completes his story, the traveler tells him about the kidnapping, some 11 years earlier, of his own son, for whom he spends two months each year looking near the area of his disappearance. After Maurice’s status as the traveler’s son is confirmed, aided by the remorseful confession of Dame Smithson to Henry’s kidnapping, father and son return to Windsor, though Henry’s father purchases Barnet’s cottage and the two continue to visit the village for two months every year. After an extended absence, a grown Henry returns one day to discover that the cottage has collapsed. He builds a new house near the old location and offers it to another poor fisherman’s family in remembrance of kind old Barnet.
The most commonly identified characteristics of Shelley’s novella are the recurring themes of loss, suffering, and alienation. In this context, biographical parallels are particularly significant, especially in terms of the loss of a child. By the time she began to compose the novel, Shelley had already endured the deaths of three children. Mrs. Mason had to surrender her claims to her seven children by her first husband when she left him for George Tighe. For both women, therefore, the painful separation from one’s offspring would have been a very meaningful subject. Throughout Maurice’s history, however, his experiences of mistreatment and uncertainty fail to diminish his innate goodness, diligence, and compassion. In this regard, the novella can also be seen to contribute to the nature/nurture debate. In contrast to the creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, who is portrayed as good until society’s abuse causes him to become violent, Maurice never loses his original fine qualities, despite the suffering he endures. As in the novel, Shelley also incorporates into “Maurice” a discussion of the therapeutic values of nature, a theme widely treated in the literature of the romantic period, as both Henry and his father appreciate the wonders of nature. It is this appreciation, ironically, that originally leads to Henry’s kidnapping, which occurs after his father and mother take a walk along a river, leaving their son in the hands of a nurse who promptly falls asleep, giving Dame Smithson her opportunity.
Mekler, L. Adam. “Placing Maurice within the Shelley- Godwin Circle,” CEA-Magazine 14 (2001): 23–33.
Shelley, Mary. Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot. Edited by Claire Tomalin. New York: Knopf, 1998.