Charles was born in 1795 and appears to be the only biological child of Mary Jane Vial and her Swiss lover, Charles Gaulis. His father died when Charles was an infant, and his mother returned with him to England, where she took up with Sir John Lethbridge and bore another child, daughter Claire. A few years later, Mary Jane (now calling herself "Clairmont" and representing herself as the widow of Charles Gaulis) married the author William Godwin and so Charles and his sister Claire joined the Godwin household. They gained two stepsisters: Godwin's biological daughter Mary and stepdaughter Fanny. A son, William, was born to Mary Jane and William Godwin, completing the large and unconventional family. Of all the Godwin-Clairmonts, only Charles Clairmont has surviving descendants to the present day.
After an apprenticeship to a bookseller in Edinburgh and a failed engagement to an older Swiss woman, Charles moved to Spain, became fluent in the language, and visited his poet brother-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. In 1821, Charles moved to Austria to work as a language instructor, and such was the infamy of his family that Metternich's secret police kept a dossier on him which can be viewed at the Vienna State Archives. He married a Belgian noblewoman, Antonie Ghislain d'Hembyze, and they had several children.
In 1829, Charles Clairmont moved to Vienna and became a tutor to the imperial family, most notably the future Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.
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