Mary Shelley, Part 2 : When Mary Met Percy
In part 1 of this two-part series, we got to know a little bit about the early life of Mary Shelley. Let’s take a quick look at the bullet points:
- Dead mother? check.
- Anarchist father? check.
- Wicked stepmother? check.
- Half-sister and step-siblings? check.
- Access to the most intelligent minds of the time? Check.
- The most unwise choice for falling hopelessly in love? Check.
Everyone caught up now? Good, onward we go!
We left our young Mary in March of 1814, right as her father was introducing her to her one true love. Unfortunately, this prince charming was already married with one child. He’d also had quite the set of adventures before meeting his beloved.
So, cue the bad-boy music and enter a young Percy Bysshe Shelley. Heir to a fortune, Shelley pushed the envelope on politically acceptable thoughts just a little further than Mary’s parents. Forget women’s rights and anarchy, Percy was an atheist. Take that, polite society of 19th century England!
Atheist, Socialist, and Philanderer: Meet Percy Shelley
Percy was kicked out of Oxford University in 1811 for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Not content to merely be expelled, the 19-year-old Percy then shocked his already mortified family by quickly marrying Harriet Westbrook. The couple whisked off to Ireland with Harriet’s sister in tow. There, they distributed The Necessity of Atheism before fleeing again. This time, they went to live in William Maddock’s socialist commune in Switzerland before returning to England.
Here, the couple settled down to raise their newborn daughter.
The 22-year-old Percy Shelley would soon become Godwin’s student. He met Godwin’s daughter, Mary, in 1814. She had recently returned from a pleasant summer in Scotland with the Baxter family. She had gone to Scotland to escape her stepmother, Jane Clairmont. When the two met in 1814, Mary was again growing tired of living under Clairmont’s shadow, and Percy was growing restless and unhappy in his marriage.
Match, meet powder keg.
Writing on the Thames
In January of 1817, Claire gave birth to Lord Byron’s daughter. She was still living with Mary and Percy, and the trio soon moved to a place on the Thames river. Shelley gave birth to a daughter in September of 1817. Mary and Percy did what they could to support their family, and Claire’s, throughout this time. In 1817, Mary published History of a Six Weeks’ Tour which detailed her 1814 travels throughout Europe with Percy and Claire.
Mary finished her work, Frankenstein; or The Great Prometheus, from the apartment she shared with her family on the Thames river. It was released in January of 1818 and met with wild success. Many thought that Percy Shelley had written it since it was devoted to one of his heroes: William Godwin. Mary would later take ownership of the work.
Despite the success of Frankenstein, the couple continued to be plagued by debts, gossip, and ill-health. The couple left for Italy with their children in March of 1818, bringing Claire and her illegitimate daughter along with them. They had no plans of ever returning to England, and Claire soon left her daughter under the care of Lord Byron. He gave the sole stipulation that Claire have nothing to do with the child.
A Love Story for the Ages
Mary and Percy fell into the kind of love that only Shakespeare could have written about. They met in March and soon began taking walks together almost daily. By June, they were professing their love for one another over the grave of Mary’s mother. William Godwin wasn’t pleased when he found out what his married student was getting up to with his daughter. He might have had anarchist leanings, but hey, even he settled down into marriage to save his daughter’s honor!
Turns out, Mary didn’t care as much about what polite society had to say.
Fleeing to France
In July of 1814, the young impassioned couple teamed up with Mary’s stepsister Jane, who had changed her name to Claire by that time. They escaped to France together, traveling through Europe until returning to London in September. They did not receive a warm welcome. Not only was Mary pregnant with Percy’s child, rumors had followed the trio across their travels. Mary and Percy had decided to have an open relationship, and there is ample reason to believe he was involved with Mary’s stepsister during their travels. So, Percy has a pregnant girlfriend, a pregnant wife, and a little side-action going with his girlfriend’s stepsister.
It’s no wonder that Mary’s father, William Godwin, refused to talk to either of them when they returned from France. Shelley had been cut off by his wealthy family and had to go into hiding to escape the large debts he had accrued while traveling. Mary gave birth to a daughter early in 1815, but the child died several days later. The couple continued their affair despite the rumors and, in January 1816, Mary had a son with Percy whom she named William.
The Great Prometheus is Born
Later that year, in May of 1816, Mary would create the tale that would outlast her great grandchildren. This is the famed summer when the short story that became Frankenstein came to life. The infamous trio got together again to visit Lord Byron. Percy Shelley was a good friend of his, and Mary’s stepsister Claire had become Byron’s mistress. In fact, she was pregnant with his child!
The three joined Lord Bryon and his physician, Jon Polidori, in Switzerland. As the story goes, rainy days gave way to reading fictional tales of horror. This inspired Lord Byron to place a bet on who could write the best horror story. It’s safe to say that Mary Shelley won that bet.
Shortly after Mary wrote her story, she began penning the novel it would become. While she wrote, her life continued to mimic the reality T.V. shows that had yet to come into existence. The trio left Lord Byron’s in September of 1816, settling in Bath with the hopes that they could hide Claire’s pregnancy.
Two Suicides and a Wedding
In October of 1816, the drama really kicked up. A series of letter from Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, had worried the couple. The final letter they received was so upsetting that it sent Percy off on a quest to find Fanny and check on her welfare. He found her at an inn in Swansea, next to an empty bottle of laudanum and a suicide note.
Percy’s wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their third child at the time, was found drowned in lake on December 10th of the same year. Yes, that’s right. Percy had three children with his wife. One conceived well before he met Mary, one conceived right as he was meeting her, and one conceived sometime while he was running around Europe in, what would appear to be, a polyamorous relationship with Mary and her stepsister. It is worth noting that Harriet’s suicide happened within a year from Mary bearing a child for Percy.
Mary and Percy wed on December 30th, 1816. It was only weeks after the death of Harriet, Percy’s wife. While this did nothing to stop the gossip, it did help Mary to mend the rift that had grown between her and her father. By this time, the couple was completely broke and still running from their debts. Percy had been entirely disinherited by his wealthy family, and the two were tending towards poor health. This was probably from the massive amounts of stress that come with living at Kardashian levels of “hold my beer.”
A Miscarriage, a Birth, and a Drowning
By November of 1819, Mary had given birth to another son. This time, she named him Percy—and this would be the only Shelley child to survive into adulthood. The child Percy had claimed guardianship over died in November of 1820. Mary, Claire, Percy, and a woman named Jane Williams moved to a small Italian village together in the summer of 1822. Mary was pregnant again, but she miscarried the child soon after arriving to the isolated village she would later describe as a dungeon. Her miscarriage was so severe that it almost cost her life, which didn’t stop Percy from carrying on with Jane Williams while his sickly wife recovered.
In 1822, a month after Mary’s miscarriage, Percy Shelley took a trip with Edward Williams and Captain Daniel Roberts. They sailed to Livorno, where they discussed beginning a magazine called The Liberal. Unfortunately, they never made the return trip. Somewhere along the way, their boat was lost at sea. Mary learned of Percy’s death when she received a letter from Livorno enquiring over how Percy and his crew had faired the rough weather on their voyage home.
Trouble Follows the Trio to Italy; or, Where Did that Baby Come From?
The first few months of their visit to Italy went very well. The trio put together a group of friends and spent much of their time reading, writing, seeing the sights, and socializing. Unfortunately, Fate would again intervene on their happiness. In September of 1818, Mary lost her daughter in Venice. In June of 1819, her son William died in Rome. Mary was devastated and given to bouts of depression following the deaths of her children.
In December of 1818, the three moved to Naples and became mysteriously quiet. While they were likely grieving the deaths of their children, there are some whispers about what was going on at this time. They had hired a young man and woman as servants in their Naples household. In 1820, the couple started some serious gossip over a child that had been born within the household in 1819. Percy Shelley had claimed guardianship to the child, citing Mary Shelley as the mother. The only thing that is known is that Mary Shelley was not the mother. Speculation continues as to whether it was Claire’s child, or the housekeepers, or just some kid that Percy adopted from the area.
My money is on the housekeeper, feel free to place your bets in the comments below!
Life After Percy
This left Mary Shelley a widow who had lost four children, all by the age of 24. She published Valparga in February of 1823, leaving Italy for England soon after. Shelley penned another great work of Science Fiction in 1826. It was entitled The Last Man. She also published Falkner in 1837, and a collection of poetry in 1839.
Shelley supported her young son with her writing, and the rest of her life was marked by the same social intrigues that followed her throughout her days. Shelley helped two of her female friends successfully live under the subterfuge of “man and wife” in France; she followed Jane Williams around for a bit, possibly in love with her, only to be turned away by Jane’s admonition that Percy loved her more than Mary; great American Actor John Howard Payne proposed to Mary, then tried to get his friend—writer Washington Irving—to ask for her hand when she refused him; she wrote books; got blackmailed; and continued to truly live until the day she died from a brain tumor at age 53.
Treasures in the Wreckage
It’s almost difficult to believe all the elements of this story. Affairs, illegitimate children, polyamorous relations, blackmail and, of course, good books. Who knew the nerds of the romantic era could be so exciting? From the wreckage that was Mary Shelley’s life, we managed to salvage one of the greatest pop-culture icons of horror history; and an entirely new genre of literary fiction. It just goes to show you that you don’t have to have it all together to leave a mark on the world.
But maybe take better care of yourself than Mary Shelley did, agreed?