By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
Early on an English summer morning more than two centuries years ago, a young girl ran away with an obscure poet and the two fled to France. She was seventeen years old. He was twenty-two and left behind a pregnant wife and a child. Depending on how you look at it, this was either the beginning of a sordid affair or the very stuff of romance. Either way, there’s much more to the story. The young man, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a literary genius and became a celebrated Romantic poet. His lover, Mary Godwin, wrote Frankenstein, one of the most famous novels of all time. Today’s date, July 28, marks the 201st anniversary of their elopement in 1814 and the beginning of their tumultuous life together.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born into an aristocratic family on September 4, 1792. Percy enjoyed a life of privilege and was sent to Eton College when he was twelve. After six years at Eton, where he became known for his anti-authoritarian views and began writing poetry and prose, he entered Oxford University in 1810. At Oxford he and a friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, influenced each other’s growing rejection of societal rules. Their collaboration on a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism resulted in their expulsion from Oxford. Percy’s father, angered by his expulsion and refusal to renounce the pamphlet’s atheist ideas, cut him off financially until he came of age two years later. While living in poverty, Percy eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s childhood has elements of “Cinderella,” complete with a malevolent stepmother. Mary was the child of two renowned freethinkers – reformer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), and William Godwin, noted writer, philosopher, and atheist. Mary Wollstonecraft died days after Mary’s birth on August 30, 1797. William then married Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow with two young children. The new Mrs. Godwin favored her children over Mary and was jealous of William’s attention to her. She made life difficult for Mary and promoted her children’s education at the expense of Mary’s. Despite Mrs. Godwin’s efforts, Mary received an excellent education. She had access to her father’s library, listened to his discussions with other leading intellectuals, and immersed herself in her late mother’s writings. Due to clashes with her stepmother, Mary was sent to live with the Baxter family in Scotland. Here she finally found a loving family, and began to focus on her writing.
On a visit home in 1812, fifteen-year-old Mary met Percy Shelley, an admirer of her father. Percy visited the Godwin home often and became friendly with Mary, whom he recognized as an intellectual soulmate. Percy resented that his wife Harriet, preoccupied with one child and pregnant with another, no longer made him the center of attention.
In 1814, Mary and Percy met again, began spending time together, and fell in love. William Godwin forbade the relationship and Mary promised not to see Percy. But after Percy threatened to commit suicide, she agreed to flee to France with him. Mary’s stepsister, Jane Claire Clairmont, accompanied them. Mary’s stepmother followed in hot pursuit to try to stop the elopement. She caught up with the three at the French port of Calais, but couldn’t persuade them to return with her. When the two lovers ran out of money and returned to England, William Godwin wouldn’t see them, and didn’t speak to Mary for almost four years. Percy’s father, angered by his son’s abandonment of Harriet, cut off his allowance, and Percy had to spend months on the run to avoid creditors.
The couple experienced ups and downs over the next few years. In 1815, Mary was devastated by the death of her premature infant. Their finances improved when Percy received money after his grandfather died. In early 1816, Mary gave birth to their second child, William. A few months later, the couple visited Lord Byron and Mary’s stepsister Jane Claire Clairmont (Byron’s lover at the time) in Switzerland. One rainy afternoon, Byron suggested that his guests each write a ghost story. Only nineteen-year-old Mary finished her story, which eventually became the novel Frankenstein. In Mary’s novel, scientist Victor Frankenstein animates a creature from dismembered corpses. The enormous gentle but hideous creature is rejected and abandoned by Frankenstein. As the creature fails to find the love and companionship it craves, it becomes violent and brutal. Published anonymously in 1818 with a preface by Percy, it became one of the most popular works of the Romantic period.
Good and Bad Times
Percy and Mary returned to England in 1816 to face back-to-back tragedies. Mary’s half-sister committed suicide and a few weeks later, Percy’s wife Harriet killed herself. Harriet’s death allowed Percy and Mary to wed. Percy’s efforts to gain custody of his two children with Harriet were blocked by her family’s claims that his poetry (especially free love and atheism promoted in the political epic Queen Mab) showed him to be an unfit parent. In March of 1818, the Shelleys settled in Italy, where Percy became part of an expatriate artistic community centered on Lord Byron. There Percy wrote some of his best work – Prometheus Unbound, “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Cloud, “To a Skylark,” and “Ode to Liberty.” Sadly, their two children, William and Clara, died a year apart, in 1818 and 1819. Mary gave birth to a son, Percy Florence, in November 1819.
By 1822, the Shelleys had settled on the Bay of San Terenzo in Italy. They were joined by Edward Williams and his wife, Jane. Percy, disappointed in his marriage, began a flirtation with Jane and wrote several poems to her. In June, Mary almost died after the miscarriage of her fifth child. In July, shortly before Percy’s thirtieth birthday, he and Edward Williams drowned when their boat sank in a storm.
Mary devoted herself to caring for Percy Florence, the only one of her five children to reach adulthood. She was also dedicated to maintaining her husband’s literary legacy. She collected and edited Percy’s poetry and wrote his biography. She continued to write the rest of her life, and was able to provide Percy Florence with an excellent education at Harrow and Cambridge University. Mary died of a brain tumor in February of 1851.
READING & VIEWING LIST (available at WCPL):
- Maurois, Andre, Ariel, The Life of Shelley
- 92 SHELLEY
- Seymour, Miranda, Mary Shelley
- 92 SHELLEY
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein
- (WCPL has multiple copies and editions)
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mathilda (an autobiographical novel)
- F LP SHE
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley
- 821.7 SHE
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe, A Defense of Poetry
- 808.1 SHE
- Spark, Muriel, Mary Shelley, A Biography
- 92 SHELLEY
- Wroe, Ann, Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself
- 92 SHELLEY
Filmed versions of Frankenstein
- Frankenstein directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1994, DVD FRANKENSTIN
- Frankenstein directed by James Whale, 2006 (75th anniversary edition of 1931 film starring Boris Karloff), DVD FRANKENSTIN
- (There are many more filmed versions of Frankenstein, as well as multiple productions “inspired” by Shelley’s novel)
- “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 22 July 2015.
- MELLOR, ANNE K. “Shelley, Mary.” Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 4. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 2168-2169. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 22 July 2015.
- Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove, 2000. Print.
- “Shelley, Percy Bysshe.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 231-240. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 22 July 2015.