If you have read my last two blogs about Mary’s sisters then you will already know that Mary began her affair with the Romantic Poet Shelley when she was just sixteen and Shelley twenty-one.
Initially to avoid the eyes of her father she used to meet Shelley by her mother’s grave. There is no knowing whether she was already pregnant at the point they eloped on 28th January 1814 but she fell pregnant to him soon afterwards if she was not already, while Shelley left behind an estranged pregnant wife.
Mary had her sister for company, Claire Claremont, who I wrote about last week and who may well have also been Shelley’s mistress, although Mary never believed this, but Shelley certainly believed in free love.
Mary, Claire and Shelley kept Journals as they travelled and excerpts of these can be found on the links below, which imply that for them it was a grand adventure. Certainly Mary thought it so, she even described it as a Romantic adventure in later years in 1826 ‘It was acting in a novel, being incarnate romance’. But Claire’s note about a dispute between Shelley and Mary implies Mary was subservient to her lover and probably in awe of him and all he declared to be true, so much so, she denied her own feelings of sadness at deserting her father, because Shelley challenged then and asked if her distress was targeted to blame him;
There is evidence of Mary’s inclination to be subordinate and the peace-maker in her later life too when she wrote of the impact of ‘feminine affections and compassion’ and stated she was ‘profoundly committed to an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice’.
There is another record of their journey through the war damaged continent in 1814, which again shows Shelley’s potential blindness to the feelings of anyone but himself as he writes to his estranged wife, Harriet, whom he’s deserted and left pregnant and asks her to join him and the girls.
She did not go, but she showed this letter to Mary’s father when he called upon Harriet in distress.
Mary, Claire and Shelley returned to England in September, with Mary pregnant, and were foolishly surprised when Mary’s father did not welcome them into his home.
Another letter exists from this era, the earliest letter known in existence from Mary to Shelley, expressing how much she misses him when he has to be away from the house hiding from debtors.
During this time, while Mary played mistress which did not seem to bother her, Harriet bore Shelley a son, and Claire, who lived with Shelley and Mary, spent hours in his company, while poor Mary suffered with ill-health. Though not such ill-health that she was incapable of Shelley seeking to encourage her to practice her own free love and sleep with his friends. There is no evidence that she complied with the assertions recorded in some of his correspondence to her.
Sadly Mary’s daughter was born premature and did not survive. But Mary quickly fell pregnant again and bore a second child, a son, who they named William for her father.
Then in 1816, they set out on a new adventure, with Claire now pregnant by Lord Byron, and Mary with her young son. They followed Byron to Lake Geneva. Mary now called herself Mrs Shelley as she travelled, although Harriet, Shelley’s wife was still alive.
Shelley’s sketch of his own and Byron’s sailing boats
The story of Frankenstein came from this trip. Mary wrote at the time that the weather was often inclement for days, and they were frequently confined to the house and so when Shelley and Byron were not sailing on the lake, they were writing and telling stories.
It was Lord Byron who inspired the idea to write Mary’s first novel. They had been seated about the fire at Byron’s villa reading German ghost stories, and during their conversations recounted the rumours of a scientist who was said to have brought life back to human matter, and then Lord Byron suggested they all might write their own supernatural tales. Mary set out crafting Frankenstein, a story which Shelley loved and urged her to continue.
When Mary, Claire and Shelley arrived back in England after their fruitful summer it was to a time of burdens though. They were forced to hide away in Bath, both from debtors and to contain the secret of Claire’s pregnancy, which by then must have been notable. They arrived back in England in September, and then in the October, Mary’s oldest sister Fanny committed suicide, which was hushed up by Shelley (see Fanny’s story in one of my earlier blogs), and then two months later on the 10th December, Shelley’s wife also committed suicide. She was found drowned in the Serpentine Lake at the centre of Hyde Park.Here are links to letters of the time, including Harriet’s suicide letter. She was with child by another man when she died. Shelley sought to gain access to his children by Harriet, but due to his infidelity with Mary he did not succeed in gaining them, despite immediately marrying Mary to support his case. Mary wrote scant journal entries on the subject of Harriet’s suicide and her own marriage.
William Shelley their son who died in Rome
Shelley’s marriage to Mary did however reconcile Mary with her father and at last make her respectable. However Shelley’s debts still prevented them having any form of settled life and once Mary gave birth to another child, a girl, with little money, Mary, Shelley, their children and Claire and her illegitimate child, left England for good in March 1818 (the year Frankenstein was first published anonymously). They sought Byron in Italy to hand him Claire’s child. He did take her after some persuasion, and then the Shelley’s moved on to lead a nomadic life, moving from city to city in Italy with groups of friends and acquaintances.
However for Mary, despite now being respectable, her experience in Italy was ruined by first her young daughter’s death in September 1818, in Venice, and then her son become ill in Rome the following June 1819. She wrote to friends of her fears for her son. And then her father wrote after the boy had died, urging her not to remain in sadness as she was pushing Shelley away with her depression over the loss of her children.
‘My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine’
It was another birth that finally restored Mary from her deep sorrow. Her second son was born in November 1819.
But it was after her depression that rumours of Shelley’s infidelity grew. As he was preacher of faithlessness in marriage it is fair to assume he was no more faithful to Mary than he had been to Harriet. There were rumours that his sister-in-law Claire produced his child in February 1819. And when Mary was heavily pregnant with their fourth child, who they named Percy, Shelley befriended a Welshwoman who was undertaking the grand tour and showed her Florence, while Mary was retired at home. He wrote her an ode, of which this is part.
‘Thou art fair, and few are fairer,
Of the nymphs of earth or ocean,
They are robes that fit the wearer –
Those soft limbs of thine whose motion,
Ever falls and shifts and glances
As the life within them dances’
She did not stay long in Shelley’s company but there were others and the most particular the wife of Edward Williams. Shelley knew Edward Williams from school and when the Williams started travelling with them he became affectionate with Edward’s wife, corresponding with her as frequently if not more frequently than with Mary when he was away from them and writing Jane poetry when he was with them.
In 1822, with Mary pregnant once more, Mary, Shelley, Claire and the Edwards moved to a secluded Villa by the sea. Where Shelley hoped to practice his favorite hobby beyond writing, to sail. It was to be another period of sadness. It was here that Percy broke the news to Claire that her daughter by Byron had died in the monastery where he’d established her and then Mary miscarried in June and lost so much blood Shelley sat her in a bath of ice to stop bleeding. He saved her life by doing so.
With Mary depressed once more and ill, Shelley paid more attention to Jane Williams.
He bought her a guitar, and wrote this poem to accompany it.
In July Shelley left Jane and Mary and went to meet Byron in Pisa. He never returned. The ship he sailed back on with Edward Williams was caught in a storm and Shelley drowned. His body was washed ashore three days after he set out.
Here are the links to the last letter he wrote to Mary, and the last letter from Jane Williams to him, as he’d also written to her at the same day he had written to Mary.
Mary received the news of his disappearance by receipt of letter asking him to confirm he had reached home. He had not and so she set out to find him.
Shelley’s body was cremated on a beach by three of his friends, including Lord Byron, but excluding Mary present – it was not considered appropriate for women to attend funerals.
Mary continued her writing and lived to raise her young son who survived childhood. She never remarried. She died at the age of fifty-three having lived her life extolling Shelley’s literary gifts and creating a legacy for him. One year after her death her son and his wife opened her box-desk. Inside were locks of her deceased children’s hair, a note-book she’d shared with Shelley, and a copy of his poem Adonais with one page folded around a silk parcel some of his ashes and what was believed to be the remains of his heart.
She never remarried, and she appeared to never cease loving Shelley.
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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