As a writer, I’m like two people, because I write both New Adults and historical stories, but today I thought I’d combine the two over here. I hadn’t written my first New Adult at the point I read up on Mary’s personal story, but it didn’t really influence that book, yet I know it will influence my future historical stories, and I’m sure it will future my New Adults too.
One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve researched each generation of young people in history, is that each age feels like they are radical and breaking free, and doing something new. When we visited Pompeii a few years ago, I was really amused to discover that in ancient Roman text of the time, elders in the city were complaining about the lack of restraint of the young men, and about the fact they thought they knew it all. (laughs). Mmm heard that one several times since. Then the generation in the 1960’s believed they were the first to talk about having sexual freedom ‘free Love’. True they were the first generation to have the pill which made it more of a possibility, but they were not the first.
In the 1800s Marry Shelley lived with her father in a shop in London. He had been a radical youth himself, stirring up political debate, and he’d married Mary’s mother who had written pamphlets on the equality of women. It was Mary’s radical parents who lead the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, heir to a Barronette title, to the door of Mary’s father’s shop. A rebelling young man himself, Shelley, had shunned his family and run off to get married at 18 having been thrown out of school for writing his own political papers. But he hadn’t married for love, he’d married to get the young woman out of trouble with someone else, seeing himself as a hero from a novel. only to then dislike his wife, and begin the practice of ‘free Love’.
Shelley, still very young himself, was in awe of the views of Mary’s deceased mother, and the political controversy which surrounded her father.His first approach to the family was to ask for Mary’s half-sister, Mary Imlay, the child born through an affair their mother had before she married Mary’s father, to go and stay with him and his wife. Mmm, Shelley, I think was fascinated by women who believed in the freedom he believed in, and perhaps he hoped the daughter would be as free as the mother… Her father refused though, and so Shelley came to London, and began calling at their shop. He was handsome, and as a poet, probably had all the words… There were three girls in the house, Mary Shelley also had a step-sister, her mother had died when she was young, and her father had remarried.
Shelley’s first interest was Mary Imlay, who was eighteen, and he would sit and talk to her most. But her father became concerned as Shelley was married, he obviously couldn’t have any good intent if he was flirting, so Mary was sent away, and Shelley’s interests turned to the younger Mary. His writings in a radical field at the time preached ‘communal living, and spoke of the rights of women to choose their lovers and instigate affairs’. (So 1960s). Mary was then fifteen, and lets remember that Shelley was then already published and a celebrity figure of the day.
Having learned of her father’s mistrust though, Shelley’s evolving relationship with Mary was kept secret. They would arrange to meet away from the shop, by Mary’s mother’s grave, and Mary’s step-sister Jane/Claire Clairmont, who was a similar age to Mary, was their co-conspirator, helping the two to pass massages and escape.
Can you imagine an older, although still young, handsome, celebrated Shelley, preaching ‘free love’ to the fifteen year old girls. He would have seemed extremely romantic, I think, and then he suggested that they all ran away to Europe in 1814. You have to understand that in 1814 Europe had been at war for years too, so they would be running into danger as well as just running away.
When they left for the continent on 28th January 1814, Mary’s elder half-sister who had believed Shelley in love with her, was still away from home, and so the girl’s managed to get out and quite far away before there absence was noticed.
It was Claire’s mother who followed them to the port, but she didn’t catch them before they’d sailed.
Mary, Claire and Shelley kept Journals as they travelled and excerpts of these are available 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 years later in 1826 ‘It was acting in a novel, being incarnate romance’.
Mary became pregnant not long after they left, and rumours circulated in the UK that the poet had made lovers of both girls. He also wrote to his pregnant wife from the continent and asked her to join them there. Perhaps wanting to practice the communal living he preached. His abandoned pregnant wife did not go, but she showed his letter to Mary’s father.
Mary, Shelley and Claire returned to England in September, probably because Mary was by then heavily pregnant. Mary had foolishly believed her father would welcome her back, but there was no way to repair her reputation – one thing different about the 1800s was that women had to be married when they were in a relationship. So while her father had married two women who’d had children out of marriage, he did not want that for his own daughter – remember out of the three girls Mary was the only one who was his actual child, both other girls were the offspring of other men who’d left their mothers high and dry.
In England, with the three women to support, Shelley put the girls up in cheap rooms and spent half his life hiding from debtors rather than with Mary. The earliest letter known in existence from Mary to Shelley, expresses how much she misses him when he was away from the house.
Harriet, Shelley’s wife gave him a son, but sadly Mary’s daughter did not survive birth. She quickly fell pregnant again though and bore a second child, a son, who they named William for Mary’s father, even though her father would still not speak to her.
During the time she lived in London as Shelley’s mistress, with Claire, in the letters Shelley wrote to her, there’s evidence of him encouraging her to practice the ‘free love’ he preached, with his friends. But there is no evidence that she complied with his encouragement, and she always denied that he slept with her sister Claire too. Which may have been true, certainly Claire set out to capture her own celebrity poet, and threw herself at Byron, ending up pregnant with no lover, because Byron was not really all that interested. His words on Claire were;
‘You know, and I believe, saw once that odd-headed girl, who introduced herself to me shortly before I left England, but you do not know, that I found her with Shelley and her sister at Geneva. I never loved her nor pretended to love her, but a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night, there is but one way, the suite of all this is that she was with child, and returned to England to assist in peopling that desolate island. This comes of “putting it about” (as Jackson calls it) and be damned to it, and thus people come into the world’
But, yes, that was why Shelley and Mary ended up in Geneva in 1816, pursuing Lord Byron, with the news that Claire was carrying his child, and Mary with her young son, now calling herself Mrs Shelley. It was just a name, she wasn’t married.
While out there, Shelley and Byron became friends and spent hours sailing
Shelley’s sketches of his own and Byron’s sailing boats
Of course this is the part of Mary’s New Adult story that you probably know. It was on this trip that the story of Frankenstein came into Mary’s mind. The weather was often bad and they were frequently confined to the house, and when Shelley and Byron were not sailing on the lake, they were writing and telling stories, drinking and using opium. 19th Century bad boy celebrities.
It was Lord Byron who inspired Mary to write her 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.
They came back to England in September, this time with Claire heavily pregnant, and so they didn’t go to London, they went to Bath, where Shelley hid from debtors and they could keep Clair’s pregnancy quiet. But while they were there two sad events impacted on their lives. Mary’s elder sister and then Shelley’s wife both committed suicide within a couple of months of each other. Mary Imlay went away to a boarding house and took poison, Harriette, Shelley’s wife, drowned herself in the serpentine, in Hyde Park, in London.
Of course this meant Shelley and Mary could get married, and they did, quickly, as he tried to get access to the children he’d had with his wife Harriette; which he failed. But their marriage made Mary respectable again, and she made things up with her father. Shelley’s debts stopped them from settling down, though, especially when Mary gave birth to another child for him to keep, a girl.
It was after this that 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 went to find Byron in Italy, to give him Claire’s child to support. A child he didn’t want, but did eventually take. Then they went on to live a nomadic life, moving from city to city in Italy with groups of friends.
Mary had a sad end to her New Adult romance though, her youngest child, her daughter died in September 1818, in Venice, and then her son become ill in Rome the following June in 1819 and died too. Mary went into a deep depression, and her life was probably never the same with Shelley after this. 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 a preacher of ‘free love’ it is fair to assume he was no more faithful to Mary than he had been to Harriet. There were rumours that Claire had his child too in February 1819, as a child was fostered out while they lived there. 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, Shelley wrote the woman an ode. Then he began to favour the wife of a friend a Mrs Jane Williams.
In 1822, with Mary pregnant once more, Mary, Shelley, Claire and the Williams moved to a secluded Villa by the sea. Where Shelley hoped to practice his favorite hobby beyond writing, to sail.
But then the news came that Claire’s daughter, by Byron, had died, Byron had put the child up in monastery and left her there. I don’t think Claire ever forgave him.
Then when Mary miscarried in June she lost so much blood Shelley sat her in a bath of ice to stop her bleeding, saving her life. But of course with Mary depressed again, his interest was elsewhere, and in July Shelley 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.
Mary found out he’d gone missing when she got a letter asking him to confirm he had reached home. As he had not she went out looking for him.
Shelley’s body was cremated on a beach by three of his friends, including Lord Byron, but excluding Mary – in those days women didn’t 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 creating a legacy for Shelley and making sure his name was not forgotten. 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 containing some of his ashes and what was believed to be the remains of his heart.
She never appeared to stop loving Shelley. A very real New Adult romance, full of angst. ❤