Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822) died two centuries ago. As a poet he is fundamental to the history of English literature, epitomising the creative heights and personal depths that characterised the second generation of the English Romantics, represented by Lord Byron, John Keats and Shelley’s wife Mary. As his supporters insist:
the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley exemplify English Romanticism in both its extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair. Romanticism’s major themes: restlessness and brooding, rebellion against authority, interchange with nature, the power of the visionary imagination and of poetry, the pursuit of ideal love, and the untamed spirit ever in search of freedom. — “Shelley”, poetryfoundation.org
A Maggot in the Brain On the other hand, his friend, the radical journalist William Hazlitt (right), had other insights: Shelley “has fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, [and] a hectic flutter in his speech, which mark out the philosophic fanatic”. Clair Clairmont, who was Mary Shelley’s half-sister and probably Shelley’s lover, knew him better than nearly anyone and observed of him that “the beholder saw he was beautiful but could not discover in what it consisted”. (Christopher Frayling, Frankenstein: The First 200 Years, 2017, p.14)
Prodigy Shelley was also a literary prodigy, producing masterful poetry when he was barely out of his teens. However, he was overshadowed by Lord Byron, as were all other poets of the era. Indeed, he didn’t receive adequate recognition in his lifetime, although he was a vital influence on subsequent generations of poets, including Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy and W.B. Yeats. The great American literary critic Harold Bloom has described him as “a superb craftsman, a lyric poet without rival, and surely one of the most advanced sceptical intellects ever to write a poem”. It was this scepticism, especially about religion, that drew him to the radical philosopher William Godwin (left) and thence to Godwin’s daughter, Mary. He was however a “Peter Pan” figure, like a boy who never grew up, and who always wanted—and expected—to be given what he wanted when he wanted it, irrespective of the consequences, especially for other people who fell into his orbit.
Cherished Shelley was born into a wealthy family and, as the eldest son of a baronet, he stood eventually to inherit a large estate and a seat in parliament, where it was expected he would follow his father and sit with the Whigs. As a youngster, Percy was beloved and admired by his brother and four younger sisters, his parents, and even the servants at Field Place, the family home in Sussex. Playful and imaginative, he constantly devised games to play with his sisters and told ghost stories to his enraptured audience. He was, of course, an omnivorous reader.
Reviled Things were quite different at school. The idyllic and indulgent world of Field Place did not prepare him for the regimented discipline and the taunting of the other boys. This “outsider” status continued at Eton College, which he entered in 1804 aged twelve. There he developed his literary abilities and indulged his interests in science, giving a master an electric shock, blowing up a tree stump with gunpowder, and seeking to call forth spirits through occult rituals. He also made his religious views well known and was bullied and taunted with epithets such as “Mad Shelley” and “Shelley the atheist”.
Support However, Shelley did enjoy the support of one of the masters, Dr James Lind, the physician to the royal household at nearby Windsor, who encouraged his interest in the occult and introduced him to liberal and radical authors. Lind served as a father figure and gave him access to an extensive private library. This enabled Shelley to pursue his interests in science and magic as well as to read widely in philosophy and literature. By the end of his time at Eton he was very familiar with Plato, Pliny and Lucretius, as well as Robert Southey and Sir Walter Scott, while also devouring Gothic romances.
First Publications These romances informed Shelley’s first publication, a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810) which appeared while he was still at school. The book had the standard innocent and virtuous hero and heroine confronted by wicked villains. Shelley carefully put his own heretical and atheistic opinions into the mouth of the head villain, Zastrozzi, thereby airing those dangerous attitudes without having them ascribed to him as the author or narrator. Zastrozzi received one favourable review and another that attacked it vehemently for its immorality. Shelley and his sister Elizabeth also published a volume of poetry, which dealt with characteristically Shelleyan topics: love, sorrow, hope, nature and political dissent. Shelley’s love inspiration for these poems was his cousin Harriet Grove, a relationship discouraged by their families that ended in great disappointment for Shelley.
Entering Oxford In 1810, Shelley went up to University College, Oxford, as an already published author, and his father was so proud that he took Shelley to a prominent bookshop, announced this fact and instructed the proprietors to supply his son with any books he desired: “My son here has a literary turn; he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks.” His father had no idea where this apparently harmless interest in literature would lead.
Expulsion At Oxford, Shelley became close friends with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and they spent their time discussing philosophy, literature, science, magic, religion, the occult and politics. They jointly published an anonymous collection of poems on themes that could have had them convicted of treason and imprisoned, as well as an inflammatory pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811). This caused their expulsion and tremendously disappointed Shelley’s previously doting father, a disappointment that would only deepen as Shelley pursued his career as a Romantic poet and lover, and as a political radical and religious iconoclast.
The Occult While at Eton, Shelley had spent his pocket money on books on witchcraft and magic and had, on one occasion, felt pursued by the devil as he tried to become a necromancer, invoking spirits by chanting an occult incarnation while “drinking thrice” from a human skull. Later at Oxford, he stocked his room with crucibles, microscopes, electric machines and air pumps, all the contraptions and instruments required by an aspiring gentleman-scientist and alchemist.
Significantly, Shelley’s second novel, St. Irvyne; or, the Rosicrucian: A Romance, written at Oxford, depicts the adventures of a hedonistic wanderer and his encounters with an elusive alchemist and Rosicrucian. This theme of occult-seeking was taken up later in letters to William Godwin, where Shelley stresses his enthusiasm for the leading occultists Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus and Heinrich Agrippa. In another letter, to the political radical Leigh Hunt, Shelley discusses resurrecting the sinister secret society, the Illuminati. In order to defeat the “the enemies of liberty”, he advocated creating a new cabal of “enlightened” masters who would magically take over and remake the world.
The Occult Power of Poetry Throughout his life Shelley saw the role of the poet in occult terms, as possessing the power to magically transform the world according to his will. For example, in his 1821 essay A Defence of Poetry, Shelley likens poetry to alchemy:
It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.
Foreseeing Frankenstein Later, Mary Shelley (below) would use this dimension of her husband’s personality as the basis for the title character in her 1818 Gothic classic Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The book’s plot focuses on the Promethean ambitions of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young intellectual, based on Shelley, who has been entranced by the exploits of maverick scientists, alchemists and magicians. It reveals a great deal about Mary’s understanding of her husband’s character and his spellbinding effect on other people that the work of Victor/Percy produces a hideous, malformed monster that leaves death in its wake.
Harriet The first person who fell under Shelley’s spell only to suffer a tragic fate was his first wife, Harriet (née Westbrook). Harriet was fifteen when she met the nineteen-year-old Shelley, not long after he’d been forced to end the romance with his cousin, Harriet Grove. This was a setback he blamed on Christianity—”O! I burn with impatience for the moment of Christianity’s dissolution; it has injured me; I swear on the altar of perjured love to revenge myself”—and this hatred became a major motivation in all his subsequent work.
Bewitched As with most young women who drifted into his orbit, Harriet Westbrook (1795–1816) was bewitched, “awed by his pedigree, his fluency of language, the range of his studies, the fascinating deviltry of his views”. Shelley had just been expelled from Oxford University for publishing his treatise The Necessity of Atheism (causing a major rift with his father), and soon Harriet was eager to pronounce that “God was dead and that laws were unnecessary nuisances [as] she read with fond tremors the rebel texts he lent her”. These were frightfully transgressive steps for a very young lady to take in polite society and “when her schoolmates discovered that her strange male friend was an atheist they boycotted her as already smelling of Hell”. Finally, when she was caught at school with a letter from him she was expelled. (Will &Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon, 1968, p.470)
Uniting Fates This brought things to a head with Harriet’s father, as Shelley reported to his close friend Thomas Hogg:
Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way [!], by endeavouring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice; resistance was the answer … and in consequence she has thrown herself on my protection … It was impossible to avoid being much affected; I promised to unite my fate with hers.
As a committed disciple of William Godwin, he proposed a “free-love union”, which an aghast Harriet tearfully declined, and so in August 1811 they eloped to Edinburgh, where they could be married according to the rites of the Scottish Church. Their daughter Ianthe was born in June 1813 and their son Charles in November 1814, by which time Shelley had abandoned Harriet and run off with Mary Godwin.
Queen Mab Harriet was intelligent and pretty, and by all accounts she attempted to be a worthy partner who supported Shelley’s literary pursuits. However (like most people) she lacked the substantial intellectual gifts required to match his, and he came to regard her as insufficiently radical in political terms. He saw this as a major deficit as he began to spend more time in radical circles, became a fanatic for vegetarianism, and moved ever further towards militant atheism, occult speculations and the extreme Left. This shift was captured in Shelley’s first great success, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813), which promoted a revolutionary utopianism that went on to captivate radical English intellectuals while leaving bemused common folk behind.
Family Focus Shelley also came to feel that Harriet was too focused on the children; was spending too much of their precious money on “gay comforts and fine clothes”; and was putting on “airs and graces” that he felt were unseemly for the wife of a self-styled radical tribune of the people. He began to feel that the life of the mind and of revolutionary politics was slipping away as Harriet embroiled him in domesticity. Eventually, he decided that she’d betrayed the ideals they’d once both professed and that she was a traitor to the cause. However laudable Shelley’s original motives may have been in “rescuing” Harriet, the marriage turned into a loveless union, at least on his part, and he was soon seeking a formal separation from Harriet and their two children.
Radical Pedigree This desire was intensified once he’d introduced himself to his ideological idol, William Godwin, the apostle of anarchism, atheism and free love. Shelley and Harriet became regular visitors to Godwin’s home, and eventually met the brilliant Mary, who was not only the daughter of William, the author of Political Justice, but also of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mary’s was a radical pedigree without parallel in history. Harriet immediately saw the danger and later lamented about her husband: “Mary was determined to seduce him … She heated his imagination by talking of her mother and going to her grave with him every day …” Eventually, “Mary’s fresh youth, her alert mind, her pale and thoughtful face, her unconcealed admiration for Shelley, were too much for the poet”. (ibid, pp.474-5) Soon, the twenty-one-year-old Shelley had left his nineteen-year-old pregnant wife and their baby, and had run off to France with the sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin. These two saw themselves setting out on a grand adventure, but it was one that would end in triumph and tragedy.
“A Want of Honour” One tragedy arrived soon enough. Cast aside, Harriet took herself and her two baby children to live with her parents. Then, sometime in the late summer of 1816, she left and took lodgings in Knightsbridge, apparently to shield her family from the ignominy that she’d become pregnant. To whom she had become pregnant has never been established, although it was rumoured to be a Guards officer, but it is also known that she’d met up with Shelley around the crucial time, perhaps desperately seeking a reconciliation. At any rate, Harriet wrote a sad farewell note and disappeared. Sometime later, the Times reported (12/12/1816):
On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River [in Hyde Park] and brought to her residence … having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe …
Suicide Note The note that the twenty-one-year-old Harriet left behind read:
When you read this letter, I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. Do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all … My dear Bysshe … if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of … so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S—
Motives For over two centuries biographers and historians have tried to piece together the events leading up to Harriet’s suicide. There have always been suggestions of foul play, and several key figures in her life had motives to see it end. For example, Shelley’s best friend, Thomas Hogg, had been infatuated with her but was continually rebuffed, while the unidentified father of her unborn child would have wanted to avoid a scandal. Above all, her unresolved marriage to Shelley prevented the formalisation of his relationship with Mary, and her death allowed them to be married only three weeks later, on December 30, 1816. This in turn allowed a reconciliation with Mary’s parents (who’d cut them off after the elopement) and enabled Shelley to claim his substantial inheritance from his grandfather’s estate, money which then funded his subsequent poetic and political activities, including financially supporting Godwin.
Mary Godwin Shelley Caught up in the centre of this tragedy was Mary Godwin (1797–1851), the first child of the philosopher, novelist, journalist and bookseller William Godwin, and the second child of the philosopher, pioneering feminist, educator, travel writer and children’s author Mary Wollstonecraft (below). The older Mary had tragically passed away soon after her daughter’s birth, leaving behind a tiny, sickly baby who only survived because of the care of a family friend and the solicitude of her three-year-old sister, Fanny. At the time of our concern Mary Godwin was “small, plainly dressed, with notably pale skin and a high forehead, a wavy cloud of light-brown hair, brilliant hazel eyes [and] sedate bearing … quick on the uptake, serious, impressionable and occasionally melancholic”. (Frayling, pp.13-4)
Cherished Memory Young Mary’s natural parents were only married a short time, but her father cherished her mother’s memory and published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798. This provided an extraordinarily intimate portrait of his wife and was intended as a heartfelt and compassionate tribute. Instead, the Memoirs quickly became scandalous for what they revealed about Mary Wollstonecraft’s “advanced attitudes”, her affair with the artist Henry Fuseli, and her illegitimate daughter by the military adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Nevertheless, the young Mary read the Memoirs, along with all her mother’s books, and was brought up to cherish the older Mary’s memory.
Upbringing Mary Godwin received an unusually advanced education for a middle-class child of the time. William tutored her in a broad range of subjects, gave her access to his substantial library, and often took her and her siblings on educational outings. She also had a governess, a daily tutor, read the children’s books on Roman and Greek history as they were written by William, and attended a boarding school in Ramsgate in 1811. Moreover, she enjoyed the attention of the many intellectuals who visited William, including William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who gave a spellbinding reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the Godwin family, an event that influenced the composition of Frankenstein. The former Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr, also visited, and Mary would have witnessed many learned discussions as she grew up. William described his daughter at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”
Decline William Godwin had been the most famous political philosopher in the country amid the revolutionary delirium of the 1790s. But then the French Revolution declined into mass murder and endless war, betraying its ideals and making Godwin’s radical philosophy appear dangerous and even treasonous. Soon he was sliding into neglect, poverty and debt. He’d also recognised that he couldn’t raise his two girls by himself, and so, in December 1801, he married Mary-Jane Clairmont, an educated unmarried mother of two young children of her own: Charles (who later became Chair of English lLiterature at Vienna University!) and Claire. The marriage was a success, but Mary-Jane was considered by many to be quick-tempered and quarrelsome, and most of Godwin’s friends disliked her. Perhaps predictably, the new Mrs Godwin was felt to favour her own children over those of Mary Wollstonecraft. And while Fanny learned to live with Mary-Jane, young Mary came to detest her stepmother, later remarking that she could only think of her with disgust.
Human Perfection Shelley and Godwin represented two generations of English radicalism, but both wanted to revolutionise society. Indeed, both were “Perfectibilists”—they believed that human society and human beings were perfectible, that the natural trajectory of history was towards human perfection, and that it was only the corrupt, parochial and superstitious institutions and attitudes of existing society that were holding back this progress. As Godwin put it:
Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of humanity may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.
The Illuminati Perfectibilism was a core Enlightenment conviction that became identified with the aims of the mysterious “Illuminati” (“enlighteners”), a secret society that originated at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria in the 1770s. Its aim was to impose the most radical Enlightenment ideals on society through the systematic infiltration and subversion of all its institutions: “Their doctrine was one of militant egalitarianism, the destruction of private property, religion and all ‘superstitious’ social forms such as marriage.” It developed links with Freemasonry and the Rosicrucians and eventually became the centre of elaborate conspiracy theories about the origins of the French Revolution. This involved the belief that the Revolution had been masterminded by an international Jacobin network committed to global revolution and a “New World Order” operating under the guidance of the Illuminati elite.
Proofs All of this was carefully set out in a massive four-volume exposé, Memoirs of Jacobinism (1797-8) by the French Jesuit Abbé Augustin Barruel, followed by Proofs of a Conspiracy against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of the Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies (1798) by the Scottish scientist John Robison. These works had a profound influence on political thought and public opinion: conservatives and moderates were terrified while radicals were emboldened and inspired. Shelley in particular was mesmerised by the prospect of global revolution, in which he saw himself playing a major role.
Perceptions Godwin had invited Shelley to dinner in April 1814, in the hope he might provide some financial assistance. Shelley arrived in this overwrought family situation like a hand-grenade in a sandpit. He saw William as an ideological idol and mentor, and the girls as a new group of female admirers and potential conquests. William saw him as a worthy protégé and potential financial saviour, while the girls saw him as a celebrity poet, committed revolutionary, highly desirable suitor and potential path out of domestic oblivion. They were all sadly misguided.
Appearances Shelley appeared that night as the very essence of a delicate Romantic poet, with dishevelled hair, passionate eyes and an open shirt exposing a pale, hairless chest. His friend and confidant Thomas Hogg described him as “wild, intellectual, unearthly; like a spirit that has just descended from the sky; like a demon risen at that moment out of the ground”. For the parents of the Godwin girls this portrayal would prove to be eerily prescient: “At first, Shelley seemed angelic, but before long he would harm every one of the girls, whether he meant to or not.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws, 2015, pp. 74-5).
Bewitched Shelley was quickly bewitched by Mary. She was nearly seventeen and, to Shelley, “Mary seemed remote, as pale and distant as the moon … She had thoughtful greenish-grey eyes, an oval face, a small mouth, and a gentle voice.” And though she was reserved during dinner that night, when Mary did engage in the discussion her frequent learned allusions and scholarly quotations revealed an impressive erudition grounded in her years as William’s daughter and pupil. “Shelley was confounded. He had never met anyone like Mary Godwin. This is what her mother must have been like: an intellectual woman, a beautiful philosopher.” (ibid) Shelley’s excitement grew as the dinner progressed: Finally! he thought, here was the soul mate he had been seeking. Where Harriet had failed, Mary Godwin would spark his genius, and be beside him as he revolutionised the world!
Realm of Ideals It was, after all, the Age of Romanticism, Shelley lived in the realm of Romantic ideas, and Mary represented the ideal life-partner for a Romantic poet and intellectual like himself. When he’d first visited Godwin, he’d been awestruck at the large portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in William’s study and been intrigued by the assurance that young Mary was “very much like her mother”. And so, “he was already half in love [with her] before they met [that night], fascinated by the idea that Godwin and Wollstonecraft, the two standard-bearers of political liberty whom he admired with an almost religious fervour, had a daughter. With such parents, Mary had to be exceptional” and a worthy partner for Shelley as he set out on his life’s quest to remake the world as a Romantic utopia. (ibid, p.76)
Gravestone All that Shelley needed to do to realise his dream was to seduce Mary and then spirit her away from her family, and this he set out to do with great determination and secrecy. As he said of himself and his projects: “I always go on until I am stopped … and I am never stopped!” As it was, Mary needed very little encouragement as she was fascinated by the forceful Romantic poetic prodigy who, moreover, assured her (falsely) that his wife, Harriet, had been unfaithful to him. Above all, Mary was desperate to escape the suffocating family drama into which she’d recently returned.
The Graveyard Shift Mary was soon spending a lot of time visiting her mother’s grave in a secluded corner of St Pancras churchyard (a contemporary sketch below) There she would meet Shelley, while her ever-attentive half-sister Claire kept watch. Finally, on June 27, “Mary took matters into her own hands. She stood in front of her mother’s gravestone, looked straight into Shelley’s eyes … declared she loved him and threw herself into his arms.” As Shelley remembered it, Mary was inspired “by a spirit that sees into the truth of things … The sublime and rapturous moment when she confessed herself mine, who had so long been hers in secret cannot be painted to mortal imaginations.” (ibid, p. 80) So torrid were these assignations that it was in this very Gothic location that Mary became pregnant with her first child, born on February 22, 1815.
Falsehoods The married twenty-one-year-old Shelley felt obliged to make the effort to seek Godwin’s consent for his union with Godwin’s sixteen-year-old daughter. He seems to have assumed that Godwin still adhered to the libertarian, free-love ideology espoused in Political Justice, written a quarter of a century before in the midst of the revolutionary delirium. Not so! Godwin was nonplussed and outraged at Shelley’s presumption that he could take off with his young daughter, indeed, he suspected that Shelley had gone mad! Rebuffed, Shelley hastened to assure Godwin (falsely) that he would therefore not proceed with his plan. Meanwhile, Harriet was begging Mary to not wreck her marriage; Mary assured her (also falsely) that she would do no such thing. It was this final dual betrayal that opened the dark path that would lead Harriet into ignominy and an anonymous suicide in the Serpentine.
Histrionics Thwarted by William in his immediate desires, Shelley then unleashed all the extreme histrionics of which he was very capable. First he made a fake attempt at suicide with laudanum, and then he arrived at Mary’s home “doubly armed: with laudanum for Mary and him to drink together, and a gun with which to shoot them both”. (Don Locke, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life & Thought of William Godwin, 1980, pp.253-4) Any last remnants of Mary’s resistance evaporated, and she committed her future to Shelley. The game was afoot!
A Key Figure A key figure in the elopement conspiracy was Claire: “The domineering personality and managing ability that she inherited from her mother made her indispensable to Shelley and Mary. With her schoolgirl imagination inflamed by the whole intrigue, she had been a key figure from the start, promoting their meetings and stage-managing their escape.” (ibid) Moreover, they were heading for France, and Claire was the only one who could speak French. And so, on July 28, 1814, the twenty-one-year-old Shelley left his nineteen-year-old pregnant wife and their baby and eloped with the sixteen-year-old Mary. Together with the determined sixteen-year-old Claire, they fled from London to Dover and thence to France. Seeking a grand adventure, they were meddling with emotional forces, the power of which they had no idea and little concern.
Fanny The first person to be consumed in this emotional holocaust was Fanny, the older and now forgotten daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary and Claire had resolved their tensions with Mary-Jane by running off with Shelley, but Fanny (right), who was the eldest, stayed behind and tried to hold together what was left of the family and their bookshop business. Fanny’s own personal prospects were dim. She’d hoped desperately that she’d be offered a position as a teacher in a school run by two of her aunts, but the scandalous revelations about her mother contained in Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman made it impossible to hire Mary’s illegitimate daughter as a teacher of young women.
No Sympathy And, on top of all this disappointment, Fanny had another burden: she suffered from the same depressive illness that had afflicted her mother and had driven the older Mary to two suicide attempts. She even wrote to young Mary of “the dreadful state of mind I generally labour under & which I in vain endeavour to get rid of”, but Mary was preoccupied with writing Frankenstein and showed no sympathy. Eventually it all got too much for Fanny, and the Swansea Cambrian reported “a most melancholy discovery”: on October 9, 1816, “a most respectable looking young female had arrived and been found the next morning dead from an overdose of laudanum”, the same drug Shelley had used in his own recent, very demonstrative suicide attempt. By Fanny’s body was a note: “I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate … Perhaps to hear of my death will cause you some pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed.” To avoid a scandal the family put it about that their eldest daughter had died of a lung complaint in Ireland, and so, “Fanny Imlay, dutiful, sensitive Fanny, was buried nameless in a pauper’s grave”, with nobody attending the interment. (ibid, p.274)
Convergence of Genius Meanwhile, in Switzerland there had occurred the convergence of genius, imagination, egotism and ambition that would give birth to one of the great iconic figures in the history of literature. This event took place in the Villa Diodati (below), a plush holiday villa rented by Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in the infamous “Year without a Summer”, 1816, caused by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Indonesia that shrouded the world in a smoke and dust haze for two years. Byron captured the mood in Darkness (1816):
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day …
Ghost-Story Competition The key date was the night of the June 17 and 18 when a small group of literary-minded holiday-makers gathered to consider the results of their “ghost-story competition”. This had been a sort of wager, to see who could best improve on the run-of-the-mill ghost stories they’d been reading from a popular collection that Byron had purchased in Geneva. It was a time “to enjoy together the tempestuous loveliness of terror, the aesthetic thrill of the sublime … to enjoy the special pleasure of frightening each other and exploring heightened mental states.” (Frayling, p.16)
Roll-Call Those present were the host, the twenty-eight-year-old Lord Byron, who was to begin the first vampire story in modern literature. This was taken up and completed (as The Vampyre) by his personal physician, the twenty-year-old Dr John Polidori, a tall, “handsome, harum-scarum young man”, who was also present. Shelley, the poetic prodigy and political radical was there, looking a lot older than his twenty-three years, along with his nineteen-year-old lover, the brilliant Mary Godwin, and her eighteen-year-old stepsister, the perceptive, volatile, impressionable but determined Claire Clairmont. She had insinuated herself into Byron’s affections despite his attempts to resist her, and would bear his ill-fated daughter, Allegra, six months later.
“The League of Incest” The mysterious group was viewed with a mixture of fascination and condemnation by both the locals and the large contingent of prurient British tourists in the area. These visitors were very aware of the scandals that had driven Byron into exile, and they rented telescopes from enterprising locals so that they could carefully watch the Villa Diodati, hoping to catch a glimpse (or more!) of the “League of Incest” that they believed had taken up residence across the lake.
Christabel Nevertheless, the little group convened and told their ghost stories. Byron recalled that he “was half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love, inextinguishable thoughts and the nightmares of my own delinquencies”. Fittingly, he opened proceedings by reciting Christabel, a then unpublished Gothic poem by Coleridge. It concerns a naive maiden who shelters Geraldine, an apparently abandoned princess, who is, in fact, a witch or lamia, a night-haunting enchantress that mesmerises and drains the life out of her victims. One verse particularly terrified Shelley. It describes a mesmerised Christabel innocently welcoming Geraldine to her bed:
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed
And slowly rolled her eyes around
Then drawing in her breath aloud
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast
Her silken robe, and inner vest
Dropt to her feet, and full in view
Behold! her bosom and half her side
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
Shelley was overwhelmed by the horrific vision this passage evoked, and he ran shrieking from the room; Polidori had to administer ether to him to calm him down.
Mary’s Dream And so the stage was set for Mary’s Gothic tale. She had had some difficulty in thinking up a plot, but then she had a strange, portentous dream. During the day, she’d been listening to Byron and Shelley discussing current experiments and theories about the “spark of life”—what does life consist of, and at what point does matter change from dead to living tissue? And when she went to bed, her imagination took control, flooding her mind with images of extraordinary vividness as she envisaged the artificial creation by a maverick scientist of a living creature:
I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.
Revulsion She imagined the scientist’s revulsion at this sight, and at what he had done, and his hope that the life-force animating the “thing” would fade away overnight and decay back to dead matter, and that “the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse” that never should have been given life. But then, next morning in her dream, she saw the scientist waking from an uneasy sleep to “behold, the horrid thing standing at his bedside … and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes”. At this point, Mary herself woke in terror: “the idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me”. Suddenly she realised, “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others … On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story!”
Frankenstein The exact tale told that night is lost, but we have the novel it soon became. Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (1818) is a frame narrative. Written in epistolary form, it tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who longed to “penetrate the secrets of nature” and the “deepest mysteries of creation”, and how he and all those he loved had been consumed by these Promethean ambitions.
Promethean Ambitions The main theme of Frankenstein was made clear by Mary in the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost and placed on the title page of her book: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” Victor Frankenstein had yielded to his Promethean ambitions and created a sentient being in his own (imperfect) image, and Mary’s novel is an incredible extended thought experiment that seeks to explore the implications of such an act. The questions tumble out: What exactly is the Creature? Does it have a soul? Does it have any rights? Does Frankenstein have any obligations towards it? What can be expected of it? Can it be held responsible for its acts? Does it have a conscience? Should it be provided with a mate? Above all: What would it be like to be the Creature, a fully sentient artificial being thrown fully formed into existence in the human world?
Making Sense In the novel, the Creature itself explains to Victor how it had attempted to make sense of its situation through the great works of literature it had found to read: “I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that raised me to ecstasy but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection.” Goethe’s Young Werther’s “disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder”, and he wept at the young man’s fate “without precisely understanding it”. Constantly, as he read, the Creature sought to apply what he learnt to his own existence: “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.”
Depthless Well At one level, it seems Mary constructed her story out of her fertile imagination, all her reading, and the challenging experiences and eye-opening discussions she’d been through with Shelley, Claire, Byron (right)and her family. Added to this were the innumerable conversations she’d witnessed over the years among all the visitors to her father’s home, such as Coleridge, whose Rime of the Ancient Mariner inspired Frankenstein’s arctic setting. Obviously, this had all churned away in Mary’s subconscious until it erupted forth as her story of Victor and his Promethean dabbling in the “unholy arts”. But even all that is not enough to explain the genesis of this tale, and to this very day no one really knows from what vast depthless well of creativity Mary conjured up her tale of one of the greatest iconic figures in the history of modern culture.
“The Four Ages of Poetry” The scandalous denizens of the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 were some of the leading figures in all literary history. The demands they made on themselves and those around them were extreme, and few of them knew how little time left some of them had. Indeed, a grim fate was waiting for Percy Shelley, as we will see shortly. But first we must note a dispute over the value of poetry that broke out in 1820 in which he was involved, and which stands as a statement of his view of poetry and the poet. This controversy was initiated by a polemical attack on contemporary Romantic poetry, “The Four Ages of Poetry”, written by Thomas Love Peacock. Peacock put forward the utilitarian view that poetry is an archaic art form that may have had some social usefulness in earlier times (Homer in Ancient Greece, for example), but had now been superseded in advanced societies by the sciences, which reveal a great deal more about humanity than poetry (and other art forms) ever could. This was especially the case with literature, which appealed to the emotions, when the proper approach was through reason and rational analysis.
“A Defence of Poetry”. In response, Shelley quickly compiled “A Defence of Poetry” in March 1821. He made the point that society already had more reason and analysis than it knew what to do with, and that while science may have conquered the external world, the inner life of humanity remains enchained: “Man having enslaved the elements remains himself a slave.” In contrast, it is poetry alone that can liberate the full powers of the mind. It gets this power through its mastery of language, which allows it to be the most “direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being”. And it is through language that the imagination most fully grasps the ideal order of Truth, as the moment of poetic inspiration sees “the interpenetration of divine nature through our own”. Poetry thus preserves and communicates these “visitations of divinity”, kindles the imagination of its readers, and reveals previously hidden depths of creativity and insight. As a social force it far exceeds science in its importance for human flourishing. Indeed, poets reveal “the spirit of the age”. Consequently, as Shelley famously concluded: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
Fate Awaits Meanwhile, Shelley had acquired a taste for sailing. In Switzerland he had shared a sailboat with Lord Byron, and they had travelled around the entire coast of Lake Geneva finding and inspecting historic sites, including the spots where Rousseau had sought and received the revelations that had inspired his publications. Consequently, after Shelley travelled to Pisa, in Italy, to spend time there with Byron, he had a boat of his own especially built, and he named it the Don Juan, after Byron’s monumentally successful poem (in Byron’s hand below). With this, he meant to sail around the Tuscany coast. Oddly, for an aspiring sailor, Shelley had never learned to swim.
Bitterness The early months of 1821 were traumatic for Shelley, especially after the death of John Keats, once the brightest new star in the Romantic firmament. But then Shelley was caught up in the intense bitterness that consumed Byron and Claire Clairmont (below) as they struggled to come to grips with the death of their five-year-old daughter, Allegra, who had been consigned to oblivion in a convent by Byron, who had tired of her after demanding she be sent to him. The negotiations over the funeral were left to Shelley and were extremely fraught.
Besotted At the same time Shelley was becoming besotted with Jane Williams, who was living with her husband (and Shelley’s new best friend) Edward, in the same building as he and Mary. Apparently oblivious to the effect it would have on the others, Shelley wrote Jane a number of love poems, including “The Serpent is Shut out of Paradise” and “With a Guitar, to Jane”. As it was, Mary was pregnant again and almost died from a miscarriage in June 1822, her life being saved only by Shelley’s desperate first aid. Sadly, two days later Shelley was writing to a friend that there was now little sympathy between him and Mary, and that in an ideal world he’d be with Jane. A week later he had a horrific nightmare, and his screaming woke the house: he had seen Edward and Jane Williams as walking corpses and himself strangling Mary.
Sailing, Sailing On July 1, Shelley and Edward Williams sailed in the Don Juan to Livorno to meet with Byron and the radical journalist Leigh Hunt to arrange the publication of a new radical literary and political journal, the Liberal. A week later, they set off to return in the boat but were caught up in a sudden storm. Their inexperience quickly let them down, as did the flawed design of the boat, which was over-masted and easily engulfed by the high winds and seas. The bodies were washed ashore ten days later, and Shelley’s was identified by the clothing and the copy of Keats’s poetry in the jacket pocket. On August 16, his body was cremated on the beach; Mary didn’t attend, and Byron left early to go for a swim. In London, the Courier reported:
Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or not.
Later, a gravestone was erected in Rome; the epitaph, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, reads:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Shelley was twenty-nine.