Poetry: Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840
From The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Mrs. Julian Marshall:
William Godwin was an 18th Century celebrity who attracted people interested in his radical views. In 1798 an admirer wrote to another follower: “So you really have seen Godwin, and had little Mary in your arms! the only offspring of a union that will certainly be matchless in the present generation.”
This “little Mary,” the daughter of William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was destined herself to form a union the memory of which will live even longer than that of her illustrious parents. She is remembered as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. 

In Percy Shelley's story she plays, next to his, the most important part. Young as she was during the few years they passed together, her character and her intellect were strong enough to affect, to modify, in some degree to mold his. That he became what he did is in great measure due to her. 
 Thomas Jefferson Hogg in his Life of Shelley describes an early meeting of Shelley and Mary. He and Shelley
were walking through Skinner Street when Shelley said to Hogg, “I must speak with Godwin; come in, I will not detain you long.”
Hogg continues—I followed him through the shop, which was the only entrance, and upstairs we entered a room on the first floor; it was shaped like a quadrant. In the arc were windows; in one radius a fireplace, and in the other a door, and shelves with many old books. William Godwin was not at home. Bysshe strode about the room, causing the crazy floor of the ill-built, unowned dwelling-house to shake and tremble under his impatient footsteps. He appeared to be displeased at not finding the fountain of Political Justice.
“Where is Godwin?” he asked me several times, as if I knew. I did not know, and, to say the truth, I did not care. He continued his uneasy promenade; and I stood reading the names of old English authors on the backs of the venerable volumes, when the door was partially and softly opened.
A thrilling voice called “Shelley!”
A thrilling voice answered “Mary!” and he darted out of the room, like an arrow from the bow of the far-shooting king.
A very young female, fair and fair-haired, pale indeed, and with a piercing look, wearing a frock of tartan, an unusual dress in London at that time, had called him out of the room.
He was absent a very short time, a minute or two, and then returned. “Godwin is out, there is no use in waiting.” So we continued our walk along Holborn.
John Addington Symonds tells us that Thomas Love Peacock, a close friend of Shelley's, was amazed by "the overwhelming nature of the new attachment" to Mary.
“Nothing that I ever read in tale or history could present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible, uncontrollable passion, than that under which I found him laboring when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him in London. Between his old feelings towards Harriet, from whom he was not then separated, and his passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind ‘suffering, like a little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection.’ His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said, ‘I never part from this.’ ”
Mary became pregnant and ran off to the continent with Shelley. They married after his wife, Harriet, committed suicide, ironically by drowning. John Addington Symonds writes that in Switzerland, Mary and Shelley 
established with Byron. This addition to the circle [of friends at Lake Geneva] introduced much conversation about apparitions, and each member of the party undertook to produce a ghost story. Polidori’s Vampyre and Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein were the only durable results of their determination.
Hoping to redeem her son's reputation after Percy's untimely death, Elizabeth, Lady Shelley,  gave her motherly perspective on the unsanctioned relationship:
Unhesitatingly, [Mary] placed her hand in his, and linked her fortune with his own; and most truthfully, as the remaining portions of these Memorials will prove, was the pledge of both redeemed. The theories in which the daughter of the authors of Political Justice, and of the Rights of Woman, had been educated, spared her from any conflict between her duty and her affection. For she was the child of parents whose writings had had for their object to prove that marriage was one among the many institutions which a new era in the history of mankind was about to sweep away. By her father, whom she loved—by the writings of her mother, whom she had been taught to venerate—these doctrines had been rendered familiar to her mind. It was therefore natural that she should listen to the dictates of her own heart, and willingly unite her fate with one who was so worthy of her love.
Mary's love for Percy Bysshe Shelley survived rumors of unfaithfulness. Writes Edward Thomas in Feminine Influence on the Poets,
It was assumed or asserted by some that Claire [Mary's step-sister] was his mistress, that she had sent a child by him to the Foundling Hospital, that Shelley ill-treated his wife. In August 1821 Mary had to write to a friend in Venice: "Need I say that the union between my husband and myself has ever been undisturbed. Love caused our first imprudence—love which, improved by esteem, a perfect trust one in the other, a confidence and affection which, visited as we have been by severe calamities (have we not lost two children?), has increased daily and knows no bounds..."
Practically all of Shelley's poetry, and certainly all that is of any value, was written after his first marriage, nor does he appear to have written any personal love-poetry before then. But it was in 1814, at the age of twenty-two, and at the time of his first meetings with Mary that Shelley's individuality first appeared almost without alloy in poetry. This clever and enthusiastic girl came to him at a time of stress, and accompanied him during the sublime but tranquillizing hours of his wandering through France and his retirement among the Alps. She was like the veiled maid in "Alastor" of whom he speaks exactly as he spoke to Mary:
Her voice was like the voice of his own soul
Heard in the calm of thought.
There is nothing else to be said against Shelley in his relations with women, unless it be that he caused his second wife some days of unhappiness and suspicion by his open admission in speech and writing of his strong likings for other women.
Norton Critical Edition

#poetry #shelley #marygodwin #romanticism  #romantic   #byron  #literature  #Frankenstein

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