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Mary And Jane, Part 7 to the Life & Works of
Percy Bysshe Shelley

We saw, during the early part of 1812, that the twenty year old Shelley was writing letters to Godwin, who, through his readings of Political Justice, had become, to Shelley, a monumental icon of human liberty. By November of 1812, Shelley had made his way to London to visit the 52 year old Godwin at his home. Thereafter, Shelley was making extended visits to the Godwin household. I do not know how frequently Shelley made visits, we might suppose not too frequently given that during this period, 1812-14, Shelley, Harriet and Eliza (Harriet's sister) were moving about a great deal. It was not until 1814, on June 18th, to be precise, that Shelley was to first lay eyes on Mary Godwin: she was then seventeen and he twenty-two. Shelley had showed up at Godwin's house to give to him the proceeds of a loan which Shelley had arranged (one of a number of transactions during which Godwin dunned money out of Shelley).26 Mary had just returned from Scotland where she had been attending school. He was immediately smitten with her -- "a dream from heaven." Harriet was just then some distance away, at Bath. Shelley during the balance of June and into July was escorting both Mary and her younger half-sister, Jane (or, Claire, as she came to be known) around various places including the grave site of Mary's illustrious mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. During this time Shelley wrote letters to Harriet and made no secret of his attraction to Mary. In July, on Shelley's suggestion, Harriet came up to London. Shelley brought Harriet to the Godwins so that she might meet everyone. The suggestion, which Harriet thought came from Mary (she blamed Mary), was that, forgetting about all the social implications of the arrangement, the three should just live together. The suggestion literally made Harriet sick.27

While Harriet was sick over Shelley's involvement with Mary Godwin, Mary was over the moon. Letting Harriet stew over the matter (she was then about four months pregnant), Shelley and Mary, together with Claire28, now that war in Europe had come to an end, determined to go to the continent. So off they went for a six week trip. They left, it would appear without taking their leave of anyone in particular. Shelley arranged for a carriage and the girls (Mary was seventeen, Claire was sixteen) slipped out of their parents' house and off they drove to Dover. After a windy trip over the channel they arrived at Calais. Through France they traveled and then on to Switzerland. From Switzerland Shelley wrote Harriet inviting her to come to Switzerland where he would find her a "sweet retreat among the mountains." By September the 13th the three were back in London. Shelley was without money and needed some so that he might rent a place for himself and the girls; he went to Harriet and she gave him £20 to tie him over.29

That November, 1814, Harriet gave birth to her second child, a son, Charles Bysshe. Though a week passed before Shelley was to hear the news, it was an event which drew him to Harriet's side. The meeting was unhappy. No doubt the older and scolding sister, Eliza, was hovering in the background.30 Shelley was soon back with Mary who then was but two months off from delivery of her child by Shelley.31 The new year brought news of Shelley's grandfather's death. The rich and eccentric Sir Bysshe was eighty-four at his death. Though it is less than clear, Sir Bysshe's death brought Shelley that much closer to his inheritance. It was at this time that the lawyers were brought in so that the father might settle with the son. A deal was struck whereby Shelley was to give up his rights to the family estate in exchange for a tidy monthly sum to continue throughout his life. Harriet was to get £200 a year, and a further and immediate payment was made to get rid of her outstanding bills.32

So the year of 1815 passed, and in that year, for Shelley, three matters were put on a level footing: his separation with Harriet was formalized, his financial future was fixed, and his relationship with Mary was stabilized. The turmoil in Shelley's life had ebbed. It will be remembered, too, that in 1815, Napoleon was finally defeated and the long years of war came to an end. Unemployed ex-servicemen walked the streets. Markets slumped for lack of demand. Men in all walks of life began to agitate for political reform. Shelley who was now coming into his own as a poet, wrote Alastor, "a masterpiece in blank verse."33 The work, published in 1816, reflecting a more tempered view of things, condemned the self-satisfaction of the idealist who dreamt of the perfect society but who were powerless to change the conditions with which the poor and the disadvantaged were afflicted, seemingly, in all events.

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Peter Landry

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2014