Percy Shelley

Monster or Maker - Who was Percy Shelley

Posted on 4 August 2019

With Rona Munro’s new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set to open at the Belgrade this October, we’ve been taking a brief look at the life and work of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in honour of his 227th birthday on 4 August.

A prolific poet, essayist and political revolutionary, Percy Bysshe Shelley was initially assumed by many of his contemporaries to be the real author of Frankenstein.

It’s a charge that both he and his wife, Mary, were quick to correct, and in everything from style to subject matter, it’s clear that Mary’s novel stands apart from any of her husband’s writings. Yet, it’s true that Percy wrote a first-person preface to the novel, in which he describes it as exploring human passions, “more comprehensive and commanding than any [writing] which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield,” “however impossible” the events of the story might be in real life.

Mary herself openly acknowledged his help with the editing and publishing process, even stating that the book may never have reached an audience at all without his help and guidance. Moreover, if we dig a little deeper into their lives together, we might also wonder whether Mary’s “nightmare” vision would ever have occurred without the feelings and experiences that her relationship with Percy threw into her path.

Viewed variously over the years as its author and progenitor, its midwife and its main inspiration, Percy Shelley was without a doubt integral to the making of the monster that is Frankenstein. But just who was he, and how did he become a part of Mary Shelley’s story?

Born near Horsham, West Sussex in 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was the heir to a baronetcy, the eldest son of Whig MP Sir Timothy Shelley and Sussex landowner Elizabeth Pilfold. After a spending a happy early childhood educated at home in the countryside, Percy’s life began to change in 1804, when he entered Eton College, where he was singled out for his high-pitched voice, unusual views and unusual interests. He was bullied in particular for his refusal to take part in “fagging” (where the younger boys act as servants to the older pupils), and his lack of interest in games and sports.

Despite his perceived strangeness, “Mad Shelley” did often make his schoolmates laugh with his more mischievous streak. Much like Victor Frankenstein, the young Percy developed an early interest in science, which he put to use in setting up practical jokes around the schoolgrounds. Never one to respect authority for its own sake, he amused himself with everything from using a friction machine to electrically charge the door handle of his room (reportedly giving one of his teachers a fright), and even using gunpowder to blow up a tree on Eton’s South Meadow.

1810 was a significant year for Shelley – not only did he gain a place at Oxford University, he also published his first novel, a Gothic revenge story called Zastrozzi, described by one reviewer as “one of the most savage and improbable demons that ever issued from a diseased brain.” That same year, together with his sister Elizabeth, he also published his first collection of poems, a book titled Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. Legend has it that he attended only one lecture throughout his entire time at Oxford, but would frequently read for 16 hours a day.

Already, we begin to see parallels between the ambitious young student who hides himself away to work on his own projects in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the real-life experiences of the man who would become her husband. Even the “Victor” pseudonymn he adopts for his poetry book and the name of the sister who co-writes it with him seem to strengthen the connection…

While his earlier works had hinted at a potentially subversive worldviw, it was in 1811 that Percy really let his radical colours show, publishing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism and the anti-monarchical, anti-war poem, A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, which together resulted in his expulsion from Oxford. After his father intervened, he was offered the chance to return to his studies if he renounced the views laid out in his writings. Percy, of course, refused, leading to a major falling out with his father.

Percy Shelley

Perhaps less widely known is the fact that around 1812, he was introduced to vegetarianism by his friend John Frank Newton, who had spent time living in India. Percy was immediately converted, and would later write about his thoughts on the subject in A Vindication of Natural Diet and in his poem Queen Mab (both 1813).

Percy Shelley might still have been young when he met Mary, but his relationship with her was far from his first romance. As a teenager, he had fallen for his cousin, Harriet grove – a match at first seriously considered by the family, but which eventually fell apart. Four months after being expelled from university, the 19-year-old Shelley eloped to Scotland with his sisters’ 16-year-old schoolmate Harriet Westbrook, who had been writing him passionate letters threatening to kill herself because of her unhappiness at home and at school. It’s doubtful whether Percy ever really reciprocated her passions, but perhaps believing it to be the noble thing, he took it upon himself to “rescue” her from her misery and married her, prompting his father to revoke his allowance.

Tensions grew between the couple when Harriet insisted that her older sister Eliza, whom Percy did not like, came to live with them. Craving more intellectual company, he became emotionally attached to a 28-year-old unmarried schoolteacher called Elizabeth Hitchener, whom he described as the “sister of my soul” and “my second self” while writing his philosophical poem, Queen Mab.

It was around this time that Percy first made contact with Mary’s father, the radical writer William Godwin, on the suggestion of a fellow poet, Robert Southey. With a large family to support, the impoverished Godwin saw in Shelley’s admiration of his work a potential financial lifeline, and initially welcomed him into the family home with open arms. Increasingly unhappy in his marriage, Shelley spent more and more time away from Harriet and their baby daughter Ianthe Elizabeth, visiting Godwin and studying Italian with Cornelia Turner. He soon became besotted with Godwin’s brilliant daughter Mary, the two famously courtin gat the grave of her mother, the radical feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft.

In July 1814, Percy ran away to Switzerland with Mary and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, leaving behind his wife who was by then pregnant with their second child, Charles. While unable to love his wife, he did ensure she was financially provided for, and his care for their children would later become apparent in his fight for custody following Harriet’s death.

Very soon after their elopement, the 16-year-old Mary became pregnant with the first of four tragically short-lived children. Contrary to mainstream views at the time, Percy was a great believer in children being naturally breastfed by their own mothers – so Mary was either pregnant or breastfeeding throughout much of their time together, and we can see in her writing the intense bonds she developed with them, despite how little time she had with all but her fifth surviving child.

Their first baby, Clara survived just eight days, and after six weeks abroad, the three penniless young people returned home, where Mary’s enraged father refused to see them. Avoiding creditors, Mary and Percy moved into a cottage in Surrey, where Shelley wrote Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude – a 720-line poem exploring poetic imagination, heavily influenced by the works of Wordsworth. It’s a piece which is now widely considered to be his first major literary achievement.

Apparently far from traumatised by their earlier experience, Claire, Mary and Percy returned to Switzerland in the famous summer of 1816, setting out in pursuit of Lord Byron, with whom Claire had recently become romantically involved in London. Shelley and Byron hit it off immediately, and together with Byron’s friend and physician John William Polidori, the party took up residence on the banks of Lake Geneva, where Byron’s influence encouraged Shelley to write his poems Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc. It was also during this summer that both Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyr were conceived, after Byron challenged the group to write a terrifying story of the supernatural.

It’s almost impossible not read the loss of Clara into the melancholy mood and many casualties of Frankenstein, though by the time she started working on the story, Mary had already given birth to another child, William, who live to be all of three and a half.

Mary, Claire and Percy returned to England later that year where, on 10 December 1816, the body of Percy’s estranged wife Harriet was found drowned in the Serpentine in an advanced state of pregnancy. Despite the efforts of Claire and others to stir up scandal (this third child was quite definitely not Percy’s), Percy himself never once alluded to Claire’s alleged affairs with other men, despite the fact that this would probably have helped his case in the custody battle with Harriet’s family. He and Mary were married later that month, believing that a settled marriage would help him to secure custody of his children with Harriet. To his dismay, however, the courts opted to hand over the children to a foster family, on the basis that Percy had abandoned his first wife without cause, and was an athiest.

Now married, the couple were reconciled with William Godwin, who had previously refused to see his daughter for two years. Meanwhile, in early 1817, Claire gave birth to a daughter by Byron (initially called Alba, later renamed Allegra). Ever generous with his money, Percy offered to support Claire and her daughter, and even made provision for them in his will.

Mary and Percy moved to Marlow in Buckinghamshire, becoming part of Leigh Hunt’s literary circle and befriending fellow Romantic poet John Keats. During this time, Percy continued to write poems, including the often-quoted Ozymandias, as well as producing two radical political tracts under the pen name, The Hermit of Marlow. Interestingly, Marlow is also the name he uses at the end of his preface to Frankenstein, convincing early readers that he was the true author of the novel. It was here that Mary and Percy had their third child, Clara Everina, and for a time the family of four lived happily together.

Soon after the publication of Frankenstein in 1818, however, Mary, Claire and Percy once again followed Lord Byron into continental Europe, intending to deliver his daughter to him in Venice. Mary and Percy brought their two young children with them, and neither would survive the trip. Clara Everina became sick and died en route to Venice, and just nine months later, little William “Willmouse” also died in Rome. Between these two tragedies, the couple stayed for a time in Florence, where their final and only surviving child, Percy Florence, was born.

Meanwhile, reinvigorated by spending more time with his friend, Percy’s writings increased. In Venice, he wrote Julian and Maddalo, a thinly veiled account of his boat trips and conversations with Byron. Then, following their move to Rome, he penned the verse drama Prometheus Unbound, a re-writing of a lost play by the Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. The story of the rebellious Titan who steals fire from the gods to give to humankind is clearly one that appealed to both Mary and Percy – the alternative title for Frankenstein is, after all, The Modern Prometheus.

Prometheus Unbound was followed swiftly in 1819 by a tragedy, The Cenci, which he wrote in the town of Liverno on Tuscany’s west coast. Here, he also wrote his best-known political poems, Men of England and The Masque of Anarchy. Described by some as the first modern exploration of the idea of non-violent protest, The Masque of Anarchy would be a major influence on Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and even Mahatman Gandhi, who frequently quoted from the poem. Both works responded to the Peterloo Massacre, when workers in Manchester were killed by army cavalry for protesting against Corn Laws that had caused widespread famine and unemployment in the north of England.

Around this time, he also wrote an essay, The Philosophical View of Reform – an in-depth explanation of his own radical political views. Two years later, while staying in Pisa, he wrote the elegy Adonais in response to the death of his friend Keats.

There’s is good reason to believe that Percy’s affections wandered from his wife during the time they spent in Italy together, particularly as she sank into depression in the aftermath of William’s death. In Naples in 1818, a baby girl named Elena Adelaide Shelley was born and registered as the daughter of Percy Shelley and a woman named Marina Padurin, though some scholars have speculated that she may have simply been a foundling he adopted in hopes of distracting Mary from the death of Clara. She, too, was short-lived, dying just 17 months later after being left behind with foster parents. In 1821, Shelley also began to write passionate poems addressed to Jane Williams, the wife of his friend, a British naval officer named Edward Ellerker Williams.

In 1822, Percy arranged for his friend, Leigh Hunt, to join him and Byron in Italy, intending that the three of them would establish a new literary journal called The Liberal. But it was not to be: that summer, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Percy Shelley died in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia while travelling between Livorno and Lerici in his sailing boat.

When Percy’s body was discovered, it was with a book of Keats’ poetry in the pocket. Upon hearing this, Byron said of him, “I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.” British Tory newspaper The Courier reported his death in rather colder terms: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no.”

As for Mary, she was devastated by his death, and reportedly kept his heart as a keepsake after his body was cremated. Monster or maker, his influence on her life continued long after he physically disappeared from it. Was it for better or for worse? You’ll have to see the story to decide…

Frankenstein shows at the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October. Tickets are available to book now.