Romance Incarnate

The durable legend of the Shelley circle has proved so endearingly dotty, so engagingly pretentious, that those eight chiaroscuro years between 1814 and 1822 are something of a roadblock for a serious literary biographer. The case of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is particularly difficult, since most of her works have not worn so well as the story of her involvement with Shelley and Byron.

In 1814, after knowing each other a few months, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley eloped to Italy. She was sixteen, and he was only five years older, but this was not his first elopement. Two years earlier he had run off with and married Harriet Westbrook, an innkeeper’s daughter of whom his conventional family disapproved, not least because he was the eventual heir to a wealthy baronetcy. Now he was deserting a pregnant wife and his first child, as well as the unborn baby who he claimed was fathered by Harriet’s lover. Since he was constantly preaching the hollowness of marital vows and the necessity of sexual freedom, her infidelity to him should not have been worrisome, but it was.

By birth Mary had a head start in the literary world. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft and the atheistical-anarchical philosopher and novelist William Godwin. Her mother, who died from giving birth to her, was one of the outstanding spokeswomen for feminism at the end of the eighteenth century, the author of the manifesto called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as well as numerous other tracts and novels. She had a daughter by an American lover and had twice attempted suicide when he wanted her to share a ménage à trois with another woman. She and Godwin maintained separate establishments and married only when Mary’s birth was imminent. Mary revered her memory and accomplishments and took her mother’s behavior as a pattern for her own. On her elopement she took her stepsister Jane as companion, which was a bad mistake.

Godwin’s reaction to his daughter’s elopement hardly fitted with his radical principles, or with the fact that his second wife had borne two illegitimate children before marrying him. His position was peculiarly difficult because he owed money to Shelley, but he nonetheless cut off communication with Mary, causing her great pain, since she was as devoted to him as to the memory of her idealized mother.

The next eight years before Shelley’s death in 1822 were the fitful center of Mary’s life, and they occupy the major part of Emily Sunstein’s biography. They were full of miscarriages, illegitimate babies, deaths of children, suicides (both Mary’s half-sister and Shelley’s wife), seductions, betrayal, poverty, high living on the coattails of Shelley’s fellow poet Byron, constant trips to and from the Continent, culminating in the flames of the funeral pyre by the Gulf of Spezia when Trelawny, Byron, and Leigh Hunt burned Shelley’s body so that the ashes could be taken to Rome for burial: flashes of experience so lurid they seem to have been picked out by…

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