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Mary Shelley - The Widow

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Mary Shelley
The Formative Years | The Decadent Days | The Marriage | The Widow | Frankenstein - The Legacy

Mary Shelley lost her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a drowning accident in Italy. She found herself destitute at just 24 years of age, and with their young son to raise. Her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, refused her pleas of support for his grandson, young Percy. He preferred instead to pressure Mary into relinquishing custody of the boy. Mary, however, had lost so much that she wasn't prepared to give up her only living child without a fight.

Mary struggled on in Italy for almost a year following Percy's death, but ultimately she had little choice but to return home to her father and stepmother in England. Upon her return Sir Timothy did recognise his grandson and agreed to provide support for young Percy, so that, at least, was one less worry for Mary. Her father's business, however, was not doing so well, and rather than having him support her, she was expected to support him.

In 1824, Mary attempted to publish a collection of Percy's poetry, but her father-in-law was having none of it. He insisted that she halt publication and threatened to stop his grandson's allowance if any of his son's work was published. Mary, who needed to have the works published in order to survive financially, removed her personal and contextual comments and went ahead with a rather heavily-edited publication. She published her own writings anonymously, to appease Sir Timothy; the work was generally just attributed to The Author of Frankenstein.

Love and Betrayal

By 1825, Mary had found herself involved with Mary Diana Dods, a writer and lesbian transvestite. It is unclear just how deeply she became wrapped up with Ms Dods, but she did later assist in the provision of a false passport for the lady to travel with her 'wife', and her 'wife's' illegitimate child in 1827. She also had other suitors including the American John Howard Payne, who proposed marriage, but Mary didn't feel able to replace Percy, who had been her greatest love.

During this period Mary completed her second most famous novel The Last Man, and it was published the following year in three volumes. Following its publication she became reacquainted with Jane Williams, who had lost her husband in the same boating accident as Percy. Their friendship rekindled, Mary became besotted with Jane, who had been the inspiration of much of Percy's later work. Jane, however, failed to mention to Mary that she was already involved with their long-time companion Thomas Hogg.

In September, 1826 Percy's first-born son Charles died, and thus Mary's son Percy became heir to Sir Timothy's Baronetcy. Her father-in-law continued with his refusal to even meet her.

Mary learned of the relationship between Thomas Hogg and Jane Williams when they began cohabiting, and Jane changed her name and became known as Jane Williams Hogg. Mary heard later of Jane's disloyalty to her. Apparently, Jane had been spreading rumours regarding the Shelleys' 'unhappy' marriage, and indeed sharing secrets from within the Shelley household. Doubtless Jane was discreet about her own participation in the Shelley marriage, but Mary was deeply hurt by her betrayal, having been painted by Jane as cold and unloving.

Life Goes On

In 1828, young Percy started school, this gave Mary some free time to enjoy a little travelling again. She took the opportunity to visit Mr and Mrs Douglas1 in Paris. During this visit Mary became ill with smallpox, which took some time and good fortune to shake off. She returned to England for rest and recuperation and stayed with various friends for the rest of the year including some time with her step-sister Claire. Thankfully she made a complete recovery and continued to write and review.

Her son Percy moved on to Harrow in 1832 and Mary continued to work tirelessly to keep herself, and indeed the Godwin household. But tragedy, as ever, was never far from her door. Her half-brother William died of cholera, leaving her father distraught. She continued publishing, by now signing her works 'Mrs Shelley.'

Mary, having resumed her friendship with Thomas and Jane Hogg, became godmother to their daughter in 1836, but she also lost her father that year. William left his daughter all his writings, with instructions that she should publish that which was suitable and destroy the rest. She made an effort to structure and edit some of his memoirs for the financial benefit of her stepmother, but she never completed the assignment.

In 1838 she began editing some of her late husband's poetry; the work was very stressful and she fell ill. This general debility was to remain with her for the rest of her life. She did however continue to work, if at a more restrained pace.

Her stepmother died in 1841 and Mary was again relatively free to resume her travels. She ventured back to Paris where she was introduced to the exiled Italian revolutionary Ferdinando Luigi Gatteschi. In true Shelley style Mary became enamoured with him and aided him financially, although she could barely afford to keep herself. She returned to England and kept up her correspondence with her romantic 'rebel with a cause', but this was soon to come back to haunt her.

Sir Timothy died in 1844 and his grandson young Percy inherited both the estate and title, which in turn gave Mary some security. Sadly, she never did get to meet her father-in-law.

The following year Mary found herself being blackmailed by her Italian love. The not-very-attractive Gatteschi saw the opportunity to earn himself some money with the misuse of Mary's correspondence with him. Mary turned to her son for assistance. Instead of paying up, Percy managed to have the Italian police hunt Gatteschi down and destroy the letters, along with any evidence of his mother's relationship with him. This wasn't the end of Mary's troubles that year, however.

Only months later Mary received a blackmail demand from a man claiming to be George 'Byron', the 'son' of Lord Byron. He had in his possession the box of letters which Percy and Mary had mislaid upon their elopement, in Paris, some 30 years earlier. These letters, if published, would have been damning for the Shelleys, given that they contained correspondence from Harriet, Percy's abandoned wife. Mary threatened an injunction to halt publication, and the mystery blackmailer backed down, much to her relief.


Mary lived as an invalid for her remaining years. She died from a brain tumour in 1851, aged 53 years. Mary was buried with her parents at the churchyard of St Peter's, Bournemouth. She had produced many novels, but her best-known was Frankenstein, which she saw immortalised in many stage productions during her lifetime, although even she would be surprised by the longevity of such a gruesome subject.

1This was the assumed identity of Mary Dods and her partner Isabel Robinson.

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