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Percy Bysshe Shelley - Earns a Reputation

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The Making of the Man | Earns a Reputation | The End Game

Picture shows actor Oliver Dimsdale as Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy Shelley had made a name for himself as a bit of a non-conformist. He was considered by many to take after his grandfather Sir Bysshe Shelley. Grandpa Shelley's parents had emigrated with the family to America and he returned to Blighty a man, and a wealthy man at that. Bysshe Shelley built on his wealth and eloped twice, setting a standard his own son didn't aspire to but his grandson apparently did. Born to wealthy, if conservative, parents and with a solid educational background, Percy preferred to concern himself with the more abstract ideologies and embraced atheism, republicanism and the philosophies of free love as espoused by the radical journalist and political philosopher William Godwin1.

Percy having eloped with and married the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, took to visiting with the Godwin household on a regular basis. During one such visit the Shelleys were introduced to William's favourite daughter Mary. At first Mary was of interest to the pair only because of her parentage2, but gradually things changed.

The Three-Year Itch?

Percy's home life was crowded. He and his wife lived with his sister-in-law Eliza and Percy wasn't that keen on her. Eliza was 15 years older than Harriet, but had encouraged her relationship with Percy and supported their elopement, although this may solely have been on the grounds of social-climbing. Following the birth of their first child, Ianthe, in 1813, Percy began to seriously doubt his future with Harriet. He found Eliza tiresome and overbearing so he began to make longer and longer trips away from home. He also invited Thomas Hogg into the household to attempt an 'open marriage', but this wasn't Harriet's ideal scenario and the marriage began to drift. At the same time Percy began to visit the Godwins without his wife.

Mary Godwin was by this stage beginning to blossom and she enjoyed some playful flirting with the handsome Percy. The pair went for long walks together and were usually chaperoned by Mary's step-sister Jane Clairmont. It transpired that Jane may not have been the wisest choice for chaperone.

In April, 1814, despite the failings of the relationship, Percy rather bizarrely remarried Harriet. This was to legitimise their union under English law and assure both Harriet's and Ianthe's future within the Shelley dynasty. It would appear that the couple were under no illusion though. They went through these motions having agreed that they would continue to practise an open marriage, despite Harriet being pregnant with their second child.

Percy, meanwhile, considered Mary his intellectual equal, unlike Harriet, so their gentle flirtation developed into a full-blown relationship right under her father's nose. William Godwin was grateful for Percy's generous patronage and his support for the principles of free love and atheism, but he drew the line at encouraging the relationship with young Mary. Percy, however, wasn't easily dissuaded.

Just four months after his remarriage to Harriet, Percy ran off with Mary Godwin and - just for good measure - her step-sister Jane. While it was an elopement, there was never any intention of marriage. The couple embraced Mary's father's principles and were happy to indulge in all the free love they could get while touring Europe. And over the ensuing years, Jane became almost as important to Percy as Mary.

Reality Bites

When Percy left, Harriet supported herself with the £200 per annum her father had settled on them. This was supplemented by £100 per annum from Percy, but he was beginning to find things tight. Harriet firmly blamed Mary for seducing Percy and engaged in a vociferous letter-writing campaign, beseeching her husband to return. He had settled with Mary and Jane in Switzerland but was feeling the financial squeeze since their parents had effectively disowned them. He was also writing, in anger, to Harriet - effectively trying to blame her for the breakdown of their marriage.

The Shelley-Godwin-Clairmont threesome spent a good deal of time with Lord Byron, himself a bit of a social outcast following scandal at home, but at the end of the day the carefree life couldn't continue indefinitely. Some six weeks after leaving England they had no alternative but to return, destitute and practically friendless.

In order to try to make ends meet, Percy rekindled his friendship with Leigh Hunt and began writing for The Examiner which, not for the first time, drew the attention of the Home Office3. The attention of the Government was the least of his worries though; Percy spent most of his time on the run from bailiffs and creditors which left Mary and Jane to fend for themselves for the most part.

Things Look Up

Things began to look up for Percy with the death of his grandfather. This event was both a personal tragedy and a godsend. Percy was refused admittance for the reading of the will, but he benefited nonetheless. His grandfather had provided £2,900 to settle Percy's debts and a tidy lump sum of £4,500 plus £1,000 a year4 - no strings attached. While all this money left Percy in the pink he needed considerable monies to fund his alternative lifestyle. He bankrolled William Godwin to the tune of £1,000 while Harriet was given the more modest sum of £200 to cope with her immediate expenses. Harriet did, however, also manage to secure an additional £200 per year; she had herself and Percy's two children to support after all.

Percy did clear a portion of his debts, but couldn't quite bring himself to 'waste' his inheritance on such mundane matters. He immediately set about creating what could best be described as a commune which included himself, Thomas Hogg, Mary Godwin and Jane Clairmont. Mary by this time had given birth to a daughter, but the child died at just 11 days old, and it wasn't to Percy that she turned for consolation but Hogg. By this time Mary was jealous of Percy's relationship with Jane, but having committed to the lifestyle was unwilling to backtrack.

Percy was beginning to emerge as a serious poet in 1815 with the publication of Alastor, which is thought to be a lament for his failed marriage. It sold well enough, but gained critical neglect rather than acclaim.

Meanwhile, as a result of friction between the ladies, Jane left the commune for a while in pursuit of her acquaintance Lord Byron. This liaison meant little to Byron who fled again, but he hadn't quite seen the last of Jane.

Pockets Like A Sieve

Percy's wealth was short-lived. With all the money bestowed on him by his grandfather he still had creditors chasing him in 1816. His father was also putting the financial squeeze on him in over some aspects of the Bysshe Shelley's estate. This all culminated in the happy travellers upping sticks and heading for the continent again.

They made their way to Geneva and hooked up with Byron at the Villa Diadoti. Percy and Byron became very close during this trip and they spent many afternoons boating and long evenings discussing alchemy and galvanisation. This was all taking place in the 'year without a summer'5, and the gloom and doom doubtless created the right atmosphere for all things gothic. It was at this point that Mary penned the outline of her novel Frankenstein following a challenge from Byron. It was rumoured that Byron and Percy were sharing more than a love of poetry and horror stories, that they were in fact, lovers - but their journals and letters neither confirm nor deny this. What is clear is that Byron was enjoying the pleasures of Jane, who by this time she was using the name Claire. By the end of summer she was pregnant with his child.

Byron quickly lost interest in Claire and with Mary and Percy living close to poverty the threesome made for home again where more misery awaited.

1He was also the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.2Her mother, who had died shortly after giving birth to Mary, was the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of 'A Vindication of the Rigths of Women' (1792).3He had previously given them the slip while on his travels.4This was to be paid quarterly.5Due to atmospheric conditions following the eruption of Tambora in April, 1815.

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