In 1814, a relationship that would one day produce immortal art was only producing a scandal. The journey to some of the 19th century’s best Romantic poetry and the gothic genius of Frankenstein was going to be, in hindsight, a bumpy one. It was a relationship so taboo that it began in secret, and had to be nurtured in exile.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had grown up under the guidance and tutelage of her parents, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical political philosopher William Godwin. She was only 16 when a married 21-year-old aristocrat came to her door. His arrival would change both of their lives.
Percy Shelley had already created a rift in his own family. His worldview had been swayed by the likes of William Godwin, who believed in the ultimate injustice of the British system, dedicating much ink in support of anarchy. Contrary to his parents’ wishes, Percy was not interested in the duties and business of maintaining a life of landed aristocracy, and leaned toward spending vast sums of money on projects for the disadvantaged.
Percy Shelley was in dubious standing at Oxford. He alienated those in his family and class with his radical sympathies and writings, and he grew estranged from his wife, Harriet. He soon was to disappoint Godwin, whom he had promised to give money to alleviate debts, when he said it was either no longer possible, or no longer worthwhile.
During his visits, Percy had already struck a mutual affection with the young Mary, and the pair began meeting in secret trysts at the grave of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the St. Pancras church in London. The twain fell in love, defying William Godwin’s wishes. Even greater, they shocked high society when Percy, Mary, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont went to France on July 28, 1814, on a whim of love and recklessness.
Mary and Percy left for France, and traveled through the country and through Switzerland when eventually the already cash-strapped and indebted Percy Shelley ran out of funds. They returned in September, and incited scandal and gossip yet again: Mary was pregnant.
Mary, for her part, returned to the total rejection of her father, who wanted nothing to do with her. She and Percy moved into lodgings in London and kept preoccupied with reading, writing, and entertaining friends like Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson Hogg. It is possible that in the spirit of free love Percy suggested a sexual relationship between Hogg and Mary, and they may have done so, but historians tend to believe they left it at a tender friendship. It is likely, too, that Percy developed a romance with stepsister Claire, and surely these arrangements, on top of the familial outrage, Percy’s marriage, pregnancy, debt, and recklessness, added to the fires of gossip and intrigue.
In February 1815, Mary gave birth to a premature baby. It died soon after, sending her in a deep depression, compounded by Percy’s affections for Claire, and for his child by his wife, Harriet.
Matters brightened by the following year, when in January 1816, Mary gave birth to a second child. Percy had no longer needed to dodge creditors so much after the death of his grandfather brought him an inheritance. Claire had become pregnant following an affair with Lord Byron, and the trio took another trip abroad (accompanied by Mary’s baby) in the summer of 1816. The trip would change Mary’s life.
During the famous summer at Byron’s estate at Lake Geneva, which she described as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life," Mary wrote Frankenstein. Percy, it seems, had some hand in its composition, and contributed about 5,000 words to the original manuscript. The fate of the novel needs little telling. The book has since been beloved as a work of genius, significantly responsible for bolstering both the gothic and the science fiction genres. It was, in the end, a masterpiece.
It proved a triumph in a relationship dogged by conflict, scandal, heartbreak, and difficulty to the very end, when in 1822 Percy Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy after his boat capsized. The Shelleys' romance and relationship lasted less than a decade, but a lifetime of strife and achievement was crammed into it.