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Mary Shelley - The Decadent Days

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

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was unhappy with her home life which was complicated even by today's standards. She lived in London with her father William Godwin, her stepmother Mary Godwin, her half-sister Fanny Godwin1, her step-brother Charles Clairmont, step-sister Jane Clairmont2, and her half-brother William Godwin, born to her father and his second wife.

She had failed to develop a good relationship with her stepmother, and the bustling household must have felt like a battleground on occasion. Because of this, Mary's father sent her to stay with friends in Dundee, Scotland, during the summer of 1812.

Now Mary's father was quite the cause célèbre; he was a famous writer, philosopher and publisher, who had many friends in high places. His philosophies and muttered wisdom inspired quite a following, which included the young Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley and his wife Harriet dined with the Godwins on several occasions, bathing in William's wit and wisdom, and young Percy became quite the devoted fan. It was on one such visit in 1812 that Percy and Harriet were introduced to Mary who had just returned from her haven in Dundee.

First Love

At the time Percy was still enamoured with Harriet, but the situation changed in the following year. By then Mary was beginning to blossom, and Percy, ever the romantic, began to woo her during his regular visits to the Godwin household. Alarm bells should have been ringing for William when it became evident in 1813 that Percy's visits were lacking the company of his wife Harriet.

The wealthy Percy had deep pockets and was generous enough to bankroll the Godwin household and William's floundering publishing business, so his visits were welcome and frequent. It was perhaps William's need of Percy's patronage that caused him to turn a blind eye to the dalliance with his beloved daughter. The pair often went walking together, with only the equally wandering eye of Jane to be their chaperone, so the inevitable happened.

William, who remained grateful for Percy's donations to his income, suddenly became the dutiful father, and although not in line with his free-love beliefs, he forbade the romance to continue and Percy found himself unwelcome at the house. In 1814, 21-year-old Percy - still a very much married father of one, with another on the way - eloped with 16-year-old Mary, bizarrely taking young Jane Clairmont along for the ride.

The strange threesome eloped at the end of July, 1814. They toured France3 and from there they travelled through Switzerland, Germany4 and Holland. On their return, Mary found that despite her father's worthy words and independent thinking he was unable to stretch his heartfelt beliefs to include his daughter, and refused communication with either her or Percy.

The Price of Love

Percy, too, found that living 'over the broomstick' carried a heavy price tag. They had returned home penniless and homeless, his own family having cut him off due to his lifestyle choices. Still, both being writers, they made the most of what they had and turned their six-week adventure into a travel book.

The ménage à trois made various bases in and around London and 'settled down' to a very different family life, with romance and ideas some 150 years before their time as their staple diet.

Mary gave birth to their first daughter, Claire, in 1815, just four months after Percy's second son was born to his wife Harriet. Claire, however, was born two months prematurely and died aged just 11 days. During Mary's pregnancy Percy had introduced his friend, and very possibly his wife's lover, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, to the relationship. While Thomas and Mary were conducting their romance, Percy and Jane were enjoying theirs.

Just short of a year later, in January, 1816, Mary gave birth to her second child, a boy, William. In the interim, her step-sister had embarked on an affair with Lord Byron and had fallen pregnant by him. The unusual little family journeyed to Italy in May of that year in an effort to catch up with Byron, who had beaten a hasty retreat in avoidance of the besotted Jane. Byron had hoped to live quietly in exile following the scandal of the separation from his wife. Jane and Mary had other plans, and they eventually met up with Byron and his physician, Dr John Polidori, in Geneva, Switzerland.

In June, 1816 the extended party were encamped at the Villa Diodati where the young Mary supposedly had what she described as a 'waking dream'5 which inspired her to pen the novel Frankenstein.

Mary, at just 18 years old, had become a mother, witnessed the death of a child, loved a married man who was in love with love, and written one of the greatest horror stories of all time - so where could she go from there?

Back To Reality

When Mary, Percy, William and Jane returned to England, they settled in Bath, but whatever happiness they felt they had in store was short-lived. Mary's father still refused to acknowledge their existence and worse news was to come.

In October Mary received news that her half-sister Fanny had committed suicide. Devastating as this was for Mary, tragedy struck again with the disappearance of Percy's wife Harriet in the following month. 21-year-old Harriet's body was recovered on 10 December, 1816, from the Serpentine River. She, too, had taken her own life after falling pregnant to an unnamed lover.

Under great public hostility and increasing pressure from their families, Percy and Mary reluctantly married on 30 December, 1816, in London. This resulted in the long-awaited reconciliation between the pair and William, which was good news for them since they needed to live with the Godwins for a while to let the dust settle.

1Fanny was the daughter of Mary's mother Mary Wollstonecraft and her lover Gilbert Imlay; she was adopted by William Godwin following his wife's death.2Jane was known to many as Claire Clairmont.3In France they left behind a box containing letters which were later used in an attempt to blackmail Mary.4In Germany the three embarked on a Rhine cruise which took them within sight of Castle Frankenstein.5Probably fuelled by brandy and opium.

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