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Percy Bysshe Shelley - The End Game

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

Picture shows actor Oliver Dimsdale as Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In September, 1816, Percy Shelley left Byron in Switzerland and returned to England with his entourage in tow. Mary Godwin was busy writing Frankenstein, with considerable help from Percy, while his other love, Jane Clairmont, was pregnant with Lord Byron's child.

Money had run dry. They were at a loss as to how they would survive, all the while battling public hostility for their disregard of Percy's wife, Harriet. Things did, however, get worse.

Dark Days

Mary's half-sister Fanny Godwin had been left behind when Mary and Jane ran off with Percy, and she was devastated. Her depression worsened when she found out that she was the illegitimate daughter of Mary's mother and an American1. Fanny committed suicide by overdosing on opium. The group were naturally upset by this turn of events, Percy particularly so. He wrote:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley

As if things weren't bad enough, Percy's wife Harriet then went missing. She was heavily pregnant, supposedly as a result of a liaison with a soldier based at Chelsea, but her lover never made himself known. Poor Harriet's body was pulled from the Serpentine in Hyde Park on 10 December, 1816. She was just 21 years old. Before taking her life, Harriet had penned a letter addressed to her father, her sister Eliza and her husband. In the letter, she requested that her children be raised by Eliza. Percy was furious.

Not convinced of his own part in the tragedy surrounding his wife, Percy blamed the in-laws, then went about trying to gain custody of the children. His greatest support at this time was his old friend Leigh Hunt. While Percy openly denied any hand in his wife's sorry end, his work became peppered with remorse, melancholy and an abiding sorrow. On a deeper level, then, he was aware of his part in her downfall.

Suddenly finding himself a widower, Percy began to feel the pressure from his (and indeed Mary's) family, so in an effort to take some of the heat off, they quickly married. Percy reasoned that his marriage would help in his quest for the children, but the courts were not so easily impressed.

Percy was quick to embark on his campaign to gain custody of his children. The courts, however, took a dim view of his lifestyle. Lord Eldon asserted that Percy's conduct was 'immoral and vicious'. The Westbrooks could not sway the court either, however, and also lost the battle. Custody of the children eventually went to Dr and Mrs Hume, nominees of Percy. Again Percy's true feelings became apparent in his work with bitterness abounding.

Still No Sign of Light

Percy continued to publish anti-Christian and social reform literature which ensured that he never fell that far down the agenda of the Home Office. This introduced its own problems. While living in Wales, he was attacked in his cottage, apparently with a view to murder, supposedly by an Intelligence Officer. One way or another he wasn't that 'at home' in the UK. He therefore did what came naturally; he packed his little group up and headed once again for the continent.

The 'family' by this time included the new wife Mary, their son William, daughter Clara, Jane and her daughter Allegra. They headed for the company of Byron, but the journey was marred by tragedy after tragedy. His daughter Clara was the first to succumb to illness, and died of dysentery in 1818. In a typically Shelley-like attempt to console Mary, Percy brought her a new baby: Elena Adelaide. Elena was certainly the fruit of Percy's loins, but her mother remains unknown, she could have been a mystery servant2 or indeed Jane herself for that matter. Anyhow, Mary wasn't so easily consoled and the poor child was left with foster parents while the troupe moved on3.

By 1919, they were in Rome and young William died of malaria, but while this tragedy created a shadow on the Shelleys' marriage, it didn't slow them down. Mary was again pregnant and her son Percy Florence was born in, yes...Florence4. Still trying to distance themselves from tragedy, they took up residence in Pisa and expanded their little commune to include Edward and Jane Williams. Byron and his mistress Teresa Guiccioli were also included in this particular 'literary circle'.

The Perils of Percy

With the approach of summer, the circle of friends moved on to San Terenzo near Lerici in the Bay of Spezia, but they left Byron and his lady behind. Percy by this time was writing beautiful poetry to Jane Williams alongside his other, more tortured works. It would appear he felt his life cursed, or at the very least heavily shadowed, and this became evident in his struggle to continue under the weight of his life's tragedies.

Percy was doubtless enjoying Jane Williams, but he almost lost Mary to a near-fatal miscarriage. He saved her life by placing her in a hip-bath of ice to stop the bleeding, but her subsequent hallucinations foretold of ever more sorrow on the horizon.

Early in July, 1822, Percy was shot at on two separate occasions. Strangely, the British Consul defended the perpetrator, saving them from any legal proceedings. Could the shooter possibly have been a Government agent? Percy was busy at the time helping the newly exiled Leigh Hunt set up the anti-establishment The Liberal, and had probably bumped himself up the queue again on that Home Office agenda.

If I die tomorrow I have lived to be older than my father, I am ninety years of age - Percy Bysshe Shelley

On 8 July, 1822, Percy, Edward Williams, a retired Navy Officer, and Charles Vivian, a young sailor, went sailing on the lake in Percy's schooner Ariel5. A sudden storm took the schooner including Percy and Edward. Their bodies weren't recovered for over a month. In true Shelley style though, there was more to the story than met the eye.

The Conspiracy

Contrary to popular belief, death conspiracy theories aren't the sole domain of John F Kennedy and Princess Diana. Back in 1822, Percy Shelley was at the centre of his very own conspiracy theory.

Percy's death was recorded as 'accidental death by drowning', but not everyone subscribed to this belief. His life had been haunted by tragedy, and many people thought he was suicidal. Some surmised that he purposely went out in an unseaworthy vessel, thereby becoming the author of his own demise.

Others favoured the piracy theory whereby his schooner was mistaken for Byron's and attacked. The boat, when found, did show signs of having been rammed, but there was no sign of robbery as a motive - all the valuables were still onboard. The lifeboat was also still attached, so no effort had been made to abandon ship.

The eventually recovered bodies were fully clothed, including boots, so it was safely assumed the pair hadn't stripped in an attempt to swim ashore. This is where the British Government came into the frame, some thought it possible that they were murdered, then the whole 'accident' thing staged - just to be rid of them once and for all6.

No matter what the actual circumstances were, Percy would have doubtless been delighted with the attention it brought his principles and works. He was cremated on the beach in August, and his heart7 was returned to Mary by Edward Trelawny.

Percy was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, close by his son William and his friend Keats, and not everyone was sorry to see the back of him. The Courier, a Tory newspaper, recorded: Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or no.

A statue of the drowned Shelley by Edward Onslow Ford now adorns the halls of University College, Oxford as the centrepiece of his memorial there. Rather more welcome than he was in his lifetime.

1Later adopted by William Godwin following her mother's death.2Possibly the nurse maid.3Elena died in 1820 aged just 17 months.4Proof, if any were needed, that the phenomenon of naming children after cities is not a modern creation.5The schooner had been re-named because Percy detested Byron's original choice: Don Juan. Mariners consider it extremely unlucky to re-name a vessel.6Sound familiar?7It is more likely that it was his liver that survived the funeral pyre.

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