The Byron-Shelley circle

Meeting with Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1814, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the leading poets of the movement now known as Romanticism. His father was an MP who was given the title of baronet. Shelley, an admirer of William Godwin, was also a controversial figure:

  • he was radical in politics, anti-royalist and a vegetarian.
  • he was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for writing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism
  • later in 1811, he eloped with the sixteen-year old Harriet Westbrook, from whom he was separated by the time he met Mary at her father’s house
  • in the spring of 1814, Mary Godwin and Shelley eloped to Switzerland, taking with them Jane (later Claire) Clairmont, Mary Godwin’s fifteen-year-old stepsister.

When Harriet Shelley drowned herself in 1816, Shelley and Mary were free to marry. Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half-sister, also committed suicide in 1816.

Mary Shelley - Marriage and parenthood

The Shelleys spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland (see Social/political context: How Frankenstein came to be written). They had gone there so that Claire Clairmont could be with Lord George Byron (1788-1824), Shelley’s friend and fellow-poet and an equally controversial figure. Clairmont and Byron became lovers and she bore him a daughter in 1817. After a brief spell in England, the Shelleys settled permanently in Italy from 1818. They had a number of children. However:

  • their first child had died soon after birth in 1815
  • their son William was born in 1816 but died in 1819
  • Clara, born in 1817, also died in 1819
  • only the fourth of their children, Percy (b. 1819), survived childhood.

Both parents suffered greatly from the loss of their children and Mary had a serious nervous breakdown.

Mary Shelley - A productive era

PisaFrom 1819 to 1822, the Shelleys lived in Pisa in Italy. Frankenstein, Mary’s first book, was published in London in 1819, and the next three years proved to be Percy Shelley’s most creative and productive period of writing, during which he produced several of his best known works. Byron joined them in Pisa in 1821 and they became the centre of a celebrated and controversial circle of expatriate English writers and artists.

Mary Shelley - Misfortune and death

In the spring of 1822, the family moved to the Bay of Lerici, for a brief stay which was marked by a series of painful events:

  • Mary suffered a very serious miscarriage
  • Claire Clairmont was deeply grieved by the death of Allegra, her child with Byron, whom he had placed in a convent in 1821
  • Shelley saw the ghost of a child in the sea
  • In August, returning by boat from a visit to Byron across the bay, Shelley was drowned. He was 29 years old.

The effect of the Byron-Shelley circle on Mary Shelley

For eight years, from 1814-1822, Mary had lived at the heart of what was undoubtedly England’s leading circle of writers:

  • Under the guidance of Shelley and Byron her own education had considerably advanced. She read widely and constantly and her first book was published
  • At the same time, she had suffered a good deal of unhappiness:
    • she resented Byron’s constant and disruptive presence
    • she had lost her half-sister and seen her stepsister lose her only child
    • she had lost her husband and three out of four of her own children.
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