Most often people find love and get married to people they work with and authors are no different to this habit. In our series of Authors Who Found Love Within The Literary Circle, we will bring you numerous couples from the literary field.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s most recognisable novel is Frankenstein but during her lifetime, her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was the more well-known writer. In fact she enhanced Percy Shelley’s place within the literary canon by devoting herself to editing and seeing her husband’s work published after his death.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as she was known prior to her marriage to Shelley, —was born August 30, 1797 in London, England. Her parents were famous intellectuals: writer and philosopher, William Godwin, and women’s rights activist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, complications from childbirth led to Wollstonecraft’s death just days following Mary’s birth.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born into an aristocratic family on September 4, 1792. Percy enjoyed a life of privilege and was sent to Eton College when he was twelve. After six years at Eton, where he became known for his anti-authoritarian views and began writing poetry and prose, he entered Oxford University in 1810. At Oxford he and a friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, influenced each other’s growing rejection of societal rules. Their collaboration on a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism resulted in their expulsion from Oxford. Percy’s father, angered by his expulsion cut him off financially until he came of age two years later. While living in poverty, Percy eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Although Mary had a relatively happy childhood, her father’s remarriage to Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow with two young children, led to discord. The new Mrs. Godwin favoured her children over Mary and was jealous of William’s attention to her. She made life difficult for Mary and promoted her children’s education at the expense of Mary’s, but despite this. Mary received an excellent education. She had access to her father’s library, listened to his discussions with other leading intellectuals, and immersed herself in her late mother’s writings. Due to clashes with her stepmother, Mary was sent to live with the Baxter family in Scotland. Here she finally found a loving family, and began to focus on her writing.
On a visit home in 1812, fifteen-year-old Mary met Percy Shelley, an admirer of her father. Percy visited the Godwin home often and became friendly with Mary, whom he recognised as an intellectual soulmate. Percy resented that his wife Harriet, preoccupied with one child and pregnant with another, no longer made him the centre of attention.
Once her father discovered their involvement, he attempted to break off the relationship but was unsuccessful. In 1814, the couple left for France with Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The trio travelled throughout Europe reading the works of Mary’s mother, keeping a journal of their travels, and developing their own writing. Soon money run out and they were forced to return home. To further complicate matters, Mary discovered that she was pregnant. Mary tried her best to maintain a normal lifestyle despite a sickly pregnancy but it is rumoured that during this time Percy began an affair with Claire. Little evidence supports the claim, however; several sections of Mary’s journals are missing from the period, Claire’s journal has disappeared, and Thomas Hogg—Percy’s friend and biographer—does not include a history past 1815. In any case, Mary was frequently left alone while Shelley visited his wife or engaged in outings with Claire.
February of 1815 proved devastating for Mary, as her daughter was born two months premature and died two weeks later. Percy’s apathy towards the loss of their child compelled Mary to search elsewhere for comfort and she turned to Thomas Jefferson Hogg for companionship. It is often thought that Percy encouraged a relationship between Mary and Hogg, especially after his own alleged affair with Claire. Mary had no interest in a romantic relationship beyond Percy, however.
Percy and Mary’s marriage was not always stable, but their staunch support of each other’s writing was crucial to both of their accomplishments and enduring prestige. Mary’s most famous work, Frankenstein, was conceived of and largely written while the Shelleys were summering in Geneva with Lord Byron and a party of friends. Her story of a patched-together, reanimated corpse was thought up in response to a challenge from Byron that each member of the party write their own ghost story, and Percy encouraged her to expand Frankenstein into a full novel, and also offered editorial feedback. It wasn’t until after she succeeded in editing a complete collection of her husband’s work that she devoted herself to her own novels. Shortly after her death, Mary Shelley’s complete works and letters were published, and she became recognised as a major player in the Romantic movement.