Percy Shelley. You know him as one of those poetry dudes.
He was a privileged young English poet in the 1810s, who had a progressive, yet romantic voice that attempted to influence religion and politics. But, his very brief life was full of secrets and intrigue that eclipse anything he put down on paper. Percy Shelley was at the heart of one of the most mysterious, scandalous love triangles recorded in history. Many women. Two wives. Pregnancies. Deceit. Money. Extortion. Mysterious Death.
What you are about to read is the account that you won’t find in any classroom textbook. This is the story of Percy Shelley and his insane love triangle, most scandalous.
Before the Ladies: Little Percy Breaks All the Rules
Percy Shelley was the first-born child of seven, whelped into a prosperous family with grand expectations and the means to make them happen. He came into this world in 1792, the sire of a member of British Parliament. He was a lucky child who had the breeding and coin to toil his life as a poet, and man, did he meet that opportunity.
He was known to be a delicate flower who was oft bullied at Eton College. He was a vegetarian, liberal, proponent of sexual freedom, and probably a pampered brat who wasn’t like the other boys. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While most boys were burning toads and playing grab-ass, Percy had published two gothic novels and two volumes of poetry, all before he had come of age.
By 1810, Percy enrolled at University College, Oxford, where he quickly found a disciple in a classmate named Thomas Hogg. The two wrote together (and if we’re honest, probably explored the notions of sexual freedom quite closely), eventually penning a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which ultimately got Percy expelled from school. His family was fuming with outrage and demanded he tow the line. Percy would do nothing of the sort, and was cut off from his family and their pocketbooks.
This sets the stage for a life of juggling his passionate, artistic nature along with his more practical needs for income and survival. Never able to reconcile these two sets of needs, Percy would embark on a life where he is pulled around by purse strings, emotion, and pleasure.
Against His Nature, Percy Takes a Wife
Enter Harriet Westbrook. She was a 16 year-old school girl and classmate of one of Percy’s sisters. She was no love interest of his, to be certain.
To be entirely ungenerous, Percy completely intended to use Harriet W. as a tool to encourage his sister to abandon the ludicrous philosophy of Christianity. At best, she was maybe a half-decent pen pal. However, for Westbrook, Percy was a breath of life and wit and romance. She suffered miserably at school and dreamed of his role (ironically) as her savior. She loved him deeply, to the extent that she threatened suicide if he did not rescue her from her tormented heart.
Harriet Westbrook’s engagement ring: Yes, please! Percy had some taaaaste.
Tender 19 year-old Percy relented and in 1811 they eloped together to Scotland, against the wishes of his family. This was an interesting and pivotal moment for Percy, since this was so antithetical to his beliefs in free love.
To her credit, Harriet was known as a handsome, well-read, kind, sincere, and rather brilliant woman. On paper at least, this was probably a decent romantic match.
The newlyweds–along with Harriet’s most beloved sister, Eliza Westbrook–spent the first few months of marriage cavorting around on a political crusade. They spent time in Dublin, publishing and selling pamphlets advocating the rights of Catholics and an autonomous Ireland. Politics took them on to Wales and Devonshire. The pair distributed their pamphlets via paper boats, balloons, and glass bottles and lived a rather carefree life, while beholden to the patronage of one of Percy’s relations.
But soon the money ran out, and so did the fun.
The Percys of Our Lives
1812. This is the year it all falls apart, and the soap opera begins.
Husband, wife, and Eliza settled somewhere near the Lake District in England. Percy returned to having his written works published and was forced to turn to London money-lenders for help in supporting his household. To make ugly realities worse, his home life was plagued by his utter disdain for sister-in-law Eliza, and the influence she held over Harriet.
At one point, around 1812 or so, Percy attempted to shift the dynamic by inviting his old chum, Thomas Hogg, to join the household and even participate in marital bliss. Big mistake. Thomas was most eager to “get to know” Harriet, but she rebuffed him, and Percy was forced to eject Hogg from the household.
Next, we add a baby to the mix. Harriet popped out their first child, Ianthe Elizabeth Shelley, in June, 1813. There was probably a lot of crying at that point, and not just from hungry baby Ianthe.
So, Percy started spending a lot of time away from home–mostly hanging with his new mentor (and general bad influence), William Godwin. Journalist and opportunist Godwin was an outspoken radical free thinker and utilitarian who had been one of Percy’s idols in his youth. The young, well-connected Percy vowed to be his disciple.
And This is Where the Percy Shelley Story Gets Really Weird
The shit storm that follows is highly controversial and oft debated. Friends, relations, and people with vested interests destroyed letters, fabricated fake letters, and spread much slanderous gossip about the love triangle that ensued. The truth has been so distorted that even most run-of-the-mill internet biographies (I’m looking at you, Wikipedia) have major chunks of the Shelley story completely wrong.
To uncover how the disastrous love triangle really formed, one must dig deeper into authentic letters, accounts from contemporaries, and even the writings of Harriet-defenders such as Mark Twain. Here is the truth.
The Love Triangle Forms
While Percy’s home life was just too much for his delicate shoulders, he found a new family among William Godwin’s flock of female relatives who offered diverse thought, intrigue, escapism, and temptation. Cornelia Turner (whom Percy porked), and Godwin’s daughter, Mary.
By the autumn of 1813, mere months after Ianthe’s birth, Percy and Harriet were effectively living separate lives.
At least, that’s what so many sources believe and state as fact. It is actually highly debated among Shelley scholars just how separate Percy and Harriet truly were, at least in spirit. While he would tramp about with the Godwin group and carry on with Cornelia, he would faithfully write his wife and keep her apprised of his movements and moods. And they were likely not entirely physically frosty with each other, since Harriet became knocked up again by Percy in February, 1814.
By June of that year, though, with Harriet quite pregnant, a new shadow emerged in Percy’s life. A shadow named Mary.
Along Comes Mary
Godwin’s young daughter, Mary, age 16, was a plain-looking girl who didn’t seem to have a lot of wit or cleverness about her. Likely, she hardly caught Percy’s eye in the earliest days of their acquaintance. In fact, despite some modern reports, reliable research indicates that Mary and Percy may have been thrown together. But why? And by whom?
The official story tells us that Mary had become consumed by a growing passionate love for Percy–her father’s dear friend and business associate–that she famously invited him to her mother’s grave at St Pancras Churchyard on June 27, 1814, and verbally vomited her love all over him. Some legends say that then and there he took the girl’s virginity, right on top of her mother’s grave.
More likely, he was flabbergasted by the expression, and also flattered. The whole notion of such a love must have been too titillating to resist. Less than ten days later, the melodramatic and impulsive Percy waited for a pleasant business dinner with William Godwin, and then laid out his love for Mary and his intention to be with her. William was furious and would refuse to see the pair for years after that.
Within weeks Percy Shelley eloped to France with Mary Godwin forever leaving behind his love for and responsibility to the very pregnant Harriet Shelley.
Mary and Percy
The Plot Thickens (And So Does Mary)
The trip abroad was a fantastic scandal and shock to everyone involved in the matter–or so most biographies would exclaim. There is a dastardly, cynical alternate version to this story, though. You see it became known in July, during the escape voyage abroad, that Mary was pregnant.
Such a curious twist! Could she have become pregnant by Percy at her mother’s grave, or at a series of secret rendezvous as they planned their escape? Yes, it is possible. But there are a few niggling details and coincidences that cast a sinister light on things. First of all, Percy documented in his writings during their voyage how ill Mary was with–most likely–pregnancy morning sickness. But this would have been only 3 weeks, at most, since the couple’s first possible smooshing. That’s a bit early for morning sickness.
On the other hand, Mary was said to always be a poor traveler, and perhaps it was only the sea voyage making her ill.
There’s also the wrinkle that she brought her sister along on the elopement with her great love. Yes, her sister Claire joined Mary and Percy on their romantic, illicit escape. Some sources erroneously state that Claire came along as a French translator, but Percy was known to be completely fluent in French. Common sense suggests that Claire more likely came along to care for Mary in her delicate state, which then would have been known prior to the elopement.
So, could it be that Mary may have become pregnant by another man, and sought out the protection of Percy Shelley by convincing him to marry her?
Percy had money (at the time) and was a trusted associate of her father’s. Perhaps this was the most attractive solution to a very dangerous problem. Perhaps this was encouraged by Claire and others, and that the two lovebirds were pushed together as a plot to flatter and seduce the gullible young poet. Or perhaps Percy and Mary really did smoosh and make a baby, and then invite Claire to join them on their honeymoon escapades as a third wheel, and for no other reason at all.
Whatever the truth, Percy, Mary, and Claire flounced around Europe, reading poetry and living the grand life for two months. But then the money ran out again, and so did the fun. The trio was forced to return home to England by September, 1814, and Percy was back in the same state of (fake) matrimony, fatherhood, and obligation that he had fled mere months before.
Except now, times two.
The Suffering of Harriet Shelley
Back in England, the very pregnant Harriet had begun to fret over her husband’s whereabouts. He had stopped writing a while back, which was not typical. Then came word. He implored Harriet to accept and embrace Percy and Mary’s love–even inviting her to join them in Switzerland (to which she rightly replied–hell naw). In the course of three months, her world had turned entirely upside down.
Even in her devastation she accepted Percy’s appeals for aid and funds and obliged the couple so they might return to England. Meanwhile, Harriet moved into her father’s house and gave birth to Percy’s son, Charles Shelley in late November.
Three months later, in February of 1815, Mary lost her premature baby daughter after less than two weeks of life. Again, the timing of the premature birth and the babe’s steadfastness for even as much as two weeks (for the era) points to the notion that just maybe she may have conceived before taking up with Percy.
It took almost no time at all for Mary to become pregnant again, this time delivering Percy a son named William Shelley in January, 1816.
Naturally, Harriet’s peers would have kept her well-informed of the comings and goings between the pair (if we assume that Percy didn’t tell her directly). Still, Harriet tried to get by, in spite of her controlling father’s watchful eye and bigamist husband. She even attempted to take a lover or two, which totally backfired since she was accidentally knocked up by one of them. The poor dear then vacated her father’s home and moved about from one rented home to another to evade the moral judgement and punishment that could be meted out by Percy or her father.
And then in November, 1816, a very pregnant Harriet lost all hope.
The despondent 21 year-old woman composed a number of “farewell” letters, and then walked to the Serpentine River and drowned herself. It would take weeks before her corpse washed ashore.
Percy Tries to Forget His Drowned Wife and Two Kids
Percy received the tragic news, and spared no time in legally marrying Mary. In fact, the wedding took place just five days after the grim discovery. Charitably, it could be said that he did so to attempt and secure the custody of his children by Harriet. If this is the case, it is most unfortunate for him, for Harriet’s sister Eliza petitioned the court to have the children removed, and she ultimately succeeded. The children went to foster homes, partly based on the court’s opinion after reading some of Percy’s poetry. For real.
We do know that at the discovery of Harriet’s fate, the Godwin family (remember, this is Mary Shelley’s family) moved quickly to convince Percy and others surrounding the family that Harriet had been an immoral force all along–suggesting that little Charles might not even be Percy’s child. They also revised history to describe that Harriet’s marriage with Percy had driven him to desperate misery and loneliness. Mary’s love was the only remedy. Or so the narrative goes.
Evidence suggests that various letters were forged or altered to make the case, and for centuries now, historians have been trying to unwind truth from distortion. Could Harriet have been killed–by a Godwin representative? By her father? By one of Mary’s representatives? Were her goodbye notes forged or authentic?
Still, despite the underhanded moves made by the Godwin family and Mary’s callous and cold regard for Harriet’s death, Percy mourned and felt extraordinary guilt. He had to keep it hidden, for Mary would not abide him dwelling on his former lover and wife. Letters and poems confirm his anxiety over the tragedy, though.
Just as Harriet was hiding out and contemplating suicide, Mary and Percy Shelley spent the summer of 1816 as a guest of Lord Byron’s at an Italian villa. There, he challenged his guests to write ghost stories. Allegedly, this was the genesis of her legendary novel, Frankenstein. However, many have questioned whether or not the story was truly of Mary’s hand. After all, the 19 year-old had limited scientific education or knowledge necessary for the electric mechanisms described in the work. Further, themes of atheism and social justice dot the novel, and reflect Percy’s repertoire moreso than Mary’s. When it was eventually published in 1818, it was done so anonymously, and was assumed to be Percy’s–until Mary corrected the record. Still, many literary experts suspect that much of it came from Percy, and that she copied and stitched the story together to advance its publication. At best, it was most likely a joint effort.
On July 8, 1822, Percy Shelley drowned off the north-west coast of Italy. He had been sailing on his schooner after a meeting over a political journal. Historians debate still whether it was an accident, or possibly even a politically motivated assassination. There is some terrible poetry in the symmetry of his death and Harriet’s.
Mary Shelley mourned him deeply and devoted much of her life to publicizing the legacy of her late husband. She also was a constant target of blackmail and intrigue over letters allegedly penned by herself or Percy. Her work to manicure her legacy and Percy’s into a finely shellacked historical truth consumed the rest of her life until her passing in 1851. One author in the 1980s once suggested that Mary Shelley was Percy’s Pygmalion. There is some kind of wicked truth to this in their relationship that scandalized families, launched a suspicious suicide, and tinkered incessantly with truth in history.
Mary Shelley, her legacy meticulously preserved