Sunday, January 21, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part IV: Pretentious, Privileged and a Total Ass: Percy Shelley

The Shelley's were a family of jumped up businessmen. Percy's grandfather, Bysshe, had been born in the American colonies in 1731, where his family had already accumulated a decent bit of money, though not enough to be considered wealthy. Bysshe rectified this after moving back to England, first by marrying well, and then, after his wife died, marrying again even better. Towards the end of his life, in 1806, he wrangled his way into a baronetcy.

Baronets are one of the lowest rungs of British nobility -- in terms of standing, they're the same level as knights, the main difference being that baronetcies are heritable whereas knighthoods are one-and-done. The position dates back to the Middle Ages, but it was rarely used until James I was strapped for cash and decided to sell a bunch of titles as a quick fundraiser. From then on, baronetcies became a way for rich gentlemen to give their families a little extra sheen.

By all accounts, Bysshe was a dotty old man given to wild flights of fancy. His son Timothy, however, was the exact opposite -- sensible, but tough and concerned with propriety above all else. In other words, the sort of person who'd be played by John Vernon in the movie and presented as a villain, though any examination of the plot would leave you hard pressed to define what exactly he was doing wrong.

Unfortunately for Timothy, his son Percy took after Bysshe and not him. Percy's life began happily enough, living on his father's estate with his beloved sisters, where any early signs of wildness didn't cause comment. But Percy needed an education, and in those days a gentleman's education meant boarding school. Timothy intended Percy to do his upper levels at the prestigious Eton, but before that could happen Percy needed to learn the basics, and for that Timothy chose a school that was below the family's standing.

Though Bysshe hadn't yet bought his baronetcy yet, Percy stuck out like a sore thumb at school, and quickly attracted the attention of bullies. Percy responded with arrogance, looking down on his classmates and lashing out, when he could, against those who didn't defer to him as he felt he deserved. It was during this period that he became interested in science, and particularly the study of making things go boom, which was to become a lifelong obsession of his, both literally and figuratively.

By the time Percy reached Eton, he was well on his way to becoming an iconoclast, though the question remained: what form it would take. If he had been a teenager in the 1980s, he would've become a wannabe beatnik. If he'd been one in the '90s, he would've played at being a hippie. Instead he was a teenager in 1810, and so his interests turned to the radicalism of the 1790s, before anti-revolutionary reaction had swept it all away. His first major literary works were the Gothic novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, published in 1810 and '11 respectively, by which point the Gothic genre was well past its peak of popularity and heading into a period when there were as many parodies as straight attempts at the genre. He then turned to Romantic poetry, a genre that had been all the rage at the turn of the century when Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey had been at their height, but was now looking like a fading fad rather than a movement that would have long lasting effects. But this time Percy lucked out, as Lord Byron, another upperclass wastrel, was about to burst on the scene and ignite the second wave of Romantic poetry.

Percy's political and social views were similarly out of step with his time. He came across William Godwin's work at that age when anything a young man reads will mark his way of thinking for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he somehow found the first edition of Political Justice, before Godwin had walked back his more radical views.

Shelley's father was by this time a Member of Parliament, and his grandfather had obtained his baronetcy, so Percy's embrace of the most radical Revolutionary Era political beliefs was the equivalent of a modern teenager whose parents are country club Republicans going to college and joining a group of Black Bloc protesters.

But Percy's embrace of Godwinism went beyond the political. Being the privileged brat that he was, Shelley was a budding profligate, and Godwin's views on free love gave him a philosophical framework that would justify his screwing any woman he wanted. He wasn't just satisfying his sexual desires -- he was striking a blow against reactionary sexual mores. His fucking around was a revolutionary act!

One of his first conquests was a schoolmate of his sisters, Harriet Westbrook, who was a mere thirteen when he first met her (he was sixteen, so this is slightly less skeevy than his later conquests). He kept up a correspondence with her through his years at Oxford, preaching to her about Godwinian philosophy and trying to convince her of the rightness of open sexual relationships. After he got expelled from Oxford for publishing a pro-atheist manifesto, he and Harriet (who was by then sixteen) eloped to the Lake District and got married. Harriet's sister tagged along, and Percy hoped to bring his friend and fellow expellee Thomas Jefferson Hogg along, though any hope he had to set up a menage fell apart when Hogg pushed himself on Harriet and she rebuffed him by loudly quoting Bible passages.

While in the Lake District, Shelley met Robert Southey. In the 1790s Southey had been a Godwinian radical, but now, pushing forty, he'd transformed into a mainline Tory living a comfortable, homey life with his wife who loved to bake. Shelley was horrified at what he saw and began to worry that he was on the same path in life. 

But then Southey happened to mention William Godwin in passing. As with all young men, Shelley believed that anything that had happened before he could remember it was ancient history. Since Political Justice had been published while Shelley was still an infant, he naturally assumed Godwin must be long since dead. When Southey revealed that not only was the man still alive, but he was raising the two daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley knew he had to go to London and meet him.

NEXT TIME: When Mary Met Shelley

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