Sunday, January 28, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part V: When Mary Met Shelley

When Percy Shelley showed up to William Godwin's bookshop, Godwin had high hopes of getting money from the young man to pay off his debts. But despite his rich family, Percy had little money himself, and what he did get, he spent. He could occasionally get an allowance from his father, but Timothy Shelley wasn't above cutting his son off for misbehavior. Percy did have one way of raising funds by taking out loans against his inheritance, but because there was no telling when he'd get that inheritance, the interest rates were exorbitant. But Percy was too privileged to care about such minor things, and he agreed to supply Godwin with the needed money. However, once Percy had the cash in hand, he suddenly realized he could use it for himself, and he only gave Godwin a fraction of what he'd promised. This was to be pattern that would repeat throughout their relationship.

When Shelley first started visiting the Godwins in 1812, Mary was out of town -- Godwin had sent her to stay with friends in Scotland to keep her out of Jane's hair -- so Percy's attention first fell upon Fanny, the eldest of the Godwin Girls at eighteen, a mere two years younger than himself. Indeed, his infatuation with her started even before they met. During preliminary correspondence with Godwin, Percy suggested Fanny should come up to visit him and his menage. Godwin politely responded, "Yeah, no." But when the two actually met, things didn't click. It's not clear what the issue was, though my suspicion is that Fanny, being aware of the circumstances surrounding her conception and what her mother went through after Gilbert Imlay dumped her, was wary of a smooth talker like Percy.

In any event, when Mary returned to London, Percy's attention turned to her. She was all of fifteen at this point, and he was twenty-one. Their romance developed slowly over the next couple years as Percy grew increasingly disillusioned with Harriet and the increasingly domestic turn their life was taking. Harriet had by now given birth to their first child, Ianthe, and was pregnant with their second. Mary was a young, impressionable girl, and Percy poisoned her mind against Harriet, making her seem a petty, small minded woman who was an unequal match for his staggering genius -- totally unlike brilliant Mary. If only he had met Mary first, alas! Being young and naive, Mary fell for it. By the time she was sixteen, Percy had bedded her.

Wanting to escape his domestic entanglements, Percy suggested that he and Mary run away to the Continent together. Now this would've been mid-1814, mere months after Napoleon's abdication. Prior to the French Revolution, every young man who aspired to good standing, and even many young women, had taken the Grand Tour of Europe, but as the chaos of revolution and war spread, this had become increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. So for Percy to propose a trip to Europe at this moment in 1814, he wasn't suggesting a little jaunt. He wanted to be one of the first Englishmen of his generation to make the trip, to be able to say, "Yeah, when I first went to Europe, Napoleon didn't even have the drapes up on Elba." And of course such a trip would equally excite Mary, whose mother had so famously gone to France at a time when such a journey was the height of danger.

But before they could set out, Mary's step-sister Claire figured out what they were planning and demanded to come along if they didn't want her to rat them out. Since Claire spoke French far better than either of them, and undoubtedly hoping he could score a threeway, Percy said, "Sure, the more the merrier."

William and Jane were, unsurprisingly, furious when they found out, and they set out immediately to Calais in pursuit, but once they were in France, they realized there wasn't much they could do without creating a huge scandal with Mary and Claire at the center, so they ended up slinking back to England.

The trip did not go as well as Percy had expected. Europe was recovering from two decades of near-constant warfare, and prices were still sky-high. The money he'd brought from England turned out to be nowhere near enough, and after a few weeks they were broke and virtually had to hitch-hike their way back to Britain.

But neither of the girls had any desire to return home and face their parents' wrath, especially since Mary was by now pregnant, so Percy rented lodgings and set up a household with two underage girls, while his actual wife had to move back to her parents. Thankfully Timothy, although no fan of the marriage, was providing Harriet with an allowance. When Percy was hard up for money, he'd return to her and beg her to give him some. This very much did not please her, and when creditors came knocking around, she told them exactly where to find her husband. Mary, who was so besotted with Percy that she couldn't comprehend that he was a no good, two-timing grifter, lashed out at Harriet in her diary: "Harriet sends her creditors here; nasty woman. Now we shall have to change our lodgings."

But Mary soon learned that Percy was less than perfect herself. Percy had abandoned Harriet because he didn't want to be tied down with domestic affairs, and his feelings didn't change now that Mary was pregnant. Rather than sit around the house and wait on her, he decided to go off and party down, and if Mary wasn't up for that, he'd take Claire along instead. In his stead, Percy invited his old friend Hogg to stay with Mary, hoping the two would become lovers and thus negate any recriminations against him for screwing Claire. Hogg for his part was totally down with this -- he seems to have had an almost compulsive desire to stick his dick wherever Percy's had gone before -- but Mary hadn't bought into the idea of free love any more than Harriet had. She seems to have developed an emotional attachment to Hogg, but never took it beyond that.

In any event, Mary's pregnancy was short lived. She gave birth two months premature, and the child died within a week. Mary was left bereaved, all the more so because Percy continued his jaunts with Claire and her father still refused to talk with her -- though he did contact Percy occasionally to beg for money. The only people she had to comfort her were Hogg and Fanny, who braved her step-father's wrath and a howling thunderstorm to walk across London to stay with Mary.

Percy did come back around once Mary was recovered and able to be intimate with him again, and in just a few months Mary was pregnant with her second child.

This time, though, she'd learned her lesson. She insisted that Percy stay at her side, and she arranged for him to send Claire on a getaway to a seaside resort. Unfortunately this was in the days before Ibiza was a thing, so this meant sending her to a British beach, and British beaches are about the least appealing to be found between Tierra del Fuego and the Outer Hebrides. Claire only stayed a short while before she decided "Screw this" and headed back to London.

But her goal wasn't to get back with Percy and Mary, nor to reconcile with her parents.

No, Claire figured if she couldn't have Percy, she'd go one better.

She'd lay Lord Byron.

NEXT TIME: A Scandal at Lake Geneva

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