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The Young Shelley

Shelley's family background and early poetry and prose

‘My son here has a literary turn, he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks.’

Timothy Shelley, 1810

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a member of the English gentry. His grandfather Sir Bysshe was a wealthy baronet, his father Timothy a Sussex landowner. He was educated at Eton, and when not at school lived in the sheltered confines of the family home, Field Place, surrounded by adoring sisters. When Shelley matriculated at Oxford in 1810 he gave his status as ‘gentleman’s son’.

From an early age Shelley had published both poetry and prose, and Timothy Shelley asked an Oxford bookseller to indulge his son’s ‘printing freaks’. In February 1811 Shelley published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, and was promptly expelled from the University. His marriage shortly afterwards to the sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, and his increasingly unorthodox opinions, estranged Shelley from his family. He became a disciple of William Godwin, and privately distributed further radical pamphlets and a poem, Queen Mab.

In 1814, a few days before his 22nd birthday, Shelley left Harriet and eloped to the Continent with Godwin’s daughter Mary and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont.

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