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Shelley and Mary

The major events and tragedies of the eight years Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley spent together in England and Italy

‘If you were my friend, I could tell you a history that would open your eyes; but I shall certainly never make the public my familiar confidant.’

Shelley to Robert Southey, 1820

Shelley and Mary lived together for eight years, the last four in Italy. They were years of great creativity, but were fraught with tragedy and scandal. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, drowned herself after he left her for Mary. In the subsequent court case Shelley lost custody of their children. Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, also committed suicide, while her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, had a daughter by Lord Byron, Allegra, who died aged five. Two of Shelley’s and Mary’s children died in infancy during the family's restless travels around Italy.

The dramas of these years are preserved in private letters and journals, some of which are shown here. Written in times of great stress, they record the most painful emotions, and encourage anyone who reads them to apportion blame. For years the Shelleys’ son and daughter-in-law guarded them closely, seeking to protect the images of Shelley and Mary we see in the portraits: smiling, ethereal, other worldly.

Shelley expected posterity to judge him as a poet. The court, he said, was ‘a very severe one’, and he feared the verdict would be ‘guilty death’. For over a century other, equally severe courts have tried him for his personal behaviour, and delivered their verdicts.

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Bodleian Libraries

Broad Street

Oxford

OX1 3BG