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Eleanor Bryan

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On this Day in 1819: Mary Shelley writes of her son’s illness

In the summer of 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin embarked upon a whirlwind romance that would shape her life forever. Her relationship with Percy Shelley spanned approximately 9 years until his untimely death in the Gulf of Spezia, where he tragically drowned. During this time, Mary was almost always either pregnant or breastfeeding. Motherhood preoccupied her and her journals reveal both the overwhelming love she felt towards her children and the crushing despair she felt when they passed away.

Her first child, Clara, was born prematurely and lived only a few days. Mary recounts a recurring dream in which she was able to resuscitate her baby: “Dreamt that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived – I awake & find no baby – I think about the little thing all day”. Mary’s second child, William, affectionately known as ‘Willmouse’, was born in January 1816 and was a few months old when Mary, Percy, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont travelled to Geneva, where she began writing Frankenstein. According to the novel’s 1831 preface, Frankenstein also came to Mary Shelley in a dream, and the story’s interest in resurrection can arguably be attributed to not only contemporary Georgian concerns such as galvanism, but also Mary’s personal desire to revive her deceased daughter.

In the following year, after the group’s return to England, Clara Everina was born. Despite securing a 21 year lease, the family stayed in Albion House in Buckinghamshire for only a year before departing for Europe once again, this time to Italy. Sadly, the journey proved to be too much for Clara Everina, who tragically died in Venice.

Nine months after Clara’s death, on this day 200 years ago, Mary sat down to write in her journal: “William is very ill”, she wrote, immediately seeming to dismiss her concern by commenting that he got “better towards the evening”. Claire Clairmont elaborated upon this in a letter, identifying his illness as a “complaint of the Stomach”. Two days later, Mary added a postscript to this letter saying that William had a high fever and there was now little hope of him surviving.

Oil portrait of William Shelley by Amelia Curran

William died on 7th June aged three and a half years old, four days after Mary’s journal entry. Consumed as she was with the loss of another child, Mary didn’t write another journal entry for two months, although her letters reveal her despair over her loss. Percy, watching as she slipped further into depression, felt isolated from her. In his notebook, he penned a poem imploring her to return to him:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.

For Mary Shelley, motherhood was a gamble that defined and ravaged this period of her life. Five months after William’s death, when she was 21 years old, and part way through writing Matilda, Mary gave birth to her 4th child – Percy Florence Shelley. Her elation and love for her new baby boy was always shadowed by her fear that he too could someday be taken from her. She wrote to Marianne Hunt that “it is a bitter thought that all should be risked on one yet how much sweeter than to be childless as I was for 5 hateful months – Do not let us talk of those 5 months; when I think of all I suffered … I shudder with horror yet even now a sickening feeling steps in the way of every enjoyment when I think – of what I will not write about”.

In spite of her reluctance to write about her loss, Mary’s writings were influenced as much by motherhood and the deaths of her children as they were by her relationship with Shelley and the legacies of her parents. As a motherless child and, repeatedly, a childless mother, parental relationships remained a key theme throughout much of her work and continued to cloud her mind with worry as Percy Florence grew up. In Matilda, she stressed the dangers posed to her protagonist if she were to grow up without a mother; in Frankenstein the monster is rejected by his creator and embarks upon a rampage of destruction as a result. It is therefore unsurprising that, following her husband’s death, when the Shelley family offered to take care of Percy Florence, Mary chose to keep her child. Percy Florence remained close to his mother and lived and travelled with her for much of her life. He inherited the Shelley baronetcy upon the death of his grandfather and he married Jane Gibson. They had no children. While Mary’s maternal legacy ended with her 4th child, her narrative legacy, which she called her “hideous progeny”, has multiplied prolifically and continues to evoke a response in readers and audiences 200 years later.

Works Consulted

  • Betty T. Bennett (ed.), Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
  • Amelia Curran, Oil portrait of William Shelley, 1819, oil on canvas, 50 x 43 cm, Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, <http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/74bc296b-3cab-103b-e040-e00a18062a65>.
  • Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert (eds), The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844: Volume 1: 1814-1822 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • Neil Fraistat, Elizabeth Denlinger and Raffaele Viglianti (gen. eds), The Shelley Godwin Archive, <http://shelleygodwinarchive.org>.
  • Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (London: Hutchinson, 2015).