In March 1814, after returning to England from her second visit to the Baxters, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a fan of her father's who had become a frequent visitor to the Godwin home.
Shelley, 22, was a poet and idealist who had been kicked out of Oxford for circulating radical pamphlets. He was wealthy, hailing from the well-to-do home of a member of Parliament who disapproved of his son's liberal ideas. He was also married to a woman named Harriet Westbrook, with whom he had one young child and another on the way. Despite the circumstances, Shelley and Mary Godwin fell in love. And when two willful young idealists fall in love - well, watch out.
On 28 July 1814, sixteen-year-old Mary and 22-year-old Percy ran away together to continental Europe, with Mary's stepsister Claire in tow. While the young lovers frolicked through Europe, London gossiped like mad over the scandal. William Godwin was furious and refused to see his daughter (a somewhat hypocritical reaction, given that Godwin was an outspoken opponent of marriage who had married Mary's mother only after she was pregnant). Percy Shelley's wife Harriet was not too pleased, either.
Mary, Percy and Claire Clairmont returned to London in September. Mary was pregnant. The unmarried couple was also penniless and virtually shunned by "respectable" society. Mary's dear friend Isabel Baxter was forced by her parents to cut off contact with her. William Godwin refused to see them. Shelley went into hiding for a few months to escape from his many creditors.
The drama didn't end there. Both Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley were believers in free love. With each other's permission, Mary flirted with Shelley's best friend Thomas Hogg, and Shelley was possibly having an affair with Mary's stepsister Claire. Oh, and Harriet Shelley, the woman to whom Percy was still legally married, gave birth to their second child. Are you starting to see why London society couldn't stop talking about these people?
On 22 February 1815, Mary gave birth to a premature baby girl who died after only a few weeks. In January 1816, she gave birth to the couple's second child, a son named William. By that time, Mary's stepsister Claire had become the mistress of Shelley's good friend and fellow poet Lord Byron (who of course was also married, and had a long history of both male and female lovers). In May 1816, the whole crazy party - Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and a pregnant Claire - took off to Switzerland to spend the summer holiday. Literature would never be the same.