Study Guide

Mary Shelley Tragedy

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Almost as soon as Mary Godwin conceived of her hideous creature, her world began to fall apart.

On 9 October 1816, Mary's troubled half-sister Fanny Imlay Godwin checked herself in to a hotel in Wales and committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum. Two months later, Percy Shelley's wife Harriet threw herself into a river and committed suicide as well. This latter tragedy allowed Percy and Mary to make their relationship legal. On 30 December 1816, Percy Shelley and a pregnant Mary Godwin married in London. Because of his outspoken beliefs in free love, Shelley was not granted legal custody of his children with Harriet Westbrook.

In May 1817, Mary Shelley gave birth to the couple's third child, a daughter named Clara Everina. Shortly after the birth she published a book about her 1814 elopement with Shelley entitled History of a Six Weeks' Tour. It had the effect of reminding everyone of what a scandalous thing the Shelleys had done three years earlier. The Shelley family decided to quit England for a while and move to Italy. Mary Shelley arrived with her husband and children in March 1818 and stayed for several years. During this time, both the Shelleys' literary fame grew, though Mary was usually overshadowed by her better-known husband. Her novels and stories did not bear her name, only "The Author of Frankenstein."

Italy proved to be the site of Shelley's greatest heartaches. In September, six months after they arrived, Clara Everina contracted dysentery and died. In June 1819, her three-year-old son William died of malaria. Now Mary and Shelley had no living children, though she was pregnant with their fourth. She became deeply depressed. Their son, Percy Florence, was born 12 November 1819. He was the only one of the couple's four children to outlive his parents. A fifth child miscarried later.

On 8 July 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia while sailing with a friend. The poet was a month shy of his thirtieth birthday. Mary Shelley was devastated. She had her husband's body cremated. Shelley was now a widow with a small child and no way to support herself. In 1823, following the publication of her novel Valperga, she sailed back to England.

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