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Mary Shelley, Part II

If you recall from last time, Mary Godwin has eloped with Percy Shelley, and become Mary Shelley as soon as his wife dies. Traveling with them is her step-sister, Jane Claire, who has become Percy’s lover in the weirdest V literary history has yet shown me. Here’s what happens next:

Mary, Percy, and Claire (Who alternated Claire and Clara for most of her life, in correspondence and in person, but we’re sticking with the one her mother gave her), lived an itinerant life across Europe, with Mary and Percy writing, and Claire ostensibly Mary’s companion, but more honestly Percy’s lover, for quite a few years. Claire briefly became Lord Byron’s lover as well, which made Percy jealous. (And, poor Claire, Byron stopped answering her letters, doing the 1800s equivalent of ghosting her, as well.) Percy was both the jealous type and rather self-centered; you could tell by which of his loves he was spending more time on whether or not his writing was going well (or selling well) - especially after Frankenstein he spent more time and energy with Mary only if he was immensely confident in his present writing project or his sales, and with Claire otherwise. This difference, in a moody poet, left Mary with rather less time than she desired with her husband for extended periods of time.

Poor Mary was to have the disappointment of either miscarriages or short-lived children in all her pregnancies but one (and in the early 1800s, there were many in the life of a woman who married at 16), and both early and throughout his life, she spent a great deal of time and energy on their son Percy, which also seems to have made the adult Percy jealous. One of the short-lived children was a daughter, Elena, who it was rumored was Claire’s child, but registered as Percy & Mary’s in the town where she was born. This public rumor harmed the relationship between the step-sister-metamours still more than the time and attention differences, both because the household was trying to grieve a child, and because it required the marrying-off of Claire away from their household, or at least her ejection from it, which hurt both Claire and Percy, but also his mood and the tone of his time with Mary.

So, here, where are the lessons they might have received if they found a community to advise the ladies, but especially Mary?

  1. You’re dating a man-baby who doesn’t communicate and is pitting you against each other when he’s pouty - either help him learn some skills and security around his own writing, or give up and go find some better partner(s).

  2. The One Penis Policy your husband is trying to enforce and getting really mad when he can’t is a bad look. Have you actually agreed to it or is it just a status quo that you’re too often pregnant to maintain? (Here, we also have to consider that the time period also makes it harder to object to anything and be A Good Wife, but today, a woman as educated as Mary would definitely get and follow advice to clarify relationship agreements, and advocate for her own equality, and that Claire would probably get her backup despite their issues in maintaining boundaries about her autonomy in making her own relationship agreements.)

  3. A modern community would have advice on what to do if you’re unexpectedly “outed” before you planned to tell people about your polyamory that would have helped Claire and Percy a lot. If they didn’t, they’d have advice for Mary on how to handle supporting her husband through that breakup, because her doing the 19th century equivalent of singing “ding dong the witch is dead” when her sister left the household helped no one. (It appears to have been a great catharsis for her, but decidedly didn’t help her relationship with Percy.)

  4. They’d also have strategies for how to work with metamours you don’t much get along with, including parallel polyamory, that didn’t work as a strategy then because of the difficulties in being an itinerant household of writers plagued by debts and finding ways to keep Claire nearby through all those moves requiring sharing a home. In a modern context, they probably would be advised to separate living spaces, which would be much more possible for a single woman than it was now.

The story doesn’t end here, Claire and Lord Byron mostly cease to feature in Mary’s life, but there is more for everyone, and it’s the least certain part of Mary’s story, though there’s advice to be given in either case. We’ll return to that in Part III.

*Note: The biography I use as my source for life events is Romantic Outlaws, a joint biography of the two Marys, Wollstonecraft and Shelley, that includes analysis of how their outlooks and actions on beliefs about the necessity or lack thereof of knowledge affected the lives of both women.

Part III

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