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Mary Shelley, Part III

As you’ll recall from Part I and Part II, Mary Shelley eloped at 16 with Percy Bysse Shelley, and (rather out of the ordinary) her step-sister Claire. They lived in a V that involved a lot of moody, jealous behavior by Percy, until rumors that Claire was his lover, and not Mary’s companion, became public, rather than shared with only a few cutting edge romantic era writers with their own scandal, caused her to leave their household. We’ve reviewed what advice a substantial polyamorous community, rather than a couple 20-to-30-year-old books on free love as a philosophy, would have had for the trio, and especially for Mary; let us now turn to the last known chapter of their nonmonogamous journey.

First, Claire refused to be married off, and decided, despite his attempt to ‘ghost’ her, to reappear in Byron’s household now that Percy’s jealousy would not be an obstacle. He was well-off enough to support an extra person, and they briefly became lovers again. She had a child that he acknowledged and helped pay for the care of, although he ejected Claire from his house while doing this, and she refused a second attempt to marry her off for respectability, and remained a staunch defender of the principles of radical free love her entire life. Her child died of illness and she moved to live in a small community of women who had been students of Mary Wollstonecraft during her life, and remained there for the rest of her days.

In late 1821/early 1822, the Shelleys were joined by a couple with whom they openly shared a great deal of affection, Edward and Jane Williams. They had previously known the Williamses in an expatriate artist community they were briefly part of with Claire, but it is unknown whether and unlikely that anything but a friendship started then; this took place in the year between back-to-back pregnancies and child deaths at weeks of age for Mary, a time when she was ill-disposed to do more than chat with anyone, and when Percy was deeply wrapped up in Claire in hours not spent writing. In 1822, sharing a house, however, it is definitely known to history that an affair between Percy and Jane took place: he wrote her a significant number of love poems, and that they became lovers is generally assumed.

Biographers often have trouble understanding how both couples remained extremely close friends; some assume this is because Mary (who had been so jealous of Claire) was finally engaging in an affair of her own with Edward, and others that it was simply that the women were legitimately good friends with one another, as were the men, and so they found it harder to be petty, jealous, or angry about the situation. Nonetheless, nothing is written down to prove it one way or another. It may or may not have been some form of “traditional” quad in an X formation, it may have been an “N” connected by the affair between Percy and Jane. Mary was pregnant and suffered an early miscarriage in June, but seems to have borne it better than previous miscarriages and child deaths in infancy, partially because of Jane’s emotional support, and maybe also Edward’s, as he is mentioned often in her journals at the time, though never with any “incriminating” information of an affair.

This story has an incredibly sad ending; Percy and Edward died together in a boating accident just 6 weeks later, in July 1822. Mary dedicated her life to writing, raising their son, and rehabilitating Percy’s reputation to highlight his writing talent; editing his poetry written to other women to be generically to “a woman,” adjusting things to hide the degree of his atheism and radical belief in free love, and becoming his first heavy editor and biographer to get his work a larger readership who aren’t artistic radicals.

The advice and commentary a modern polyamorous community might have had for our characters here might include:

  1. Mary, we’ve been trying to ask you every time, are you sure you want to be doing this? Generally, evidence from what remains of her journals indicates that she was idealistic about free love until it applied to her life; she was monogamous and stuck in a mono-poly relationship she had no tools to handle except a 20 year old book her parents wrote, and her husband and metamour who deeply believed in its ideals telling her she should too. A modern community could offer resources for being in a mono-poly relationship; or advice that sometimes you’re incompatible even if you love someone and that’s OK.

  2. Claire, Amazing job upholding your boundaries and ideals. A+. Byron, ejecting but monetarily supporting people who prove the open secret that you’re desperately scandalous isn’t nice, but at least you gave them money? C-.

  3. If you found a person you also loved and understood this feeling, and felt compersion for once, Mary, with the Williamses, we are so happy for you. We’d like to offer some resources for when you don’t love your metas, still, but being besties with a metamour might have been what you needed then.

  4. The two of you being there to help each other grieve when you lost your loves was probably very much what you needed; today we’d probably suggest some therapy, too; spending more than half your life making your late husband more famous (admittedly, while doing some of her own best writing as well, although her most famous was done) might not be the healthiest way to deal with your grief.

So, guys, this has been one of my favorite examples from literary history of Non-monogamy that could have gone so much better if information and resources we have now were available to the authors involved. Even just therapy, as it exists today, would have helped all the steps of this story. But, in three parts, we’ve examined the ways that Percy Bysse Shelley got exactly what he was looking for out of their “free love experiment,” while Mary Shelley lacked the tools and information to set appropriate boundaries for her own needs to be met, over their very tumultuous 7-year relationship before his death.

*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 I

Part II

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