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Mary Shelley Would Have Been Happier if She Had a Polyamorous Community

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, has a sordid personal life - or rather, her eventual husband and master of elopements and affairs, Percy Bysse Shelley, did, and she was swept along with him for the seven years of their relationship before he died, believing herself to be following her parents’ advice and philosophies based on books they’d written before her birth. She ran away, at 16 (then a marriageable and “adult”, but just barely adult and young to marry age), with an older man who had left a wife (and their young child, and who was pregnant), as well as her stepsister who was also in love with this older man, to find Europe and a sense of freedom there.

Over the years, she lived in what today would be a V with Percy and Jane Claire (that same stepsister), and then later in what may have been what we’d today call a quad (two couples connected by multiple other relationships) or an N (two couples connected by only one relationship between members of them) with another married couple.* This little series is my thoughts on how much happier Mary would have been if she’d had a community to give her advice, teach her how to make relationship agreements with Percy, and truly follow the proto-polyamorous philosophies espoused in her parents’ 20+ and eventually 30 year old writings on throwing marriage out as a concept and expressing every passion you might feel without guilt.

First, some background. When Mary Shelley (née Mary Godwin) was a girl and coming into young adulthood, she idolized her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died giving birth to her. Mary Wollstonecraft (b. 1759, d.1797), was a revolutionary writer, at least in her thinking and subject matter, not always only for her time, but sometimes still for ours, and got remarkably little attention for her thoughts until the 20th century. This was mostly because people were too busy being scandalized by her personal life. (In some ways, like mother, like daughter, although Frankenstein, at least, got contemporary attention, as did some of the daughter’s other work.) She was a believer in the rights of women, in human rights, in revolution, and in removing both church and state from matters of love. In this last matter, she thought she’d finally found a partner who agreed with her in William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. The two of them both wrote about their belief in why love, essentially, should not be bound to the constraints of marriage, by state or by religion. Young Mary Shelley, in eagerly reading everything her mother ever wrote as the only manner available to connect to her, internalized many of these messages. Her parents’ relationship had, in fact, created a great deal of scandal that her father had to work hard to rehabilitate himself from after Wollstonecraft’s death, and he disavowed all of his own writing on the subject by writing a book idolizing and idealizing marriage ten years later. Despite this, his daughter chose to believe that his true feelings must have been the ones he shared with her mother, and that he must believe these bohemian free-love feelings in his heart, as she now did as a teenager.

So, when Mary Godwin fell rapturously in love with Percy Bysse Shelley, who also had read and believed in her mother’s work and told her it didn’t matter that he was married to a wife he didn’t care about any longer, this felt perfectly natural to her. Adults should be free to enter and leave relationships and marriage contracts as they liked, without any social or legal obligations to them. She, as a young adult in love, should be able to do as she liked with this man who loved her as well. She chose to ignore the fact that he’d been flirting with Claire, the stepsister who came along with them when they eloped, and then was (relatively easily) convinced that under the same free love principles, they should be allowed to have a relationship, although this was admitted to none but a few “forward thinking” friends in correspondence. She began styling herself “Mary Shelley” before his wife committed suicide a few months after their elopement, and they were officially married two weeks after this event, mostly so that they could make peace with her father, who had refused to speak to them until they could be married.

So, here is where the modern community would have had a lot of advice and help available to Ms. Godwin/Mrs. Shelley.

  1. She didn’t take a moment to ask what the first Mrs. Shelley thought about Percy’s free-love opinions. Without consent of his partner, anything but a flirtation becomes unethical.

    1. He worked around that by assuring her that everything was over with the former Mrs. Shelley and that meant all was well. People giving her good advice would probably tell her to give herself slack for believing him because she was young.

    2. A subsection of people, however, would blame her for not bothering to ask, wait to be told, and to not learn enough about him to realize he’d left a pregnant wife with a young child before agreeing to leave with him.

  2. New Relationship Energy (NRE) is quite the drug, and making major life decisions (like getting on a boat to the Continent) under it is generally ill-advised. Waiting to move in together until the NRE wears off will make it more likely you’ll land with someone you’re happy with.

    1. The NRE giving everyone rose-colored glasses probably contributed to Mary not noticing that Claire, her step-sister, was in love with Percy as well, and that Percy was including it. All the more reason to wait until NRE fades.

  3. Someone convincing you that they should take a new lover three months into the relationship? Probably not a big deal. Someone convincing you of that three months into your relationship, when you’re pregnant and in peak morning sickness, because they find that inconvenient? Probably a huge red flag for both you and their new lover.

  4. The new lover they’ve taken being your step-sister with whom you’ve competed for attention most of your lives? A big deal that you’re allowed to have as a dealbreaker. Some negotiation past “I did this - you’re cool with it because we both really like the books your mom and dad wrote that say this is fine” probably should have happened.

    1. Modern day, probably Mary and Percy break up here. The fact that they’ve JUST gotten married about a week before might delay that, even in modern day, but overall? NRE is wearing off, early pregnancy is awful, he hasn’t so much negotiated a change as strong-armed it, and he’s now dating your ultra-competetive functional though not biological sibling? As Twitter says, throw out the WHOLE MAN.

And this is just the beginning. Because this was not the modern day, and there was no one to ask for advice, and she didn’t want to get left alone pregnant, so, she tried to take all that in stride instead. We’ll get to more of this next time; the story is long, and briefly even more problematic.

*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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