[Thanks to Dr. Carol Thoma for making some valuable corrections]
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792, the first of seven children born to Timothy Shelley, a country squire who became a baronet in 1815 upon the death of his father, Sir Bysshe Shelley. Percy attended Sion House Academy from 1802-4 and then Eton, where the young intellectual and idealist encountered the public school system of "fagging," in which upperclass boys tyrannized their juniors, who ran errands and acted as servants. Afterwards Shelley equated school with prison. Although University College, Oxford, where he enrolled in 1810, came as something of a relief, within a few months he was expelled along with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for refusing to acknowledge or deny authorship of a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.
His father visited him in London after his expulsion, insisting that he renounce his friend Hogg and his beliefs, which included atheism, vegetarianism, free love, and political radicalism; Shelley refused. The resulting estrangement from his father was completed when Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old daughter of a coffee-house keeper. Shelley now sought a vocation: he went to Ireland for a few months to campaign for political reform; his poem "Queen Mab" appeared in 1813. The following year he met his hero William Godwin, the author of Political Justice, and fell in love with his daughter Mary, a radical and an idealist like himself. The daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary later wrote Frankenstein and The Last Man, two novels that remain popular and influential today. Taking along Mary's step-sister Jane Clairmont (daughter of the second Mrs. Godwin), Mary and Percy eloped to Switzerland in July 1814.
An inheritance from his grandfather of £1000 per annum in 1815 alleviated Shelley's financial difficulties, which were often caused by his generosity to others, but his domestic situation became very complex: Harriet, who had already given him a daughter, Ianthe, bore a son, Charles, on Nov. 30, 1814, after Shelley had been living with Mary for several months. A few months later (Feb. 22, 1815) Mary bore a daughter, who lived only a few days, and in January 1816 their son William was born. In 1816, Percy, Mary, and Jane Clairmont (who had reinvented herself as Claire and become Lord Byron's mistress) returned to Geneva, where they met Byron and his friend (and doctor) John Polidori. They visited each other daily and regularly sailed together on the lake. The famous ghost story-telling competition which lead Mary to come up with Frankenstein occurred in June. After they returned to England, Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide in October, and less than a month later, Harriet (apparently pregnant by another man) drowned herself. Shelley married Mary in December but lost custody of his children by Harriet to her family.
In 1818 the Shelleys left England for Italy, where their infant daughter Clara and then their son William died and where Percy Florence was born. Shelley gathered a circle of friends, including Byron, around him. Despite his radical views and despite his habit of falling in love with young women in this circle (like Emilia Viviani and Jane Williams, common-law wife of Edward Williams), Shelley was the peacemaker among them — Byron said that everyone else he knew was a beast compared with Shelley. Returning by sailing yacht from a peacemaking mission on behalf of Byron to Claire Clairmont, Shelley drowned at sea during a fierce storm. Mary Shelley edited his poems and advanced his fame after his death.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000