Oh, the men in Mary's life!
The early biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley and of William Godwin were not all that critical—negatively—of their behavior in their personal lives. Biographers tended to focus on the enduring literary works those men produced, and Godwin’s frankness—even harshness—with his loved ones (and with everyone else, really) and Shelley’s impulsiveness and very active libido—these the biographers treated with an almost winking boys-will-be-boys attitude, even acceptance.
I’ll confess that in the early days of my reading (back in the later 1990s) I generally embraced these attitudes, as well. But as I read more and more (as these pages have indicated, I read every major biography, and many minor ones, of all the principals and even some supporting players, like Byron), I began to question some of the biographers—and, of course, myself. Weren’t Shelley and Godwin and Byron and Trelawny and the other men in Mary’s life, well, kind of dickish?
Let’s just glance at Bysshe Shelley a moment. Blessed with social and political status by birth (his father, Sir Timothy, was a baronet), blessed with a solid income in his future (he was the oldest child, a male, and thus, under English law, the heir to all), he rejected everything his family had taught and given him (well, except for the money, of course) and embarked on a series of escapades that permanently estranged him from his father and family—and from most of the English population at the time.
• At Oxford, he published a pamphlet arguing for atheism. The school promptly expelled Shelley and his co-author, Thomas Jefferson Hogg.
• Denied funds from his family, he borrowed against his future inheritance at ruinous rates, threatening the financial security of all the Shelleys.
• Visiting his younger sister at her boarding school in January 1811(about the same time as On the Necessity of Atheism), he met and so thoroughly charmed Harriet Westbrook (barely 16) that she agreed to elope with him to Scotland, where marriage laws were a bit more relaxed.
• He begins dragging poor Harriet all over the place—Ireland, Wales—involving her in his politically radical (and thus dangerous) enterprises. (I’ve written above about the assassination attempt in Tremadoc, Wales.)
• Enchanted with a correspondent and teacher Elizabeth Hitchener (ten years older than he), he invites her to live with them. She does. (A few months later, he dumps her—after, of course, destroying her reputation.)
• In the spring of 1813, hanging out with his philosophical hero, William Godwin, he meets Mary Godwin, 16, and soon they are an item.