More about Percy Bysshe Shelley's treatment of Mary ...
And when he eloped with Mary in late July 1814, it became her turn to attach to herself a sail to catch the winds of Shelley’s whimsy and impulsiveness, winds that would carry her to the darkest forests on the darkest island that human beings can ever inhabit.
An untimely death prevented Betty Bennett, the splendid Mary Shelley scholar, from finishing her magnum opus—a major biography of Mary (it would have been published by the Harvard University Press). But she did write a smaller volume for Johns Hopkins University Press, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction (1998).
In it, she deals frankly with Bysshe’s wandering eye—though she does so in the sort of language that—in its density and distance—seems somehow to excuse. P. B. Shelley’s philosophy of expressive rather than exclusive love, she wrote, periodically led him to auxiliary objects of love and inspiration.
Yes, Bysshe’s candle of love for Mary would occasionally flicker—then flare more brightly when other young, attractive women arrived in the room. This would happen repeatedly throughout their eight years together. Betty argued that Mary recognized it, understood it, could deal with it—with the exception of her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, whose close relationship with Bysshe (was it sexual? the critics’ answers vary) often angered Mary.
But—looking back from 2015—Bysshe’s behavior looks insensitive at best—profoundly cruel at worst. After all, he had coaxed Mary away from her father and family, had ruined her reputation, had married her only after his first wife, poor Harriet, committed suicide, had, well, flirted outrageously with other women, seemingly unaware of the deep grief that Mary felt. She’d lost so much. Her father’s affection (at least for a while), young children (a death in infancy, two deaths in early childhood, a near-fatal miscarriage). While Bysshe, their final weeks together, hung with Byron and Trelawny and Edward Williams, sailed in his new boat, glowed whenever he was around Jane Williams, wife of his friend.
In recent years, some biographers have been much harsher with Godwin, with Bysshe Shelley. In her wonderful Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle (2007) scholar Janet Todd drags some of these men close to the fireplace, removes their shoes, resolutely holds their feet to the flames.