And then the Italian dream was over. Mary had endured horrible experiences since she’d left England with Bysshe and their children and such grand hopes back in March of 1818. As I’ve noted here before, in Italy she would bury two little children, suffer a miscarriage (not long before Bysshe drowned), watch her husband become enchanted by other women, see him (a non-swimmer) buy a boat and spend much of his time out on it with his buddies.
That fatal summer of 1822, she hated their isolated house near Lerici. She dreaded the thought of Leigh Hunt and his family arriving (there was no room). Claire Clairmont was around from time to time, and their relationship remained fraught with tension and personal history. And now Bysshe was dead, and she was alone with her son, Percy Florence Shelley, not yet three. What now?
Things fell apart.
The Hunts had come to Italy so that Leigh Hunt could edit the journal The Liberal, which Byron and Bysshe had planned. It lasted only four issues. (Mary wrote a couple of pieces for a couple of issues.) But the heart was gone from it; Byron was losing interest. And so it died.
Back in England, Mary knew, there would be no welcome for her and her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Bysshe’s father, had never forgiven her for what he viewed as the destruction of his son’s reputation. He refused to communicate directly with her, a refusal he steadfastly maintained until his death in April 1844 (at age 90!)—more than twenty years after his son’s drowning. Sir Timothy had insisted that all communications must come via intermediaries. And so it did.
Not long after the drowning, Byron wrote to him, asking for help for Mary (whom Byron himself had been assisting). Sir Timothy wrote back with a condition: If she would surrender his grandson to Sir Timothy himself, then … maybe …
Byron suggested that Mary accept the offer. But she would have none of it—a decision that she knew would anger Sir Timothy and make her life even more difficult. She hoped it wouldn’t be for long, though. Sir Timothy was, well, old (born in 1753, he was 68 when his son died). Mary knew that her son was the legal heir to the Shelley fortune: He was born after Bysshe and Mary had finally married, so there was no question—despite Sir Timothy’s bitterness.
Meanwhile, as I said, Byron had taken up another cause—the Greek War for Independence. So he and Trelawny got some uniforms designed and set sail for Greece in July 1823, almost exactly a year after the drownings.
By then, Mary had decided to return to England. And a week after Bryon and Trelawny sailed toward Byron’s death, Mary and her son left for England, overland—with borrowed money. A month later they arrived in London—where some big surprises were awaiting her.
She was twenty-five years old.