Mary had a world of things to deal with when she returned to London in 1823. She could not have known it, if course, but she had nearly thirty more years to live. Still only twenty-six years old, she had experienced a host of horror that I still find it hard to imagine—the deaths of children, miscarriages, the death of her husband, the deep social opprobrium after her elopement with Bysshe in 1814, the two-year estrangement from her beloved father. And now that she was back in England? More ostracism from a puritanical and unforgiving public, sexist obstacles that lay before her like the Alps (A woman scholar and writer! You can’t be serious!), and—a very pressing problem indeed—money.
As I’ve written before, her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, blamed her for the fall of his son Bysshe and, indeed, for his death (his reasoning: Bysshe would never have been in Italy had he stayed with his first wife, Harriet—whose suicide Sir Timothy no doubt lay at Mary’s feet, as well). Lord Byron had written to Sir Timothy, trying to ease the tension, but Byron, of course, wasn’t living the sort of life that Sir Timothy would have … admired. Or respected. Byron, too, was a Fallen Angel and also bore (in Sir Timothy’s reckoning) some responsibility for the corruption (and death) of his son. So, as I’ve also written earlier, Mary dealt with Sir Timothy only through an intermediary, his attorney, William Whitton. Sir Timothy knew (and bitterly so) that English inheritance laws would assure that Mary and Bysshe’s son, Percy Florence Shelley, would eventually inherit all—he was the legitimate son of Bysshe, the eldest Shelley son. But Sir Timothy would be damned if he would make it easy for Mary.
He did instruct Whitton to arrange some funds for Mary and Percy—the barest minimum of some £100 for her own living expenses and a promise of £100 annually to help with Percy’s care. Mary was initially excited—did this bode well for the future? for an increase? for acceptance into the Shelley family and thus into society?
It would have been easier to squeeze from Mont Blanc the drops of sympathy and money that bitter Sir Timothy gave her. He would not forgive her, would not meet with her, and when he died in 1844—more than twenty years after Mary arrived back in England—Mary had only a half-dozen years remaining in her own life. And she had never met her father-in-law.
So … how would she make money? With her pen. It was all she could do. And so she began.