And Other Adventures
Mary had several other experiences—let’s call them “adventures”—following her return to England. We’ve just spent considerable time with her (failed) pursuit of Washington Irving, who left England in the midst of it all—about as clear a clue as a lover could have that love, in this case, was a narrow sidewalk accommodating only one.
But before we move on, we need, perhaps, to refresh our understanding of Mary’s current situation early in 1826 after the Headless Horseman had ridden way. She was twenty-eight years old, a widow, dependent almost entirely on the reluctant largesse of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, who was purely bitter about the death of his son (five and a half years earlier) and about what he saw as the corrosive influence of Mary’s father, William Godwin. Bysshe Shelley had loved Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793, a long and radical (for the time—for any time, really) tract about the ways Godwin would rearrange things were he not King for a Day but King-in-Perpetuity.
The book is jammed with things that would have assailed the very foundations of Sir Timothy’s beliefs. A couple of examples.
• Writing about human equality: We should endeavour to afford to all the same opportunities and the same encouragement, and to tender justice the common interest and choice. This is clearly a principle that annoys some people—many people—today. But for Sir Timothy? Who lived in a society highly organized by wealth and rank and privilege? The vilest heresy.
• Writing about marriage: The method is for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other, for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow eternal attachment. … The abolition of the present system of marriage appears to involved no evils. Inspired, in part, by these words, Bysshe in 1814 had left his wife, Harriet, fled to Europe with two teenage girls (Mary and Claire Clairmont), and so horrified his father that he refused all direct communication with him.
Sir Timothy blamed Godwin for this. Showered more of his disdain on Mary, whom he viewed as a dark disciple of her father. He and Mary never in her life met—although, eventually, as we’ve seen, he began contributing some minimal sums for the care and education of his legal grandson, Percy Florence Shelley, Mary’s sole surviving child, who, at the dawn of 1826, had just turned eight years old.
And there are other factors in Mary’s life that we should review before we proceed …