Gothic Labyrinth

Percy Bysshe Shelley was best known as a poet, but he did write some gothic novels: Zastrozzi, and St. Irvyne; or the Rosicrucian: a Romance. These were heavily influenced by Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya: or The Moor, with which he was quite enraptured and William Godwin's St. Leon. Visiting Godwin in London, Shelley met his 17-year-old daughter, Mary Godwin, and eloped with her, taking along her stepsister Claire. His wife Harriet and their two children were left behind. Once on the continent, he wrote suggesting to Harriet that she and Fanny Imlay (who also loved Shelley) come and join them. Fanny and Harriet remained behind and both killed themselves not long after. Fanny took an overdose of laudanum while Harriet, eight months pregnant, drowned herself in the Serpentine. Fanny's letters blame her stepfather Godwin's Political Justice and the Vampire, Shelley.

Godwin never approved of Shelley, although he milked him unceasingly for money, nearly £5,000 in all, a considerable sum at the time. Godwin's views of free love and antipathy to marriage were quite different when it came to his own family, and he did not appreciate Shelley putting them into practice with his daughters. Not only Mary, but Godwin's two stepdaughters, Fanny and Claire, were in love with Shelley. This is no accident; Shelley was never satisfied with having only one lover and always preferred a ménage à trois. Both of his gothic novels feature a man who is loved by two women at once. (see Peacock's take on this in Nightmare Abbey.)

Shelley had expected both Harriet and Mary to sleep with his friend Hogg, and was willing to share Mary and her sister Claire with Byron. There was considerable scandal about this and mentions in print that Byron had procured two sisters to partake in his revels, clearly a reference to Mary and Claire. In spite of Polidori's later chivalric denials, it is quite likely this happened. Both young women had children out of wedlock, possibly all by Shelley, though Byron took responsibility for Claire's daughter Allegra. After Shelley's death, Mary, though then respectably married, was never accepted socially. Curiously, Shelley and Byron were distantly related, 15th cousins, twice removed, though they were unlikely to have known it. They are also both distant cousins of mine.

Shelley had been expelled from Oxford (where he was known as Mad Shelley) for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. This disgrace was a great disappointment to his family. His school friend T.J. Hogg described his rooms thus: Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols,
linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place....The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were
conspicuous amidst the mass of matter. Much of Victor Frankenstein's character was modelled on Shelley.

Mary lost three of their four children, largely due to Shelley's neglect. Claire bore a child, Elena Adelaide (almost certainly Shelley's), who was fostered out. Claire's first child, Allegra, was attributed to Byron, who had the girl put in a convent where he felt she would be safer. Both Elena and Allegra died young.

Shelley shows many classic traits of the sociopath, including intense narcissism, hypochondria, a carelessness of the feelings of people and animals, an ability to charm when he wanted to please, and to forget completely about people he was no longer interested in (including his own children). Even his death displays his utter disregard for others. It has all the earmarks of a suicide, but was the more selfish as he was not alone on the boat. His companion in death was the husband of Jane, a woman he had been writing love poetry to, either a lover or on Shelley's list of women to seduce.





Shelley was given to sleepwalking, (Dr. Polidori's specialty) and often took laudanum which sometimes caused him to have hallucinations like those at the Villa Diodati. Polidori related how they discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes. This hallucination may have inspired Rossetti's otherwise inexplicable lines And from her breasts the ravishing eyes of Death. For the poet's connection to the Villa Diodati, see Rossetti.

Byron appears as Maddalo and Shelley as Julian in the poem Julian and Maddalo, A Conversation. Maddalo is described as a person of the most consummate genius ... it is his weakness to be proud ... His passions and his powers are incomparably greater than those of other men ... Julian is ... passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind ... a complete infidel and a scoffer at all things reported holy. The child in the poem is Allegra.

Shelley's last summer he suffered from terrible nightmares and visions. He was convinced he had met his double on the terrace; the apparition waved at the sea and asked him: How long do you mean to be content? Another vision was of a naked child (Allegra) who rose out of the sea clapping.

Although Trelawny attempted to teach him, Shelley could not swim. He sank to the bottom of the river and stayed there. After being pulled out, Shelley remarked I always find the bottom of the well and they say truth lies there. In another minute I should have found it, and you would have found an empty shell. It is an easy way to get rid of the body. Shelley drowned shortly thereafter after deliberately setting sail against all advice in a storm, the boat laden with far too much wind-catching canvas. It's not known if Shelley's remarkable recklessness was an attempt at suicide, but it seems very possible. He had already requested from a friend a lethal dose of prussic acid to keep by him in case he decided to end his own life. Polidori had used prussic acid.

Shelley's body was identified by a copy of Keats' poems given to him by Leigh Hunt stuffed into a pocket and folded back at The Eve of St. Agnes. Friends dug the corpse out of its temporary grave and cremated it on the beach, the skin stained blue from lime. Byron asked for the skull, but was denied it--it was feared he would turn it into a drinking vessel, something he had done before.

While Byron swam, the others watched the pyre. Trelawny wrote more wine was poured over Shelley's dead body than he had consumed during his life. This, with the oil and the salt, made the yellow flames glisten and quiver. The heat from the sun and the fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy. The corpse fell open, and the heart was laid bare. The frontal bone of the skull, where it had been struck with the mattock, fell off; and, as the back of the head rested on the red-hot bottom bars of the furnace, the brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled, as in a cauldron, for a very long time. Trelawny snatched the unconsumed heart from the embers and gave it to Leigh Hunt. It took Mary several begging letters to claim it. It was found among her things after her death wrapped up in Shelley's elegy to Keats, Adonais.

Hunt had Cor Cordium inscribed on Shelley's tombstone and Trelawny added these lines from Shelley's favourite play, The Tempest: Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange. Swinburne's poem Cor Cordium was written in his memory.

Shelley's other literary friends included Matthew Lewis, and Thomas Love Peacock. Charles Brockden Brown was one of his favourite authors.

My own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.


You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was without exception the best and least selfish man I ever knew. Byron, after Shelley's death

You were ever still
Among Christ's flock a perilous infidel,
A wolf for the meek lambs -- if you can't swim,
Beware of Providence.

Maddalo to Julian

Gothic Labyrinth