Traveling and Events in Italy

Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, their two young children William Shelley and Clara Shelley, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Claire’s young daughter Allegra Byron left England for Italy on March 11th, 1818, shortly after Frankenstein was published (Hoobler 198). Many major events that shaped Mary’s life occurred during this extended visit to Italy.

The first stop they made was in Milan, where they attended operas and ballets. They stayed in the city for several weeks for Claire’s sake; after this stop Allegra would be taken to her father, writer Lord George Gordon Byron. The group later traveled to Pisa, but decided not to settle there. Instead, they moved on to Leghorn, a city of English immigrants. They stayed in Leghorn for a few weeks but decided not to stay there either. They moved along to Bagi di Lucca and finally settled in a home situated in the mountain there. They even hired an Italian servant named Paolo Foggi (Hoobler 199-201).

Deaths of the Shelley Children

However, the group did not stay together for long. In August, young Allegra became ill and Claire and Percy traveled to Venice to see her, leaving Mary and her children behind. Byron and Percy enjoyed their time together so much that, rather than Percy and Claire returning to Bagi di Lucca, they invited Mary and the children to come to Venice. This was bad timing for Mary, as one-year-old Clara was ill with dysentery, but she decided to make the journey anyway. Clara improved slightly over the next two weeks, but Mary and Percy decided she should be taken to a doctor. Before they arrived, Clara took a turn for the worse and passed away in Mary’s arms in September of 1818. Mary was so upset that she was unable to attend the funeral service. She blamed Percy’s selfishness and concern for Claire rather than his family for Clara’s death (Hoobler 201-205).

Percy, Mary, their son William, and Claire moved on to Rome, then to Naples, where they stayed for the winter. Mary and Percy’s relationship became turbulent. Mary was depressed due to the recent death of her daughter and Percy interpreted this as coldness toward him, and instead of comforting Mary, he often spent his time with Mary’s stepsister, Claire, instead.

During this winter, Percy went to an Italian courthouse to announce the birth of his daughter, Elena Adelaide Shelley. Mary was claimed to be the mother. This statement, however, was false, but to this day, the real mother's identity remains unsolved. A nursemaid with the group later claimed that the child was Claire's, but it seems unlikely that she would give a child up after so recently having to give up Allegra. The baby girl was given to foster parents, but only lived 15 months. Mary never mentioned this incident in her diaries (Hoobler 207).

In 1819, the family moved to Rome. Mary started to come out of her depression and in March she became pregnant once again. Mary's maternal luck, however, would not change, and tragedy struck her once more. William died of Malaria on June 4th of this year (Hoobler 208). Shortly afterward, the childless Mary and Percy returned to Leghorn. Mary once again began to withdraw from Percy. Later in her pregnancy, Mary and Percy traveled to Florence in preparation for Mary to give birth. Percy Florence was born on November 12th, 1819, and while Mary was happy to have a child once again, she constantly feared that he too would be taken from her, and therefore, she was unable to become completely free from her deep depression (Hoobler 217).

In 1820, the group moved to Pisa. Claire left in October, which pleased Mary, and removed the tension between the three. Byron joined them shortly after. Byron and Percy were glad to be able to enjoy each other’s company once again (Hoobler 255). Soon after, the Shelleys moved into a house near the village of San Terenzo. Though Mary and Percy shared the home with several of their friends, Mary felt emotionally disconnected from all of those around her. Percy even went so far as to tell Mary that she did not understand him. On June 16th of 1822, Mary experienced a near fatal miscarriage. Percy saved his wife by suggesting immersing her in ice water to stop her hemorrhaging (Hoobler 263-265).  

Percy Shelley's Death and Aftermath

On July 8th, Percy and his friend Edward Williams went out sailing. Though a passing ship warned them of the upcoming storm, the two continued on. It took a few days for Mary to discover that Percy was missing, and his body was found washed up onshore soon after. Percy and his shipmate were cremated on the beach, a sight too tragic for Mary to witness. Mary felt a tremendous amount of guilt about the poor state their relationship was in at the time Percy died (Hoobler 268-271).  

Shortly after Percy’s death, Mary and Edward Williams’ widow moved to Genoa. However, Percy’s father soon told Mary that he will petition for custody of Percy Florence and refused to give her money to support the child unless they returned to England. Mary agreed to return to London with Percy Florence, closing the chapter on this extremely difficult time in her life (Bennett 65).

Works Produced in Italy and Future Effects

While living in Italy, Mary and Percy worked on several parallel projects. Mary helped Percy write his play The Cenci (1819) and wrote her own fiction about incest, her short story Mathilda (1959). Percy’s work was published, but Mary's father, William Godwin, rejected her manuscript. This was especially shocking due to the fact that Godwin had been continuously asking his daughter for money (Bennett 53).

Valperga was Mary’s next piece. This heavily researched historical novel contained political themes similar to those in Percy’s Promethus Unbound, which was published in 1820.  Another set of works with a power motif are Mary’s dramas Proserpine, published in 1832, and Midas, published in 1922, which she worked on next. Percy wrote the poetry included in these works. Additionally, the tragic events of Mary’s time in Italy affected Mary’s writings for the rest of her life, including the imagery and plot of The Last Man published in 1826 (Bennett 54-65).

Works Cited

Bennett, Betty T. "Italy, 1818-1823." Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. 43-65. Print.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. Print.