X. SHELLEY PATER FAMILIAS: 1816–18

On September 8, 1816, Shelley, Mary, their child William, his Swiss nurse Elise Foggi, and Claire Clairmont reached England. All but Shelley went to Bath; he hurried to London, expecting to find there five hundred pounds from his father. None came, and he had to default on his promise to give three hundred pounds to his desperate father-in-love. Godwin fumed; Shelley fled to his lawless mate in Bath.

There, on September 26 and October 3, Mary received tender letters from her half sister Fanny Godwin. Born in France in 1794, Fanny was the “natural” daughter of Captain Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft. She had been adopted by Godwin on his marriage to her mother. Despite his kindness she had been unhappy under the unwilling care of his second wife, Mrs. Clairmont. Her letters reveal a gentle soul, bearing misfortune bravely, blaming no one, and timidly eager to please. Mary had been sisterly to her, but after Mary and Claire went off with Shelley Fanny had no protection against her stepmother. When the elopers returned to England their precarious finances did not encourage them to add Fanny to their fold. On October 12 Shelley brought to Mary and Claire the news that Fanny had gone to Swansea, secluded herself in a hotel room, and killed herself with opium.

The Furies had little mercy on Shelley. On returning to England he had inquired about his wife, to whom he was still legally bound. He learned that she was living with her father, and was regularly receiving four hundred pounds a year. In November he sought to visit her, but was told that she had disappeared. On December 12, 1816, the Times reported that her body had been recovered, two days before, from the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.

Anxious to get custody of his offspring by Harriet—daughter Ianthe and son Charles—Shelley hurried to legalize with marriage his union with Mary (December 30, 1816). Through three months his claim for the children dragged on in the Court of Chancery. Mary assured him that she would be “very happy to receive those darling treasures”—the children of Harriet—under her care. But Harriet’s father and sister contested Shelley’s claim on the grounds that he was an avowed atheist and a disbeliever in legal marriage, who had deserted his wife and eloped with an unmarried woman; such a man, they argued, was not likely to bring up the children in a manner fit for life in England. The court disallowed the argument from theology, but recognized the others, and decided against Shelley (March, 1817). However, his choice of foster parents was sanctioned by the court, and he agreed to contribute one hundred twenty pounds a year for their maintenance.

While her husband was litigating in London, Mary watched over Claire Clairmont, who, still only nineteen, gave birth (January 12, 1817) to a daughter ultimately named Allegra. Claire’s letters to Byron, since leaving Switzerland, had not been answered, though Shelley’s were; and the thought that Byron would never acknowledge the child drove the mother to despair. Shelley appealed to Byron for instructions, taking care to stress Allegra’s beauty. Byron agreed to take and care for the child if she were brought to him. Mary complicated matters (September, 1817) by giving birth to her second child, who was baptized Clara Everina. Mother and child ailed, and soon all the adults agreed that what the family needed was the warmth and sky and fruits of Italy. On March 11, 1818, they crossed to France, and began the long ride, by mal-de-mer coaches, to Milan.

Thence Shelley sent Byron an invitation to come and see Allegra. Fearing that this might lead to a renewed liaison with Claire, Byron refused; instead, he suggested, her nurse should take the child to Venice, and if the adoption plan proved satisfactory, the mother should be free to visit Allegra now and then. Claire reluctantly consented. Byron found the little girl so lovely and lovable that he took her into his palace; but Allegra was so frightened by his animals and concubines that Byron soon paid Richard Hoppner, British consul, and his wife, to take the child into their home.

Hearing of this, Shelley and Claire (leaving Mary and her children at Lucca) went to Venice, and found Allegra reasonably well treated. Byron received Shelley cordially, took him on a gondola ride to the Lido, and invited him and his family, with Claire and Allegra, to stay as long as they liked in Byron’s villa, I Cappuccini, at Este. Mary came from Lucca with her children, but Clara Everina sickened on the way, and died in Venice (September 24, 1818). On October 29, after a month’s stay in I Cappuccini, they bade goodbye to Allegra, and headed south for Rome.

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