In mid-August, Shelley and Claire abruptly left for Venice. Claire was anxious to see her little daughter Allegra, the result of a brief and one-sided fling with Lord Byron.
Claire had unhappily and unwillingly given custody of the baby to Byron. She was essentially destitute, he was rich; she was obscure, he was famous, she trusted he could give the child a better life and she was grateful he acknowledged paternity. Mary Shelley generously gave up her children’s Swiss nurse-maid so Allegra could have a familiar face taking care of her when she was sent to a father she'd never known.
Shelley biographers state that Claire insisted on going to Venice because the Shelleys had received alarming letters from the nurse-maid, advising them that Byron had casually handed off Allegra to the British consul-general and his wife, while he was busy debauching himself all over Venice.
Once in Venice, Shelley wrote to Mary and asked her: "Well tell me, dearest Mary, are you very lonely?.... What acquaintances have you made?” In fact, the Shelleys deliberately hung back from making new acquaintances. They held Italians in contempt and didn't think much better of their fellow English tourists. The feeling was mutual: because the Shelleys were non-conformists and Shelley was an avowed atheist, respectable people shunned them. The modern equivalent would be socialist vegans setting up a small commune in some middle-class community, with rumours going around that they practised free love.
Did Shelley ask Mary about new acquaintances because he was worried she was lonely in his absence, or was he worried that she might meet someone he didn’t want her to meet?
Three days later, Shelley wrote to Mary Shelley again and told her to leave Bagni di Lucca and come to him immediately because Byron offered to let them live in his country villa in Este, and he would permit Allegra to come visit with them there. Mary complied, even though their baby girl was ill.
Picture a six days' journey in a carriage, with no air-conditioning, on rough roads, in Italy in August with a very sick baby.
Some historians have explained that Shelley needed to get Mary to Este in a hurry because Claire was desperate to spend time with baby Allegra, but Byron wouldn't let the child visit with Claire unless Mary Shelley was also in residence. But while Mary was making her arduous and miserable journey, Shelley admitted to Byron that Mary was not with him, as he had implied, rendering that hasty and miserable journey unnecessary.
It's odd, anyway, that Mary's presence was so crucial because Byron thought the Shelleys were abysmally poor parents who half-starved their children. Would a week or more have made such a difference? Why was Shelley so insistent on hurrying?
Poor baby Clara contracted dysentery. She survived the six day trip to Este, but was very weak.
A few weeks later Shelley left Mary behind again and went to Padua with Claire, ostensibly in search of a good doctor for her. He wrote to Mary and ordered her to bring the baby to Padua. Then they went on to Venice, to consult Lord Byron's doctor. The baby did not survive the trip. She died in her mother's arms.
What accounts for Shelley's urgent insistence that Mary come from Bagni di Lucca immediately, despite little Clara being ill?
I provide a new answer in my forthcoming novel, A Different Kind of Woman.
Next: Who was Elena Adelaide?