The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, along with her step-sister Claire Clairmont and their two little children, spent the summer of 1818 in the resort town of Bagni di Lucca, in Italy.
Naturally, their lovely villa came equipped with a cook and housemaid. They also had a nursemaid for the children. Mary's favourite nursemaid, the Swiss nanny Elise, was in Venice looking after Claire Clairmont’s daughter by Lord Byron, but an English girl named Milly stayed with them in Bagni di Lucca. And they had a man-servant, an Italian named Paoli Foggi.
Foggi was more or less in charge of running the household, dealing with tradesmen, doing the shopping and so forth. When Shelley and Claire Clairmont decided to go to Venice because she was worried about leaving her daughter Allegra in Byron’s custody, Foggi went to the nearby town of Lucca to arrange for transportation.
By the winter of 1819, the Shelleys were unhappy with Foggi, and dismissed him. Mary Shelley later explained that he had been stealing from them and furthermore, the nursemaid Elise Duvillard had “formed an attachment” to him; in other words, he’d gotten her pregnant and “we had them married.”
In recalling these events, Mary Shelley wrote that Elise was “in danger of a miscarriage” when she married Paolo Foggi. The newly-married couple left the Shelleys’ service and went to Rome. Was Elise pregnant when she left? Had she miscarried? Or did she deliver her baby in Naples before leaving for Rome? If she had given birth to a living baby that winter, then Foggi could not have been the father, as Elise was in living in Venice most of the previous year, looking after Allegra.
In June 1820 Shelley told his friends the Gisbornes: “The rascal Paolo [Foggi] has been taking advantage of my situation at Naples in December 1818 to attempt to extort money by threatening to charge me with the most horrible crimes.”
Shelley does not specify what this “situation” was but it probably involves his Neapolitan “ward” Elena Adelaide.
The odd thing about this, which I've never seen any biographers discuss, is that successful blackmailers say, “give me money or else I will spill the beans.” But Foggi and Elise had already spilled the beans—they had already told the English-consul general in Venice, Richard Hoppner, that Shelley had gotten Claire pregnant, attempted to abort the child in Venice, then she gave birth and they abandoned the baby in Naples. Hoppner was so scandalized by this gossip that he wrote Lord Byron:*
“at the time the Shelleys were here [in Venice] [Claire] was with child by Shelley: you may remember to have heard that she was constantly unwell, & under the care of a Physician, and I am uncharitable enough to believe that the quantity of medicine she then took was not for the mere purpose of restoring her health. I perceive too why she preferred remaining alone at Este notwithstanding her fear of ghosts & robbers, to being here with the Shelleys.” The lurid details are here, on page 20 (pdf). Hoppner says, "This account we had from Elise (the nursemaid) who passed here this summer..."
On June 15, Shelley made a flying visit to Livorno, then came back to Pisa and ordered Mary to pack up--they moved to Livorno. (Claire was living with an old friend from England at this point).
Shelley biographers repeat the explanation that Shelley and Mary Shelley gave to the Gisbornes: They needed the services of their lawyer Frederico Del Rosso in Livorno because Paolo Foggi sent “threatening letters saying he would be the ruin of [Shelley] and “laid an information” that is, laid some charges against Shelley. Del Rosso dealt with it somehow and Foggi was ordered to leave Livorno “in four hours.”
Was it that easy to "crush" and silence a lowly servant who was making life unpleasant for a high-born Englishman? And how would ordering Foggi to get out of town prevent him from spreading his rumours or attempting blackmail? Rather, it would ensure that he would be even angrier. If he had travelled from Naples, to Rome, to Venice and then to Livorno, why would being told to get out of Livorno shut him up? This doesn’t make much sense to me. But this is the version given in Shelley biographies.
However, it appears the only source Shelley scholars have for the Foggi blackmail plot is the letters Percy and Mary Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes. No threatening letters have survived and unfortunately neither have Del Rosso’s office files. So we have Shelley, at the exact same time he gets word that Elena Adelaide is very ill and may be dying, telling his wife, “Honey, we've got to move to Livorno right away. That pest, Paolo Foggi. has been sending me threatening letters.” (The Gisbornes were in England at that time, so the Shelleys moved into their empty house.)
Then Shelley comes back from the lawyer’s office and tells her, “Problem solved, honey. The lawyer told Foggi to get out of town.” Mary Shelley believes him and that’s what she writes to the Gisbornes.
We know Shelley was hiding his arrangements about Elena Adelaide from Mary. He sent money for Del Rosso to pay for “expenses in Naples,” via the Gisbornes, and he told them, “If it is necessary to write again on the subject of Del Rosso” to send a letter to the post office for “Mr. Jones” and he would pick it up there. However, now the Gisbornes were out of town and he had no-one to communicate with Del Rosso on his behalf. He seems to have genuinely very saddened and concerned about her, and this explains, I think, why he high-tailed it to Livorno. We know that at this time he told Del Rosso that if the baby survived her illness, he wanted to have her sent to him.
In my forthcoming novel, A Different Kind of Woman, I have given the Shelleys some information of their own with which to threaten Foggi, to get him to be quiet.
A year later, Shelley visited Lord Byron and Byron showed Shelley the letter from the Hoppners that he'd received eleven months before, detailing the rumours about Shelley and Claire and an abandoned baby. The result was two remarkable letters, one from Shelley to Mary and one from Mary Shelley to Mrs. Hoppner, which we’ll take a closer look at in the next post.
Next: “That my beloved Shelley should stand thus slandered!”
Shelley biographer Richard Holmes writes at length about the Elise/Claire/Elena Adelaide/Shelley mystery in his biography of Shelley and also in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He believes Paolo Foggi began blackmailing Shelley as soon as Elena Adelaide died, but this means he would have got word of the girl's death weeks before Shelley did. If Foggi was in Livorno the same time Shelley was, how would he hear the news sooner? Shelley had a lawyer looking after his affairs and it still took at almost a month for him to hear the news. Livorno is 525 kilometres from Naples, If Foggi was in Naples when the baby died, how did he get to Livorno so quickly? Mary Shelley's diary indicates that Shelley told her about Paolo's blackmail plot on the 13th of June. My alternate theory is that Shelley got a letter from Del Rosso letting him know that he had heard from Naples and the baby was very ill, and he made up the story about Paolo Foggi. In some future post, I might write about how this fits into Shelley's life-long persecution complex.
May 1820 or earlier- Elise spills beans to Hoppners
June 9, 1820 -- Elena Adelaide dies
Late June 1820 - Shelley receives word that Elena is very ill, does not know she is already dead
June 1820 – Shelley receives letters from Paolo, threatening to spill the beans?
Sept. 1820 – Hoppners tell Byron about the beans which were spilled
August 1821 – Shelley visits Byron and sees Hoppner letter
In my forthcoming novel, A Different Kind of Woman, I have provided some answers to these mysteries. Update: I have also excerpted and expanded my story about Shelley and this literary mystery in a separate novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady. Love my cover by Dissect Designs!
Previous posts in this series:
Shelley and the Mysterious Lady
Shelley: Pursued or Pursuer?
In the Deep Wide Sea of Misery
Who was Elena Adelaide?
A Falsified Birth Certificate
What happened to Elena Adelaide?