My story blends actual events and real people with the characters from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and I'm excited (and a little bit nervous) about sending it out into the world!
Percy Bysshe Shelley was the archetype of the bohemian poet with his unruly flowing locks and his open-necked collar. His disregard for social convention often caused him (and others) grief. For example, he was kicked out of Oxford for writing a pamphlet about atheism, he eloped at 19, and a few years later, left his first wife to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
As Shelley biographer Richard Holmes notes: “It was ironic that the result of [Shelley's] efforts to liberate himself and those around him from the trammels of morality and society” resulted in “an almost total entrapment in the complications of his daily existence.”
One of the complications of his life involved a mysterious woman. Or did she even exist?
Shelley claimed that the mysterious lady was willing to leave her husband and children for him, if he would love her as she loved him. Shelley told Medwin he thanked her but refused, owing to his commitment to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, whom he later married.
The story didn't end there: Shelley claimed the mysterious lady followed him through Europe, spied on him from a distance, and in the winter of 1818, revealed herself to him in Naples. There, in Naples, she died.
Even though Shelley scholars hold Medwin's veracity in low esteem, it seems undeniable that Shelley must have told Medwin some version of this tale, because we know that Shelley also told Lord Byron about the mysterious lady.
Counsel for the defence might, at this juncture, mention that Shelley was addicted to laudanum and he sometimes hallucinated. His friends acknowledged his tendency to embellish events, but they usually stopped short of calling him an outright liar. He just got carried away with his poetic sensibilities so that he could not always distinguish fantasy from reality.
I suggest that his friend Thomas Love Peacock's satirical novel Nightmare Abbey contains either an echo of the story, or is the origin of the story which Shelley adapted as truth. Peacock satirised Shelley in the novel as an idealistic writer named Scythrop who writes a pamphlet “which he thought would set the whole nation in a ferment; and he awaited the result in awful expectation, as a miner who has [lit the fuse] awaits the explosion of a rock. However, he listened and heard nothing.”
Here, Peacock is poking affectionate fun at Shelley's real life disappointment over the lack of response to “Queen Mab,” his first epic poem in which he laid out his theory of mankind, government, war and peace, economics, marriage, vegetarianism, the universe and everything. While the poem later became influential with the radical working class, at the time of its publication, it did not spark his hoped-for revolution.
Did Peacock's tale, published in 1818, inspire Shelley to fabricate a romance with a mysterious lady? It was supposedly Queen Mab that attracted the mysterious lady to offer herself to Shelley. Or, was there really a mysterious lady and did Shelley tell Peacock about her before he left England for Italy? Which parts of the tale are true and which is embellished?
Shelleys cousin Medwin thinks the mysterious lady was real and that she inspired some of Shelley's most heart-rending poetry, including “Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples.” Medwin wrote: “Shelley told me that his departure from Naples was precipitated by [the death of the mysterious lady].”
In Shelley's version, he is the one pursued and the mysterious lady is the pursuer. He rejects her because of his loyalty to his wife. But is this part of the tale consistent with what we know about Shelley and his relationships with women? My next post will explore this question.
Post two: Shelley: Pursued or Pursuer?
Update: I have excerpted and expanded by story about Shelley and this literary mystery in a stand-alone novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady. Click here for more about the book. Love my cover my Dissect Designs. Available as an e-book.
Update July 2023: I'm starting a new mini blog series on Percy Bysshe Shelley and the mysterious doings in Wales.