According to Shelley, the mysterious lady was the pursuer, it was she who adored him. This notion of being the one pursued recurs in Shelley's retrospective descriptions of the important relationships in his life.
One undeniable fact about Shelley was that he had a tendency to fall violently, passionately in love, and to persuade himself that the object of his adoration was the sum total of human perfection. As Paul Johnson wrote in Intellectuals: “Shelley's love was deep, sincere, passionate, and indeed everlasting, but it was always changing its object.”
He was very fond of his first wife, the tragic Harriet Westbrook. “My wife is the partner of my thoughts and feelings,” he wrote in a letter to his mentor, William Godwin. Then he fell for Godwin's daughter. After he left Harriet he blamed her older sister for pressuring him into marriage.
Shelley claimed that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, then 16, practically gave herself to him in front of her mother's grave. (William Powell Frith's 1877 portrait shows a demure, Victorian-style Mary).
On the other hand, Mary's step-mother said Shelley burst into the Godwin home on Skinner Street with a gun and a bottle of laudanum, threatening to kill himself.
I hypothesize, therefore, if there really was a mysterious lady, it might have been Shelley who became enamoured of her, not the other way around, and when he confessed the story to his friend Medwin, he shifted all responsibility for the affair from him to her, as was his pattern.
In an early example, he repeatedly urged Elizabeth Hitchener, an older schoolmistress whom he barely knew, to come live with him and Harriet. She gave up her school—and her respectability—to move in with them. A few months later, he kicked her out. Thus poor Hitchener went from being “his soul” to being “an ugly, hermaphroditical beast of a woman.”
Shelley also saw himself as something of a knight-errant, rescuing damsels in distress. So of course Teresa (Emilia) Viviani, a beautiful Italian girl being held in a convent prior to her arranged marriage, was like catnip to him. He paid tribute to her in his poem Epipsychidion. After his ardour for her cooled, he wrote, “The Epipsychidion I cannot look at; the person whom it celebrates was a cloud instead of a Juno..."
The attitude of some of Shelley’s earlier biographers also makes for an interesting study. In 1951, Frederick L. Jones took quite a benign view of asking Mary to be a captive witness while her husband indulged his infatuation with their house guest Jane Williams: “Jane was by no means a remarkable woman, but she had just those qualities which Shelley felt the lack of so keenly in his own domestic life: steady amiability, pliancy, devotion to children and husband, and a fine womanly grace. She was in many respects a complement to Mary.” Further, says Jones, this infatuation produced some great poems.
While Shelley continued to behave like a puerile adolescent in matters of the heart up until his death at age 29, his two wives were thrust into motherhood when they were seventeen. Harriet, and later Mary, had to repeatedly pack up and move house at Shelley’s behest. In September of 1818, this led to tragedy.
Next post: “In the Deep Wide Sea of Misery”
First post in this series: “Shelley and the Mysterious Lady”
Update: I have excerpted and expanded my story about Percy Bysshe Shelley from my novel A Different Kind of Woman, into a separate novella. More about Shelley and the Unknown Lady here. Available as an e-book on Amazon. I love my book cover by Dissect Designs!