Contents Index

Byron and Mary Shelley

Ernest J. Lovell, Jr.

Keats-Shelley Journal, 2 (January 1953), 35-49

{35} Despite the recent appearance of another full-length study of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,1 the important story of her relations with Byron has not yet been told with either unity or completeness. Interesting as the neglected story is from any point of view, it is all the more significant because of the central, even decisive part which Byron played in Mary's career as a novelist. For the influence which he exerted upon her life began before and extended far beyond the summer of 1816, when he made his famous remark to the company assembled at Diodati, "We will each write a ghost story" -- words which Mary, describing the genesis of Frankenstein fifteen years after the event, remembered and recorded,2 along with the conversation between Byron and Shelley, in which they speculated on the possibility that "perhaps a corpse would be re-animated . . . ; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth." Without Mary's intimate knowledge of Byron, it may be said, her novels would have been of a very different character, indeed, from those which she actually wrote. And because of the nature of the man and of his impact upon her, his influence also extended, inevitably, deep into her personal life, out of which she wrote most of her novels.

Elsewhere3 I have described the recurrent pattern which emerges from four of Mary's autobiographical novels, Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), containing Mary's only admitted description of {36} Shelley, Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837), in each of which Byron figures either as the title character or as a romantic hero. The composite portrait painted here reveals, startlingly, a thoroughly masculine, wholly masterful Byron, the father, foster father, husband, or lover of a dependent Mary, and, on the other hand, a frail, effeminate, boyish, or ineffectual Shelley, twice pictured in the guise of a woman and regularly represented either in clear and deliberate contrast to the figure modeled on Byron or in actual conflict with him. Now the persistence of this pattern suggests several things: first, if it is permissible here to oversimplify grossly a complex human situation, that Mary was often a woman in search of a Father, this deep need being satisfied no better by Shelley than it had been by Godwin, and, second, that she chose Byron because he was more imaginatively real and satisfactory to her than her own husband -- and often more considerate of her feelings than her own father. It is almost as if the subject chose Mary, quite apart from any free will of hers.

Although Mary's deep-seated affinity for Byron was, of course, often at odds with Shelley's attitude toward him, her sympathy for Byron is probably to be regarded not as a cause in itself of any important differences between Shelley and Mary, but, instead, as another significant symptom of their frequently conflicting points of view and differing emotional needs. Nor is her attraction to Byron -- perfect foil to her husband, as she makes abundantly clear -- in any way detrimental to an estimate of her character. If anything, it places her lifelong forbearance and devotion to the memory of Shelley in an even more admirable light, the more admirable because in important part, hers was a loyalty frequently willed in opposition to affinities, often unconscious, for what the figure of Byron represented in her mind. Mary seems never to have accused herself of a guilty thought about Byron. He remained, as she has Evadne say of Byron-Raymond in The Last Man, "the hero of her imagination."4 But the novels stand witness to the amazing extent to which her imagination could carry her.

Mary, "very curious" to see Byron, actually met him at Piccadilly Terrace, introduced by Claire Clairmont, who wrote to him after the event, "Mary is delighted with you, as I knew she would be; she entreats me in private to obtain 'your address abroad that we may, if possible, have again the pleasure of seeing you. She perpetually exclaims: 'How mild he is! How gentle! How different from what I expected.'"5 Claire, perhaps with Mary's help, was successful of course in persuading Shelley to go to Geneva instead of Italy, and, once in {37} Paris, Claire wrote a Godwinian-Shelleyan letter to Byron which is quite as extraordinary as some of the letters which Mary had written to Hogg the year before:

You will, I suppose, wish to see Mary, who talks and looks at you with admiration. You will, I daresay, fall in love with her; she is very handsome and very amiable, and you will no doubt be blest in your attachment. . . . If it should be so, I will redouble my attentions to please her.6
That Claire could thus jealously regard Mary, not yet married to Shelley, as a potential rival for the attentions of Byron, Mary (with more than a little satisfaction) would surely be aware, knowing Claire as thoroughly as she did. It was an auspicious beginning for their friendship.

Unfortunately, Mary's letters provide no reference to Byron before 1817, and her journal entries for the summer of 1816 are carefully and significantly non-committal concerning him. Thus the chief record which she has left of Byron at Geneva is contained in Moore's Life of Byron.7 But even here, although recorded at second hand more than a decade after the events, Mary's affection for Byron shines brightly through the pages of Moore, who found in her a sympathetic and immensely helpful informant. She wrote out for him her recollections of Byron's famous "Memoirs," and he observed of her in 1817, at the beginning of their friendship, that she "seems to have known Byron thoroughly, and always winds up her account of his bad traits with 'but still he was very nice.'"8 For Moore, then, she recalled their regular evening boatings while still at Sécheron, noting the stanzas in Childe Harold thus inspired; she described Byron, playful, medita- {38} tive, in conversation with Shelley, philosophizing, suppressing his laughter while reading Polidori's play, and singing, on his nightly return from the Shelleys' cottage, the "Tyrolese Song of Liberty, which I [Mary] then first heard, and which is to me inextricably linked with his remembrance." From her, we have portraits of Byron saving Polidori from attempted suicide, of Byron generously providing Polidori with an expensive carriage, of Byron restraining himself, out of consideration for "Mrs. Shelley's presence," from throwing Polidori into the Lake, Byron sending Polidori down the hill after a rain to help Mary up to Diodati and then tenderly caring for the young physician when he had sprained his ankle as a result of his efforts, Byron standing up to Polidori when the latter had offered Shelley "a sort of challenge," Byron gallantly remarking to Mary of their ghost stories, "You and I will publish ours together," Byron prepared to save Shelley's life in a squall off Meillerie, Byron giving crowns to pretty Swiss children, "as the reward of their grace and sweetness," Byron unveiling his bleeding heart before them all when Polidori had accused him of want of feeling, and Byron speaking of Annabella with "kindness and regret" (but admitting that she did not understand him), taking them all into his confidence as he explained that she had been misled by others. Of the frequent nightlong conversations at Diodati, Mary told Moore, "There was never any lack of subjects, and, grave or gay, we were always interested." Nor did she omit, it seems, an account of the fundamental opposition between the minds of Byron and Shelley -- which, as Moore finally phrased the differences, is not always complimentary to Shelley. Shelley himself on the other hand, was capable of writing to Peacock, July 17, 1816, that although he had found Lord Byron "an exceedingly interesting person . . . , he is a slave to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices, and as mad as the winds."9 Here then, thus early, was another difference of opinion between Shelley and Mary, which would become even more clearly defined as the years passed.

It is significant that in Moore's entire account of this period -- which, Mary confessed to him, was "the happiest of her life" -- there is only one reference to Claire, mentioned merely as a "female relative" of Mary. It is almost as if Claire were not present; indeed, in one sense, in the mind of Mary, she was not present. For it was during these few golden months in 1816 that Mary felt completely free, for the first time in her life, of Claire's influence over Shelley. It was very clear that Byron's attachment to Claire (however coldly he might treat her) removed Claire quite effectively from the orbit of Shelley; consequently, {39} Mary was forever grateful to Byron for providing the fourth point in the "triangle" and thus balancing the relationships two on a side, as Hogg had done in a different way the year before.

Nothing that Byron ever did afterwards was able, more than briefly, to erase in Mary's mind this debt of gratitude, incurred during the happiest period of her life; and the recollection of Byron at Diodati, whose presence had restored Shelley to her and whose conversation, without making any demands upon her, had fathered the idea of her first novel, colored all her future relations with him. Back in England, she sent a message through Claire, who reported to Byron, "She says that if she were ever so much determined not to like you, she could not help so doing. . . ."10 Mary, in her first letter to Byron, informed him that he was a father, and she herself helped to care for the infant Allegra, who for a time was called by the Shelleys Clara, a name, interestingly, which Mary was later to give to her own daughter and also, years later, to the daughter of Byron-Raymond and Claire-Perdita in The Last Man. Two weeks after finishing Frankenstein, describing the scenery of which had kept alive her memories of Switzerland, she read Childe Harold, III, and unburdened her heart in her journal, May 28, 1817,

Dear Lake! I shall ever love thee. How a powerful mind can sanctify past scenes and recollections! His is a powerful mind; and that fills me with melancholy, yet mixed with pleasure, as is always the case when intellectual energy is displayed. I think of our excursions on the lake. How we saw him when he came down to us, or welcomed our arrival, with a good-humoured smile. How vividly does each verse of his poem recall some scene of this kind to my memory!11
The next day, writing to Shelley, she described again the effect which Byron's poem had upon her. It made her "dreadfully melancholy -- The lake -- the mountains and the faces associated with these scenes passed before me -- Why is not life a continued moment where hours and days are not counted -- but as it is a succession of events happen -- the moment of enjoyment lives only in memory and when we die where are we?"12 Thus even though at this date, May 29, 1817, it was apparent that Byron was through with Claire, he was still for Mary, affectionately, "our faithless Albè," and a month later, after Shelley had heard in a conversation with Rogers that Byron had been to Rome but had gone back to Venice instead of turning toward England, as the Shelleys expected, he was for Mary only "the little faithless" who she supposed was "over head and ears in love with some Venetian," although Claire, {40} naturally, was "unhappy and consequently cross or so,"13 as Mary put it, and Shelley himself was deeply disturbed, as his letter to Byron on July 9 makes clear. Still operating here, as throughout much of Mary's life, of course, was her attitude toward a woman who was too often her husband's "constant companion," one whom she described in later years as having been the bane of her existence since the age of three.14 Meanwhile, in 1816 Byron had provided Claire with a lover and with a child, and so removed her for good, it seemed, from Shelley. This was a favor not to be forgotten, and Mary has recorded her own feelings most clearly in The Last Man, admitting by the tone of her remarks more, surely, than she intended to.

The introductory sketch of Perdita before her meeting with Byron -- Raymond establishes Mary's attitude toward the character representing Claire:

Yet though lovely and full of noble feeling, my poor Perdita . . . was not altogether saintly in her disposition. Her manners were cold and repulsive. . . . Unloved and neglected, she repaid want of kindness with distrust and silence. She was submissive to those who held authority over her, but a perpetual cloud dwelt on her brow; she looked as if she expected enmity from every one who approached her, and her actions were instigated by the same feeling. All the time she could command she spent in solitude. . . . Often she passed whole hours walking up and down the paths of woods . . . and returned with unwilling spirit to the dull detail of common life.15
Remarkable as this description is, of a character who functions as a romantic heroine, Mary makes her own feelings even clearer, if that is possible, when, describing her reaction to Byron-Raymond's desertion of Claire-Perdita, she absolves him of blame and places the guilt squarely on his "wife," admitting frankly, "I own that I did not see her misfortune with the same eyes as Perdita."16

Quite as significant, however, as this statement of Mary's jealousy of Claire and the Mary-Byron Claire-Shelley lineup which is implied is a revelation in the same novel of Shelley's unhappiness in 1816 over Claire's liaison with Byron. When Mary, in an episode based on their Swiss sojourn in 1816, describes the chief characters living happily together in a sylvan retreat shortly after Mary-Lionel has married Shelley-Adrian and Byron-Raymond has married Claire-Perdita, only Shelley-Adrian "seemed destined not to find the half of himself, which was to complete his happiness. He often left us, and wandered by himself in the woods, or sailed in his little skiff, his books his only companions."17 The others are described as being idyllically happy. The depth of Shel- {41} ley's despondency Mary could not easily admit in this confessed portrait of her husband, but it was possible to disguise it by substituting another character in the triangle, and for a time in the novel Evadne replaces Perdita as the former companion of Shelley who has fallen in love with Byron (that is, Claire). Shortly before this period of Adrian's despondency, at the time of Mary-Lionel's first meeting with Byron-Raymond (i.e., in April, 1816), Adrian is suffering from an attack of actual "madness," the result of Evadne's desertion of him for the more attractive Raymond. This episode, read in conjunction with Epipsychidion, seems to place beyond dispute the contention of N. I. White that as a result of Claire's liaison with Byron, Shelley experienced "a deep sense of grief at the spiritual infidelity of one of his disciples."18 The account in Mary's novel also agrees with Peacock's description19 of Shelley's hallucinations and distraught state of mind just before he sailed. If Mary, then, is here again being chronologically accurate, the period of Shelley's deepest despondency would seem to have taken place before he arrived at Geneva, to decrease somewhat after he had met Byron, although the complexity of the situation surely left its effect on all the future relations of the four persons involved.

Mary saw very little of Byron between 1817 and 1821, although she occupied his villa at Este for about a month in the autumn of 1818 while Shelley negotiated about Allegra with Byron, who proved quite reasonable. While there, Mary read Childe Harold, IV, and Beppo, copying Mazeppa and his Venetian ode for him; and on April 6, 1819, she lamented that he was a "lost man" if he did not escape soon from his Venetian dissipations.20 Mary, of course, could save him only in a novel, which she did, making Claire the cause of them in The Last Man. In May, 1821, when Mary finished the first volume of Valperga, Claire to be ruined by Byron in the second, Claire proposed a wild scheme according to which Shelley should rescue Allegra by force from the convent at Bagnacavallo, the choice of which Mary had approved to Byron and defended before Claire. Mary's letter of May 11, 1821, intended to calm Claire and dissuade her from this impossible and dangerous plan, naturally adopted Claire's view of Byron as complete villain, but the figure described is charged with romantic interest. He is "a man of 12 or 15 thousand a year, . . . reckless of the ill he does others, obstinate to desperation in the pursuance of his plans or his revenge . . . , stared at by the Grand Duke,"21 and capable of spiriting Allegra away to some secret convent, if annoyed, or of challenging Shelley to a duel. The tone of all this is quite different from that of {42} Shelley's postscript, which referred to the pleasure of putting an end to Byron's "detested intimacy" and spoke of his "jealousy of my regard for your [Claire's] interests." Shelley closed the letter by saying that he could write no more: "My spirits completely overcome me." But Mary, far from wishing to put Byron out of her thoughts, went on to complete Valperga and to write The Last Man, Byron a central figure in both.

In August, 1821, however, Shelley found Byron greatly improved at Ravenna, decided that he was the first poet of the age, and wrote to Mary, August 15, "L. B. speaks with great kindness and interest of you, and seems to wish to see you."22 Byron had again earned Mary's undying gratitude, five days before, when she learned that he gave no credit to the Hoppner scandal that Claire had been the mistress of Shelley and had had a child by him. Byron generously promised to send Mary's now famous letter on to Mrs. Hoppner with his own comments on the innocence of Shelley, and Mary seems to have believed until the end of her life that he did so.

During August and September, when Mary was copying Valperga, she frequently saw the Countess Guiccioli on friendly terms, paying and receiving calls, and from November 1, 1821, when Byron moved into the Casa Lanfranchi, just opposite the Shelleys, until April 26, 1822, when the Shelleys left Pisa, the two households were in almost daily association. It was during this period, if we may believe the Records of Trelawny, that Mary in a conversation with her husband defended Byron's London visitors -- "amongst the great men of the day" -- against Shelley's attack upon them. One of the reasons for the Shelleys' decision to live in Pisa, however, was the protection from the Hoppner scandal offered by the presence of Byron there. Shelley wrote to Mary, August 16, "One thing -- with Lord Byron and the people we know at Pisa we should have a security and protection which seems to be more questionable at Florence,"23 where Claire was. Claire terminated her visit with the Williamses, significantly, on the very day Byron arrived at Pisa, and within the next three months Mary read Byron's Heaven and Earth, Werner, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain ("in the highest style of imaginative poetry. It made a great impression on me, and appears almost a revelation, from its power and beauty").24 Shelley's last published poem, on the other hand, limited to two hundred or more copies, was Epipsychidion, containing the record of his "Italian Platonics." Meanwhile, Mary was still working on Valperga, in which Claire-Beatrice was to merge in later pages with Claire-Emilia Viviani, as the object of Byron's ruinous attentions, and what changes she may have made in favor of Byron-Castruccio cannot now {43} be determined. In a letter begun on December 20, 1821, however, she wrote of the "clean and spacious apartments, with every comfort," which Byron had furnished in his house for the Hunts, and remarked that she felt "much gratitude towards L. B. for his unpretending generosity. . . ." Byron, she adds, is now "writing divinely," and of Cain she comments again, confusedly but ecstatically, "one has perhaps stood on the extreme verge of such ideas and from the midst of the darkness which has surrounded us the voice of the Poet now is heard telling a wondrous tale."25 One wonders if Mary was not enjoying a mild case of Italian Platonics herself.

March, 1822, was the month of the affair with the Italian dragoon, whom Byron prepared to challenge and in which he generally distinguished himself á la Corsair. Mary's long and detailed account of the fray to Maria Gisborne on April 6 is dominated by the fiery figure of Lord Byron and scarcely mentions Shelley and Taaffe, except to remark that the one was thrown from his horse and the other cut a ridiculous figure. On April 19, a week before the Shelleys left, Allegra died, and Mary's last impression of Byron at Pisa was that of a grief-stricken father suffering from remorse, believing that he had acted against the wishes of all in placing Allegra in a convent.26 Shelley, characteristically, felt a "great gulf" between himself and Byron.27 Mary was not to see Byron again, presumably, until the heart-wrenching night of July when, only recently out of a sickbed, she drove "like Matilda" (who in Mary's story of that name had dreamed of the suicide of her father only to wake and find his dead body at the base of a sea cliff) "towards the sea to learn if we were to be for ever doomed to misery." Byron was able only to tell her that Shelley had left Pisa and sailed on the eighth. Seeing him instead of Hunt, whom she had expected, was a "great relief," she wrote, and saved her "from going into convulsions."28 It was a night forever engraved on her memory, the sympathetic figure of Byron again prominently in the foreground.

After the burial of Shelley, Mary became increasingly dependent upon Byron, looking to him for aid and support in many ways, and entered into a relationship with him more intimate than at any time since 1816. She applied to him immediately for Shelley's heart and was told that she could have it, although it was actually in the possession of Hunt, who had received it from Trelawny. In late August she indicated that Byron came to see her about twice a week, although the Guiccioli, "being an Italian is capable of being jealous of a living corpse such as I," and she implied that Byron would have come oftener if Teresa had not restrained him. Her letters of this period are sprinkled with state {44} ments that Byron is "very kind to me," "continues kind," or is "as kind as ever." In Albaro, where she had secured a house for him a short distance from her own, she found that he was ready to do "any . . . service for me that his office of executor of Shelley's will demands. . ."29 Byron, who had generously declined the £2,000 legacy provided by the will, instructed his own solicitor in London to confer with Sir Timothy's representative and himself wrote the letter to Sir Timothy which elicited the reply that Sir Timothy would support Mary's child in England "if he shall be placed with a person I approve."30Mary later used this reply as the basis of a scene in Falkner, in which Byron-Falkner becomes so indignant that he quivers with rage at Sir Timothy-Oswi Raby.

Mary's nervous remorse that she had not made Shelley happier, the resultant conviction that she had been a failure as a wife, was at one of its peaks in October, and it left her a prey to exaggerated emotional reactions which sometimes verged on hysteria. On October 5 she recorded in her journal, "I bear at the bottom of my heart a fathomless well of bitter waters, the workings of which my philosophy is ever at work to repress."31 Two weeks later, as a result of a conversation with Byron, some of these repressed thoughts struggled up from the bottom of the well, but they were not all related to Shelley, and they reveal, incidentally, the degree of pleasure which Mary could extract from her states of emotional excitement. Her rationalization is too evident for comment, but the towering figure which Byron made in her mind cannot be overlooked. He was capable of shaking the depths of her being, and not by any means only because of the reasons which she offered. The following long passage provides, perhaps, the best single commentary which Mary ever made upon her treatment of Byron in her novels and throws a clear light upon her fictional substitutions of Byron for Shelley and Godwin. She opens her entry on October 19 with a reference to herself as one

who, entirely and despotically engrossed by their own feelings, leads as it were an internal life, quite different from the outward and apparent one! Whilst my life continues its monotonous course within sterile banks, an under-current disturbs the smooth face of the waters, distorts all objects reflected in it, and the mind is no longer a mirror in which outward events may reflect themselves, but becomes itself the painter and creator. If this perpetual activity has power to vary with endless change the everyday occurrences of a most monotonous life, it appears to be animated with the spirit of tempest and hurricane when any real occurrence diversifies the {45} scene. Thus tonight, a few bars of a known air [Byron's voice?] seemed to be as a wind to rouse from its depths every deep-seated emotion of my mind. I would have given worlds to have sat, my eyes closed, and listened to them for years. The restraint I was under caused these feelings to vary with rapidity; but the words of the conversation, uninteresting as they might be, seemed all to convey two senses to me, and, touching a chord within me, to form a music of which the speaker was little aware. I do not think that any person's voice has the same power of awakening melancholy in me as Albè's. I have been accustomed, when hearing it, to listen and to speak little; another voice, not mine, ever replied -- a voice whose strings are broken. When Albè ceases to speak, I expect to hear that other voice, and when I hear another instead, it jars strangely with every association. I have seen so little of Albè since our residence in Switzerland, and, having seen him there every day, his voice -- a peculiar one -- is engraved on my memory with other sounds and objects from which it can never disunite itself. . . . Since incapacity and timidity always prevented my mingling in the nightly conversations of Diodati, they were, as it were, entirely tête-à-tête between my Shelley and Albè; and thus, as I have said, when Albè speaks and Shelley does not answer, it is as thunder without rain . . . and I listen with an unspeakable melancholy that yet is not all pain.

The above explains that which would otherwise be an enigma -- why Albè, by his mere presence and voice, has the power of exciting such deep and shifting emotions within me. For my feelings have no analogy either with my opinions of him, or the subject of his conversation. With another I might talk, and not for the moment think of Shelley -- at least not think of him with the same vividness as if I were alone; but, when in company with Albè, I can never cease for a second to have Shelley in my heart and brain with a clearness that mocks reality -- interfering even by its force with the functions of life -- until, if tears do not relieve me, the hysterical feeling, analogous to that which the murmur of the sea gives me, presses painfully upon me.

Well, for the first time for about a month, I have been in company with Albè for two hours, and, coming home, I write this, so necessary is it for me to express in words the force of my feelings.32

Against this background it is interesting to read Mary's description in The Last Man of Byron-Raymond's efforts to console the conveniently transformed Evadne, who, like Mary, is a woman who has just lost her husband, feels intense remorse following his death, and believes that the relatives of Shelley-Adrian "doubtless think that I injured him." Thus she refuses to apply to them for the money she desperately needs, although "perhaps the Earl himself [Shelley-Adrian] would be the first to acquit me. . . ." She will, instead, support herself "by executing various designs and paintings," as Mary supported herself by writing.33

{46} Byron-Raymond finds Evadne living in poverty after the death of her husband, and Mary writes, ". . . no one possessed the art of consoling like Raymond; he did not reason or declaim, but his look shone with sympathy; . . . his caresses excited no distrust, for they arose purely from the feeling which leads a mother to kiss her wounded child."34 One wonders if it is anything more than coincidence that the date of the long journal entry just quoted, October 19, which describes the effect of Byron's voice and presence on Mary, is the same date on which, in the novel, Byron-Raymond stays out all night consoling and caring for the sick Evadne, thereafter for a period to be estranged from Claire-Perdita. Mary frequently repeats the date, as if to emphasize it, and also makes it, significantly, that of the first anniversary of Raymond's election to the Protectorate, which took place five years after the time the episode based on Mary's Swiss sojourn in 1816.35 Thus, if Mary is here being chronologically accurate, the October 19 of the novel corresponds to October 19, 1822, the date of the journal entry, and the temporary identification of Mary with Evadne, who replaced Claire-Perdita in the affections of Byron-Raymond and enjoyed his consolations following the death of her husband, seems even more certain. The coincidence of the dates would also seem to enhance the psychological significance of Byron-Raymond's title, Protector, which would also have a strong appeal for Mary. For the date of Raymond's election to the Protectorate, five years after the episode based on Byron's summer in Switzerland, is thus seen to be October 19, 1821, the month when the Shelleys moved to Pisa in order to have "the security and protection" offered by the presence of Byron. It was also the first time since 1816 that Mary had seen Byron with any regularity. However, Raymond's voice had the same disturbing effect upon Evadne that Byron's voice had upon Mary, and to both accounts is assigned the same date, October 19: "These contemplations engaged her, when the voice of Raymond first struck her ear, a voice, once heard, never to be forgotten; she mastered her gush of feelings, and welcomed him with quiet gentleness."36

In the few months remaining before Byron sailed, his relations with Mary retained their intimate and paternal quality. On October 21, 1822, two days after her disturbing conversation, she wrote to him, quoting from Maria Gisborne's letter, that Godwin had spoken of Mary and the death of Shelley "without any expression or outward sign of sorrow. I thought that . . . we human beings really were stocks & stones" -- and the philosopher of Skinner Street had come again into unfavorable contrast with the noble lord. After mentioning that she had nearly {47} finished copying Don Juan, XI, she closed, committing an interesting error of tense, with the only reference she ever made in a letter to the "cold chaste moon" of Epipsychidion (line 281): "There might be [have been] something sunny about me then, now I am truly cold moonshine."37 It seems almost certain that Mary had discussed the poem and its very personal implications with him. In the next month, on November 9, writing to Byron in an effort to patch up a quarrel between him and Hunt which had arisen over a letter indiscreetly circulated by Murray, she referred to her timidity and sense of dependence in terms of some Freudian significance: "I would, like a dormouse, roll myself in cotton at the bottom of my cage, & never peep out."38 Byron reprimanded Murray for circulating the letter depreciating The Liberal, Hunt's feelings were soothed, and Mary had another memory of the influential lord in effective action, again protecting a weak widow.

In a letter of February 25, 1823, informing Byron of Sir Timothy's proposal that she turn over Percy Florence to the care of another, she found herself once more in the position of a helpless widow and again found place to deny, significantly, that she had a "cold heart,"39 making it obvious how much she valued his sympathetic approval. In March she gratefully accepted his offer of passage money to England, knowing full well, she wrote, the many claims on "one to whom all look up to as their prop." Byron continued to be "kind and attentive,"40 but in July came a quarrel over the promised passage money, although Byron never actually withdrew the offer. Mary was angry over this, but the quarrel did not touch her ego and left no permanent effects on her memory of him, for Byron was clearly in the wrong, and she recorded with satisfaction his "twinges" of conscience and "shame."41 Her own conduct was impeccable, and she wrote on July 13 to say that she would be present to bid him farewell when he sailed for Greece. Byron asked her to stay with Teresa for the remainder of the day after he had boarded the Hercules, and together the two women watched the becalmed ship from the garden terrace.42 When this last of the Pisan circle sailed on July 16, to fight for Greek independence, she was left only with Hunt, and she stayed just a week longer. Thus her last sight of Byron was in marked contrast to that of Shelley: it was easy to forgive Byron, and his image continued to inhabit the sunny slopes of her imagination, but not in her life was she able to forgive herself for her treatment of Shelley.43

{48} Back in England again, an exile now from the lovely home of exiles, she found as she had probably anticipated that she was again without a father: Godwin's "situation, his cares and debts," she noted precisely in her journal, "prevent my enjoying his society,"44 and she set about shortly to write a novel about the last human being left alive on earth, Mary Shelley, in order to help support those dependent upon her.

Planning The Last Man at least as early as October 5, 1823, and apparently ready to begin writing by the following February, she was kept in personal touch with the name of Byron by conversations about him with several who knew him -- Bryan Waller Procter, John Hunt, and Hamilton Browne, new come from Greece -- and, more impersonally, by reading the numerous published accounts of Byron and his own recent cantos of Don Juan, which she thought "unequalled in their strictures upon life and flashes of wit."45The Guiccioli informed her that Byron's behaviour to the Greeks had been "generous in the extreme,"46 as of course it had. Meanwhile, she had already written a tragedy in which the main character was named Manfred.47 On May 15, 1824, in the midst of writing The Last Man, she heard of Byron's death and turned to her journal:

This then was the coming event that cast its shadow on my last night's miserable thoughts. Byron had become one of the people of the grave -- that miserable conclave to which the beings I best loved belong. I knew him in the bright days of youth, when neither care nor fear had visited me -- before death had made me feel my mortality, and the earth was the scene of my hopes. Can I forget our evening visits to Diodati? our excursions on the lake, when he sang the Tyrolese Hymn, and his voice was harmonized with winds and waves. Can I forget his attentions and consolations to me during my deepest misery? Never.

Beauty sat on his countenance and power beamed from his eye. His faults being, for the most part, weakness, induced one readily to pardon them.

Albè -- the dear, capricious, fascinating Albè -- has left this desert world! God grant I may die young! . . . "Life is the desert and the solitude -- how populous the grave," -- and that region . . . now adds that resplendent spirit whose departure leaves the dull earth dark as midnight.48

Before the month was out she had written and submitted to the London Magazine an article on Byron, and in the month following, working on The Last Man, she felt the "enthusiastic glow of composition" as she poured forth her "soul upon paper," there reanimating, in her {49} imagination, Byron's "lifeless form, a form of beauty which in life," she confessed, "I often delighted to behold."49 And thus beautiful did he appear in her novels, a magnetic and many-sided figure, symbol of one of her most deeply felt needs, that of a Father-lover, the desired pillar of masculine power and authority. It is one of the strangest chapters, surely, in English literary history.


1. Muriel Spark, Child of Light (Hadleigh, Essex, 1951). Miss Spark describes her book as the first full-length study of Mary's writings, although in the critical treatment of Mary's novels Byron's role is mentioned only briefly, and in the biographical half of the book Mary's relations with him are grossly neglected, Mary's all-important summer at Geneva in 1816, for example, receiving only slightly more than a page. The prevailing opinion concerning Mary's relations with Byron still seems to be that expressed in 1910 by N. I. White (Shelley, II, 401): ". . . she came to dislike [Byron] and can hardly be suspected of wishing to apotheosize" him in her novels. R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley (London, 1938), believes that it was only after Byron's death that Mary came to view him in a sympathetic light (pp. 188-189).

2. In Mary's Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

3. The University of Texas Studies in English, XXX (1951), 158-183.

4. The Last Man (London, 1816), I, 239.

5. George Paston and Peter Quennell, To Lord Byron (New York, 1939), p. 208.

6. Same, p, 211.

7. The Life of Lord Byron (Philadelphia, 1840), I, 548-558.

8. Memoirs, Journal, and Correspondence o/Thomas Moore, ed. Lord John Russell (London, 1853-1856), V, 178, 182. F. L. Jones states, "I have been told that Lord Abinger has nearly a hundred of Moore's letters to Mary. These letters would doubtless show how much Moore's Life of Byron owes to Mary" (The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, ed. F. L. Jones [Norman, Oklahoma, 1944], I, 313, note 3). This edition is hereafter referred to as Letters.

Lady Blessington told Henry Crabb Robinson, September 28 or 29, 1832, that Mary Shelley "opened a packet of letters from Lord Byron to Countess Guiccioli entrusted to her by Count Gamba, from which she supplied extracts to Moore. With difficulty the Guiccioli has got back the letters and means now, at some future time, to publish them and take her revenge on Mrs. Shelley" (Henry Crabb Robinson On Books and Their Writers, ed. Edith J. Morley [London, 1938], I, 412-413). At this date the Countess Guiccioli was in England, seeing Lady Blessington regularly. It seems rather certain that Lady Blessington heard the story from the Countess herself, who wrote in her unpublished Vie, "Mrs. Shelley, having been allowed in Pisa to read what Byron had written in a volume of Corinne, copied it all, and gave it, after Byron's death, to Moore, together with other documents" (Iris Origo, The Last Attachment, [New York, 1949], p. 499, note 35). The other documents referred to may be those mentioned by Lady Blessington.

9. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (London, 1916-1929), IX, 181. This edition is hereafter referred to as Works.

10. Paston and Quennell, p. 221.

11. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. F. L. Jones (Norman, Oklahoma, 1947), p. 80. This edition is hereafter referred to as Journal.

12. Letters, I, 25-26.

13. Same, I, 27.

14. W. E. Peck, Shelley: His Life and Work (New York, 1927), I, 401.

15. The Last Man, I, 16-17.

16.Same, I, 309.

17.Same, I, 189.

18.White, II, 267.

19. Memoirs of Shelley, ed. Humbert Wolfe (London, 1933) as part of The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, II, 341,342.

20. Letters, I, 67.

21. Same, I, 140.

22. Works, X, 313.

23. Same, X, 314.

24. Letters, I, 150; Journal, pp. 161, 163, 165.

25. Letters, I, 153.

26. Same, I, 169.

27. Works, 396.

28. Letters, I, 182.

29. Same, I, 185, 188-189, 208, 215.

30. Mrs. Julian Marshall, The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London, 1889), II, 66.

31. Journal, p. 181.

32. Same, pp. 183-184.

33. The Last Man, I, 237-239.

34. Same, I, 232.

35. Same, I, 192, 273, 280, 312.

36. Same, I, 245.

37. Letters, I, 197-198.

38. Same, I, 202.

39. Same, I, 216.

40. Same, I, 218, 220, 224.

41. Same, I, 230, 231. Concerning this quarrel, see the new material published by Iris Origo, The Last Attachment, pp. 330-332.

42. Origo, p. 347.

43. On July 26, the day after she left she wrote to the Hunts, ". . . that remorse is a terrible feeling -- and it requires a faith and philosophy immense not to be destroyed by the stinging monster." (Letters, I, 233.)

44. Journal, pp. 193-194.

45. Letters, I, 265, 272, 287, 290.

46. Same, I, 291.

47. Lady Jane Shelley, Shelley and Mary (For Private Circulation Only, 1882), III, 1016A.

48. Journal, pp. 193-194.

49. Letters, I, 291=292, 298; Journal, p. 194.

Although the chief basis of Mary's attraction to Byron was unquestionably an emotional one, highly complicated by Godwin's emotional inadequacy as a father, by Shelley's boyishness, immaturity, or inadequate masculinity (nothing is revealed more clearly by the novels than this), and by Mary's jealousy of Claire and extraordinary dependent nature -- there were also certain more intellectual sympathies shared by Mary and Byron but not by Shelley, which may be briefly noted here. Perhaps the most important quality of Byron's mind which would serve to draw Mary to him was his highly developed sense of actuality, his ability to see the world clearly, marred with all its imperfections, and yet to accept things generally as they are. Mary, almost as if composing a deliberate reply to Shelley's idealizing propensities, writes in her Journal, February 25, 1822, ". . . let me, in my fellow creature, love that which is, -- and not fix my affection on a fair form endued with imaginary attributes" (pp. 169-170). From this fundamental kinship of mind flowed other shared points of view: a common opposition to any ideas implying the perfectability of man and a lack of sympathy for such related ideas as a denial of predestination or of the positive existence of matter and of evil. In both Mary and Byron, consequently, there was an almost total absence of any passionate, Shelleyan desire to reform the world. (See Mary's important Journal entry, pp, 204-206, on her "Lukewarmness in 'the good cause' and on her feelings toward 'the Radicals -- they are full of repulsion to me.'") Mary was no more a genuine radical than Byron was, and with him disapproved equally of Shelley's religion (one recalls Mary's church-going habits), his Godwinian ideas of property rights, and his conviction of the meaningless nature of the marriage ceremony. Although the violence of Trelawny's charges against Mary does her injustice, and the difficulty of being married to such a genius as Shelley should not be underestimated, one may recall Shelley's remark upon another fundamental difference between them, which would also draw her to the social world of Byron. "Poor Mary," he is reported to have said, when Trelawney found him one day beside a pool in his woodland study, "hers is a sad fate. . . . She can't bear solitude, nor I society -- the quick coupled with the dead" (Wolfe, II, 196). It was the world of the imagination in conflict with the world of actuality, and Byron, as she saw him, was on the side of actuality and the world of men. As she seems to have told Moore, "In Lord Byron, the real was never forgotten in the fanciful" (Moore, Life of Byron, I, 550).