Percy Bysshe Shelley


Short Biography


Birth and family
Bysshe Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Warnham near Horsham, Sussex, the eldest son of Timothy Shelley (MP), and grandson of the eponymous Bysshe Bysshe Shelley, a wealthy landowner. His mother, Elizabeth née Pilfold, was the daughter of a Sussex landowner. He had one brother and four sisters.

Engraving Field Place, Warnham,  Arthur Evershed
Field Place, Warnham

Early education
In 1798 (6) he was sent to study under the local vicar, Evan Edwards, and in 1802 (10) he entered Sion House Academy in Isleworth, where he was remembered by his cousin Medwin as rather effeminate, but very animated. Entering Eton in 1804 (12), he was subjected to bullying and victimisation by his fellow pupils, to which treatment he would respond by becoming enraged. Here, he was befriended by Dr Lind, physician to the King, who lived close by at Windsor Castle, and who introduced Shelley to scientific reasoning and experiment. Shelley retained a warm affection for him in later life. more on his early education

First publications
In 1809 (17) he published at his own expense Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, containing two of his sister’s poems as well as a selection of his own, and he wrote Zastrozzi and St Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (both published 1810, 18),
gothic novels inspired by William Godwin’s St Leon.

First emotional attachment
He developed an attachment for his cousin, Harriet Grove, composing several poems of regret when they were separated by their respective fathers after Harriet reported his republican and atheistic opinions.

Oxford University : taking on the establishment
He entered
University College, Oxford in 1810 (18), where he published various verses in Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson in association with his friend Thomas Hogg. It was also at this time that he read Godwin’s Political Justice, which contained a detailed critique of the laws of property and primogeniture. Shelley himself was to be a major beneficiary of these same laws as heir to a baronetcy and to the landed estates his grandfather had acquired by astute marriages. In 1811 (19) he and his friend Hogg were expelled from Oxford for writing and distributing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, copies of which he had sent to all the heads of colleges in Oxford. His father attempted to get him to renounce his opinions, and to separate him from Hogg, but Shelley stood firm, moved to London, and suggested that he would renounce his entitlement to his inheritance in return for an annuity of £100 per annum, a proposal which apparently shocked his father more than his atheism. A temporary reconciliation was nevertheless arranged, and he returned home to Field Place for a time.

Harriet Westbrook : second emotional attachment and first marriage
In London he had met and visited the Westbrook family, whose 15 year old daughter Harriet had fallen in love with him. He travelled to Cwm Elan in Wales to stay with his cousin Thomas Grove (elder brother of Harriet Grove), and shortly after wrote to Hogg that Harriet (Westbrook) had thrown herself on his protection in response to her father’s demand that she should return to school. Shelley considered himself flattered, and eloped with Harriet to Edinburgh, where they were married.

His father cuts him off
At this point his father refused even to open his letters, and handled their relations henceforward through his London solicitor. Harriet's father was a coffee house owner and she was not considered a suitable match for Shelley.

His friend Hogg disappoints
He visited London alone, leaving Harriet with his friend Hogg at York. On his return he found Harriet's sister Eliza had joined her, and learned that in his absence Hogg had tried to seduce his wife. Though feeling this to be a betrayal of his trust, he nevertheless persevered with Hogg as a friend. 

Harriet's sister forms a menage à trois : he writes to William Godwin
The Shelleys left with Eliza (and without Hogg) for the Lake District, where they met the poet Robert Southey, and it was from here that Shelley made first contact by letter with his future father in law, William Godwin, announcing himself as a man of £6000 a year, an admirer of Godwin’s Political Justice, and eager to disseminate truth and happiness. 

Ireland : the wandering continues
They moved to Dublin in 1812 (20), where he made a speech at the Fishamble Theatre, and published two political pamphlets urging greater political rights for Catholics and autonomy for Ireland  (Address to the Irish People and Proposals for an Association of .... Philanthropists), but he was discouraged from continuing with his political work in Ireland by Godwin, who wrote to him that he was preparing a bloodbath in the province. 

Wales and Devon : Elizabeth Hitchener forms a menage à quatre
He became a vegetarian, and they left Ireland to live for a time in Wales, where he made plans to set up an egalitarian commune at Nantgwilt, but was unable to raise money to take the lease on the estate 'embosomed in the solitude of mountains, woods and rivers, silent, solitary and old', which he had proposed to use as a base. They moved to Lynmouth in Devon, where Elizabeth Hitchener, with whom he had been conducting a long correspondence, joined them, and they busied themselves distributing Shelley's leaflet The Declaration of Rights by means of bottles or small boats made of waxed boxes complete with sails launched into the Bristol Channel, or by hand made silk hot air balloons powered by a spirit soaked wick, or else by Dan Healy, an Irish orphan taken in by the Shelleys, who was employed in posting the leaflet on walls and barns when no-one was looking, an activity which led to his arrest in Barnstaple, and subsequent imprisonment.

The Shelleys moved back to Wales, where they became involved in William Maddocks' ambitious project to create a new town at Tremadoc on reclaimed land, a commercial venture which Shelley saw as a practical opportunity to create an ideal community. He threw himself enthusiastically into fundraising on Maddocks' behalf. Dan Healy rejoined them, having served his term in Barnstaple Gaol. Shelley was then, by his own account, the target of an assassination attempt, though the motives for the attack and perpetrator were never discovered. They left Tremadoc the next day, never to return.

Godwin and Queen Mab
Shelley returned briefly to Dublin, then to London, taking a house at Windsor, while Harriet went with Eliza to stay with her parents. He met Godwin, and showed the publisher Thomas Hookham the first draft of
Queen Mab. Through Hookham he was introduced to the author Thomas Love Peacock, who became his long standing friend and correspondent. Queen Mab: a Philosophical Poem, destined to become a favourite radical text of the 19th century, was published in May 1813 (21), and, in the same year, his daughter Ianthe was born. 

Mary Wollstoncraft : third emotional attachment : Claire Clairmont forms a second menage à trois
Later that year he met and fell in love with
Mary Wollstoncraft, the daughter of William Godwin. They broke the news to Godwin, who refused to countenance the affair. Shelley then announced his predicament to his wife, who was herself pregnant with their second child at the time. After taking and recovering from an overdose of laudanum, Shelley made off with Mary, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, visiting first France and then Switzerland. From Charenton he wrote to Harriet assuring her of his continued affection, and inviting her to join them. They returned by river up the Rhine, making notes as they went for the History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817, 25). On his return to England in 1815 (23) Mary gave birth to a child who died after two weeks.

Grandfather dies
His grandfather died in June 1815 (23), and he negotiated part of a settlement with his father, which enabled him to pay Harriet’s debts and settle the sum of £200 a year on her. He also arranged to pay significant amounts on behalf of Godwin, giving rise to rumours that Godwin had sold his two daughters to Shelley in return for payment of his debts. 


The poet biographies, criticism, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott