Mary Shelley is perhaps most well known for writing Frankenstein. Aside from being the mother of all “creating a monster” stories, she was also the wife of well-known poet Percy Shelley.
Percy was still married when he and Mary began their affair in 1814. Perhaps that was a bad omen for what was to come, as all of the following happened over the next four years:
- Percy and Mary ran off together.
- Mary returned, bearing Percy’s child.
- That child was born prematurely and later died.
- Mary’s half-sister killed herself.
- Percy’s first wife killed herself.
- Mary and Percy got married.
- Mary created Frankenstein during a rained-out retreat with her husband and Lord Byron.
- Mary’s second and third children with Percy died.
- A fourth child survived.
Then, four years after all of seemingly non-stop drama, Percy drowned in a sailboat accident in 1822.
And so, one of the most famous literary couples of all time spent less than 10 years together, mostly broke, dealing with one horrible thing after another. In fact, it’s entirely likely that we might not even know much about Percy Shelley if Mary hadn’t been so dedicated to seeing his works published.
Mary was obviously devoted to her husband in both his life and death, but assuring her husband’s legacy wasn’t enough for the queen of the grotesque.
She also kept a piece of him for herself.
Now, it’s not like Mary originally meant to keep the heart saved or anything like that. Percy was actually cremated.
We have first-person accounts of people who watched the body burn, and, though they might not agree on the size of his heart, all agreed that it refused to burn, possibly because it had become calcified after a bout with tuberculosis.
After fighting to get it back from Percy’s friend, Leigh Hunt, who claimed that he was keeping it because his love for his friend was greater than any other love, man or woman, Mary Shelley kept the heart for the rest of her life.
Now, it’s up for debate as to whether she actually carried it around with her, although many claim that she did. Indeed, the New York Times speculates in this article from 1885 that what survived the blaze may have actually been Percy’s liver, saturated with sea water. In any case, Percy's friends and Mary herself believed the charred remnant was the poet's heart. And this remnant was definitely found in her desk the year after she died, wrapped in one of the last poems Percy ever wrote, an elegy to John Keats called Adonaïs.
It’s a long piece, but Mick Jagger read a portion of it at the Brian Jones Memorial Concert on July 5, 1969, two days after the drummer for the Rolling Stones drowned in his own swimming pool, and that feels like as good a selection as any from the elegy to reprint here:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings.—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!