Fatal Friends

In late 1820, Mary Shelley (1797–1851), author of the novel Frankenstein, and her twenty-eight-year-old husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, moved to Pisa, Italy, after having spent several years traveling through the country. Mary had had a rough time of it lately. Her two young children had both died from fevers while in Italy. Mary had been particularly close to her son William, and his death had pushed her into a profound depression. She had recently given birth to another child, a boy named Percy, but she felt continually anxious about his health. The guilt and gloom she felt surrounding the death of her children had finally caused some friction between her and her husband. They had been so close, had experienced so much together, that they could almost read each other’s thoughts and moods. Now her husband was drifting away, interested in other women. She was hoping that in Pisa they could finally settle down, reconnect, and do some serious writing.

In early 1821, a young English couple named Jane and Edward Williams arrived in Pisa, and their first stop in town was to visit the Shelleys. They were close friends with one of Percy Shelley’s cousins. They were thinking of living in Pisa, and they were clearly starstruck at meeting the famous couple. Mary was used to these kinds of visitors; she and her husband were so notorious that curious bohemians from all over Europe would come to gawk at them and try to make their acquaintance.

Certainly the Williamses, like all the other visitors, would have known about the Shelleys’ past. They would have known that Mary had two of the most illustrious intellectual parents in all of England. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was perhaps the first great feminist writer in history, renowned for her books and scandalous love affairs. She had died giving birth to Mary. Mary’s father was William Godwin (1756–1836), a celebrated writer and philosopher who advocated many radical ideas, including the end of private property. Famous writers would come to see the child Mary, for she was an object of fascination, with striking red hair like her mother, the most intense eyes, and an intelligence and imagination far beyond her years.

The Williamses would have almost certainly known about her meeting the poet Percy Shelley when she was sixteen and their infamous love affair. Shelley, of aristocratic origins and due to inherit a fortune from his wealthy father, had married a young beauty named Harriet, but he left her for Mary, and along with Mary’s stepsister Claire, they traveled through Europe, living together and creating a scandal everywhere they went. Shelley was an ardent believer in free love and an avowed atheist. His wife Harriet subsequently committed suicide, which Mary would forever feel guilty about, even later imagining that the children she had had with Shelley were somehow cursed. Shortly after the death of Harriet, Mary and Percy got married.

The Williamses would undoubtedly know about the Shelleys’ relationship with the other great rebel of the time, the poet Lord Byron. They had all spent time together in Switzerland, and it was there, inspired by a midnight discussion of horror stories, that Mary got the inspiration for her great novel Frankenstein, written when she was nineteen. Lord Byron had his own scandals and numerous love affairs. The three of them became a magnet for endless rumors, Lord Byron now living in Italy as well. The English press had dubbed them “the League of Incest and Atheism.”

At first Mary paid scant attention to the new English couple on the scene, even after a few dinners together. She found Jane Williams a bit dull and pretentious. As Mary wrote to her husband, who was away for a few weeks: “Jane is certainly very pretty but she wants animation and sense; her conversation is nothing particular and she speaks in a slow, monotonous tone.” Jane was not well read. She loved nothing more than to arrange flowers, play the pedal harp, sing songs from India, where she had lived as a child, and pose rather prettily. Could she be that superficial? Every now and then Mary would catch Jane staring at her with an unpleasant look, which she quickly covered over with a cheerful smile. More important, a common friend who had known the Williamses in their travels across Europe had warned Mary in a letter to keep her distance from Jane.

Edward Williams, however, was quite charming. He seemed to worship Shelley and to want to be like him. He had aspirations to be a writer. He was so eager to please and be of service. And then one day he told Mary the story of the romance between him and Jane, and Mary was quite moved.

The Williamses were not actually married. Jane Cleveland, who came from the middle class, had married a high-ranking English soldier, only to find out he was an abusive brute. When she met the handsome Edward Williams—a military man who had lived in India, as Jane had—she fell instantly in love. In 1819, although Jane was still married to her first husband, she and Edward left for the Continent, posing as a married couple. Like the Shelleys, they also had lived in Switzerland and had come to Italy for adventure and the good weather. Jane was now expecting her second child with Edward, just as Mary was now pregnant again. It seemed, in a fateful way, that they had much in common. More important, Mary empathized deeply with their love affair and how much they had sacrificed for each other.

Then Jane had her second child. Now the two women could bond as young mothers. Finally someone to talk to about the difficulties of raising infants in a foreign land, something Mary’s husband could care less about. Besides, the Shelleys had no English friends, since English expatriates in Italy avoided them like the plague. It would be such a relief to have some daily companionship in this moment of turbulence in her life. Mary quickly became dependent on Jane’s company and forgot any misgivings she might have had about her.

Shelley seemed to warm up to the couple as well. Edward was so officious in offering to help Shelley in any way. Edward loved sailing and boasted of his navigational skills. Sailing was an obsession of Shelley’s, despite the fact he had never learned to swim. Perhaps Edward could help him design the perfect sailing boat. And Jane began to intrigue him the more he spent time around her. Jane was so different from Mary. She never argued. She only looked at him admiringly and seconded everything he said. She was so cheerful. He could be her teacher, instructing her in poetry, and she could be his new muse, a role his depressed wife could not fill anymore. He bought Jane a guitar and loved to listen to the songs from India she seemed to know so well. She had a beautiful voice. He wrote poems in her honor and slowly became infatuated.

Mary noticed all this. She knew well her husband’s pattern. He was always looking for a woman very different from the one he was with to inspire him and break the monotony of a relationship. His first wife, Harriet, had been more like Jane, pretty and simple, and so he fell for the much more complicated Mary. Now the pattern was repeating as he fell for the simpler Jane. But how could she take Jane seriously as a rival? She was so ordinary. He was simply poeticizing her; he would eventually see her as she was and grow bored. Mary did not fear losing him.

In 1822 the Shelleys and Williamses, now rather inseparable, decided to move together into a house further north along the coast, overlooking the Bay of Lerici. From the beginning Mary hated the place and begged her husband to find something else. It was so isolated. It was not easy to find supplies. The local peasants seemed rather brutal and unfriendly. The two couples would be completely dependent on their servants. Nobody besides Mary seemed interested in running the household, least of all Jane, who had proven to be quite lazy. But worse than everything, Mary had terrible forebodings about the place. She feared greatly for the fate of her child Percy, only three years old. She smelled disaster in the walls of the isolated villa that they occupied. She became nervous and hysterical. She knew she was putting everyone off with her behavior, but she could not quell her anxiety. Shelley reacted by spending more and more time with Jane.

Several months after settling at the villa, Mary had a miscarriage and nearly died. Her husband attended to her for several weeks, and she recovered. But just as quickly he seemed to become enamored with a new plan that terrified Mary. He and Edward had designed a boat, one that was beautiful to look at, sleek, and fast. In June of that year some old friends of the Shelleys had arrived in Italy—Leigh Hunt and his wife. Hunt was a publisher who championed young poets, and Shelley was his favorite. Shelley planned to sail up the coast with Edward to meet the Hunts. Mary was desperate for him not to go. Shelley tried to reassure her: Edward was an expert navigator, and the boat he had built was more than seaworthy. Mary did not believe this. The boat seemed flimsy for the rough waters of the area.

Nevertheless Shelley and Edward left on July 1, with a third crewmember. On July 8, as they started on their homeward journey, they ran into one of the storms endemic to the region. Their boat had indeed been badly designed, and went under. A few days later the bodies of all three were found.

Almost immediately Mary was seized with remorse and guilt. She played in her mind every angry word she had addressed to her husband, every critique of his work, every doubt she had instilled in him about her love. It was all too much, and she determined then and there that she would devote the rest of her life to making Shelley’s poetry famous.

At first Jane seemed extremely broken up by the tragedy, but she recovered more quickly than Mary. She had to be practical. Mary might have a nice inheritance from Shelley’s family. Jane had nothing. She decided she would return to London and somehow find a way to support her two children. Mary empathized with her plight. She gave her a list of important contacts in England, including Shelley’s best friend from his youth, Thomas Hogg, a lawyer. Hogg had his own issues—he was always falling in love with the people closest to Shelley, first Shelley’s sister, then Shelley’s first wife, and finally Mary herself, whom he tried to seduce. But that had been years ago, they remained good friends, and as a lawyer Hogg could be of some help to Jane.

Mary decided to stay in Italy. She had hardly any friends left, but the Hunts were still in Italy. Much to her dismay, however, Leigh Hunt had become surprisingly cold to her. In this, her most vulnerable moment, he had apparently lost all sympathy for her, and she could not figure out why. This only added to her misery. Certainly he must know how deeply she had loved her husband and the depth of her mourning? She was not one to show her emotions as openly as Jane, but deep inside she suffered more than anyone. Other former friends were now acting cold as well. Only Lord Byron stood by her, and they grew closer.

Soon it became apparent that Shelley’s parents, who had been shocked by their son’s libertine ways, would not recognize Percy as their grandson, certainly as long as he was in the care of Mary. There would be no money for her. She thought the only answer was to return to London. Perhaps if the Shelley family met Percy and saw what a devoted mother she was, they might change their minds. She wrote to Jane and to Hogg for their advice. The two of them had now become close friends. Hogg seemed to think she should wait before returning; his letter was remarkably cold. Here was yet another person who had suddenly become distant. But it was the response of Jane that most surprised her. She advised giving up Percy and not coming to England. As Mary tried to explain how impossible that would be for her emotionally, Jane became even more adamant in her opinion. She expressed this in practical terms—Mary would not be welcomed in London, the Shelley family would turn against her even more—but it seemed so unsympathetic.

In the months together in Italy after the deaths of their husbands, they had grown quite close. Jane was the last real link to Mary’s husband left in her life. She had forgiven Jane for any indiscretions with her husband. Losing Jane’s friendship would be like experiencing another death. She decided she would in fact return to London with her son and rekindle the friendship with Jane.

Mary returned to London in August of 1823, only to find that she had become quite a celebrity. Frankenstein had been turned into a play that emphasized the horror elements in the book. And it was quite a sensation. The story and the name “Frankenstein” now had seeped into popular culture. Mary’s father, who had become a bookseller and publisher, came out with a new edition of Frankenstein, with Mary clearly identified as the author. (The first edition was published anonymously.) Mary, her father, and Jane went to see the play version, and it was clear now to all of them what an object of fascination Mary had become to the public—this was the slight, very gentle woman who had written such a powerful horror story?

When Lord Byron died in Greece shortly after Mary’s return to London, Mary became even more famous, for she had been one of Byron’s closest friends. All of the principal English intellectuals wanted to meet her, to find out more about her, Lord Byron, and her husband. Even Jane was now back to her friendly self, although at times she seemed to withdraw from Mary.

Despite her fame, Mary was unhappy. She did not want the attention, because it came with endless gossip about her past and insinuations about her morality. She was tired of being looked at and judged. She wanted to hide herself and raise her son. She decided she would move close to where Jane was living, in a more remote part of London. There Percy would be reunited with Jane’s children. They could live for each other and share their memories, recapture the past. Jane was so cheerful, and Mary needed cheering up. In return, she would do whatever it took to take care of Jane.

In the summer of 1824 the two women saw much of each other. It was now apparent that Hogg had been courting Jane, but he was such an awkward and unpleasant man, Mary could hardly imagine Jane reciprocating his attentions. Besides, it was so soon after the death of her husband. But then one evening in January it became clear to Mary that she had been deceived for quite a while. It was somewhat late at night, at Jane’s house. She and Percy had stuck around, Percy to play some games with Jane’s children and Mary to talk some more. Hogg had arrived and Jane finally exploded at Mary, with a look Mary had never seen before on her friend’s face. She asked Mary to leave so abruptly and rudely that it was clear she and Hogg had been having an affair and Jane could no longer conceal her irritation with Mary. She had noticed for some time that Jane had become increasingly cold and less interested in being with her. Now she understood this better.

They remained friends. Mary empathized with her plight as a lonely widow, her need for a husband. Jane was now pregnant with Hogg’s child. Mary struggled to get over her resentment and to help Jane as best she could. They saw less and less of each other.

To distract her from her loneliness, Mary befriended a beautiful young woman named Isabel Robinson who needed help—she had given birth to an illegitimate child and her father would certainly disown her if he discovered the truth. For weeks Mary conspired to help her, planning to send Isabel to Paris to live with a “man” who would act as the father—the man in this case being a woman known as Miss Dods, a notorious lesbian who loved to dress as a man and could easily pass for one.

Mary delighted in furthering this plot, but before accompanying Isabel to Paris, one afternoon she received the shock of her life: Isabel confided to her in complete detail the stories that Jane had been telling her for months about Mary—that Shelley had never really loved his wife; that he had admired her but had had no feelings for her; that she was not the woman he had needed or wanted; that Jane was in fact the great love of his life. Jane had even hinted to Isabel that Mary had made him so unhappy that he had secretly wanted to die the day he left on his fatal sailing venture, and that Mary was somehow responsible for his death.

Mary could hardly believe this, but Isabel had no reason to make up such a story. And as she thought about it more deeply, suddenly things began to make sense—the sudden coldness of Hogg, Leigh Hunt, and others who must have heard these stories; the looks Jane occasionally threw at Mary when she was the center of attention in a group; that look on her face when she threw Mary out of her house; the vehemence with which she wanted Mary to stay away from London and give up her child, which meant giving up their inheritance. All these years she had been not a friend but a competitor, and now it seemed clear that it was not Mary’s husband who had pursued Jane but Jane who had actively seduced him with her poses, her coquettish looks, her guitar, her puton soft manner. She was false to the core. It was, after the death of Mary’s husband, the harshest blow of all.

Not only did Jane believe these monstrous stories, but she had made others believe them. Mary knew how well her husband had loved her over so many years, and after so many shared experiences. To spread the story that she had somehow caused his death was beyond hurtful; it was like a knife being plunged into an old wound. She wrote in her journal: “My friend has proved false & treacherous. Have I not been a fool?”

After several months of brooding over this, Mary finally confronted her. Jane burst into tears, creating a scene. She wanted to know who had spread this awful story of her betrayal, which she denied. She accused Mary of being cold and unaffectionate. But for Mary, it was as if she had finally woken up from a dream. She could now see the fake outrage, the phony love, the way Jane confused matters with her drama. There was no going back.

Over the ensuing years Mary would not cut off ties with Jane, but now their relationship was totally on her terms. Mary could only feel some strange satisfaction to see Jane’s life slowly fall apart, the relationship with Hogg turning into a disaster. As Mary became more and more famous for her novels and her publishing of Shelley’s poems, she mingled with the greatest writers and politicians of her time and slowly cut off contact with Jane. She could never trust her again. As she wrote some years later about this affair in her journal: “Life is not ill till we wish to forget. Jane first inspired me with that miserable feeling, staining past years as she did—taking sweetness from memory and giving it instead a serpent’s tooth.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *