Published Title: 

Eloping with Shelley and a Third Wheel

Section type: 

Shelley and Mary eloped at 4:15 a.m. on July 28, 1814, accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Jane Clairmont (who later that year began calling herself Clary or Clara, eventually settling on Claire). They were pursued by Claire’s mother, who caught up with the party the following day at Calais, but failed to persuade them to return to England. On August 2, Shelley, Mary, and Claire reached Paris, where they purchased a notebook, a page of which is featured in this section. Shelley wrote up their dramatic flight from England, the stormy crossing (during which he began “to reason upon death”), and their arrival in France. Mary makes her first contribution to the journal by completing a sentence in lighter ink (here, italicized): “Mary was there. Shelley was also with me.”

The Shelleys traveled throughout Europe on their honeymoon. They returned to the Continent in 1816, staying with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. It was there, during an uncharacteristically rainy summer — at the suggestion of Byron, who challenged his guests each to write a ghost story — that Mary began her most enduring work, the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Dedicated to Godwin, the novel was published anonymously in 1818.

As it happens, Mary was not Shelley’s first wife. The pair learned of the death of his first wife, Harriet Shelley, on December 15, 1816. Mary recorded the news in her journal in the briefest fashion — not, surely, out of indifference. She entered the date for the following day, December 16, but then broke off her journal for two weeks, until her wedding to Shelley on December 30. Again, that event gets only the most laconic of mentions; Mary even gets the date wrong. But to such things, she and Shelley were truly indifferent. Other than the practical advantages it promised, marriage and its formalities mattered very little to them.