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Hard and Cruel

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The Shelleys traveled throughout Italy between 1818 and 1822. Tragically, while they were in Rome during the summer of 1819, their beloved three-year-old son William, or “Wilmouse,” fell ill and died, a victim of the notorious miasma that afflicted the city in the early 19th century and which led to epidemics of malaria and other diseases. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, not far from where his father’s ashes would later be interred, although the exact spot of his grave went unmarked. William’s portrait was made by Amelia Curran, a friend of both Shelleys, who also painted Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley, and the best-known portrait of Shelley.

Following William’s death, Godwin initially drafted a letter to Mary, seen here, that included words critical of Shelley, later deleted. He wrote as a philosopher as well as a father, adopting an impersonal tone that can seem brutal. Lady Shelley, Mary’s daughter-in-law, certainly thought so. “It was a hard, cruel letter,” she told her friend Maud Brooke. “Mary never got over that child’s death and even spoke of him just before her death. Godwin always thought of himself as an exalted being.”