Keepsake of the Beloved Bysshe's Heart...A Most Macabre Memento Mori!
Mary Shelley (1797-1851 ), daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Godwin was born on 30th of August, 1797, all seemed to go well but the placenta broke apart and slowly became infected, going from childbed fever (puerperal fever) to full on septicaemia, she died an agonizing death on September 10th, and was buried at the Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, London.
Her name is so famous, so iconic, associated forever with the man-made nameless creature resurrected by Doctor Victor Frankenstein using galvanisms in the classic Romantic, Gothic, Science-Fiction tale penned by Mary and edited by Percy, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Few remember the turbulent love affair that Mary and Percy partook upon, while Percy was actually already married to someone else while professing his undying love to Mary at the grave of her mother. Harriet's maiden name was Westbrook, and the fact that their marriage may have been loveless on Percy's part, living separate lives and apart for months at a time, almost legally separated Harriet managed to get pregnant with their child Ianthe (born in June of 1813), and had even remarried in 1814 to protect the child Ianthe, then they had another child together, Charles, born in November of 1814.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
A dysfunctional pattern emerged here when you realize that Harriet and Percy ran off to Scotland to be married when Harriet was barely 16, then later runs off with Mary to France in 1814.
A distraught Harriet, while staying in Knightsbridge, she write a farewell letter and chose to end her life in the Serpentine River at Hyde Park in the winter of 1816. She disappeared in November 9th, of 1816 but her body was not found until December 10th.
"...if you had never left me I might have lived" -Harriet Westbrook
Harriet's demise, and possible rumours she spiralled into the utter depths taking up prostitution, and taking several lovers. She became pregnant with an officer's child from the Chelsea Barracks, she likely walked by the hotel where Percy and her celebrated their Honeymoon on a daily basis, and soon found comfort in anonymous men.
She walked into a freezing lake to silence her broken heart and shield her family from the embarrassment of a bastard child. Her drowning was deemed a suicide, "found drowned" was merely 21 years of age.
The Times newspaper, "On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine river and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad".
Drowning just shy of his 30th birthday, Percy crammed several turbulent lifetimes into the short one he was given. Kicked out of Oxford, eloped with his first wife Harriet, Percy's wife commits suicide, unable to face the torment of his shared affections with others, both men and women in his open Bohemian lifestyle.
Already moulded by the tragic loss of her mother at birth, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the loss of Percy at the young age of only 29 must have left Mary feeling abandoned once again.
On the anniversary of the untimely, mysterious, premature death of Percy Bysshe Shelley of 8th July, 1822 in the kingdom of Sardinia, in Lerici, now Italy. The Italian Riviera, the lure of the sea, located on the coast of the Gulf of La Spezia, the closest town being La Spezia a short distance away. Percy drowned when his small sailing vessel sank in a storm, it is not certain if it was human error, or deliberate.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)
There were rumours that Mary kept Percy's heart as a love token macabre, but given the times when Memento Mori of human hair were worn as mourning jewellery, and post mortem photography was soon to follow later that century, keeping the heart of your betrothed seemed a proper souvenir.
From Trelawny's detailed journals: “The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace my hand was severely burnt.”
FACT: Because his death took place on foreign soil, the body could not be taken back to England, due to fears of contagion from a rotting corpse, they ordered a cremation believing it would render the putrefying elements harmless from the flames. They had to temporarily bury Percy in the sand of the beach where he was brought to shore whist dear friend Captain Edward Trelawny built a portable cremation device. On August 16th after much digging, during which time the labourers accidentally slit open Percy's skull. Later Captain Trelawny would snatch a few fragments of Percy's skull from the pyre and save them as a memento for himself, burning his hand in the process.
"The Funeral of Shelley" painted by Louis Edouard Fournier
There are many theories as to the nature of Percy's death: suicide, piracy, attempted robbery, politically motivated murder, or was it just poor seamanship that left them doomed during a storm. Alas, perhaps we shall never know the truth...just as the theories which abound as to the exact piece of Percy that Mary ended up with part of his skull, heart, liver, or just a random calcified bit of Percy.
Regardless of what part of him she had, she chose to believe it was his heart, a ageless, timeless, enduring, indestructible love token, a precious relic, the last immortal part of him to hold on to after his untimely death, just shy of his 30th birthday.
Henry Weekes' monument to Percy Shelley & Mary, engraving by George Stodart
After her beloved Percy's untimely death, a distraught Mary wrote:
“Tell me the truth,
Beloved, where are you?
And when shall I join you?
They are all gone & I live
—if it be life to be as I am.”
Mary seemed cursed and lost three of her four children, her first prematurely born daughter died shortly after birth, before she and Percy were even married, he was still officially married to Harriet despite a journey to Italy with Mary Godwin, would later become Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley. Her children would not be on earth for long Clara died in 1818 in Venice, and "Willmouse" her young son William dies of malaria in Rome, in 1819.
William "Willmouse" Shelley
(1819 painting by Amelica Curran, shortly before his death)
It is believed that Mary Shelley kept the withered heart of her late husband Percy wrapped in silk, pressed between the pages of her copy of "Adonais" written by her husband. She kept the memento locked in her writing desk, keeping in near her always.
She remained a widow, and with her only remaining living child Percy Florency Shelley, she continued to write to support herself and her son, she seemed to be just killing time until she rejoined her beloved husband and two children she lost, William and Clara Everina, keeping locks of their hair when they passed. Mary countinued to silently mourn the loss of her 3 dead children and husband.
Perpetually haunted she moved back to England. Purchasing a secluded cliff-top home at Boscombe, in Bournemouth, now known as Shelley Manor. Mary would move the remains of her parents ro an underground mausoleum in town.
Mary lived at her until the age of 54, passing February 1st, 1851.
When Lady Jane Shelley was to be buried in the family vault, it was discovered that in her copy of Adonaïs was an envelope containing ashes, which she had identified as belonging to the one and only Percy Shelley. The family had preserved the story that when Shelley's body had been burned, his friend Edward Trelawny had snatched the whole heart from the pyre.The same accounts claim that the heart was buried with Shelley's son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley. All accounts agree, however, that the remains now lie in the vault in the churchyard of St Peter's Church, Bournemouth.
Supposedly, fragments of Percy Shelley's skull on display in the NYPL.
Astoundingly, in 1986 the infamous fragments of Percy Shelley's skull, purportedly, turn up here after being acquired by Pforzheimer purchased them in 1959 at a Southeby's auction in 1959, with two letters of authenticity. Written by Augustus M. Moore:
Letter wriiten by Augustus M. Moore to verify fragments as part of Percy's kept by Trelawny.
FACT: 2 letters of authentication exist in the New York Public Library within the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection "Shelley and His Circle", attesting to the fact that the pieces are indeed fragments of Percy Shelley's skull, however they have never been tested for DNA, but have been taken upon the words of the documentation, written by Augustus M. Moore. younger brother of the writer George Moore. The papers say the flakes passed from Trelawny to his niece, Emma Taylor, then to the writer Wilfrid Meynell, who gave them as a token of friendship to Augustus in 1879.