Lived in Marlow 1817-1818
4th August 1792
8th July 1822
The son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a Whig MP, and his wife, Elizabeth, a Sussex landowner, Percy Bysshe Shelley grew up in Horsham, Sussex. In 1804 he entered Eton College and in 1810 matriculated at University College, Oxford. Legend has it that he attended only one lecture while he was there, but frequently read 16 hours a day. This made him unpopular with both students and dons. In 1811 he published a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” for which he was summoned to appear before the College’s fellows. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of this pamphlet resulted in his expulsion from Oxford on March 25th 1811, and a falling out with his father.
The 19 year-old Shelley then eloped to Scotland with 16 year-old Harriet Westbrook to get married. Unhappy in his marriage, he often left his wife and child alone. He made several trips to London, to the bookshop and home of atheist journalist William Godwin, and his daughter Mary. Almost immediately Mary proved to be Shelley’s intellectual equal, and their fondness for each other grew. On July 28th 1814, Shelley eloped for a second time, with Mary, settling in Switzerland. After six weeks, however, they were homesick and destitute, so returned to England .
In 1815 Shelley’s grandfather died, leaving Shelley a lucrative sum of £1,000 per annum. In the summer of 1816 Shelley and Mary made a second trip to Switzerland. They rented a house next door to Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva, and regular conversations with Byron had an invigorating effect on Shelley’s output of poetry. After their return to England Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet, drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park in December 1816. On December 30th 1816 Shelley and Mary Godwin were married. They took up residence in Marlow, at Albion House, in March 1817. Shelley’s major production at this time was The Revolt of Islam, and two revolutionary political tracts under the nom de plume “The Hermit of Marlowe”.
Also during this time at Marlow, Mary Shelley finished writing Frankenstein and it was published anonymously in January 1818.
In 1818 the Shelleys moved to Italy and their son Percy Florence was born a year later. Advocates of vegetarianism, they wrote numerous articles about the subject. Percy was also working on his tragedy in five acts The Cenci, and many other works, including Men of England and his elegy for John Keats Adonais.
Tragedy struck in 1822 when, on July 8th, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan, which sank. He was cremated on the beach near Viareggioand his ashes are buried in the Protestant Cemetry in Rome, Italy.
The Shelley Memorial now stands at University College , Oxford, in honour of their most illustrious alumni.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography by James Bieri, published by Johns Hopkins University Press 2008.
The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family by William St.Clair, published by Faber & Faber 1996.
Albion House, West Street, Marlow, now named Shelley Cottages.
The Marlow Town Tour, in a publication by the Marlow Society, is a circular walk which takes you past Shelley Cottages.