July 28

This Day in History

Literary

Jul 28, 1814:

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin elope to France

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley elopes with 17-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on this day, despite the fact that he's already married.

Shelley, the heir to his wealthy grandfather's estate, was expelled from Oxford when he refused to acknowledge authorship of a controversial essay. He eloped with his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a tavern owner, in 1811. However, just a few years later, Shelley fell in love with the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of a prominent reformer and early feminist writer. Shelley and Godwin fled to Europe, marrying after Shelley's wife committed suicide in 1816.

Shelley's inheritance did not pay all the bills, and the couple spent much of their married life abroad, fleeing Shelley's creditors. While living in Geneva, the Shelleys and their dear friend Lord Byron challenged each other to write a compelling ghost story. Only Mary Shelley finished hers, later publishing the story as Frankenstein.

The Shelleys had five children but only one lived to adulthood. After Shelley drowned in a sailing accident when Mary Shelley was only 24, she edited two volumes of his works. She lived on a small stipend from her father-in-law, Lord Shelley, until her surviving son inherited his fortune and title in 1844. She died at the age of 53. Although she was a respected writer for many years, only Frankenstein and her journals are still widely read.

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