English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is born on this day in Sussex, into a wealthy, aristocratic family.
Shelley, the heir to his wealthy grandfather’s estate, was educated at Eton and Oxford. But after six months at the university, he was expelled for refusing to admit he wrote a controversial essay. Not long afterward, the 18-year-old youth eloped with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a tavern owner.
The two lived on a small income from their families and had two children. Shelley became a disciple of radical reformer William Godwin and fell in love with Godwin’s daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Shelley and Godwin fled to Europe in 1814 and married after Harriet committed suicide two years later. Shelley was denied custody of his and Harriet’s two children. Most of Shelley’s poetry at this time is politically oriented, lobbying for social justice.
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. Meanwhile, Shelley wrote poetry. Some of his best work, including his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound (published 1820), “Ode to the West Wind,” and “To a Skylark,” was written while the couple lived in Italy in the late 1810s.
The Shelleys had five children, but only one lived to adulthood. After Percy 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 today.