Shelley was like a node in a network, connected to a number of the interesting people of his time, and inevitably, a biography of Shelley tells their stories too. And many of these stories are tragic – a look at the family tree of the extended Shelley/Wollestonecraft/Godwin Family shows many lives cut short. Shelley’s second wife was Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, and the child Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to. His first wife, who eloped with him at the age of 16, committed suicide after he abandoned her for Mary. Mary’s step-sister was Claire Clairmont, who bore Byron a child, that he appeared to care little for. She died at the age of 5 from Typhus after being left in a convent.
The description of their world is unfamiliar, and trying to comprehend the descriptions of the way people behaved and thought gives the story much of its interest. It is a world without personal freedom, with fundamental and tragic consequences from trying to live a life outside Society’s constraints. But the blame is shared, and its consequences affect the lives of children, parents and siblings. The story of Mary’s sister Fanny Imlay seems particularly tragic.
Maurois is clearly impressed with Shelley: he shows him as principled but naive. The women all seem jealous and needy. Byron comes across as despicable, unprincipled, weak, vain and treacherous, seeing himself as superior to the Shelleys because of their atheism. And of course, the story is always moving towards Shelly’s death. The details of Shelley’s corpse, and its cremation are almost jarringly graphic.
There is something very encouraging about the fact that they chose a biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley as the first book of the fledgling Penguin venture. Clearly it was a wise choice, and I think the book must have been very popular in its day, as it is fairly easy to find copies from the 1930s, but no later editions until anniversary copies start to be printed in the 1980s.