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Marriage and Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley at 53by Arthur Paul Patterson

I WAS SITTING in Merk's restaurant out on Pembina Highway with Bev in 1990 when I solemnly swore that if I were to do it again, I definitely would not want to be married. At the time I knew that marriage left a very sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't only that I hadn't taken care of my marriage of seventeen years well enough to make it worthwhile, it was the whole idea of being married that irked me.

I joked about marriage as being a socio-economic relationship which was merely functional to get a mortgage and a huge debt load that ensured you had to stay together. Rightly or wrongly, I felt like an economic drone bringing home money to keep something going that was hardly satisfying. I complained about the lack of freedom and the way in which marriage seemed to bring out the worst in people who might otherwise be good to know. The institution seemed to consist of strictures that made it very difficult to be free. Marriage gave each partner ammunition in keeping one another from truly being themselves, taking risks, and growing as individuals. It seemed to give implicit permission to be brutal, base, unkind and unloving. As I uttered threats against the holy institution, the so-called "sacrament of marriage", I became increasingly bitter.

It was the sort of bitterness that comes when you have been deeply let down by what you have pinned your hopes on. I didn't have the courage to admit that, in reality, there was nothing more significant to me than a relationship with a partner. If I were honest, I wanted to be married. Pain, hurt and guilt skewed my thoughts, making my most impassioned pronouncements about marriage diabolical, into lies. I didn't even know I was lying. I walked away feeling, like a libertine, disentangled from the whole idea of marriage and its stranglehold on my soul.

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley's parents, shared with my 1990 luncheon self, similar views on marriage. They were flagrant anti-matrimonialists. Mary Wollstonecraft not only kept her name but also, to show that women could own property, in distinction from merely being property owned by men, owned a separate cottage near her partner William. Both wrote and spoke heatedly about the lack of freedom that marriage brings, and yet, under the pressure of society and out of compassion toward their children who would be considered illegitimate, they decided to contradict their convictions by marrying on March 29, 1797. Their wedding date was an indiscrete five months before the birth of their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, on August 30.

Formally it was a short lived marriage since Mary Wollstonecraft died in the childbirth of her daughter Mary Godwin/Shelley. Undoubtedly the sanctimonious saints of her society may have considered it her just reward. Regardless, her acquiescence to marriage gave her daughter legitimacy but it did a lot more. The circumstances around her mother's death led Mary Shelley later to equate birth with societal legitimacy and death with marriage and children.

Whether a product of some unhealthy family karma or teenage romantic rebellion, Mary Godwin reasserted the family penchant for anti-marriage by eloping with Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was but seventeen years old. Percy was already married, in fact, recently remarried on March 24, 1814 to ensure the legitimacy of his children with Harriet. Percy, however, had cynical ideas of marriage of his own. He said that his heartless marriage was a calamity and that union with his wife, Harriet, was a revolting duty: "I felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion." The circumstances around his and Mary's elopement were not far off the mark set by these earlier comments on sexuality. He and Mary had their first intimate encounter at the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft in the St. Pancras' Church cemetery. Again the issues of birth, death, procreation and illegitimacy become embodied in Mary's life.

The much reformed anti-matrimonialist, William Godwin, stepped up to the plate for conservative society and forbade such a union between his daughter and the rakish Irish poet, Percy Shelley. In an attempt to break up the union, he virtually kept her under house arrest but, with the help of her stepsister Claire Claremont (a product of a dubious union as well), Mary made her way to Percy who was nearly driven to suicide by laudanum.

True libertines in thought and in action, they made their way to the Continent. Free love was the standard between the threesome: Claire, Mary and Percy. But the complexity of relationships and the effects of multiple bonding eventually took their toll, straining the alliance. Upon return to England another association with illegitimacy, procreation, and death was soon to be encountered. In February of 1815, Mary gave birth to an illegitimate baby girl who died March 2. In the meantime, relatively insensitive to Mary's grief, prolific Percy, attempting to recreate an English version of Greek sexual mores, masterminded intimacy between Mary and his friend Hogg. He invited his estranged wife Harriet to live with him, Mary and Claire and Hogg. Harriet refused.

This takes us up to the infamous Ghost-storytelling summer of 1816 when Percy, Mary, William, and Claire took a holiday with Lord Byron and his physician, John William Polidori, at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. Again, there is a confluence of illegitimacy, birth, creation and death. Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus was conceived in a context where scientific theories of life's origins, avant garde views of sexuality, ghost stories and the issues of child-rearing responsibility were raised.

The vacationers returned home to encounter two other tragedies of childbirth. On October 9, 1816, Fanny Imlay (Mary's stepsister and illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft) committed suicide, unable to live with her financial problems and the burden of her illegitimacy. Harriet Shelley, Percy's first wife, pregnant by an unknown lover, also drowned herself in the Serpentine River on December 10.

Inspite of these two suicides, Percy and Mary were wed only twenty days later on December 30, 1816, thus granting legitimacy to their union and their offspring. Instead of the mother dying in childbirth, as in Mary Wollstonecraft's case, the remaining story of Percy and Mary Shelley's marriage recounts that all but one of their children died due to the driven lifestyle of their parents

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