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The Tragic Unsolved Mystery of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Love Child

To this day, we have no idea what happened or even who her mother was.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

I promised to keep you abreast of my historic fiction novel (working title: Dearest Shelley, but that is likely a placeholder and will morph into something different when I’m through) based on the hauntingly unhappy love triangle of 19th century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley (famed author of Frankenstein), and her stepsister, Claire Claremont.

I say “hauntingly unhappy” because Shelley, a vocal proponent of free love, periodically cheated on his oft-pregnant wife with her sister — and then lied about it. In a glaring example of “It’s not the crime, but the cover up,” his duplicity and selfishness not only led to the death of his year-old daughter, Clara or “Ca,” by Mary Shelley, but through chilling neglect, the love child he sired with an unknown woman in 1818.

For two centuries now, scholars have driven themselves mad waging one tendentious argument after another for the baby’s mother being Mary, Claire, the children’s nanny, Elise Duvillard, or possibly someone else. And here I am, about to do the same thing. Writing a fictional version of their lives forces me to throw down on one side of the argument or the other. Which case is the most compelling, based on historical evidence?

It’s a tangled tale with lots of moving parts, so let me simplify their backstory with a cast of characters.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: poet, atheist, radical. He abandoned his wife and children to elope with a sixteen-year-old Mary (nee Godwin), herself the child of radicals. They fled to France with Mary’s stepsister Claire, ostensibly to avoid leaving her to suffer the consequences of their actions, but in fact because Shelley needed gobs of adoring female attention. Running low on funds, they returned to England for a time. Due to the urgency of avoiding creditors, gossip, the poor reception of Shelley’s poems, and the constant hounding by Mary’s father to pay off his debts, they went into exile in Italy in April of 1818.

Mary Shelley: author of Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, which was first published anonymously to critical censure but quickly received public acclaim — far more than Shelley ever did in his lifetime. After giving birth to a premature daughter who lived for barely ten days, Mary then had another daughter, Ca, who is twelve months old at the start of this story, and her toddler son, William or “Willmouse.”

Mary Godwin Shelley in early middle age.

George Gordon, Lord Byron: indisputably one of the greatest of the Romantic poets, breathtaking in his lyricism and sensitivity to beauty, Byron was a sexual profligate who trawled the Lido in Venice where he entered into negotiations with impoverished parents for his nightly use of their daughters. When Claire was seventeen, she initiated an affair with Byron, one that turned to seething hatred on his part, the result of which was a daughter, Alba. Despite her heartrending attachment to the little girl, Claire knew Alba would have a better chance in life as the natural daughter of Lord Byron than the illegitimate daughter of a penniless dependent. Consequently, she gave Alba to her father to raise, although it brought her enormous pain.

George Gordon, Lord Byron. A former lover of his described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

Claire Claremont: headstrong and vivacious, Claire was an ardent disciple of Shelley’s atheist free-love philosophy whose competitive nature put her at odds with her stepsister Mary — especially for Shelley’s heart. Although Byron’s lover for a brief time, she was Shelley’s lover as well, and is one of the possible suspects surrounding the birth of a child in 1818.

Jane Claremont who changed her name to Claire Claremont, stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley

Elise Duvillard: a Swiss nursemaid employed by the Shelleys and another possible mother of Shelley’s child. She was pregnant in December of 1818, her condition discovered by Mary only after Elise fell ill and a doctor summoned to treat her. Mary insisted Elise marry the man presumed to be the father, Italian servant Paolo Foggi. Mary must have known how unlikely it was that Paolo was the baby’s father. Elise and Paolo had met in September, a fact Mary noted in her journal. Whoever fathered Elise’s child must have gotten her pregnant in April of that year.

Paolo Foggi: an Italian manservant of the Shelley’s. He was by Mary’s accounting a “rascal,” but a competent one, and served many useful purposes, not the least of which was agreeing to marry an inconveniently pregnant nursemaid. But why did he later resort to blackmail, and what specific piece of information did he blackmail Shelley with?

A Précis of What Happened

On August 16, 1818, in the Tuscan village of Bagni di Lucca, two letters arrive from Lord Byron’s residence in Venice. They are both written by Elise Duvillard, who months before had been dispatched to look after Alba. She’s in hysterics, claiming that Byron swore to make Alba his mistress one day (and to be fair, there is reason to believe he might have said something to that effect, having already sired two children with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.) Elise and Alba are now staying at the Vice Consul’s residence in Venice. Help is urgently needed.

Claire and Shelley take off at dawn the next morning, a trip of over 200 miles requiring four days’ travel. Mary is left to care for baby Ca and little Willmouse. Shelley is elated to be on the road again, and almost certainly rekindles his sexual relationship with Claire while away from the watchful eyes of Mary.

But once they reach Venice, it becomes necessary to conceal Claire’s presence from Lord Byron who, according to mutual friends, speaks of her arrival with horror. Shelley wisely sees Byron alone.

His reception is a warm one. Byron, ever the hypocrite, despises Shelley’s “immorality and atheism,” but enjoys his company. Shelley disdains Byron’s sexual debauchery but holds his poetry in high regard. To conceal the fact of Claire’s being in Venice, Shelley tells Byron that Mary, Claire, and the children are in nearby Padua. But then with his usual impulsive generosity, Byron insists they stay at I Capuccini, his summer house in Este, a village about thirty miles from Venice. Shelley feels pressured to accept.

Panicked, he writes to Mary, admitting that he lied to Byron, pleading with her to come to Venice at once. Byron must never find out, especially since it is within his power to never let Claire see her daughter again.

Mary receives Shelley’s letter with mixed feelings. She’s worried that her daughter isn’t strong enough to make the journey. Little Ca is teething, feverish, and now stricken with dysentery. Yet if Mary doesn’t go, she’s imperiling Claire’s chances of ever seeing her daughter Alba again. But in the back of Mary’s mind, always, is the worry that Shelley will run off with Claire and abandon her, just as he did with his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, who later committed suicide.

On August 30th, her twenty-first birthday, Mary packs up the house and makes the long, hot, perilous trip to Venice. Ca is alarmingly pale, drifting in and out of consciousness. They arrive in Este where Shelley, Claire, Alba and Elise have been enjoying Byron’s hospitality sans Byron, who stays as far away as possible in Venice. Ca is taken to various doctors, but nothing seems to work. Claire appears to be having her own health crisis, with Shelley insisting on taking her to a Venetian medico.

This is where informed speculation must serve in lieu of any hard evidence, but it is possible — indeed, likely — that Claire was already pregnant by Shelley. Their mutual secrecy and frantic searches for healthcare say volumes about this period in time.

Meanwhile, Ca grew sicker.

From Byron’s palatial residence, Shelley sends Mary a message telling her to bring Ca to Venice where they will attempt to visit Byron’s own physician, Dr. Aglietti. At 3:30 in the morning, Mary boards a coach that takes her to Padua. Shelley is awaiting her there, but by the time Mary arrives, Ca is going into convulsions. Shelley has forgotten the travel passes required to board a gondola which takes them across the lagoon into Venice. By the power of his wrath alone, he manages to get them safe passage. Mary desperately waits in the lobby of a hotel while Shelley tries to find Dr, Aglietti, but it’s too late. Ca goes into one last convulsion before dying in her mother’s arms.

Blaming Shelley and Claire, even herself, Mary sinks into a dark depression, one that would last for more than a year. In an effort to cheer her up, Shelley takes the family, including Claire, Elise, Paolo, and the children to Naples. But things quickly go awry. Claire is sick, and after discovering their nursemaid, Elise, is mysteriously pregnant, Mary insists she marry Paolo Foggi, with whom Elise has already formed an attachment. This is done in haste, after which Elise converts to Roman Catholicism.

In December, a child is born in Naples: Elena Adelaide Shelley. On a state registration paper signed by Shelley, she is listed as having been born at 7pm on December 27th. A second document, a certificate of baptism, states that a child whose father is Percy B. Shelley was baptized on February 27, 1819. A death certificate drafted fifteen months later, also signed by Shelley, again proves his paternity.

But the name he gives as the baby’s mother is “Marina Paduin,” and then later, Mary Godwin Shelley. Why? Was Marina Paduin a misspelling of Mary Godwin? If so, why did he sign the paper? Both names are a lie. Mary wasn’t pregnant, although Claire might have been. Remember: Claire had been ill throughout the month of December, although Mary reported to her friend Maria Gisborne that it was Claire’s “old complaint,” which one assumes was menstrual. Later, when rumors were flying, she strenuously denied that Claire had been pregnant — hardly proof that she wasn’t, but Mary had a reputation for being doggedly honest with her friends.

Significantly, Paolo and Elise left the Shelley’s service two days after the baptism of little Elena. The very fact of there having been a baptism at all points to Elise being Elena’s mother. She was, after all, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. Had Claire been its mother, no baptism would have taken place. Like Shelley, Claire was a devout atheist. More to the point, Claire never would have left her baby in Naples. Little Elena was dispatched to Italian foster parents and never seen by any of the Shelley party again.

Why Shelley listed Mary as Elena’s mother is an enduring mystery, but perhaps he hoped that with their daughter’s recent death, Mary might one day be willing to raise Elena as a substitute. If so, he hoped in vain. All that can be said with any confidence is that if Claire had been its mother, she would have never abandoned the child — especially a child with Shelley. As much as Shelley didn’t like “squallers,” it is unlikely even he would have blithely left Elena in Naples … unless, of course, he was trying to keep her birth a secret from the one person (besides himself) he was trying to protect: namely, his wife, Mary.

Shelley provided money to Elena’s foster parents until her death on 9 June 1820. Three days later, on the 12th, Paolo Foggi began blackmailing him. Why? What information did Paolo have that was damning enough for Shelley to pay for his silence?

Smart money says the secret was Elena’s real mother.

Here again, we must speculate. Given the circumstantial evidence, it is possible that Shelley and Elise had a liaison back in April of 1818. He might have been simultaneously bedding Claire. Both women fell pregnant, Elise first, and then Claire, possibly closer to the fall. Those frantic doctor’s visits? Claire confirming her condition and perhaps obtaining the abortifacients necessary to end her pregnancy. Maybe they worked, maybe they didn’t. By the end of December, she’d either recovered from the effects of her abortion or she’d miscarried a child. Mary wrote in her journal that Claire had been sick in bed on December 25th and 26th, but again, no mention is made of a pregnancy.

Meanwhile, Elise, further along in hers, gives birth to Elena Adelaide on December 27th. Did Mary guess who her father was? If she did, we have no document supporting it. She certainly knew that Shelley was being blackmailed by Paolo Foggi, but Shelley might have given any number of reasons for it. It is telling that Claire — the only one to survive into old age — remembered Shelley as a damnable liar.

He was. And just as cruelly, he took the secret of Elena Adelaide’s maternity with him to the grave.

Copyright © 2022 Stacey Eskelin

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