Ariel: A Shelley Romance by André Maurois

Cover of Ariel by André Maurois

Cover of Ariel by André Maurois

Ariel by André Maurois is a fictionalized biography of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).  Shelley, the son of a wealthy landowner, went to school at Eton, where he was bullied.   He was expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism.  His father was enraged when he heard about this pamphlet, and this caused him to break off relations with his son; the two of them were never reconciled.  Shelley married 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, a friend of his sisters, rescuing her from a bad situation at home and school.  But Harriet was not his intellectual equal, and their marriage was very unhappy.  While still married to Harriet, Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin, the daughter of his mentor, the philosopher William Godwin, and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her.  Shelley left his wife and lived with Mary, which caused a huge scandal in society.  Godwin would have nothing to do with the couple, even though he relied on Shelley to pay his debts.  Harriet eventually committed suicide over her husband’s affair, even though, according to Maurois, she had suicidal tendencies all her life.  Shelley and Mary married, and Godwin forgave them, but pretended they had not been living together for several years.

Their troubles were far from over, though.  A court refused to give Shelley custody of his two children by Harriet.  He had several children by Mary, but all but one died as babies or small children.  The couple spent much of their time in Italy, where Mary’s stepsister Claire lived with them.  Claire had a brief affair with Lord Byron and gave birth to a daughter, but she really loved Shelley, and Mary became jealous.  Maurois believes that the relationship between Shelley and Claire was innocent, but others disagree.  Shelley died by drowning when his boat, the Ariel, sank.  His poetic genius was never recognized during his lifetime, unlike that of his friend Byron, whose poems were the bestsellers of their time.  Mary Shelley, of course, became the author of Frankenstein, but Maurois does not talk about Mary as an author, or even say much about Shelley’s poetry; the focus is on their relationship.  But his book provides a very good introduction to Shelley.

Ariel: A Shelley Romance is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library .

The original French edition, Ariel, ou, la vie de Shelley can also be checked out from the Hatcher Graduate Library .