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Percey Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 at Field Place, Horsham, Sussex: eldest son of Timothy Shelley, landowning Whig MP and later a Baronet. It was assumed that when he was twenty one Percy would inherit his father's seat in Parliament.

In 1802 Percy started school at Syon House Academy, Isleworth, near London, followed by Eaton in 1804. There he was bullied but developed his interests in science and literature, writing two novels and a volume of poetry with his sister. As a young man he was taken to the House of Commons where he met Sir Francis Burdett, the Radical M.P. for Westminster. Shelley, who had developed a strong hatred of tyranny while at Eton, was impressed by Burdett, and in 1810 dedicated one of his first poems to him. That year he went to University College, Oxford, where he began writing further novels and philosophical and political pamphlets, including ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, a pamphlet that attacked the idea of compulsory Christianity. University officials were shocked when they discovered what Shelley had written and in March, 1811 he was expelled.

In January, 1811 he had met 16 year old Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a London coffee house proprietor, and in August they eloped to Scotland to marry. This created a terrible scandal and Shelley's father disinherited him, never forgiving him for what he had done. They visited Southey in the Lake District and the following year visited Dublin. There Shelley spoke and wrote and distributed pamphlets on Catholic emancipation and the Repeal of the Union. They then went to Wales, where the Irish visit probably inspired him to start ‘Queen Mab’. This was a long poem based on Irish legend but with strong political messages, seeking the reform of social injustice and attacking the power of birth, money and privilege. It was a long time before anyone would risk publishing it.

In June 1812 they came from Wales to live in Lynmouth. They approached down Countisbury Hill. Shelly later wrote that they "saw before and beneath them a fairy scene - Little Lynmouth, then some thirty cottages, rose-clad and myrtle-clad, nestling at the foot of the hills. It was enough." Shelley wrote little poetry at Lynmouth, but finished ‘Queen Mab’ there. The only lines that we know he wrote at Lynmouth are in a card to Harriet for her 17th birthday, presented with a posy of wild flowers:

“Thou wert the inspiration of my song,

Thine are these early wilding flowers

Though garlanded by me.”

For much of the time Shelley wandered alone in the surrounding countryside. In the Valley of Rocks he drew the shapes of the rocks on the backs of old letters. Meanwhile Harriet read, both in English and French. She translated a French children’s story, writing it in the back of an exercise book. The book, known as the‘Esdaile Notebook’, contains some of Shelley’s earlier verses and a few scattered lines written in Lynmouth.

There is a difference of opinion as to where the Shelleys stayed at Lynmouth. All that Shelley wrote of it was: "The climate is so mild that myrtles of immense size twine up our cottage and roses bloom in the open air in winter." Harriet wrote similarly: “We have roses and myrtles, the house is thatched, such a little place it seems like a fairy scene.” We know that it was on a hill because two or three labourers had to be enlisted to haul Shelley’s books up it. The favoured site was known as ‘Blackmore's Lodgings’ as it belonged to Mary, aunt of R D Blackmore. This later became 'Woodbine Villas'. It was later demolished and a new cottage near the site became known as 'Shelley's Cottage', which, as 'Shelley's Cottage Hotel', was rebuilt following damage in the 1952 flood disaster. Evidence for this comes from an article in the 'North Devon Herald' of 1901. In the article, Agnes Groves, celebrating her 100th birthday, is quoted as remembering the Shelleys staying with her in 'Woodbine Villas' when she was ten. Local people also claim to have seen Shelley's signature in the visitors' book for 'Woodbine Villas'. Unfortunately the book was last heard of in the 1940s when it was moved to Hampshire with the Elworthy family. Another theory is that they stayed in the top cottage on Mars Hill. Evidence of this comes from a newspaper of 1907 reporting a fire at 'Shelley's Cottage' on Mars Hill. It seems that Mary Blackmore moved to Mars Hill in 1854 and, claiming that the Shelleys had stayed with her, she may have confused people as to which house they had lodged at. To add to the confusion, another account suggests that they did not stay with Mary Blackmore at all but with a Mrs Hooper.

At Lynmouth the Shelleys were joined by Elizabeth Hitchener, a schoolmistress, who supplied the intellectual response for Shelley that Harriet was unable to provide. Elizabeth helped Shelly in putting revolutionary pamphlets in sealed wax boxes and corked bottles to be distributed by casting them into the sea and hoping they would be picked up when washed ashore. The Shelley’s Irish manservant, Dan Hill, was also put to this purpose. Shelly had extracts from revolutionary Tom Paine’s ‘Declaration of Rights’ printed on posters, which Dan fly posted in Barnstaple. Both he and the printer were arrested and fined. Shelley was unable to pay the fine and Dan was imprisoned. From then on Government spies kept a watch on Shelley and investigated his life and those of the people living with him. The couple were secretly returned to Wales, via Ilfracombe, by boatman William Richards, leaving many unpaid debts in Lynmouth as Shelly had no income apart from loans from friends.

In 1814 Shelley fell in love and eloped with Mary, the sixteen-year-old daughter of his friend, William Godwin, leaving Harriet pregnant with a son, having already had a daughter. He had never loved Harriet and did not really believe in marriage. The new relationship drew the disapproval of both sets of parents and Mary was also disinherited. However, Shelley’s grandfather left him an annuity when he died in 1815. The couple travelled in Europe, settling in Switzerland for a while before returning to England. In 1816 Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine, leaving Percy and Mary free to marry. The courts refused him custody of his children. Shelley continued to be involved in politics and in 1817 wrote the pamphlet ‘A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the United Kingdom’. In the pamphlet Shelley suggested a national referendum on electoral reform and improvements in working class education. The same year he wrote his poem‘Ozymandias’.

In 1818 the Shelleys, moved to Italy with Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, where they lived as a ménage a trois with Mary's step sister, Claire. Here Mary wrote the novel ‘Frankenstein’ and Percy wrote the odes ‘To a Skylark’ and ‘To the West Wind’. He also published the political journal ‘The Liberal’. By publishing it in Italy the three men remained free from prosecution by the British authorities. Soon after its first publication, in July 1822, the 29 year old Shelley was lost at sea while sailing to meet Leigh Hunt.