To celebrate LGBT History month I’ve asked writers, historians and scientists to put their fingers to the keyboard and share interesting stories about queer people who now reside in our cemeteries and crematoriums.
Percy Bysshe Shelley might be seen as an unconventional and maybe even controversial choice to commemorate during LGBT History Month. Historians and literature scholars continue to argue about the nature of his relationship with Byron and with many other men. It is unclear if we could classify him as bisexual or pansexual by current standards. I feel that this uncertainty is worth talking about as historical doubt is an important aspect on who, and how, we choose to commemorate.
The choice of Shelley for me is not a rational one. Emotionally, or at least personally, I have a hope that we can count Shelley among LGBT historical figures. His ashes are buried in a particular cemetery in Rome, and next to him there are the remains of a close friend or a potential lover. Whilst visiting the cemetery when I was younger and uncertain about myself, I learnt about this ambiguous relationship of Shelley’s and it gave me hope that queer love did exist.
Now for some history.
Shelley was born on the 4th of August 1792, the eldest legitimate son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a Whig Member of Parliament. He had a pleasant childhood but a turbulent experience in education. He was constantly bullied at Eton and didn’t fare better at Oxford, from which he was expelled after co-authoring a pamphlet about the necessity of atheism in 1811.
After Oxford, at the young age of 19 he eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, who he abandoned when she fell pregnant three years later with their second child. She killed herself (for reasons that are believed to be unrelated to Shelley leaving her) in 1816.
Harriet was the first of the many women that played an influential role in Shelley’s life. Shelley had a platonic relationship with one Elizabeth Hitchener while he was married to Harriet. But a more pivotal encounter took place after he left Harriet. In 1814, he went on a trip to Switzerland with Mary Godwin, and her step-sister Claire Claremont, both 16. Mary later became his second wife and her own fame eventually surpassed Percy when she authored ‘Frankenstein’.
Shelley, Mary, and Claire returned to Switzerland in 1816 and that’s when their story became interlaced with the towering scandalous figure of Lord Byron, who ended up having an illegitimate daughter with Claire and becoming a close friend to Shelley. Percy and Mary married in December of that year.
The move to Italy
This move is crucial for us when we try and understand the poet. For example, an alleged illegitimate daughter of Shelley was registered in Naples when the couple was there. Different scholars interpret the child as a true illegitimate child and others see her as a ward who the poet took under his wing before giving her up for adoption.
Life in Italy is also important for the rumour that Shelley had became infatuated with Jane Williams, the wife of his friend Edward Williams. The Shelleys and the Williams shared a house in Tuscany in the summer of 1822. Tragically, Shelley and Edward Williams died in a shipwreck on July 8th of that year.
Weeks later, his body was cremated on the same beach where it had been discovered. Present at the cremation were his friends Byron and Edward John Trelawny. His calcified heart (which refused to burn) was given to Mary who kept it for the rest of her life, whereas his remains were buried in the protestant cemetery in Rome, where non-catholic people where buried back in the day.
This version of Shelley’s story, while debauched in parts, doesn’t appear particularly “queer”. But there is a significant intellectual current that believes that his image has been sanitised since his death. Gossip about the poet has always been rife and his close association with Byron may have shone a certain light on Shelley.
Now in modern terms, we would describe Byron as “not heterosexual” but it is important to remember labelling someone as heterosexual was a late nineteenth century invention. Currently, we describe a heterosexual as somebody who exclusively has sex with members of the opposite gender. The fact that Byron had sex with women and men is almost a given, although historical records are mixed with historical gossip, even in his case. Many today would agree that Byron was queer; the jury, however, is more divided on Shelley. Discerning the truth is therefore difficult.
Historical figures don’t really tend to keep a ledger specifying the names, genders, and
occupations of their sexual conquests. We have scraps of letters to consider, subtext in poems to analyse. Certainty in either camp is not obvious.
In a letter to his friend Thomas Love Peacock, Shelley wrote:
“He [Byron] associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait & physiognomy of man, & do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures. (17 or 18 December 1818)”
This has been interpreted as disgust for homosexual practice or as “fake outrage” over something he enjoyed as well. This really is a testament to the power of emojis that give tone to written conversation. Could a life-long friendship have survived knowing of these practices?
Historical researchers have been intrigued by unraveling the mystery that was Shelley’s sexuality. Letters and comments from his friends and contemporaries have also been found suggesting that Shelley loved many men over the course of his short life. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, with whom he wrote the pamphlet on atheism at Oxford was described as Shelley’s “one true love” by Edward John Trelawny. Trelawny is also considered another alleged liason of Shelley.
“Swiftly gliding in, blushing like a girl, a tall thin stripling held out both his hands; and although I could hardly believe as I looked at his flushed, feminine, and artless face that it could be the Poet, I returned his warm pressure,”
Here, Trelawny described meeting Shelley for the first time, some 26 years after the event happened.
He even claimed to have seen him naked many times, and he had no problem admitting that he did love Shelley. But what is this love? Is it romantic? Platonic? Sexual? Implications and interpretations have been put forwards, but there is no clear answer. We don’t see love as the Romantics saw love,that is key to understanding what Trelawny truly meant. What we can assert is that Trelawny cared profoundly for Shelley. He, after all, was the one who bought the grave next to Shelley’s after the poet’s passing and was buried there in 1880.
Is this enough evidence to claim Shelley was a queer man? I don’t think so. But I don’t think we should stop being curious about it. The conversations on role modelling is important even without certainty. It provides a mirror for the community where we can see ourselves and the different facets of society we grew up in.
Rationally we need to accept that the LGBT community will always struggle to find many role models beyond the recent past, and even if we can pencil down a queer historical figure, we need to accept them with all their complexities, as fully-fledged and imperfect humans. We need to accept the historical doubts. Shelley was one of the finest English poets, and he was also a serial womaniser. Him being queer could add to this complexity, but it is not a given; it’s a possibility.
I like to think that Shelley was interested in men, although maybe not exclusively. This is what I like to imagine: Percy asking Mary for another threesome with Byron, and her replying: “ You know what? You boys have fun! I have this book idea that will start a completely new genre of fiction… ”