A bitter paradise

14/01/2016 09:50

Written by Rosie Whitehouse

The Shelleys’ summer on the Golfo dei Poeti was not as idyllic as you might imagine. Mary Shelley hated the Casa Magni and later wrote, ‘My nerves were wound up to the utmost irritation, and the sense of misfortune hung over my spirits. No words can tell you how I hated our house and the country about it.’ She found the people ‘wild and hateful’ and ‘the very jargon of these Genoese was disgusting.’

Although Shelley loved the place and his new toy, his sailing boat, his nerves were also on edge and he was tormented by terrible nightmares. As soon as they arrived, it was Shelley’s task to tell his stepsister-in-law and most possibly former lover, Claire, of the death of her daughter, Allegra, whose father was his friend Byron. Throughout the summer Shelley had repeated visions of Allegra rising up naked from the sea.

Mary was pregnant and on 16 June 1822 miscarried, losing so much blood that she too almost died. Shelley saved her life by putting her in an ice-cold bath. All was not well between the two, however, and Shelley spent most of his time with Jane Williams, the wife of his friend Edward Williams, than with his depressed and debilitated wife, who had already lost two children, and the poetry he wrote here was addressed to Jane not Mary. Shelley was also deeply depressed and wrote of ‘such sweet and bitter pain as mine’.

On 1 July, Shelley went to Livorno by boat to discuss the launch of a new liberal magazine with Byron and the poet James Leigh Hunt. He was in political exile from Britain, which was at the time very authoritarian. Although the local fishermen tried to persuade Shelley not to take his boat out as the weather forecast was bad, he refused to take their advice and on 8 July he set sail for Lerici with his 18-year-old boat boy and Edward Williams. In summer, the sea can appear far less dangerous than it in fact is and can easily fool anyone who is not well versed in its treachery. No local boats ever set sail if there’s a storm in the air.

As if he had been tempting fate, the boat disappeared and Shelley was eventually washed ashore on the beach at Viareggio half eaten by fish. He was cremated on the beach, where his skull cracked open and his brains sizzled in the fire. 

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