Stubborn gristle: the gory souvenir Mary Shelley kept after her husband’s death

Posted On
Posted By admin

The London-born novelist Mary Shelley is one of the most legendary and mystical writers of all time. Her oeuvre boats several immersive works of historical fiction, the apocalyptic dystopia The Last Man, and reels of collaborative work with her husband, the poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, Shelley’s undeniable masterpiece was Frankenstein, also known as The Modern Prometheus.

Beyond Shelley’s distinctive, captivating storytelling approach, Frankenstein is heralded as one of the early cornerstones of Gothic literature and science fiction. The daughter of philosopher William Godwin and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after her birth, Shelley née Wollstonecraft exhibited unbound imagination and literary intellect from a young age, penning Frankenstein at 18.

Fascinated by the macabre in an age of romanticism and body-snatching physicians, Shelley poured all of her passions into Frankenstein. Just as modern dystopias predict the rise of intelligent machines and cybercrime, Shelley prophesied the grim outcomes of amoral experimentation. She imagined the story of scientist Victor Frankenstein, who discovers the secret source of life before constructing a living being from assorted cadavers.

The most apparent rhetoric in Frankenstein is a warning of technological advancement, but Shelley also explores the power and necessity of human interaction. The “monster” is an intelligent yet hideous being who yearns for love and ultimately turns to hate and revenge in a minefield of moral complexity.

Despite being a morally virtuous member of an aristocratic family, Shelley reflected some of this grizzly romanticism in her own life. In 1814, she engaged in a romantic affair with Percy Bysshe, who was already married at the time. The pair married two years later following the tragic death of their premature firstborn child and the suicide of Percy’s first wife.

After marriage, Percy and Mary Shelley travelled around Europe before settling in Italy for a term, during which their second and third-born children also died in infancy. Their fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley, survived childhood, but tragedy seemed to linger around every corner for the Shelley family.

In 1822, Percy Bysshe drowned when his sailing boat, Don Juan, struck a storm off the coast of Viareggio, Tuscany. His body was recovered ten days later, upon which he was illegally buried. Following a dispute with the authorities over Italian burial regulations, Percy was exhumed and cremated on the beach in Viareggio in a portable crematorium financed by his friends, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Captain Edward John Trelawny.

According to a published account by Trelawny, the blaze consumed the body as intended, but the heart remained intact. “The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron and to reduce its contents to grey ashes,” he wrote. “The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt.”

Many historians conclude that what Shelley and Trelawny deemed to be Percy’s heart was instead a puck of stubborn gristle. Still, others suggest that it could have been an organ that survived due to tuberculosis calcification or seawater saturation. Either way, Shelley assumed ownership of the heart and kept it in her possession for the rest of her life.

When Shelley passed away in 1852, her son, Percy Florence, and his wife, Jane, opened Shelley’s box desk to find one of her final poems, Adonais, An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Unrolling the parchment, Percy discovered that his mother had wrapped his father’s heart in the poem. The coal-like relic was finally interred with Percy Florence’s body in the family vault at St Peter’s Church, Boscombe, in 1889.

[embedded content]

Related Topics

Related Post