An excellent read – lively, engaging and fluid reading from page one to the end – I stayed up all night to read it, and was so sorry it was over, I could scarcely bear not to start it again.
The story starts, not with Shelley’s birth or early life – which are found out about in snippets and flashbacks later in the story – but with his career at Eton; a very fancy boys’ prep school in England. He was of aristocratic (but penurious) lineage and his eldest surviving son eventually inherited the title and entailed estates. Although an aristocrat in class, he was early on to embrace Godwin’s radical social ideals and principles, for which he was disowned (more or less) by his family, though not disinherited (as the estates were entailed).
He was enrolled eventually at Oxford, where, as a scholar, he found himself in his element, but he and his best friend, Jefferson Hogg, were expelled for refusing to tell who wrote a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which he put into the bookseller’s windows and had had published at his father’s expense on his own account there. He eloped to Scotland with one of his female friends (though he tended to see them more as disciples, ever fancying himself the teacher and improver of all the women he met – as they were to him ideal beings and inspirations to poetry – most of his amorous affairs were, indeed, platonic, and the women highly idealized). Harriet was the daughter of a tavernkeeper, which further alienated him from his very class-conscious father. He and Harriet were eventually parted, as she was keeping company with an army officer and he had fallen in love with his hero Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft (later the writer of Frankenstein). He and Mary eloped to the continent, but they soon returned and later moved to Italy (though there was quite a bit of travelling done).
He suffered the loss of several children – his own with Mary and later his eldest son by Harriet, sometime after her suicide and his marriage to Mary (he had lost custody of his children because of his supposed atheism and radical life style and beliefs). Although he hated the thought of marriage on principle, and the idea of jealousy, yet in some ways they interfered in nearly every relationship he had, one way or another.
He had a very fruitful poetic relationship with George Gordon, Lord Byron, though they disagreed on many, if not most, things adumbrated as necessary to a good relationship – principles and attitudes, especially toward women.
Shelley was killed sailing into a storm, drowned, buried in quicklime and eventually burned.
Maurois tells a lively story. Often dissed for his “novelistic” style of writing, he reaches a deeper truth for all that, and remains one of the greatest biographers since Plutarch.