A melancholy lovemaking scene turns strange with one lover in the throes of plague.
In this installment the modern editor of Mary Shelley’s text is left with a sentence that doesn’t quite fit the scene, but also feels too important to cut:
While there was hope, the agony had been unendurable; that was all over now; her feelings became solemn and calm.
Just over 200 years ago, on July 8, 1822, Percy Shelley was drowned at sea when his small boat went down in a storm off the northwest coast of Italy. What should have been an easy sail from Livorno to the Bay of Lerici, where he and Mary had been staying with friends, turned into an eleven day wait before the poet’s body was found washed ashore. The friends were a married couple, and the husband had sailed and drowned with Percy. They left two young wives behind in a rented villa Mary Shelley hated; she’d suffered a dangerous miscarriage there and was still bedridden when Percy left for the last time. The agonizing hope she mentions, seemingly out of place, bears every trace of these experiences.
Much earlier in the novel, among the lines she gives to Lionel Verney’s brief and barely sketched diplomatic career, offered without context or follow-through, Mary Shelley dropped this passage (I worked on but cut it):
How few while in the prime of youth attained the so-called golden sands to moor their vessels on, and collect the painted shells that strewed them. But at close of day, everyone made for shore, planks splintered, canvas in tatters, to either wreck before reaching it, or find some wave-beaten haven, some deserted strand, whereon to cast themselves and die unmourned.
There’s enough shipwreck-and-storm imagery in the book that it’s okay to trim an instance doing nothing to advance the plot, I judged. Obviously it would have been a preoccupation of hers. Some passages, like this one, read as a deliberate reference to her past; she may have pictured friends reading them with special comprehension. But Mary Shelley’s “use of personal material,” as it might be called, lifts the current installment onto another plane. In a novel in love with intimacy, the scene between Lionel and Idris after he’s been infected is probably the most intimate of all.
Two more couples, this time on the page and in the author’s memory, are nearing the end. The narrator is dying but wants to make love with his tragic royal-born wife, who slips from the bed to the floor. They talk all night—about what, we hear enough to recognize the source, for these are Mary and Percy’s beliefs: the Shelleys are the other couple. Gradually, line by line copied from life, they turn visible through the characters. Lionel on the couch is “changed,” transformed into Mary and nursed by his princess wife, Idris, who’s now Percy Shelley, an aristocrat who also nursed the poor and probably saved Mary from bleeding to death after that last miscarriage. Real life casts an echo: we hear Mary asking Percy whether death will divide them, and listen to him wondering what beings on distant planets do for minds. Sleep comes: and we wake up to the sight Percy Shelley’s face next to ours on the pillow, Percy with his famously huge blue eyes that eyelids couldn’t fully contain, it seems, in all his slumbers. Mary wakes up to Percy alive. . .for the time being.