Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years

Natasha sheldon - October 18, 2018

A year after her death, Mary Shelley’s son, Sir Percy Shelley, finally opened his mother’s writing desk. The desk had been an important part of Mary’s daily life- in more ways than one, as Sir Percy was to discover. For inside, he found, not Mary’s last works but a reliquary of Mary’s past. Locks of his dead brother and sister’s hair mingled with the notebooks Mary had shared with her long-dead husband, the poet Shelley. Fragments of Shelley’s poems also resided amongst these mementos of Mary’s married life- along with something else. For, wrapped in the pages of his father’s poem, Adonais, Sir Percy came across a silk bag. Sir Percy unwrapped it, to reveal the charred remains of Shelley’s heart.

Edward Trelawny had rescued the heart from Shelley’s funeral pyre on an Italian beach thirty years earlier. Mary had to fight to reclaim it from those who felt they had a better claim to Shelley’s love. However, once it was within her grasp, she must have been comforted knowing that, even if she had not always exclusively possessed Shelley’s heart in life, she did so in death. However, aside from the question of why someone would want to keep such a grizzly relic of a loved one is another one: was the object in Mary’s writing desk Shelley’s heart at all?

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint, after Amelia Curran. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Death of Shelley

On July 8, 1822, Percy Shelley set off in his boat the Don Juan on the return journey to his home in Lerici after a weeklong visit to his friends Leigh and Marianna Hunt and Lord Byron. The day of the 8th dawned clear and oppressively hot. Despite this, Captain Roberts, the skipper of the Don Juan, detected storm clouds on the horizon. So, he warned against the journey. Shelley and his friend Edward Williams, however, were eager to return to Mary Shelley, Jane Williams, and their children. So, leaving Roberts behind, at 2 pm they set sail in the company of Charles Vivien, the ship’s boy.

The last reported sighting of the Don Juan was by Italian fishermen who spotted the craft struggling against the storm that did indeed blow up in the Bay of Spezia that afternoon. Edward Trelawny immediately began searching the coast for remains. Ten days after the Don Juan’s disappearance, the bodies began to turn up. Shelley was found on a beach near Via Reggio. Trelawny only knew him from his clothing, and a book of Keats’s poems in his pocket as his “face and hands and parts of the body not protected by dress were fleshless.” Williams, found three miles away, could only be identified by a monogrammed necktie and his boots. The remains attributed to Charles Vivien were found three weeks later.

Italian burial regulations dictated the bodies had to be buried immediately. So, Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron temporarily buried Shelley and Williams in quicklime on their respective beaches while they decided on a more permanent solution. They chose cremation. So, Trelawny had a portable iron crematorium made in nearby Leghorn. Williams was cremated on August 15th. Then on the 16th, it was Shelley’s turn.

As Shelley’s body was disinterred, a mattock hit his head, splitting the skull. This damage did not help the unpleasant appearance of the corpse, which was now also indigo from the quicklime. However, the funeral party, consisting of Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, Byron, members of the Italian militia and a few local fishermen, could confer it, intact to its iron funeral pyre. There, Shelley was given as near a classical send-off as his friends could manage. Oil and salt were added to the wood and “more wine was poured over Shelley’s body than he had consumed during his life.”

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. Picture Credit: Massimo Consoli. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

According to Trelawny, the fire was ‘so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron and reduce its contents to grey ashes.” Shelley’s exposed brains “seethed, bubbled and boiled” and “‘the corpse fell open, and the heart was laid bare.” At this grizzly sight, Lord Byron could bear no more and went for a swim while Hunt stayed in the carriage. Trelawny stayed to witness all that had been Shelley reduced to ash and “some fragments of bones, the jaw and the skull,” However, Shelley’s “heart remained entire.” Astonished, Trelawny snatched the heart from the flames, burning his hand. Shelley’s ashes were gathered and buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. However, the battle for his heart had just begun.

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
Shelley Memorial (Weekes) Christchurch Priory, depicting Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Picture Credit: Poliphilo. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Fight for Shelley’s Heart

Shelley’s heart had been much contested during his life. His first wife, Harriet Westbrooke, Mary Shelley and various other women including Jane Williams could all claim to have held some portion of it. So to did his friends. Leigh Hunt was one of them. Hunt had first met Shelley in London in 1818, shortly before Shelley departed for Italy. However, after Hunt’s health and that of his wife Marianne began to decline, Shelley suggested the family join him in Italy and set up a new magazine, The Liberal. So, the Hunt’s departed England. They arrived in Italy only a few weeks before Shelley’s death.

Despite this relatively brief and fragmented friendship with the poet, after the funeral, it was Leigh Hunt who laid claim to Shelley’s heart. He begged Trelawny to give it to him, rather than to deliver it to Shelley’s widow Mary who remained behind in Lerici, still weak from a miscarriage as well as the blow of her husband’s death. Trelawny complied, forcing Mary to write to Hunt and ask for her husband’s heart back.

Hunt refused. He wrote back declaring that his love for Shelley overruled “the claims of any other love.”Lord Byron had declared at the funeral that the heart was Mary’s. Hunt indigently dismissed this. “He has no right to bestow the heart & I am sure pretends to none. If he told you that you should have it, it could only have been from his thinking I could more easily part with it than I can, “Hunt wrote to Mary. In the end, however, Lord Byron compelled Hunt to give back the heart. Hunt, who was dependent upon Byron for the success of The Liberal, reluctantly complied.

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
Above, a lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair, originally belonging to Jane Clairmont, and later bought by T.J. Wise from Buxton Forman. Below, a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair, given by her to E.J. Trelawny and acquired by T.J. Wise from Willam Rossetti in 1890. Location: The British Library. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Why would anyone have fought so hard for such a grizzly relic of a loved one? In part, it was because it was common to take a souvenir from the body of a deceased loved one in the nineteenth century, to help preserve their memory and presence after their spirit had fled. Hair was the most common memento mori; preserved in lockets or woven into rings, brooches, and bracelets. In the Victorian period, it even became common to take photographs of the recently deceased. Actual body parts were admittedly rare. But the practice was not unknown. And the organ most desired by the bereaved was the heart.

Hearts were popular because of their emotional connotations the heart was regarded as the seat of love and feeling. After his death, Napoleon left his heart to his wife. Back in England, Thomas Hardy’s heart was removed for separate burial at his birthplace in Dorset- a hope partially thwarted when it nearly became dinner for the cat! However, since Egyptian times, the heart was also seen as the seat of the whole personality of the individual. It was seen as the receptacle that held the soul. So, keeping a person’s heart was the closest a loved one to come of holding onto a piece of the deceased’s essential self.

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
Sir Percy Florence Shelley, “The Poet’s Son” by Carlo Pellegrini. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Shelley’s Heart- Or Something Else?

Sir Percy Shelley had the shriveled remains of his father’s heart encased in silver and placed on display in his new home, Boscombe Hall. When he died in 1889, Sir Percy had the heart laid to rest with him, in St Peters Church, Bournemouth, in the same grave as his mother and grandparents. However, it could be that the desiccated lump of flesh that had lain in Mary Shelley’s desk all those years and ended buried far from the rest of his bodily remains with his son was not, in fact, Shelley’s heart but another organ entirely.

In 1885, certain newspapers in London and New York began to cast doubts on Trelawny’s assertion that Shelley’s heart had survived the heat of his funeral pyre. The accounts were not suggesting that Trelawny had lied, only that he was mistaken and the relic he had rescued from the flames was the poet’s liver. “The heart being hollow it is easily destroyed, “explained The New York Times, “while the liver, which is the most solid mass of the internal organs, resists most intense heat.”

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years
The tomb of Mary Shelley, where Sir Percy Florence Shelley- and his fathers ‘heart’ were laid to rest. Picture credit: LordHarris at en. Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The New York Times was reporting on a piece in the London Athenaeum. The Athenaeum had consulted an expert witness on cremations similar to Shelley’s and that witness had assured the paper that while the flames must have consumed the heart, the liver could have survived the intense heat. Shelley’s liver, the Athenoeum continued, had the added advantage of being saturated in seawater, which would have aided its heat resistance. This being the case, and taking into account that Trelawny, Byron, and Hunt weren’t anatomists, it would have been easy to mistake the shriveled liver as Shelley’s heart- and it probably suited the romantic aspirations of the party to believe it was.

However, there is the faint possibility that the Athenoeum’s witness was wrong and Trewlany was right. For in 1955, an article by Arthur Norman in The Journal of the History of Medicine speculated that Shelley’s poet’s heart could have survived his funeral pyre because it was calcified due to tuberculosis. This meant that Shelley’s heart was just as likely to have survived as his jawbone and his skull. Essentially, this meant that Shelley’s heart, the “epitome of romanticism” in Arthur Norman’s words ended up as, ” a heart of stone.”


Where Do We Get Our Stuff? Here are our sources:

Account of the death and cremation of P B Shelley, The British Library

Possibly Not Shelley’s Heart, The New York Times, June 28, 1885

Recollections of the last days of Shelley and Byron, Edward John Trelawny, Boston, Ticknor, and Fields, 1858

Shelley’s Heart, Arthur, M Z Norman, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume X, Issue 1, 1 January 1955, (Oxford Academic)

Shelley The Pursuit, Richard Holmes, Harper Perennial, 2005

Byron Life and Legend, Fiona MacCarthy, Faber, and Faber, 2002