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

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

Natasha sheldon - October 18, 2018

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 dependant 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 because 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 Pellogrini. 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 the 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 Athenoeum. The Athenoeum 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