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.
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.