1811 was a busy time for Shelley. After being sent-down from Oxford, he fell out with his father, and eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old daughter of a coffee house proprietor. They married in Edinburgh, though Shelley disapproved of matrimony and religion. The marriage was an unmitigated disaster, despite producing two children, and did extremely well to last until 1814. Shelley immediately eloped to the continent with Mary Wollstonecraft, the intellectual, 16-year-old daughter of the philosopher, William Godwin, and the pioneering feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. He neglected his children in England, and the heartbroken Harriet drowned herself in 1816.
Mary was a far more suitable companion for Shelley, and they married within weeks of hearing of Harriet’s suicide. However, their relationship was slightly odd, to say the least. Soon after meeting, Mary took Shelley to her mother’s grave at St. Pancras Old Church, London (where the current tube station stands). As well as, presumably, paying their respects to the deceased, the young lovers also had sex on the grave. Mary lost her virginity a few feet above the remains of her dead mother. Interestingly, themes of death and procreation punctuate Mary’s magnum opus, Frankenstein, more on which below.
Abandoning Harriet and their children, culminating in the former’s suicide, meant that Shelley became one of the most hated men of his day: being a heartbreaker, anarchist, and atheist won you few friends in the early nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, Shelley’s custody battle for his abandoned children was a failure, though he was deeply saddened by it, and wrote several poems detailing his misery. Public opinion thus forced the Shelleys and their own children to settle abroad permanently in 1818, though Mary returned to England after her husband’s death in 1823, and managed to have a successful writing career.