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Shelley: the first hippie?

August 1, 2011

One can make a good argument that Percy Byshhe Shelley (1792-1822) was the first hippie, or at least one of the first bohemians. All the elements were there: the war against authority by a child of privilege; the ethical vegetarianism; the boycott of sugar as the product of slave labor in the West Indies; the belief in communal living and free love; and general rebellion against the strictures of society, religion and matrimony. On top of it all was a contempt for the usual norms of fashion in clothing.

Shelley and all those who were sucked into his orbit had impressively untidy lives. He eloped with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook but a few years later fell madly in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was the daughter of two famous ethical philosophers of that day.  Like Harriet before her, Mary was only sixteen. Raised on her parents’ philosophy that marriage was an obsolete property-rights institution that should be overthrown, Mary put those views into practical use when she eloped with the married Shelley, taking her stepsister Claire along with them.

Claire was also in love with Shelley. It must have been a strange honeymoon, with two starry-eyed teenaged girls tagging along behind one handsome and magnetic young man, constantly shifting quarters from one apartment to another to avoid creditors, dodging the landlords, living a ramshackle life, reading philosophy aloud to each other in the evenings, and negotiating Mary’s pregnancy, which was troubled due to their restricted vegetarian diet. Mary and Claire’s father was outraged by the elopment and forbade all three of the young people to return to the family home. At the same time he continued dunning Shelley for money that the latter had originally promised the aging philosopher  (the money to be borrowed against his expectations of inheritance in the future). Mary’s father and stepmother were not the only ones who were furious. Shelley’s father was incensed and forbade him to visit his younger sisters for fear he would taint them with immoral beliefs. Shelley’s cast-off young wife Harriet (who was pregnant) was doleful and miserable; and landlords and neighbors were outraged and shocked. In the early 1800s, free love was viewed as a sin against both God and society. Shelley was already notorious for having been expelled from Oxford for writing an essay defending atheism; his name was not viewed kindly.

And on and on, across England and into Italy, dogged by bad luck and lack of funds, haunted by the suicides of Harriet and Mary’s half-sister, until the day six years after the elopement when Shelley drowned while out boating. Bereft and penniless, Mary never remarried despite her beauty and intelligence, because her good name had been so tainted by her willingness to participate in Shelley’s idealistic plans. When I described this scenario to a Swiss friend who had never heard of the English Romantic poets, he said “It would make a good movie.” Oddly, it has never yet been made into a good movie, nor has it been worked into a good novel. I hope to be able to remedy this situation myself in the future.



From → books

  1. We hope you do! Can hardly wait. I would find out all this history and have fun reading it.

  2. Yes, it needs to be a film. i’ve recently read the rather vast work on him by James Bieri…and have integrated elements of his life and thinking into a written work that’s nearing completion.

    • It’s great to hear about your project…It’s a story that’s too often ignored entirely. Best of luck with it. Let me know if it gets published…I would love to read it. Thanks for writing, Paul.

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