Did Mary Shelley keep the heart of her late husband?

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A popular macabre story that is frequently shared around the Halloween holidays involves Mary Shelley, the author of gothic novels such as “Frankenstein”, her late husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, a romantic poet, and the burnt remains of a human heart. :

This meme tells a popular legend about the Gothic author and her late husband. Some of the details of this story are disputed (some argue that it was Percy’s kidney, not his heart, which Shelley kept), and as the most popular accounts of Percy’s death and burial come from a group of gothic fictional writers with a flare for poetic language, parts of this tale may have been exaggerated.

Overall, however, it’s accurate to say that Mary Shelley preserved the remains of one of her husband’s internal organs. It wasn’t entirely unusual at the time. The BBC reports that it was relatively common in Victorian England to take pictures with deceased relatives who were in poses, or to make jewelry containing the hair of the deceased.

This story dates back to 1822 when Percy drowned while sailing his ship, the Don Juan, during a summer storm across the Gulf of Spezia in Italy. When his remains were found a few days later by friend and novelist Edward John Trelawny, a fire was started on the beach and he was cremated. To Trelawney’s surprise, however, Percy’s heart would not succumb to the flames. The hardened remains of Percy’s heart were torn from the ashes and, after an argument over who would keep the remains, were ultimately handed over to Percy’s wife, Mary Shelley.

While Percy was a well-known poet, his sudden death at the age of 29 elevated him to a myth. This happened, in part, because the various accounts of his death and burial were written by other poets and novelists. The Guardian wrote in 2004:

“… This sudden tragedy put a sort of sacred (or profane) seal on his reputation as a young sacrificial genius. But much more broadly than theirs, Shelley’s death has been used to define an entire life, to frame a full biography. She did not produce a hagiography, but a thanatography.

Through an astonishing array of Victorian imagery, poems, inscriptions, memorials, and monuments, this death gave a distinctive image of Shelley’s character more effectively than any modern public relations campaign. He projected a supernatural, impractical and doomed writer. In Matthew Arnold’s notorious summary, Shelley was “a magnificent and ineffective angel, flapping her luminous wings in the void in vain.” Shelley could still fly, but he could never swim.

[…]

The incorrigible creator of myths Edward John Trelawny… obsessively rewrote his story [of Percy’s death and burial] nearly a dozen times over the next 50 years, accumulating more and more baroque details, like a sinister biographical coral reef.

Trelawny wrote several accounts of Shelly’s funeral. In the biography of Trelawny by Rosalie Glynn Grylls, she credits the author for putting “poetry into what started out as a practical procedure and what he wrote about it made it romantic”. This is how Grylls describes the story of the scene by Trelawny:

Trelawny’s accounts bring out what was macabre as well as what was picturesque: the sound of the pickaxe when it first struck Shelley’s skull as the men dug to find the body in the sand, and the bubbling and the brains bubbling as if they were boiling in a cauldron as the flames rose to the tops of the pines. Although the iron in the furnace was white hot, the heart was not consumed. Trelawny reached into his hand and tore it away.

Different theories have been put forward as to why Percy’s heart was not consumed by the flames. Trelawny argued that “in all cases of death by suffocation, the heart is gorged with blood; therefore, it is all the more difficult to consume, especially in the open air. In 1885, the London Athenaeum asked if Percy’s heart had really been removed from the flames and suggested it was a liver saturated with seawater that had been removed from the flames. Others have argues that Percey’s heart did not burn because he had calcified from a previous episode of tuberculosis.

While the exact details of Percy’s disappearance, death, and burial may be a bit hazy, it appears some of his remains did end up in Mary Shelly’s possession. In Emily Sunstein’s 1989 biography of Shelley, she notes that a year after Shelley’s death in 1851, her son, Percy Florence Shelley, found the remains of his father’s heart in a box that Shelly had kept on his office. The heart was wrapped in a piece of silk which also contained some of his ashes and a passage torn from Percy’s poem Adonais.

Percy [Florence Shelley] couldn’t stand being in the house where her mother died or letting anyone touch her things. He and Jane moved to Boscombe Manor and sold Chester Square. It wasn’t until the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death that they opened the box she had kept by her bed and found some relics she hadn’t even shown them: her copy of Shelley’s Adonais with a torn leaf folded around a piece of silk that contained some of his ashes and the rest of his heart, a box containing a binder they had shared and locks of hair from his dead William and Clara.


Sources:

Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: The Exile of Unsatisfied Fame, 1816-1822. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/percybyssheshell0000bier.

British Library. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/account-of-the-death-and-cremation-of-pb-shelley. Accessed October 28, 2021.

“Bronze Age Britons made memorabilia from parts of deceased relatives, archaeologists say.” The Guardian, August 31, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/sep/01/bronze-age-britons-keepsakes-parts-dead-relatives-archaeologists.

Grylls, R. Glynn (Rosalie Glynn). Trelawny. London: Constable, 1950. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/trelawny0000gryl.

Mary Shelley’s favorite memory: the heart of her late husband. July 8, 2015, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/65624/mary-shelleys-favorite-keepsake-her-dead-husbands-heart.

Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/maryshelleyroman0000suns_i7c4.

“Drawn from Life: The Disturbing Art of Photography of Death”. BBC News, June 4, 2016. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581.


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