Percy Bysshe Shelley was the only son of a baronet. He went to Eton, then Oxford, but was sent down for writing a pamphlet on atheism.
Shelley would have been more at home in the 1960s than in Regency England. He would have been barefoot in the front of the peace marches.
By all accounts he was charismatic, quirky and persausive, and always untidy and unkempt.
He passionately believed that people are inherently good, if they are not influenced by corrupt governments. Much of his poetry has a strong political reformist agenda. He felt that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’
He also had an idealistic view of love. He believed in soulmates, one of which he found in Mary, though he did not necessarily believe that there was only one per person. Free and loving associations were his ideal, though he did not always think through the complications that arose when sex was involved.
Equality was also a passion, and he always considered women his intellectual equals. In Mary, he found someone whose intellect he could truly admire, and with her, he could share his love of the classics, especially the Greek philosophers.
At nineteen he had married Harriet Westbrook, to save her from the social disgrace of an association with him, and they had a child. When he met Mary, two years later, there was another on the way.
He did not see himself as abandoning his wife, but as succumbing to the inevitability of finding Mary. He said would always look after Harriet and could not understand her despair.
When Harriet died he was denied access to his children, which was very unusual at a time when fathers always got custody. The court felt that his immoral behaviour and above all, his atheism, rendered him an unfit parent.
Shelley was also passionate about science. A tutor at Eton had awakened his curiosity and he was always conducting experiments that threatened to burn down the house, and getting involved in scientific and engineering projects.