You don’t need to know very much about the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley to be aware that he was not just a poetic genius but a dark, tormented and turbulent young man. He left wreckage in his wake and (knowingly or not) caused immense pain to those around him, especially the women who loved him. But was there something more to this than mere self-centredness? Could his erratic behaviour be evidence, in fact, not just of a disordered personality but an actual personality disorder?
I spent a year in Shelley’s company, researching the material for my novel The Frankenstein Monster, and the more I read about him, and by him, the more I became convinced that he may have suffered from some sort of clinical mental condition. Of course, the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders is immensely complex and sensitive, even for a trained practitioner (which I’m not), and even when the individual in question is actually present. How much more so, then, when the ‘patient’ has been dead for nearly 200 years. And there’s an extremely pertinent reminder of the dangers of taking such retrospective analysis too far in Richard Holmes’ biography of Shelley, which quotes a 1960s psychoanalytical study as concluding that the poet was “an introspective schizoid type with arrested sexual development at an undifferentiated stage, showing itself in elements of narcissism, homosexuality, and immature heterosexuality”. And all that based only on a reading of a very bad novel Shelley wrote when he was only 18 years old.
With this in mind I offer my own speculations in full knowledge of the pitfalls, but I do think we might gain a better understanding of what drove Shelley’s often erratic behaviour if we accept the possibility that he was struggling with a condition for which there was, at the time, no accurate diagnosis, little real understanding, and – needless to say – absolutely no effective medication. Worse still, the laudanum that Shelley regularly took to ease his many physical symptoms may well have exacerbated his intense mood swings.
So what evidence is there, after all this time?
As a young man, Shelley put about a story that his father had once tried to have him committed to a madhouse. Whether or not that was actually true (and Shelley’s relationship with the truth was ambivalent at the best of times), it’s easy to see why Sir Timothy Shelley might have resorted in desperation to such a drastic expedient. There was no doubting Shelley’s ferocious intelligence, but even as a child he often made the lives of those around him extremely difficult. He pitched his infant brother’s baby-carriage into a strawberry bed and terrorised his younger sisters, and yet they who all adored him. He continued to take delight in terrifying both children and women throughout the rest of his life, both by telling them horror stories, or, when he was at Oxford, by attempting ‘electrify’ the son of the man who cleaned his rooms, as part of one of his many scientific experiments. As his college friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg later recalled, the boy, “by name James… roared aloud with ludicrous and stupid terror”. Shelley also had an extremely volatile temper, especially when crossed – at Eton they called him ‘Mad Shelley’ and he once seized the hand of another boy and impaled it to a desk with a fork. But that story takes on a rather different character when you realise that his fury was provoked by bullying; another reminder of how difficult it can be to draw conclusions retrospectively, and out of context.
And yet there were other episodes that do still suggest some underlying problem. Both as a child and later, Shelley was liable to periods of sleepwalking at times of stress, and prey to strange waking dreams that appeared to leave him unsure what was memory and what hallucination. He would tell elaborate stories about his exploits that would always ”vanish under the touch of investigation”, and as a result many regarded him as either a lunatic or a liar (you can read an account of one of the strangest and most inexplicable of these episodes, here).
As Shelley grew older, what might have seemed merely the quirks of childhood hardened into a pattern of erratic and unsettling behaviour. There could be evidence of bipolar disorder in his violent fluctuations of mood, which would veer unpredictably between a deep and often suicidal depression, and manic episodes in which he would play childish pranks, or succumb either to “wild… demoniacal laughter” or fits of hysteria. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred at the Villa Diodati, during the infamous ‘Frankenstein summer’ of 1816.
Whatever lay behind it, Shelley certainly saw his own personality in terms of the ‘divided self’ – he wrote often of the terror of a fiendish ‘anti-type’ that lurked within “the obscure parts of my own nature”, and regularly referred to himself in the third person. This sense of dislocation became bound up in extreme feelings of fear and paranoia (though that particular word only came into the English language as late as 1811). As Richard Holmes says, “ghostly ‘following-figures’” haunted Shelley both in his life and in his writing. Or as Shelley himself put it in the poem ‘Oh! there are spirits of the air’, “this fiend, whose ghastly presence ever / beside thee like thy shadow hangs.” After the episode in Wales in 1813 that became known as ‘Shelley’s ghost’, he became convinced that he was being pursued by some person or persons unknown, and in the days before he died, during another period of extreme stress, he saw terrifying visions of his own doppelgänger, one of which was in the act of strangling his wife.
It’s fascinating, in this context, that when Mary Shelley later absorbed her long-dead husband into a novel, Lodore, she did so by splitting his personality in two: on the one hand the noble-minded and courageous Lord Lodore, champion of the downtrodden; on the other the nervous and introverted Derham, with his “wild fancies and strange inexplicable ideas”.
And this, I think, is where we come nearest to the truth about Percy Bysshe Shelley. He may indeed have suffered from bipolar disorder – as many now believe Coleridge also did – but I suspect the most likely explanation is some sort of personality disorder, or a condition with similarities to some forms of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Many of the symptoms often associated with conditions like these tally closely with contemporary descriptions of Shelley – his obsessive insistence on keeping to a rigid daily schedule and his refusal to converse except at set times, his recurrent physical clumsiness, his mood swings, his discomfort in social situations, his sensitivity to discordant noises. It would also account for his apparent inability to empathise with those around him, or understand their own emotional needs.
Shelley had an extraordinary grasp of complex theoretical concepts, but he seems to have struggled to relate those abstract ideas to everyday life. For example, he was a vociferous supporter of the “poor and opprest” and yet treated real people with what amounted to careless contempt, often leaving town without paying the bills of exactly those small tradesmen who were most in need of the money he owed them. Such behaviour might have had its roots in insufferable self-absorption, but I suspect the more likely explanation is to be found in a far more fundamental inability to “feel the motives and impulses of other[s]”. Not my words, those, but Mary Shelley’s, from her description of the character she later modelled on him.
The same questions arise in relation to his private life. I said before that Shelley left wreckage in his wake, and the tragedies that engulfed the women and children around him are truly heart-breaking: his first wife Harriet Westbrook, who married him at 16, was deserted by him at 19, and killed herself at 21 (“if you had never left me I might have lived”); Harriet’s two children, the subject of a bitter custody battle after her death, but whom Shelley never once visited thereafter; Mary Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, who committed suicide only a few weeks before Harriet, allegedly out of unrequited love for Shelley; his baby daughter Clara, whose death Mary always attributed to Shelley’s carelessness; and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied Shelley and Mary when they eloped, when she herself was only 16, only to find herself entangled in a poisonous and suffocating ménage à trois that prevented her ever having a normal life of her own.
Shelley was certainly conscious of his own – often unwitting – role in some of these tragedies (the poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ is a poignant testimony to his grief at Fanny Imlay’s death), but in other cases he seems to have been either utterly unaware or stridently self-exonerating, as he was after Harriet’s suicide. Knowing how challenging such behaviour would have been for his contemporaries, who lacked the knowledge we now have, we can understand why even his friends found him unstable to a sometimes dangerous degree, as if haunted by a ‘demon’ within. And we might also find here an explanation for the peculiarly equivocal tone of the memoir Hogg wrote about Shelley after his death. In it, Hogg insists that “in no individual, perhaps, was the moral sense ever more completely developed than in Shelley”, and yet he follows this assertion with what must surely be one of the strangest passages ever to be written by any biographer, then or since:
“The biographer who takes upon himself the pleasing and instructive, but difficult and delicate task of composing a faithful history of his whole life, will frequently be compelled to discuss the important questions, whether his conduct, at certain periods, was altogether such as ought to be proposed for imitation; whether he was ever misled by an ardent imagination, a glowing temperament, something of hastiness in choice and a certain constitutional impatience; whether, like less gifted mortals, he ever shared in the common portion of mortality – repentance, and to what extent?”
The supposed link between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’ is as old as the ancient Greeks, and numerous modern studies have discerned a higher than average occurrence of mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia among poets and writers. Some have even gone so far as to say that a uniquely creative world view can be the direct result of a condition like bipolar disorder or autism. In Shelley’s case, there is no question that his intellectual and literary faculties were developed to an astounding and unusual pitch. I believe it’s possible that those great gifts may have brought with them – or even had their origin in – a condition we can now, at such a distance, only surmise.
This post was written in 2013 for the http://fictionreboot-dailydose.com/ website. Updated 2022