One of my favorite things to do is to dig into the English annals and discover really weird stories. I’ve covered some strange and deranged stories on this blog, from Lady Caroline Lamb sending her bloody pubes to Lord Byron to one of life’s most baffling questions—was Jack the Ripper a woman? This month I have for you a story that ranks up there. Mary Shelley, the famous creator of Frankenstein, kept her dead husband’s heart in a desk. So how did said heart end up in said desk? It started with a romance.
Mary Shelley met her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in March 1814. Despite Percy having an estranged wife, Mary fell in love with the handsome poet. After only a few months, the two eloped together in July, quickly conceived a child, and found themselves in financial ruin.
Despite these dire straits, Mary Shelley would go on to write Frankenstein in 1816, and Percy continued to receive acclaim for poems such as “Ode to the West Wind” and “Helias.” Percy’s estranged wife died in December 1816, having been found pregnant and drowned in the Serpentine River in London’s Hyde Park. Mary and Percy married an astounding three weeks after the drowning. However, their wedded bliss lasted only six years.
Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned, ironically, on a return voyage to England. His body washed ashore on the coast of Italy, which was eventually returned to his friends and family. Mary Shelley was heartbroken at the loss—but she did get to keep an odd memento.
Percy’s body was cremated. Mary and many of Percy’s friends attended the cremation, but as they watched his body turned to ash, all present were surprised that his heart remained oddly preserved.
Percy’s friend, Captain Edward John Trelawny, snatched the heart from the fire. Fighting ensued as to who would keep the heart, which at this point was blackened and covered in ash. This fighting then ushered something similar to a game of hot potato, but rather a potato, it was a heart. And instead of everyone trying to get rid of the potato, er, heart, they bickered over who’d keep it.
Colonel Trelawny forfeited the heart to another poet, Leigh Hunt. However, Mary asserted her rightful claim over the heart. After all, she’d captured Percy’s heart in life. Why not keep it in death? Hunt refused to hand over the charred heart to a distraught Mary (what a jerk??), but after some coercion from friend Lord Byron, he gave the heart to her.
After a rousing game of hot potato, Mary returned home from the cremation and funeral. She supposedly wrapped up the heart in silk and kept it in her writing desk, which was discovered again after her death. Can you imagine being the one to find that in a drawer?
5 Bizarre Times When 19th Century Britain Was Scandalously Out Of Control by Lara Rutherford-Morrison
Account of the death and cremation of P B Shelley from the British Library
Did Mary Shelley Keep Percy’s Heart? Anna Mazzola Investigates by Anna Mazzola
The Heart Cherished by Frankenstein’s Maker by Miss Cellania
Mary Shelley Biography on Biography.com
The Treacherous Start to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Marriage by Fiona Sampson