Frankenstein’s Famous Creator, Mary Shelley, Kept Her Dead Husband’s Heart

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 questionswas 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. 

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Portrait of Mary Shelley. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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. 

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Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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. 

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The Cremation of Percy Byssche Shelley, a painting by Louis Édouard Fournier. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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?

Sources:

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

Mary Shelley Timeline on Schmoop

Rumor Has It That Mary Shelley Kept her Dead Husband’s Heart in her Desk for 30 years by Natasha Sheldon

The Treacherous Start to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Marriage by Fiona Sampson

7 thoughts on “Frankenstein’s Famous Creator, Mary Shelley, Kept Her Dead Husband’s Heart

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  1. Preserving the heart to bury it elsewhere was an old custom. If I recall, one or two kings of England wanted their hearts taken on a crusade they had promised to make, but never did. And, weird footnote, Tim Powers wrote a fantasy novel making the preservation of Shelley’s heart one of its crucial point: “The Stress of Her Regard.” (It’s not one of his better ones. It suffers from the “Sidonia problem:” trying to explain a range of historical events with an implausible supernatural explanation.)

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      1. The (Biblical term) nephilim, who are depicted as a cross between vampires and muses. I mentally call them the “stone vampires,” because of the way they are depicted. Powers had to fit them as a cause to the actual history, which makes them sometimes seem to act very arbitrarily.

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  2. Marvellously witty little piece on Mary Shelley – fascinating woman; interesting mother too! There is much speculation about the drowning, much of it as part of reinventing Shelley as a doomed poet. However, it is clear, he loved boats and the speed of them under sail. His trip to Livorno (Leghorn) was to see his friend Leigh Hunt and he was returning home to Lerici (not England) when a storm most probably swamped a boat that was not well designed and was deemed not fully seaworthy – too much sail, no buoyancy, open deck. Byron had intended to accompany Shelley’s boat in his own schooner. Had he been able to do so there may not have been the tragedy. The story of the heart is quite remarkable. As remarkable as the early period of their liaison. Thanks for the mini literary insight post!

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    1. Thank you for reading! It’s these little tidbits that make history so fascinating to study and read. What do you think of Byron’s eventual end in Greece? There’s some similarities in the “doomed poet” narrative between Shelley and Byron’s glorified ends.

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