Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!Like many revolutionaries of the Romantic era, Shelley was an advocate of "free love." Monogamous marriage, to these wits, was mostly about property arrangements and the control or suppression of True Human Feeling. He left his first wife -- to be fair to him, they married in haste at the ages of 19 and 16 -- and joined a group of freethinkers that hovered around the London bookshop owned by William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. (Wollstonecraft thought that marriage as practiced in her time was mainly about keeping women under the control of men.) Shelley eventually ran off to Switzerland with Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, who was also named Mary Wollstonecraft, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. They formed a self-conscious circle freethinkers, devoted to revolutionary politics, art, and free love. Claire was for a while Lord Byron's lover, which brought him into the circle for a brief but famous time. These experiments in unconventional social arrangements left a trail of broken hearts and broken lives: Mary's half-sister committed suicide in 1816, followed a few months later by Shelley's first wife. A memoir by Claire Clairmont has recently come to light in which she offers her perspective on these events, fulminating against free love:
If our great Mother has imbued my soul
With aught of natural piety to feel
Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;
If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,
With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,
And solemn midnight's tingling silentness . . .
If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred; then forgive
This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw
No portion of your wonted favour now!
how it abused affection that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge . . . how the worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves turning their existence into a perfect hell. . . . Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery -- under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women who under the influence of free love . . . loved him.As Oliver Herford pointed out in the TLS (Sept. 24 2010), this is not quite right about Byron, who never articulated any theory of free love and acted as a rake without bothering over justification; besides, Claire pursued him rather than the other way around. Reading about this I am struck, first, by how young these people were. Claire Clairmont was only 17 when she began her affair with Byron, and Harriet Westbrook Shelley only 21 when she drowned herself. They threw themselves into life with great passion but they completely lacked wisdom.
I am also struck by how every experiment in the opposite direction ends up confirming the conventional wisdom about marriage. Whatever the problems with monogamous marriage, it still works better, on the whole, than any other arrangement we have managed to come up with.