I take you now to Field Place, the West Sussex country estate of Sir Timothy Shelley, a member of the House of Lords. The date is August 4, 1792. The French Revolution is in full swing; the Americans are figuring out what to do after their new independence; and Timothy’s oldest (legitimate) son and heir is born: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dear, dear Percy. Quite a character. Impetuous, charming, radical, creative, and, oh, so romantic!
Google the guy, and you’ll learn about his poetry, his politics, his loves, and his adventures. You’ll learn that the 16-year-old girl who ran away with him (he was married at the time) and later bore his child before the two married (after Shelley’s first wife, hugely pregnant, committed suicide), is in fact Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame. And that’s not the half of it.
What intrigues me about Shelley, however, is his “critique group.” They didn’t all sit around the table together and comment on works-in-progress, Viva Scriva style, but Shelley was eager to thrash out his philosophy and writings with others. His “critique group” included Mary, of course, as well as Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Love Peacock (how’s that for a name?). Throughout his tumultuous (and short) life, Shelley spurned the chance to follow his father’s path into Parliament. He wrote like crazy, sometimes alone, often in collaboration with others.
On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned when his small, custom-built sailing boat (dubbed Don Juan) sank off the coast of Italy. He was a month shy of 30. Some number of years later, on July 8, somewhere on Long Island, I was born. I grew up and did a bunch of stuff, and then I joined a critique group. I’d like to think that Shelley and I share the same pleasure in a gathering of writers. So, here’s to you, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Happy birthday.