The story I always tell my students about the Shelley's at the beginning of the unit is about how they came to be a couple: Percy was working for Mary's father, William Godwin, when the two met. Despite the fact that Percy was already married to Harriet Westbrook, they fell in love. After a brief "courtship," they decided to elope in July of 1814, and accompanied by Mary's step sister, Claire Clairmont, they began a tour of continental Europe. Soon, feelings of guilt drove Percy to invite his estranged wife, Harriet, to take up residence with Mary and him, assuming the role of sister in an already bizarre relationship circle. Harriet is found drowned in early December of 1816 as the assumed result of suicide. Percy and Mary are officially married before the month is out.
This brief overview of one aspect of this couple's soap-operatic life always draws my students into their lives and transitions into an appreciation for their writings. Their impressions of these events, occurring almost two hundred years ago, bring a life to the Shelley's work that could otherwise seem to them dead words on a page. There are other elements of their lives that make the authors and their writings real to students in today's classroom: the story telling contest in 1816 that led to Frankenstein, the travels through the Alps that inspired so much in Percy's poem and many of the sublime backdrops in Frankenstein, the tragic circumstances surrounding their first four attempts at having children (no doubt echoed in themes of Mary's novels and Percy's "Ode to the West Wind"), the legend of the consummation of their love on Mary's mother's grave, and of course, Mary's souvenir of Percy after his death.
In 1822, Percy died in a boat accident when a sudden storm rose up. When the bodies were recovered, a pyre was constructed on the beach and the bodies were set on fire. Once the flames had consumed the bodies, Byron noticed that a piece of Percy remained, his heart. Byron reached into the flames and retrieved the organ, giving it to Mary, who kept it wrapped in fabric in a box in the drawer of her writing desk for the rest of her life.