Famous Bis: Mary Shelley

By Siobhan Ball

March 11, 2020



Photo credit: Unsplash/Pierre Bamin

Mary Shelley, the teenage inventor of modern science-fiction and part of Lord Byron's road-tripping disaster bisexual crew, has often fallen victim to the "gal pals" effect, which overlooks her romances with women.

We've always known that Mary liked men. Her relationship with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, is the stuff of goth legend — with Mary losing her virginity to him over her mother's grave and then, after his untimely death, carrying his calcified heart with her for the rest of her life. There's also a common assumption that both Shelleys, either separately or as a ménage à trois, had some sort of sexual relationship with Lord Byron. This claim, however, is built entirely on inferences from their dedication to free love, the passionate way they wrote about each other, and the way other people wrote about them.

We sadly lack any love letters or erotica that can confirm either of these relationships. We do, however, have Mary's own admission that after Percy's death, she turned to women for both love and sex.

An 1840 portrait of Mary Shelley wearing a black dress with a quiet smile and dark surroundings.
Richard Rothwell, 1840

In a letter to her friend Edward Trelawny, Mary wrote, “I was so ready to give myself away — and being afraid of men, I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women," a quote that's recently gotten several literary blogs and The Guardian very excited. “Tousy-mousy” is a little-known and very old slang term for the vagina and vulva, and used like this, it can't mean anything else but an erotic desire for other women.

This hasn't stopped scholars from trying to deny her attraction to women. Renowned Mary Shelley expert Betty Bennet somehow concluded — despite her examination of this extract and the numerous letters Mary wrote to and about certain women — that Mary was, in fact, heterosexual. Such is the biphobic, misogynistic narrative common in history, where women's sexuality is reduced entirely to their relationships with men — if they have them, they must be straight. If they don't... well, they're probably still straight anyway. Maybe, just maybe, if there's enough evidence, such as an entire life lived as a married couple in a quaint cottage in Wales, they will consider lesbianism as a possibility — but only if there's no cis man in the way. Even then, well, they were probably just very good friends.

The quote becomes even less deniable when viewed in its wider context, where Mary assures her friend that she entirely understands the appeal of his latest crush and that, had she not sworn off men and women entirely, she would have fallen in love with her as well. The whole thing reads like that particularly awkward style of coming out that drops bombshells into conversations in a faux-casual way, worried about how the other person will react, but also unable to keep it in anymore.

I do not wonder, at your not being able to deny yourself the pleasure of Mrs. Norton’s society. I never saw a woman I thought so fascinating. Had I been a man I should certainly have fallen in love with her; as a woman, ten years ago, I should have been spellbound, and, had she taken the trouble, she might have wound me round her finger. Ten years ago I was so ready to give myself away, and being afraid of men, I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women; experience and suffering have altered all that. I am more wrapt up in myself, my own feelings, disasters, and prospects for Percy. I am now proof, as Hamlet says, both against man and woman.

The months and years after Percy's death were, for Mary, marked with grief, poverty, and her relationship with Jane Williams. In true Romantics fashion, Percy had also been in love with Jane, and quite possibly the man referred to as her common-law husband, Edward Williams, as well, writing reams of love poetry to Jane and sometimes giving them to Edward to read aloud when the couple was alone. Regardless of romantic involvement, Percy and Edward were good friends who were close enough that they ended up drowning together as they attempted to sail home across Lake Geneva.

This mutual loss was a source of intense bonding between the two women, and after Jane's return to England, led to exchanges of passionate, loving letters that many scholars speculate indicate a romantic and likely sexual relationship. It seems probable, in light of the letter quoted above, that Jane was at least the first woman to have Mary tousy-mousy after the loss of her husband.

1822 portrait of Jane Williams wearing a white dress
George Clint, 1822/Portrait of Jane Williams

Mary even hoped that once she had secured a reasonable allowance from her former father-in-law, she could return to Italy with Jane, along with her sister Claire, who was working as a governess in Moscow thanks in part to her involvement with Byron. Mary wrote that Jane was "now necessary to my existence almost", going on to describe how "her" Jane had become ever more "improved" in every way.

When I return to Italy I shall endeavour to enable her to go thither also. I shall not come without my Jane, who is now necessary to my existence almost. She has recourse to the cultivation of her mind, and amiable and dear as she ever was, she is in every way improved and become more valuable.

Unfortunately for Mary, her dreams of retiring to Italy with her beloved Jane were dashed by the common-law marriage between Jane and Percy's friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a man apparently incapable of forming an attraction to a woman unless Percy had at some point been in love with her first. We have no way of knowing how much of Jane's choice was born of practicality. As a known adulteress whose first abusive husband was still alive, with two small children and no legal claim to their late father's estate, she was in an extremely precarious position.

Mary, having experienced all of Jane's struggles herself at different times, as well as knowing Hogg's character as a would-be lover, encouraged the match, writing about her hopes for an improvement in Jane's situation as a result of it. What this meant for their relationship, if indeed they were lovers, remains unknown, as Jane appeared to fall truly, deeply in love with Hogg and had several children with him.

However, despite a brief falling out after Jane discussed their poetic polycule's business with the whole town, Mary was made godmother to their second, surviving daughter. Whatever happened between them, in the end, their relationship was both loving and complicated.

But even if we're wrong and Jane wasn't the object of Mary's sapphic affections, we have it in her own words; she was tousy-mousy for women before deciding that, in fact, men and women were both just too much work and heartache.