The first ten years of Shelly's life were probably his happiest. The oldest child in a family of mostly girls, he was adored by his sisters and indulged by his father, a country squire. At ten, when he attended Syon House Academy, however, he was ridiculed for not knowing the games the other boys played. When he switched to Eton at twelve, the boys there treated him worse, calling him "Mad Shelley" and playing practical jokes on him. Shelley retreated into fantasy, writing gothic poems and melodramatic romances. He also gravitated to political literature opposing hypocrisy and injustice.
At eighteen, Shelley entered University College, Oxford, where he met his lifelong friend Thomas Hogg the first day. The two were expelled only six months later, however, after they circulated the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism and disdained to answer college authorities' questions about the pamphlet.
Shelley then went to London, where he met, and eventually helped with, Harriet Westbrook. Both Shelley's family and Harriet's were opposed to the marriage. As a result, the couple had to fend for themselves with little money. After moving from place to place, they went to Ireland, joining the movement for government reform and Catholic emancipation and working for better living conditions for the poor.
By twenty-one, Shelley had returned to London, become a father, published his first major worka prophetic poem titled Queen Maband become legally responsible for his debts, which he could not pay. He had also taken on the debts of his mentor, the radical philosopher William Godwin. To complicate matters further, Shelley had fallen in love with Godwin's daughter, Mary. Just before his twenty-second birthday, Shelley left for Europe with Mary and her younger stepsister Jane. They spent the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, where Shelly met and made friends with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. After two years of...