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  • A Newly Discovered Document on the Case of Elena Adelaide Shelley
  • Donatella Sisti

"My Neapolitan charge is dead. It seems as if the destruction that is consuming me were as an atmosphere which wrapt & infected everything connected with me."

– P. B. Shelley to John and Maria Gisborne, July 18201

When I was still an English literature student, I became fascinated by the so-called "Neapolitan Mystery": the story of the little girl that Percy Bysshe Shelley registered at the city of Naples' Civil Registry Office as his and Mary Godwin's. An aura of uncertainty envelops this little Neapolitan child, generated by the fact that Mary Godwin Shelley was not her legitimate mother. It is also certain that on February 28, 1819, the day after the declaration of the child's birth and baptism, the Shelleys left Naples, never to return. The various hypotheses formulated by scholars on the identity of Elena's mother, the type of relationship that bound her to Shelley, and the reasons why she abandoned her daughter immediately after having given birth, strongly aroused my curiosity. Driven by the desire of trying to shed light on this mystery, I decided to conduct my own research in Naples.

The first step was to go to the National Archives where I was able to inspect the birth, baptismal, and death certificates unearthed by N. I. White. There I spent entire days analyzing the police's pandette (indexes of the local police files) in the hopes of finding a file relating to Shelley or to other people whose names appeared on other documents related to the "mystery." To my great disappointment nothing was found. I then decided to focus my research on that notorious Neapolitan neighborhood where the addresses of Elena Adelaide and two of [End Page 32] the witnesses were located. Despite warnings not to go there unaccompanied, I ventured alone into the Spanish Quarter, determined to take risks to complete my research.

I first went to Vico Canale no. 48 where Antonio Liguori lived, one of the two witnesses listed on Elena's death certificate. The other witness, Pasquale Fiorenzano, lived at Vico Lungo Trinità degli Spagnuoli no. 59, a street parallel to Vico Canale. Once in the Quarter, I asked some passers-by to point me to the nearest Catholic parishes whose archives I wanted to consult. After several attempts, my perseverance paid off. I still remember the great emotion I felt when, while consulting the death registry kept in the Church of Santi Francesco e Matteo at Vico Lungo San Matteo no. 44, I spotted the name "Schelly," incorrectly spelled in the left margin on the page referring to June 1820. This is the burial certificate, published here for the first time:

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Fig 1.

Elena Adelaide Shelley's burial certificate. Courtesy of the Church of Santi Francesco e Matteo (Author's photo).

Below is the notation of the parish priest who registered the date and place of burial of little Elena Adelaide, followed by her address.

A dí 10 giugno 1820 –

Elena Schelly figlia di Percy e di Maria Getwin è morta di mesi 15 ed è stata sep.ta [sepolta] in parr.a [parrocchia] V° [Vico] Canale N° 45— [End Page 33]

On June 10, 1820 –

Elena Schelly daughter of Percy and Maria Getwin died at 15 months and was buried in this parish, V°[Vico] Canale N° 45—

Although not identifying the mother, this new document is still important because, in addition to telling us where Elena Adelaide Shelley was buried, it confirms that she had actually lived in the Spanish Quarter at Vico Canale no. 45.

Leaving aside for the moment the complex question of maternity and the blackmail to which Shelley fell victim, I will limit myself here to attempt at reconstructing the story of this unfortunate little girl, availing myself of information reported in other available documents. On December 27, 1818, a woman gave birth to a female child, but being unable to keep her, she entrusted the baby to the midwife who had assisted her during birth so that the child could be brought to an orphanage. There the child would have...


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