In Defense of Harriet Shelley
by Mark Twain
I have committed sins, of course; but I have not committed enough of them to entitle me to the punishment of reduction to the bread and water of ordinary literature during six years when I might have been living on the fat diet spread for the righteous in Professor Dowden’s Life of Shelley, if I had been justly dealt with.
During these six years I have been living a life of peaceful ignorance. I was not aware that Shelley’s first wife was unfaithful to him, and that that was why he deserted her and wiped the stain from his sensitive honor by entering into soiled relations with Godwin’s young daughter. This was all new to me when I heard it lately, and was told that the proofs of it were in this book, and that this book’s verdict is accepted in the girls’ colleges of America and its view taught in their literary classes.
In each of these six years multitudes of young people in our country have arrived at the Shelley-reading age. Are these six multitudes unacquainted with this life of Shelley? Perhaps they are; indeed, one may feel pretty sure that the great bulk of them are. To these, then, I address myself, in the hope that some account of this romantic historical fable and the fabulist’s manner of constructing and adorning it may interest them.
First, as to its literary style. Our negroes in America have several ways of entertaining themselves which are not found among the whites anywhere. Among these inventions of theirs is one which is particularly popular with them. It is a competition in elegant deportment. They hire a hall and bank the spectators’ seats in rising tiers along the two sides, leaving all the middle stretch of the floor free. A cake is provided as a prize for the winner in the competition, and a bench of experts in deportment is appointed to award it. Sometimes there are as many as fifty contestants, male and female, and five hundred spectators. One at a time the contestants enter, clothed regardless of expense in what each considers the perfection of style and taste, and walk down the vacant central space and back again with that multitude of critical eyes on them. All that the competitor knows of fine airs and graces he throws into his carriage, all that he knows of seductive expression he throws into his countenance. He may use all the helps he can devise: watch-chain to twirl with his fingers, cane to do graceful things with, snowy handkerchief to flourish and get artful effects out of, shiny new stovepipe hat to assist in his courtly bows; and the colored lady may have a fan to work up her effects with, and smile over and blush behind, and she may add other helps, according to her judgment. When the review by individual detail is over, a grand review of all the contestants in procession follows, with all the airs and graces and all the bowings and smirkings on exhibition at once, and this enables the bench of experts to make the necessary comparisons and arrive at a verdict. The successful competitor gets the prize which I have before mentioned, and an abundance of applause and envy along with it. The negroes have a name for this grave deportment-tournament; a name taken from the prize contended for. They call it a Cake-walk.
This Shelley biography is a literary cake-walk. The ordinary forms of speech are absent from it. All the pages, all the paragraphs, walk by sedately, elegantly, not to say mincingly, in their Sunday-best, shiny and sleek, perfumed, and with boutonnieres in their button-holes; it is rare to find even a chance sentence that has forgotten to dress. If the book wishes to tell us that Mary Godwin, child of sixteen, had known afflictions, the fact saunters forth in this nobby outfit: “Mary was herself not unlearned in the lore of pain”—meaning by that that she had not always traveled on asphalt; or, as some authorities would frame it, that she had “been there herself,” a form which, while preferable to the book’s form, is still not to be recommended. If the book wishes to tell us that Harriet Shelley hired a wet-nurse, that commonplace fact gets turned into a dancing-master, who does his professional bow before us in pumps and knee-breeches, with his fiddle under one arm and his crush-hat under the other, thus: “The beauty of Harriet’s motherly relation to her babe was marred in Shelley’s eyes by the introduction into his house of a hireling nurse to whom was delegated the mother’s tenderest office.”
This is perhaps the strangest book that has seen the light since Frankenstein. Indeed, it is a Frankenstein itself; a Frankenstein with the original infirmity supplemented by a new one; a Frankenstein with the reasoning faculty wanting. Yet it believes it can reason, and is always trying. It is not content to leave a mountain of fact standing in the clear sunshine, where the simplest reader can perceive its form, its details, and its relation to the rest of the landscape, but thinks it must help him examine it and understand it; so its drifting mind settles upon it with that intent, but always with one and the same result: there is a change of temperature and the mountain is hid in a fog. Every time it sets up a premise and starts to reason from it, there is a surprise in store for the reader. It is strangely nearsighted, cross-eyed, and purblind. Sometimes when a mastodon walks across the field of its vision it takes it for a rat; at other times it does not see it at all.
The materials of this biographical fable are facts, rumors, and poetry. They are connected together and harmonized by the help of suggestion, conjecture, innuendo, perversion, and semi-suppression.
The fable has a distinct object in view, but this object is not acknowledged in set words. Percy Bysshe Shelley has done something which in the case of other men is called a grave crime; it must be shown that in his case it is not that, because he does not think as other men do about these things.
Ought not that to be enough, if the fabulist is serious? Having proved that a crime is not a crime, was it worth while to go on and fasten the responsibility of a crime which was not a crime upon somebody else? What is the use of hunting down and holding to bitter account people who are responsible for other people’s innocent acts?
Still, the fabulist thinks it a good idea to do that. In his view Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, free of all offense as far as we have historical facts for guidance, must be held unforgivably responsible for her husband’s innocent act in deserting her and taking up with another woman.
Any one will suspect that this task has its difficulties. Any one will divine that nice work is necessary here, cautious work, wily work, and that there is entertainment to be had in watching the magician do it. There is indeed entertainment in watching him. He arranges his facts, his rumors, and his poems on his table in full view of the house, and shows you that everything is there—no deception, everything fair and above board. And this is apparently true, yet there is a defect, for some of his best stock is hid in an appendix-basket behind the door, and you do not come upon it until the exhibition is over and the enchantment of your mind accomplished—as the magician thinks.
There is an insistent atmosphere of candor and fairness about this book which is engaging at first, then a little burdensome, then a trifle fatiguing, then progressively suspicious, annoying, irritating, and oppressive. It takes one some little time to find out that phrases which seem intended to guide the reader aright are there to mislead him; that phrases which seem intended to throw light are there to throw darkness; that phrases which seem intended to interpret a fact are there to misinterpret it; that phrases which seem intended to forestall prejudice are there to create it; that phrases which seem antidotes are poisons in disguise. The naked facts arrayed in the book establish Shelley’s guilt in that one episode which disfigures his otherwise superlatively lofty and beautiful life; but the historian’s careful and methodical misinterpretation of them transfers the responsibility to the wife’s shoulders as he persuades himself. The few meagre facts of Harriet Shelley’s life, as furnished by the book, acquit her of offense; but by calling in the forbidden helps of rumor, gossip, conjecture, insinuation, and innuendo he destroys her character and rehabilitates Shelley’s—as he believes. And in truth his unheroic work has not been barren of the results he aimed at; as witness the assertion made to me that girls in the colleges of America are taught that Harriet Shelley put a stain upon her husband’s honor, and that that was what stung him into repurifying himself by deserting her and his child and entering into scandalous relations with a school-girl acquaintance of his.
If that assertion is true, they probably use a reduction of this work in those colleges, maybe only a sketch outlined from it. Such a thing as that could be harmful and misleading. They ought to cast it out and put the whole book in its place. It would not deceive. It would not deceive the janitor.
All of this book is interesting on account of the sorcerer’s methods and the attractiveness of some of his characters and the repulsiveness of the rest, but no part of it is so much so as are the chapters wherein he tries to think he thinks he sets forth the causes which led to Shelley’s desertion of his wife in 1814.
Harriet Westbrook was a school-girl sixteen years old. Shelley was teeming with advanced thought. He believed that Christianity was a degrading and selfish superstition, and he had a deep and sincere desire to rescue one of his sisters from it. Harriet was impressed by his various philosophies and looked upon him as an intellectual wonder—which indeed he was. He had an idea that she could give him valuable help in his scheme regarding his sister; therefore he asked her to correspond with him. She was quite willing. Shelley was not thinking of love, for he was just getting over a passion for his cousin, Harriet Grove, and just getting well steeped in one for Miss Hitchener, a school-teacher. What might happen to Harriet Westbrook before the letter-writing was ended did not enter his mind. Yet an older person could have made a good guess at it, for in person Shelley was as beautiful as an angel, he was frank, sweet, winning, unassuming, and so rich in unselfishness, generosities, and magnanimities that he made his whole generation seem poor in these great qualities by comparison. Besides, he was in distress. His college had expelled him for writing an atheistical pamphlet and afflicting the reverend heads of the university with it, his rich father and grandfather had closed their purses against him, his friends were cold. Necessarily, Harriet fell in love with him; and so deeply, indeed, that there was no way for Shelley to save her from suicide but to marry her. He believed himself to blame for this state of things, so the marriage took place. He was pretty fairly in love with Harriet, although he loved Miss Hitchener better. He wrote and explained the case to Miss Hitchener after the wedding, and he could not have been franker or more naive and less stirred up about the circumstance if the matter in issue had been a commercial transaction involving thirty-five dollars.
Shelley was nineteen. He was not a youth, but a man. He had never had any youth. He was an erratic and fantastic child during eighteen years, then he stepped into manhood, as one steps over a door-sill. He was curiously mature at nineteen in his ability to do independent thinking on the deep questions of life and to arrive at sharply definite decisions regarding them, and stick to them—stick to them and stand by them at cost of bread, friendships, esteem, respect, and approbation.
For the sake of his opinions he was willing to sacrifice all these valuable things, and did sacrifice them; and went on doing it, too, when he could at any moment have made himself rich and supplied himself with friends and esteem by compromising with his father, at the moderate expense of throwing overboard one or two indifferent details of his cargo of principles.
He and Harriet eloped to Scotland and got married. They took lodgings in Edinburgh of a sort answerable to their purse, which was about empty, and there their life was a happy, one and grew daily more so. They had only themselves for company, but they needed no additions to it. They were as cozy and contented as birds in a nest. Harriet sang evenings or read aloud; also she studied and tried to improve her mind, her husband instructing her in Latin. She was very beautiful, she was modest, quiet, genuine, and, according to her husband’s testimony, she had no fine lady airs or aspirations about her. In Matthew Arnold’s judgment, she was “a pleasing figure.”
The pair remained five weeks in Edinburgh, and then took lodgings in York, where Shelley’s college mate, Hogg, lived. Shelley presently ran down to London, and Hogg took this opportunity to make love to the young wife. She repulsed him, and reported the fact to her husband when he got back. It seems a pity that Shelley did not copy this creditable conduct of hers some time or other when under temptation, so that we might have seen the author of his biography hang the miracle in the skies and squirt rainbows at it.
At the end of the first year of marriage—the most trying year for any young couple, for then the mutual failings are coming one by one to light, and the necessary adjustments are being made in pain and tribulation—Shelley was able to recognize that his marriage venture had been a safe one. As we have seen, his love for his wife had begun in a rather shallow way and with not much force, but now it was become deep and strong, which entitles his wife to a broad credit mark, one may admit. He addresses a long and loving poem to her, in which both passion and worship appear:
"O thou Whose dear love gleamed upon the gloomy path Which this lone spirit travelled, ............. ... wilt thou not turn Those spirit-beaming eyes and look on me. Until I be assured that Earth is Heaven And Heaven is Earth? ........ Harriet! let death all mortal ties dissolve, But ours shall not be mortal."
Shelley also wrote a sonnet to her in August of this same year in celebration of her birthday:
"Ever as now with Love and Virtue's glow May thy unwithering soul not cease to burn, Still may thine heart with those pure thoughts o'erflow Which force from mine such quick and warm return."
Was the girl of seventeen glad and proud and happy? We may conjecture that she was.
That was the year 1812. Another year passed still happily, still successfully—a child was born in June, 1813, and in September, three months later, Shelley addresses a poem to this child, Ianthe, in which he points out just when the little creature is most particularly dear to him:
"Dearest when most thy tender traits express The image of thy mother's loveliness."
Up to this point the fabulist counsel for Shelley and prosecutor of his young wife has had easy sailing, but now his trouble begins, for Shelley is getting ready to make some unpleasant history for himself, and it will be necessary to put the blame of it on the wife.
Shelley had made the acquaintance of a charming gray-haired, young-hearted Mrs. Boinville, whose face “retained a certain youthful beauty”; she lived at Bracknell, and had a young daughter named Cornelia Turner, who was equipped with many fascinations. Apparently these people were sufficiently sentimental. Hogg says of Mrs. Boinville:
"The greater part of her associates were odious. I generally found there two or three sentimental young butchers, an eminently philosophical tinker, and several very unsophisticated medical practitioners or medical students, all of low origin and vulgar and offensive manners. They sighed, turned up their eyes, retailed philosophy, such as it was," etc.
Shelley moved to Bracknell, July 27th (this is still 1813) purposely to be near this unwholesome prairie-dogs’ nest. The fabulist says: “It was the entrance into a world more amiable and exquisite than he had yet known.”
“In this acquaintance the attraction was mutual”—and presently it grew to be very mutual indeed, between Shelley and Cornelia Turner, when they got to studying the Italian poets together. Shelley, “responding like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment,” had his chance here. It took only four days for Cornelia’s attractions to begin to dim Harriet’s. Shelley arrived on the 27th of July; on the 31st he wrote a sonnet to Harriet in which “one detects already the little rift in the lover’s lute which had seemed to be healed or never to have gaped at all when the later and happier sonnet to Ianthe was written”—in September, we remember:
"EVENING. TO HARRIET "O thou bright Sun! Beneath the dark blue line Of western distance that sublime descendest, And, gleaming lovelier as thy beams decline, Thy million hues to every vapor lendest, And over cobweb, lawn, and grove, and stream Sheddest the liquid magic of thy light, Till calm Earth, with the parting splendor bright, Shows like the vision of a beauteous dream; What gazer now with astronomic eye Could coldly count the spots within thy sphere? Such were thy lover, Harriet, could he fly The thoughts of all that makes his passion dear, And turning senseless from thy warm caress Pick flaws in our close-woven happiness."
I cannot find the “rift”; still it may be there. What the poem seems to say is, that a person would be coldly ungrateful who could consent to count and consider little spots and flaws in such a warm, great, satisfying sun as Harriet is. It is a “little rift which had seemed to be healed, or never to have gaped at all.” That is, “one detects” a little rift which perhaps had never existed. How does one do that? How does one see the invisible? It is the fabulist’s secret; he knows how to detect what does not exist, he knows how to see what is not seeable; it is his gift, and he works it many a time to poor dead Harriet Shelley’s deep damage.
“As yet, however, if there was a speck upon Shelley’s happiness it was no more than a speck”—meaning the one which one detects where “it may never have gaped at all”—”nor had Harriet cause for discontent.”
Shelley’s Latin instructions to his wife had ceased. “From a teacher he had now become a pupil.” Mrs. Boinville and her young married daughter Cornelia were teaching him Italian poetry; a fact which warns one to receive with some caution that other statement that Harriet had no “cause for discontent.”
Shelley had stopped instructing Harriet in Latin, as before mentioned. The biographer thinks that the busy life in London some time back, and the intrusion of the baby, account for this. These were hindrances, but were there no others? He is always overlooking a detail here and there that might be valuable in helping us understand a situation. For instance, when a man has been hard at work at the Italian poets with a pretty woman, hour after hour, and responding like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment in the meantime, that man is dog-tired when he gets home, and he can’t teach his wife Latin; it would be unreasonable to expect it.
Up to this time we have submitted to having Mrs. Boinville pushed upon us as ostensibly concerned in these Italian lessons, but the biographer drops her now, of his own accord. Cornelia “perhaps” is sole teacher. Hogg says she was a prey to a kind of sweet melancholy, arising from causes purely imaginary; she required consolation, and found it in Petrarch. He also says, “Bysshe entered at once fully into her views and caught the soft infection, breathing the tenderest and sweetest melancholy, as every true poet ought.”
Then the author of the book interlards a most stately and fine compliment to Cornelia, furnished by a man of approved judgment who knew her well “in later years.” It is a very good compliment indeed, and she no doubt deserved it in her “later years,” when she had for generations ceased to be sentimental and lackadaisical, and was no longer engaged in enchanting young husbands and sowing sorrow for young wives. But why is that compliment to that old gentlewoman intruded there? Is it to make the reader believe she was well-chosen and safe society for a young, sentimental husband? The biographer’s device was not well planned. That old person was not present—it was her other self that was there, her young, sentimental, melancholy, warm-blooded self, in those early sweet times before antiquity had cooled her off and mossed her back.
“In choosing for friends such women as Mrs. Newton, Mrs. Boinville, and Cornelia Turner, Shelley gave good proof of his insight and discrimination.” That is the fabulist’s opinion—Harriet Shelley’s is not reported.
Early in August, Shelley was in London trying to raise money. In September he wrote the poem to the baby, already quoted from. In the first week of October Shelley and family went to Warwick, then to Edinburgh, arriving there about the middle of the month.
“Harriet was happy.” Why? The author furnishes a reason, but hides from us whether it is history or conjecture; it is because “the babe had borne the journey well.” It has all the aspect of one of his artful devices—flung in in his favorite casual way—the way he has when he wants to draw one’s attention away from an obvious thing and amuse it with some trifle that is less obvious but more useful—in a history like this. The obvious thing is, that Harriet was happy because there was much territory between her husband and Cornelia Turner now; and because the perilous Italian lessons were taking a rest; and because, if there chanced to be any respondings like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment in stock in these days, she might hope to get a share of them herself; and because, with her husband liberated, now, from the fetid fascinations of that sentimental retreat so pitilessly described by Hogg, who also dubbed it “Shelley’s paradise” later, she might hope to persuade him to stay away from it permanently; and because she might also hope that his brain would cool, now, and his heart become healthy, and both brain and heart consider the situation and resolve that it would be a right and manly thing to stand by this girl-wife and her child and see that they were honorably dealt with, and cherished and protected and loved by the man that had promised these things, and so be made happy and kept so. And because, also—may we conjecture this?—we may hope for the privilege of taking up our cozy Latin lessons again, that used to be so pleasant, and brought us so near together—so near, indeed, that often our heads touched, just as heads do over Italian lessons; and our hands met in casual and unintentional, but still most delicious and thrilling little contacts and momentary clasps, just as they inevitably do over Italian lessons. Suppose one should say to any young wife: “I find that your husband is poring over the Italian poets and being instructed in the beautiful Italian language by the lovely Cornelia Robinson”—would that cozy picture fail to rise before her mind? would its possibilities fail to suggest themselves to her? would there be a pang in her heart and a blush on her face? or, on the contrary, would the remark give her pleasure, make her joyous and gay? Why, one needs only to make the experiment—the result will not be uncertain.
However, we learn—by authority of deeply reasoned and searching conjecture—that the baby bore the journey well, and that that was why the young wife was happy. That accounts for two per cent. of the happiness, but it was not right to imply that it accounted for the other ninety-eight also.
Peacock, a scholar, poet, and friend of the Shelleys, was of their party when they went away. He used to laugh at the Boinville menagerie, and “was not a favorite.” One of the Boinville group, writing to Hogg, said, “The Shelleys have made an addition to their party in the person of a cold scholar, who, I think, has neither taste nor feeling. This, Shelley will perceive sooner or later, for his warm nature craves sympathy.” True, and Shelley will fight his way back there to get it—there will be no way to head him off.
Toward the end of November it was necessary for Shelley to pay a business visit to London, and he conceived the project of leaving Harriet and the baby in Edinburgh with Harriet’s sister, Eliza Westbrook, a sensible, practical maiden lady about thirty years old, who had spent a great part of her time with the family since the marriage. She was an estimable woman, and Shelley had had reason to like her, and did like her; but along about this time his feeling towards her changed. Part of Shelley’s plan, as he wrote Hogg, was to spend his London evenings with the Newtons—members of the Boinville Hysterical Society. But, alas, when he arrived early in December, that pleasant game was partially blocked, for Eliza and the family arrived with him. We are left destitute of conjectures at this point by the biographer, and it is my duty to supply one. I chance the conjecture that it was Eliza who interfered with that game. I think she tried to do what she could towards modifying the Boinville connection, in the interest of her young sister’s peace and honor.
If it was she who blocked that game, she was not strong enough to block the next one. Before the month and year were out—no date given, let us call it Christmas—Shelley and family were nested in a furnished house in Windsor, “at no great distance from the Boinvilles”—these decoys still residing at Bracknell.
What we need, now, is a misleading conjecture. We get it with characteristic promptness and depravity:
"But Prince Athanase found not the aged Zonoras, the friend of his boyhood, in any wanderings to Windsor. Dr. Lind had died a year since, and with his death Windsor must have lost, for Shelley, its chief attraction."
Still, not to mention Shelley’s wife, there was Bracknell, at any rate. While Bracknell remains, all solace is not lost. Shelley is represented by this biographer as doing a great many careless things, but to my mind this hiring a furnished house for three months in order to be with a man who has been dead a year, is the carelessest of them all. One feels for him—that is but natural, and does us honor besides—yet one is vexed, for all that. He could have written and asked about the aged Zonoras before taking the house. He may not have had the address, but that is nothing—any postman would know the aged Zonoras; a dead postman would remember a name like that.
And yet, why throw a rag like this to us ravening wolves? Is it seriously supposable that we will stop to chew it and let our prey escape? No, we are getting to expect this kind of device, and to give it merely a sniff for certainty’s sake and then walk around it and leave it lying. Shelley was not after the aged Zonoras; he was pointed for Cornelia and the Italian lessons, for his warm nature was craving sympathy.
The year 1813 is just ended now, and we step into 1814.
To recapitulate, how much of Cornelia’s society has Shelley had, thus far? Portions of August and September, and four days of July. That is to say, he has had opportunity to enjoy it, more or less, during that brief period. Did he want some more of it? We must fall back upon history, and then go to conjecturing.
"In the early part of the year 1814, Shelley was a frequent visitor at Bracknell."
“Frequent” is a cautious word, in this author’s mouth; the very cautiousness of it, the vagueness of it, provokes suspicion; it makes one suspect that this frequency was more frequent than the mere common everyday kinds of frequency which one is in the habit of averaging up with the unassuming term “frequent.” I think so because they fixed up a bedroom for him in the Boinville house. One doesn’t need a bedroom if one is only going to run over now and then in a disconnected way to respond like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment and rub up one’s Italian poetry a little.
The young wife was not invited, perhaps. If she was, she most certainly did not come, or she would have straightened the room up; the most ignorant of us knows that a wife would not endure a room in the condition in which Hogg found this one when he occupied it one night. Shelley was away—why, nobody can divine. Clothes were scattered about, there were books on every side: “Wherever a book could be laid was an open book turned down on its face to keep its place.” It seems plain that the wife was not invited. No, not that; I think she was invited, but said to herself that she could not bear to go there and see another young woman touching heads with her husband over an Italian book and making thrilling hand-contacts with him accidentally.
As remarked, he was a frequent visitor there, “where he found an easeful resting-place in the house of Mrs. Boinville—the white-haired Maimuna—and of her daughter, Mrs. Turner.” The aged Zonoras was deceased, but the white-haired Maimuna was still on deck, as we see. “Three charming ladies entertained the mocker (Hogg) with cups of tea, late hours, Wieland’s Agathon, sighs and smiles, and the celestial manna of refined sentiment.”
“Such,” says Hogg, “were the delights of Shelley’s paradise in Bracknell.”
The white-haired Maimuna presently writes to Hogg:
"I will not have you despise home-spun pleasures. Shelley is making a trial of them with us—"
A trial of them. It may be called that. It was March 11, and he had been in the house a month. She continues:
Shelley "likes theM so well that he is resolved to leave off rambling—"
But he has already left it off. He has been there a month.
"And begin a course of them himself."
But he has already begun it. He has been at it a month. He likes it so well that he has forgotten all about his wife, as a letter of his reveals.
"Seriously, I think his mind and body want rest."
Yet he has been resting both for a month, with Italian, and tea, and manna of sentiment, and late hours, and every restful thing a young husband could need for the refreshment of weary limbs and a sore conscience, and a nagging sense of shabbiness and treachery.
"His journeys after what he has never found have racked his purse and his tranquillity. He is resolved to take a little care of the former, in pity to the latter, which I applaud, and shall second with all my might."
But she does not say whether the young wife, a stranger and lonely yonder, wants another woman and her daughter Cornelia to be lavishing so much inflamed interest on her husband or not. That young wife is always silent—we are never allowed to hear from her. She must have opinions about such things, she cannot be indifferent, she must be approving or disapproving, surely she would speak if she were allowed—even to-day and from her grave she would, if she could, I think—but we get only the other side, they keep her silent always.
"He has deeply interested us. In the course of your intimacy he must have made you feel what we now feel for him. He is seeking a house close to us—"
Ah! he is not close enough yet, it seems—
"and if he succeeds we shall have an additional motive to induce you to come among us in the summer."
The reader would puzzle a long time and not guess the biographer’s comment upon the above letter. It is this:
"These sound like words of A considerate and judicious friend."
That is what he thinks. That is, it is what he thinks he thinks. No, that is not quite it: it is what he thinks he can stupefy a particularly and unspeakably dull reader into thinking it is what he thinks. He makes that comment with the knowledge that Shelley is in love with this woman’s daughter, and that it is because of the fascinations of these two that Shelley has deserted his wife—for this month, considering all the circumstances, and his new passion, and his employment of the time, amounted to desertion; that is its rightful name. We cannot know how the wife regarded it and felt about it; but if she could have read the letter which Shelley was writing to Hogg four or five days later, we could guess her thought and how she felt. Hear him:…….
"I have been staying with Mrs. Boinville for the last month; I have escaped, in the society of all that philosophy and friendship combine, from the dismaying solitude of myself."
It is fair to conjecture that he was feeling ashamed.
"They have revived in my heart the expiring flame of life. I have felt myself translated to a paradise which has nothing of mortality but its transitoriness; my heart sickens at the view of that necessity which will quickly divide me from the delightful tranquillity of this happy home—for it has become my home. ....... "Eliza is still with us—not here!—but will be with me when the infinite malice of destiny forces me to depart."
Eliza is she who blocked that game—the game in London—the one where we were purposing to dine every night with one of the “three charming ladies” who fed tea and manna and late hours to Hogg at Bracknell.
Shelley could send Eliza away, of course; could have cleared her out long ago if so minded, just as he had previously done with a predecessor of hers whom he had first worshipped and then turned against; but perhaps she was useful there as a thin excuse for staying away himself.
"I am now but little inclined to contest this point. I certainly hate her with all my heart and soul.... "It is a sight which awakens an inexpressible sensation of disgust and horror, to see her caress my poor little Ianthe, in whom I may hereafter find the consolation of sympathy. I sometimes feel faint with the fatigue of checking the overflowings of my unbounded abhorrence for this miserable wretch. But she is no more than a blind and loathsome worm, that cannot see to sting. "I have begun to learn Italian again.... Cornelia assists me in this language. Did I not once tell you that I thought her cold and reserved? She is the reverse of this, as she is the reverse of everything bad. She inherits all the divinity of her mother.... I have sometimes forgotten that I am not an inmate of this delightful home—that a time will come which will cast me again into the boundless ocean of abhorred society. "I have written nothing but one stanza, which has no meaning, and that I have only written in thought: "Thy dewy looks sink in my breast; Thy gentle words stir poison there; Thou hast disturbed the only rest That was the portion of despair. Subdued to duty's hard control, I could have borne my wayward lot: The chains that bind this rained soul Had cankered then, but crushed it not. "This is the vision of a delirious and distempered dream, which passes away at the cold clear light of morning. Its surpassing excellence and exquisite perfections have no more reality than the color of an autumnal sunset."
Then it did not refer to his wife. That is plain; otherwise he would have said so. It is well that he explained that it has no meaning, for if he had not done that, the previous soft references to Cornelia and the way he has come to feel about her now would make us think she was the person who had inspired it while teaching him how to read the warm and ruddy Italian poets during a month.
The biography observes that portions of this letter “read like the tired moaning of a wounded creature.” Guesses at the nature of the wound are permissible; we will hazard one.
Read by the light of Shelley’s previous history, his letter seems to be the cry of a tortured conscience. Until this time it was a conscience that had never felt a pang or known a smirch. It was the conscience of one who, until this time, had never done a dishonorable thing, or an ungenerous, or cruel, or treacherous thing, but was now doing all of these, and was keenly aware of it. Up to this time Shelley had been master of his nature, and it was a nature which was as beautiful and as nearly perfect as any merely human nature may be. But he was drunk now, with a debasing passion, and was not himself. There is nothing in his previous history that is in character with the Shelley of this letter. He had done boyish things, foolish things, even crazy things, but never a thing to be ashamed of. He had done things which one might laugh at, but the privilege of laughing was limited always to the thing itself; you could not laugh at the motive back of it—that was high, that was noble. His most fantastic and quixotic acts had a purpose back of them which made them fine, often great, and made the rising laugh seem profanation and quenched it; quenched it, and changed the impulse to homage.
Up to this time he had been loyalty itself, where his obligations lay—treachery was new to him; he had never done an ignoble thing—baseness was new to him; he had never done an unkind thing—that also was new to him.
This was the author of that letter, this was the man who had deserted his young wife and was lamenting, because he must leave another woman’s house which had become a “home” to him, and go away. Is he lamenting mainly because he must go back to his wife and child? No, the lament is mainly for what he is to leave behind him. The physical comforts of the house? No, in his life he had never attached importance to such things. Then the thing which he grieves to leave is narrowed down to a person—to the person whose “dewy looks” had sunk into his breast, and whose seducing words had “stirred poison there.”
He was ashamed of himself, his conscience was upbraiding him. He was the slave of a degrading love; he was drunk with his passion, the real Shelley was in temporary eclipse. This is the verdict which his previous history must certainly deliver upon this episode, I think.
One must be allowed to assist himself with conjectures like these when trying to find his way through a literary swamp which has so many misleading finger-boards up as this book is furnished with.
We have now arrived at a part of the swamp where the difficulties and perplexities are going to be greater than any we have yet met with—where, indeed, the finger-boards are multitudinous, and the most of them pointing diligently in the wrong direction. We are to be told by the biography why Shelley deserted his wife and child and took up with Cornelia Turner and Italian. It was not on account of Cornelia’s sighs and sentimentalities and tea and manna and late hours and soft and sweet and industrious enticements; no, it was because “his happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death.”
It had been wounded and bruised almost to death in this way:
1st. Harriet persuaded him to set up a carriage.
2d. After the intrusion of the baby, Harriet stopped reading aloud and studying.
3d. Harriet’s walks with Hogg “commonly conducted us to some fashionable bonnet-shop.”
4th. Harriet hired a wet-nurse.
5th. When an operation was being performed upon the baby, “Harriet stood by, narrowly observing all that was done, but, to the astonishment of the operator, betraying not the smallest sign of emotion.”
6th. Eliza Westbrook, sister-in-law, was still of the household.
The evidence against Harriet Shelley is all in; there is no more. Upon these six counts she stands indicted of the crime of driving her husband into that sty at Bracknell; and this crime, by these helps, the biographical prosecuting attorney has set himself the task of proving upon her.
Does the biographer call himself the attorney for the prosecution? No, only to himself, privately; publicly he is the passionless, disinterested, impartial judge on the bench. He holds up his judicial scales before the world, that all may see; and it all tries to look so fair that a blind person would sometimes fail to see him slip the false weights in.
Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, first, because Harriet had persuaded him to set up a carriage. I cannot discover that any evidence is offered that she asked him to set up a carriage. Still, if she did, was it a heavy offence? Was it unique? Other young wives had committed it before, others have committed it since. Shelley had dearly loved her in those London days; possibly he set up the carriage gladly to please her; affectionate young husbands do such things. When Shelley ran away with another girl, by-and-by, this girl persuaded him to pour the price of many carriages and many horses down the bottomless well of her father’s debts, but this impartial judge finds no fault with that. Once she appeals to Shelley to raise money—necessarily by borrowing, there was no other way—to pay her father’s debts with at a time when Shelley was in danger of being arrested and imprisoned for his own debts; yet the good judge finds no fault with her even for this.
First and last, Shelley emptied into that rapacious mendicant’s lap a sum which cost him—for he borrowed it at ruinous rates—from eighty to one hundred thousand dollars. But it was Mary Godwin’s papa, the supplications were often sent through Mary, the good judge is Mary’s strenuous friend, so Mary gets no censures. On the Continent Mary rode in her private carriage, built, as Shelley boasts, “by one of the best makers in Bond Street,” yet the good judge makes not even a passing comment on this iniquity. Let us throw out Count No. 1 against Harriet Shelley as being far-fetched, and frivolous.
Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, secondly, because Harriet’s studies “had dwindled away to nothing, Bysshe had ceased to express any interest in them.” At what time was this? It was when Harriet “had fully recovered from the fatigue of her first effort of maternity… and was now in full force, vigor, and effect.” Very well, the baby was born two days before the close of June. It took the mother a month to get back her full force, vigor, and effect; this brings us to July 27th and the deadly Cornelia. If a wife of eighteen is studying with her husband and he gets smitten with another woman, isn’t he likely to lose interest in his wife’s studies for that reason, and is not his wife’s interest in her studies likely to languish for the same reason? Would not the mere sight of those books of hers sharpen the pain that is in her heart? This sudden breaking down of a mutual intellectual interest of two years’ standing is coincident with Shelley’s re-encounter with Cornelia; and we are allowed to gather from that time forth for nearly two months he did all his studying in that person’s society. We feel at liberty to rule out Count No. 2 from the indictment against Harriet.
Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, thirdly, because Harriet’s walks with Hogg commonly led to some fashionable bonnet-shop. I offer no palliation; I only ask why the dispassionate, impartial judge did not offer one himself—merely, I mean, to offset his leniency in a similar case or two where the girl who ran away with Harriet’s husband was the shopper. There are several occasions where she interested herself with shopping—among them being walks which ended at the bonnet-shop—yet in none of these cases does she get a word of blame from the good judge, while in one of them he covers the deed with a justifying remark, she doing the shopping that time to find easement for her mind, her child having died.
Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, fourthly, by the introduction there of a wet-nurse. The wet-nurse was introduced at the time of the Edinburgh sojourn, immediately after Shelley had been enjoying the two months of study with Cornelia which broke up his wife’s studies and destroyed his personal interest in them. Why, by this time, nothing that Shelley’s wife could do would have been satisfactory to him, for he was in love with another woman, and was never going to be contented again until he got back to her. If he had been still in love with his wife it is not easily conceivable that he would care much who nursed the baby, provided the baby was well nursed. Harriet’s jealousy was assuredly voicing itself now, Shelley’s conscience was assuredly nagging him, pestering him, persecuting him. Shelley needed excuses for his altered attitude toward his wife; Providence pitied him and sent the wet-nurse. If Providence had sent him a cotton doughnut it would have answered just as well; all he wanted was something to find fault with.
Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, fifthly, because Harriet narrowly watched a surgical operation which was being performed upon her child, and, “to the astonishment of the operator,” who was watching Harriet instead of attending to his operation, she betrayed “not the smallest sign of emotion.” The author of this biography was not ashamed to set down that exultant slander. He was apparently not aware that it was a small business to bring into his court a witness whose name he does not know, and whose character and veracity there is none to vouch for, and allow him to strike this blow at the mother-heart of this friendless girl. The biographer says, “We may not infer from this that Harriet did not feel”—why put it in, then?—”but we learn that those about her could believe her to be hard and insensible.” Who were those who were about her? Her husband? He hated her now, because he was in love elsewhere. Her sister? Of course that is not charged. Peacock? Peacock does not testify. The wet-nurse? She does not testify. If any others were there we have no mention of them. “Those about her” are reduced to one person—her husband. Who reports the circumstance? It is Hogg. Perhaps he was there—we do not know. But if he was, he still got his information at second-hand, as it was the operator who noticed Harriet’s lack of emotion, not himself. Hogg is not given to saying kind things when Harriet is his subject. He may have said them the time that he tried to tempt her to soil her honor, but after that he mentions her usually with a sneer. “Among those who were about her” was one witness well equipped to silence all tongues, abolish all doubts, set our minds at rest; one witness, not called, and not callable, whose evidence, if we could but get it, would outweigh the oaths of whole battalions of hostile Hoggs and nameless surgeons—the baby. I wish we had the baby’s testimony; and yet if we had it it would not do us any good—a furtive conjecture, a sly insinuation, a pious “if” or two, would be smuggled in, here and there, with a solemn air of judicial investigation, and its positiveness would wilt into dubiety.
The biographer says of Harriet, “If words of tender affection and motherly pride proved the reality of love, then undoubtedly she loved her firstborn child.” That is, if mere empty words can prove it, it stands proved—and in this way, without committing himself, he gives the reader a chance to infer that there isn’t any extant evidence but words, and that he doesn’t take much stock in them. How seldom he shows his hand! He is always lurking behind a non-committal “if” or something of that kind; always gliding and dodging around, distributing colorless poison here and there and everywhere, but always leaving himself in a position to say that his language will be found innocuous if taken to pieces and examined. He clearly exhibits a steady and never-relaxing purpose to make Harriet the scapegoat for her husband’s first great sin—but it is in the general view that this is revealed, not in the details. His insidious literature is like blue water; you know what it is that makes it blue, but you cannot produce and verify any detail of the cloud of microscopic dust in it that does it. Your adversary can dip up a glassful and show you that it is pure white and you cannot deny it; and he can dip the lake dry, glass by glass, and show that every glassful is white, and prove it to any one’s eye—and yet that lake was blue and you can swear it. This book is blue—with slander in solution.
Let the reader examine, for example, the paragraph of comment which immediately follows the letter containing Shelley’s self-exposure which we have been considering. This is it. One should inspect the individual sentences as they go by, then pass them in procession and review the cake-walk as a whole:
"Shelley's happiness in his home, as is evident from this pathetic letter, had been fatally stricken; it is evident, also, that he knew where duty lay; he felt that his part was to take up his burden, silently and sorrowfully, and to bear it henceforth with the quietness of despair. But we can perceive that he scarcely possessed the strength and fortitude needful for success in such an attempt. And clearly Shelley himself was aware how perilous it was to accept that respite of blissful ease which he enjoyed in the Boinville household; for gentle voices and dewy looks and words of sympathy could not fail to remind him of an ideal of tranquillity or of joy which could never be his, and which he must henceforth sternly exclude from his imagination."
That paragraph commits the author in no way. Taken sentence by sentence it asserts nothing against anybody or in favor of anybody, pleads for nobody, accuses nobody. Taken detail by detail, it is as innocent as moonshine. And yet, taken as a whole, it is a design against the reader; its intent is to remove the feeling which the letter must leave with him if let alone, and put a different one in its place—to remove a feeling justified by the letter and substitute one not justified by it. The letter itself gives you no uncertain picture—no lecturer is needed to stand by with a stick and point out its details and let on to explain what they mean. The picture is the very clear and remorsefully faithful picture of a fallen and fettered angel who is ashamed of himself; an angel who beats his soiled wings and cries, who complains to the woman who enticed him that he could have borne his wayward lot, he could have stood by his duty if it had not been for her beguilements; an angel who rails at the “boundless ocean of abhorred society,” and rages at his poor judicious sister-in-law. If there is any dignity about this spectacle it will escape most people.
Yet when the paragraph of comment is taken as a whole, the picture is full of dignity and pathos; we have before us a blameless and noble spirit stricken to the earth by malign powers, but not conquered; tempted, but grandly putting the temptation away; enmeshed by subtle coils, but sternly resolved to rend them and march forth victorious, at any peril of life or limb. Curtain—slow music.
Was it the purpose of the paragraph to take the bad taste of Shelley’s letter out of the reader’s mouth? If that was not it, good ink was wasted; without that, it has no relevancy—the multiplication table would have padded the space as rationally.
We have inspected the six reasons which we are asked to believe drove a man of conspicuous patience, honor, justice, fairness, kindliness, and iron firmness, resolution, and steadfastness, from the wife whom he loved and who loved him, to a refuge in the mephitic paradise of Bracknell. These are six infinitely little reasons; but there were six colossal ones, and these the counsel for the destruction of Harriet Shelley persists in not considering very important.
Moreover, the colossal six preceded the little six and had done the mischief before they were born. Let us double-column the twelve; then we shall see at a glance that each little reason is in turn answered by a retorting reason of a size to overshadow it and make it insignificant:
1. Harriet sets up carriage. 1. CORNELIA TURNER. 2. Harriet stops studying. 2. CORNELIA TURNER. 3. Harriet goes to bonnet-shop. 3. CORNELIA TURNER. 4. Harriet takes a wet-nurse. 4. CORNELIA TURNER. 5. Harriet has too much nerve. 5. CORNELIA TURNER. 6. Detested sister-in-law 6. CORNELIA TURNER.
As soon as we comprehend that Cornelia Turner and the Italian lessons happened before the little six had been discovered to be grievances, we understand why Shelley’s happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, and no one can persuade us into laying it on Harriet. Shelley and Cornelia are the responsible persons, and we cannot in honor and decency allow the cruelties which they practised upon the unoffending wife to be pushed aside in order to give us a chance to waste time and tears over six sentimental justifications of an offence which the six can’t justify, nor even respectably assist in justifying.
Six? There were seven; but in charity to the biographer the seventh ought not to be exposed. Still, he hung it out himself, and not only hung it out, but thought it was a good point in Shelley’s favor. For two years Shelley found sympathy and intellectual food and all that at home; there was enough for spiritual and mental support, but not enough for luxury; and so, at the end of the contented two years, this latter detail justifies him in going bag and baggage over to Cornelia Turner and supplying the rest of his need in the way of surplus sympathy and intellectual pie unlawfully. By the same reasoning a man in merely comfortable circumstances may rob a bank without sin.
It is 1814, it is the 16th of March, Shelley has written his letter, he has been in the Boinville paradise a month, his deserted wife is in her husbandless home. Mischief had been wrought. It is the biographer who concedes this. We greatly need some light on Harriet’s side of the case now; we need to know how she enjoyed the month, but there is no way to inform ourselves; there seems to be a strange absence of documents and letters and diaries on that side. Shelley kept a diary, the approaching Mary Godwin kept a diary, her father kept one, her half-sister by marriage, adoption, and the dispensation of God kept one, and the entire tribe and all its friends wrote and received letters, and the letters were kept and are producible when this biography needs them; but there are only three or four scraps of Harriet’s writing, and no diary. Harriet wrote plenty of letters to her husband—nobody knows where they are, I suppose; she wrote plenty of letters to other people—apparently they have disappeared, too. Peacock says she wrote good letters, but apparently interested people had sagacity enough to mislay them in time. After all her industry she went down into her grave and lies silent there—silent, when she has so much need to speak. We can only wonder at this mystery, not account for it.
No, there is no way of finding out what Harriet’s state of feeling was during the month that Shelley was disporting himself in the Bracknell paradise. We have to fall back upon conjecture, as our fabulist does when he has nothing more substantial to work with. Then we easily conjecture that as the days dragged by Harriet’s heart grew heavier and heavier under its two burdens—shame and resentment: the shame of being pointed at and gossiped about as a deserted wife, and resentment against the woman who had beguiled her husband from her and now kept him in a disreputable captivity. Deserted wives—deserted whether for cause or without cause—find small charity among the virtuous and the discreet. We conjecture that one after another the neighbors ceased to call; that one after another they got to being “engaged” when Harriet called; that finally they one after the other cut her dead on the street; that after that she stayed in the house daytimes, and brooded over her sorrows, and nighttimes did the same, there being nothing else to do with the heavy hours and the silence and solitude and the dreary intervals which sleep should have charitably bridged, but didn’t.
Yes, mischief had been wrought. The biographer arrives at this conclusion, and it is a most just one. Then, just as you begin to half hope he is going to discover the cause of it and launch hot bolts of wrath at the guilty manufacturers of it, you have to turn away disappointed. You are disappointed, and you sigh. This is what he says —the italics [”] are mine:
"However the mischief may have been wrought—'and at this day no one can wish to heap blame on any buried head'—"
So it is poor Harriet, after all. Stern justice must take its course—justice tempered with delicacy, justice tempered with compassion, justice that pities a forlorn dead girl and refuses to strike her. Except in the back. Will not be ignoble and say the harsh thing, but only insinuate it. Stern justice knows about the carriage and the wet-nurse and the bonnet-shop and the other dark things that caused this sad mischief, and may not, must not blink them; so it delivers judgment where judgment belongs, but softens the blow by not seeming to deliver judgment at all. To resume—the italics are mine:
"However the mischief may have been wrought—and at this day no one can wish to heap blame on any buried head—'it is certain that some cause or causes of deep division between Shelley and his wife were in operation during the early part of the year 1814'."
This shows penetration. No deduction could be more accurate than this. There were indeed some causes of deep division. But next comes another disappointing sentence:
"To guess at the precise nature of these causes, in the absence of definite statement, were useless."
Why, he has already been guessing at them for several pages, and we have been trying to outguess him, and now all of a sudden he is tired of it and won’t play any more. It is not quite fair to us. However, he will get over this by-and-by, when Shelley commits his next indiscretion and has to be guessed out of it at Harriet’s expense.
“We may rest content with Shelley’s own words”—in a Chancery paper drawn up by him three years later. They were these: “Delicacy forbids me to say more than that we were disunited by incurable dissensions.”
As for me, I do not quite see why we should rest content with anything of the sort. It is not a very definite statement. It does not necessarily mean anything more than that he did not wish to go into the tedious details of those family quarrels. Delicacy could quite properly excuse him from saying, “I was in love with Cornelia all that time; my wife kept crying and worrying about it and upbraiding me and begging me to cut myself free from a connection which was wronging her and disgracing us both; and I being stung by these reproaches retorted with fierce and bitter speeches—for it is my nature to do that when I am stirred, especially if the target of them is a person whom I had greatly loved and respected before, as witness my various attitudes towards Miss Hitchener, the Gisbornes, Harriet’s sister, and others—and finally I did not improve this state of things when I deserted my wife and spent a whole month with the woman who had infatuated me.”
No, he could not go into those details, and we excuse him; but, nevertheless, we do not rest content with this bland proposition to puff away that whole long disreputable episode with a single mean, meaningless remark of Shelley’s.
We do admit that “it is certain that some cause or causes of deep division were in operation.” We would admit it just the same if the grammar of the statement were as straight as a string, for we drift into pretty indifferent grammar ourselves when we are absorbed in historical work; but we have to decline to admit that we cannot guess those cause or causes.
But guessing is not really necessary. There is evidence attainable—evidence from the batch discredited by the biographer and set out at the back door in his appendix-basket; and yet a court of law would think twice before throwing it out, whereas it would be a hardy person who would venture to offer in such a place a good part of the material which is placed before the readers of this book as “evidence,” and so treated by this daring biographer. Among some letters (in the appendix-basket) from Mrs. Godwin, detailing the Godwinian share in the Shelleyan events of 1814, she tells how Harriet Shelley came to her and her husband, agitated and weeping, to implore them to forbid Shelley the house, and prevent his seeing Mary Godwin.
"She related that last November he had fallen in love with Mrs. Turner and paid her such marked attentions Mr. Turner, the husband, had carried off his wife to Devonshire."
The biographer finds a technical fault in this; “the Shelleys were in Edinburgh in November.” What of that? The woman is recalling a conversation which is more than two months old; besides, she was probably more intent upon the central and important fact of it than upon its unimportant date. Harriet’s quoted statement has some sense in it; for that reason, if for no other, it ought to have been put in the body of the book. Still, that would not have answered; even the biographer’s enemy could not be cruel enough to ask him to let this real grievance, this compact and substantial and picturesque figure, this rawhead-and-bloody-bones, come striding in there among those pale shams, those rickety spectres labeled WET-NURSE, BONNET-SHOP, and so on—no, the father of all malice could not ask the biographer to expose his pathetic goblins to a competition like that.
The fabulist finds fault with the statement because it has a technical error in it; and he does this at the moment that he is furnishing us an error himself, and of a graver sort. He says:
"If Turner carried off his wife to Devonshire he brought her back and Shelley was staying with her and her mother on terms of cordial intimacy in March, 1814."
We accept the “cordial intimacy”—it was the very thing Harriet was complaining of—but there is nothing to show that it was Turner who brought his wife back. The statement is thrown in as if it were not only true, but was proof that Turner was not uneasy. Turner’s movements are proof of nothing. Nothing but a statement from Turner’s mouth would have any value here, and he made none.
Six days after writing his letter Shelley and his wife were together again for a moment—to get remarried according to the rites of the English Church.
Within three weeks the new husband and wife were apart again, and the former was back in his odorous paradise. This time it is the wife who does the deserting. She finds Cornelia too strong for her, probably. At any rate, she goes away with her baby and sister, and we have a playful fling at her from good Mrs. Boinville, the “mysterious spinner Maimuna”; she whose “face was as a damsel’s face, and yet her hair was gray”; she of whom the biographer has said, “Shelley was indeed caught in an almost invisible thread spun around him, but unconsciously, by this subtle and benignant enchantress.” The subtle and benignant enchantress writes to Hogg, April 18: “Shelley is again a widower; his beauteous half went to town on Thursday.”
Then Shelley writes a poem—a chant of grief over the hard fate which obliges him now to leave his paradise and take up with his wife again. It seems to intimate that the paradise is cooling toward him; that he is warned off by acclamation; that he must not even venture to tempt with one last tear his friend Cornelia’s ungentle mood, for her eye is glazed and cold and dares not entreat her lover to stay:
"Pause not! the time is past! Every voice cries 'Away!' Tempt not with one last tear thy friend's ungentle mood; Thy lover's eye, so glazed and cold, dares not entreat thy stay: Duty and dereliction guide thee back to solitude."
Back to the solitude of his now empty home, that is!
"Away! away! to thy sad and silent home; Pour bitter tears on its desolated hearth." ........
But he will have rest in the grave by-and-by. Until that time comes, the charms of Bracknell will remain in his memory, along with Mrs. Boinville’s voice and Cornelia Turner’s smile:
"Thou in the grave shalt rest—yet, till the phantoms flee Which that house and hearth and garden made dear to thee ere while, Thy remembrance and repentance and deep musings are not free From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet smile."
We cannot wonder that Harriet could not stand it. Any of us would have left. We would not even stay with a cat that was in this condition. Even the Boinvilles could not endure it; and so, as we have seen, they gave this one notice.
"Early in May, Shelley was in London. He did not yet despair of reconciliation with Harriet, nor had he ceased to love her."
Shelley’s poems are a good deal of trouble to his biographer. They are constantly inserted as “evidence,” and they make much confusion. As soon as one of them has proved one thing, another one follows and proves quite a different thing. The poem just quoted shows that he was in love with Cornelia, but a month later he is in love with Harriet again, and there is a poem to prove it.
"In this piteous appeal Shelley declares that he has now no grief but one—the grief of having known and lost his wife's love."
"Thy look of love has power to calm The stormiest passion of my soul."
But without doubt she had been reserving her looks of love a good part of the time for ten months, now—ever since he began to lavish his own on Cornelia Turner at the end of the previous July. He does really seem to have already forgotten Cornelia’s merits in one brief month, for he eulogizes Harriet in a way which rules all competition out:
"Thou only virtuous, gentle, kind, Amid a world of hate."
He complains of her hardness, and begs her to make the concession of a “slight endurance”—of his waywardness, perhaps—for the sake of “a fellow-being’s lasting weal.” But the main force of his appeal is in his closing stanza, and is strongly worded:
"O trust for once no erring guide! Bid the remorseless feeling flee; 'Tis malice, 'tis revenge, 'tis pride, 'Tis anything but thee; O deign a nobler pride to prove, And pity if thou canst not love."
This is in May—apparently towards the end of it. Harriet and Shelley were corresponding all the time. Harriet got the poem—a copy exists in her own handwriting; she being the only gentle and kind person amid a world of hate, according to Shelley’s own testimony in the poem, we are permitted to think that the daily letters would presently have melted that kind and gentle heart and brought about the reconciliation, if there had been time but there wasn’t; for in a very few days—in fact, before the 8th of June—Shelley was in love with another woman.
And so—perhaps while Harriet was walking the floor nights, trying to get her poem by heart—her husband was doing a fresh one—for the other girl—Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—with sentiments like these in it:
To spend years thus and be rewarded, As thou, sweet love, requited me When none were near. ... thy lips did meet Mine tremblingly;... "Gentle and good and mild thou art, Nor can I live if thou appear Aught but thyself."...
And so on. “Before the close of June it was known and felt by Mary and Shelley that each was inexpressibly dear to the other.” Yes, Shelley had found this child of sixteen to his liking, and had wooed and won her in the graveyard. But that is nothing; it was better than wooing her in her nursery, at any rate, where it might have disturbed the other children.
However, she was a child in years only. From the day that she set her masculine grip on Shelley he was to frisk no more. If she had occupied the only kind and gentle Harriet’s place in March it would have been a thrilling spectacle to see her invade the Boinville rookery and read the riot act. That holiday of Shelley’s would have been of short duration, and Cornelia’s hair would have been as gray as her mother’s when the services were over.
Hogg went to the Godwin residence in Skinner Street with Shelley on that 8th of June. They passed through Godwin’s little debt-factory of a book-shop and went up-stairs hunting for the proprietor. Nobody there. Shelley strode about the room impatiently, making its crazy floor quake under him. Then a door “was partially and softly opened. A thrilling voice called ‘Shelley!’ A thrilling voice answered, ‘Mary!’ And he darted out of the room like an arrow from the bow of the far-shooting King. A very young female, fair and fair-haired, pale, indeed, and with a piercing look, wearing a frock of tartan, an unusual dress in London at that time, had called him out of the room.”
This is Mary Godwin, as described by Hogg. The thrill of the voices shows that the love of Shelley and Mary was already upward of a fortnight old; therefore it had been born within the month of May—born while Harriet was still trying to get her poem by heart, we think. I must not be asked how I know so much about that thrill; it is my secret. The biographer and I have private ways of finding out things when it is necessary to find them out and the customary methods fail.
Shelley left London that day, and was gone ten days. The biographer conjectures that he spent this interval with Harriet in Bath. It would be just like him. To the end of his days he liked to be in love with two women at once. He was more in love with Miss Hitchener when he married Harriet than he was with Harriet, and told the lady so with simple and unostentatious candor. He was more in love with Cornelia than he was with Harriet in the end of 1813 and the beginning of 1814, yet he supplied both of them with love poems of an equal temperature meantime; he loved Mary and Harriet in June, and while getting ready to run off with the one, it is conjectured that he put in his odd time trying to get reconciled to the other; by-and-by, while still in love with Mary, he will make love to her half-sister by marriage, adoption, and the visitation of God, through the medium of clandestine letters, and she will answer with letters that are for no eye but his own.
When Shelley encountered Mary Godwin he was looking around for another paradise. He had tastes of his own, and there were features about the Godwin establishment that strongly recommended it. Godwin was an advanced thinker and an able writer. One of his romances is still read, but his philosophical works, once so esteemed, are out of vogue now; their authority was already declining when Shelley made his acquaintance —that is, it was declining with the public, but not with Shelley. They had been his moral and political Bible, and they were that yet. Shelley the infidel would himself have claimed to be less a work of God than a work of Godwin. Godwin’s philosophies had formed his mind and interwoven themselves into it and become a part of its texture; he regarded himself as Godwin’s spiritual son. Godwin was not without self-appreciation; indeed, it may be conjectured that from his point of view the last syllable of his name was surplusage. He lived serene in his lofty world of philosophy, far above the mean interests that absorbed smaller men, and only came down to the ground at intervals to pass the hat for alms to pay his debts with, and insult the man that relieved him. Several of his principles were out of the ordinary. For example, he was opposed to marriage. He was not aware that his preachings from this text were but theory and wind; he supposed he was in earnest in imploring people to live together without marrying, until Shelley furnished him a working model of his scheme and a practical example to analyze, by applying the principle in his own family; the matter took a different and surprising aspect then. The late Matthew Arnold said that the main defect in Shelley’s make-up was that he was destitute of the sense of humor. This episode must have escaped Mr. Arnold’s attention.
But we have said enough about the head of the new paradise. Mrs. Godwin is described as being in several ways a terror; and even when her soul was in repose she wore green spectacles. But I suspect that her main unattractiveness was born of the fact that she wrote the letters that are out in the appendix-basket in the back yard—letters which are an outrage and wholly untrustworthy, for they say some kind things about poor Harriet and tell some disagreeable truths about her husband; and these things make the fabulist grit his teeth a good deal.
Next we have Fanny Godwin—a Godwin by courtesy only; she was Mrs. Godwin’s natural daughter by a former friend. She was a sweet and winning girl, but she presently wearied of the Godwin paradise, and poisoned herself.
Last in the list is Jane (or Claire, as she preferred to call herself) Clairmont, daughter of Mrs. Godwin by a former marriage. She was very young and pretty and accommodating, and always ready to do what she could to make things pleasant. After Shelley ran off with her part-sister Mary, she became the guest of the pair, and contributed a natural child to their nursery—Allegra. Lord Byron was the father.
We have named the several members and advantages of the new paradise in Skinner Street, with its crazy book-shop underneath. Shelley was all right now, this was a better place than the other; more variety anyway, and more different kinds of fragrance. One could turn out poetry here without any trouble at all.
The way the new love-match came about was this:
Shelley told Mary all his aggravations and sorrows and griefs, and about the wet-nurse and the bonnetshop and the surgeon and the carriage, and the sister-in-law that blocked the London game, and about Cornelia and her mamma, and how they had turned him out of the house after making so much of him; and how he had deserted Harriet and then Harriet had deserted him, and how the reconciliation was working along and Harriet getting her poem by heart; and still he was not happy, and Mary pitied him, for she had had trouble herself. But I am not satisfied with this. It reads too much like statistics. It lacks smoothness and grace, and is too earthy and business-like. It has the sordid look of a trades-union procession out on strike. That is not the right form for it. The book does it better; we will fall back on the book and have a cake-walk:
"It was easy to divine that some restless grief possessed him; Mary herself was not unlearned in the lore of pain. His generous zeal in her father's behalf, his spiritual sonship to Godwin, his reverence for her mother's memory, were guarantees with Mary of his excellence.—[What she was after was guarantees of his excellence. That he stood ready to desert his wife and child was one of them, apparently.]—The new friends could not lack subjects of discourse, and underneath their words about Mary's mother, and 'Political Justice,' and 'Rights of Woman,' were two young hearts, each feeling towards the other, each perhaps unaware, trembling in the direction of the other. The desire to assuage the suffering of one whose happiness has grown precious to us may become a hunger of the spirit as keen as any other, and this hunger now possessed Mary's heart; when her eyes rested unseen on Shelley, it was with a look full of the ardor of a 'soothing pity.'"
Yes, that is better and has more composure. That is just the way it happened. He told her about the wet-nurse, she told him about political justice; he told her about the deadly sister-in-law, she told him about her mother; he told her about the bonnet-shop, she murmured back about the rights of woman; then he assuaged her, then she assuaged him; then he assuaged her some more, next she assuaged him some more; then they both assuaged one another simultaneously; and so they went on by the hour assuaging and assuaging and assuaging, until at last what was the result? They were in love. It will happen so every time.
"He had married a woman who, as he now persuaded himself, had never truly loved him, who loved only his fortune and his rank, and who proved her selfishness by deserting him in his misery."
I think that that is not quite fair to Harriet. We have no certainty that she knew Cornelia had turned him out of the house. He went back to Cornelia, and Harriet may have supposed that he was as happy with her as ever. Still, it was judicious to begin to lay on the whitewash, for Shelley is going to need many a coat of it now, and the sooner the reader becomes used to the intrusion of the brush the sooner he will get reconciled to it and stop fretting about it.
After Shelley’s (conjectured) visit to Harriet at Bath—8th of June to 18th—”it seems to have been arranged that Shelley should henceforth join the Skinner Street household each day at dinner.”
Nothing could be handier than this; things will swim along now.
"Although now Shelley was coming to believe that his wedded union with Harriet was a thing of the past, he had not ceased to regard her with affectionate consideration; he wrote to her frequently, and kept her informed of his whereabouts."
We must not get impatient over these curious inharmoniousnesses and irreconcilabilities in Shelley’s character. You can see by the biographer’s attitude towards them that there is nothing objectionable about them. Shelley was doing his best to make two adoring young creatures happy: he was regarding the one with affectionate consideration by mail, and he was assuaging the other one at home.
"Unhappy Harriet, residing at Bath, had perhaps never desired that the breach between herself and her husband should be irreparable and complete."
I find no fault with that sentence except that the “perhaps” is not strictly warranted. It should have been left out. In support—or shall we say extenuation?—of this opinion I submit that there is not sufficient evidence to warrant the uncertainty which it implies. The only “evidence” offered that Harriet was hard and proud and standing out against a reconciliation is a poem—the poem in which Shelley beseeches her to “bid the remorseless feeling flee” and “pity” if she “cannot love.” We have just that as “evidence,” and out of its meagre materials the biographer builds a cobhouse of conjectures as big as the Coliseum; conjectures which convince him, the prosecuting attorney, but ought to fall far short of convincing any fair-minded jury.
Shelley’s love-poems may be very good evidence, but we know well that they are “good for this day and train only.” We are able to believe that they spoke the truth for that one day, but we know by experience that they could not be depended on to speak it the next. The very supplication for a rewarming of Harriet’s chilled love was followed so suddenly by the poet’s plunge into an adoring passion for Mary Godwin that if it had been a check it would have lost its value before a lazy person could have gotten to the bank with it.
Hardness, stubbornness, pride, vindictiveness—these may sometimes reside in a young wife and mother of nineteen, but they are not charged against Harriet Shelley outside of that poem, and one has no right to insert them into her character on such shadowy “evidence” as that. Peacock knew Harriet well, and she has a flexible and persuadable look, as painted by him:
"Her manners were good, and her whole aspect and demeanor such manifest emanations of pure and truthful nature that to be once in her company was to know her thoroughly. She was fond of her husband, and accommodated herself in every way to his tastes. If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived in retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she enjoyed the change of scene."
“Perhaps” she had never desired that the breach should be irreparable and complete. The truth is, we do not even know that there was any breach at all at this time. We know that the husband and wife went before the altar and took a new oath on the 24th of March to love and cherish each other until death—and this may be regarded as a sort of reconciliation itself, and a wiping out of the old grudges. Then Harriet went away, and the sister-in-law removed herself from her society. That was in April. Shelley wrote his “appeal” in May, but the corresponding went right along afterwards. We have a right to doubt that the subject of it was a “reconciliation,” or that Harriet had any suspicion that she needed to be reconciled and that her husband was trying to persuade her to it—as the biographer has sought to make us believe, with his Coliseum of conjectures built out of a waste-basket of poetry. For we have “evidence” now—not poetry and conjecture. When Shelley had been dining daily in the Skinner Street paradise fifteen days and continuing the love-match which was already a fortnight old twenty-five days earlier, he forgot to write Harriet; forgot it the next day and the next. During four days Harriet got no letter from him. Then her fright and anxiety rose to expression-heat, and she wrote a letter to Shelley’s publisher which seems to reveal to us that Shelley’s letters to her had been the customary affectionate letters of husband to wife, and had carried no appeals for reconciliation and had not needed to:
"BATH (postmark July 7, 1814). "MY DEAR SIR,—You will greatly oblige me by giving the enclosed to Mr. Shelley. I would not trouble you, but it is now four days since I have heard from him, which to me is an age. Will you write by return of post and tell me what has become of him? as I always fancy something dreadful has happened if I do not hear from him. If you tell me that he is well I shall not come to London, but if I do not hear from you or him I shall certainly come, as I cannot endure this dreadful state of suspense. You are his friend and you can feel for me. "I remain yours truly, "H. S."
Even without Peacock’s testimony that “her whole aspect and demeanor were manifest emanations of a pure and truthful nature,” we should hold this to be a truthful letter, a sincere letter, a loving letter; it bears those marks; I think it is also the letter of a person accustomed to receiving letters from her husband frequently, and that they have been of a welcome and satisfactory sort, too, this long time back—ever since the solemn remarriage and reconciliation at the altar most likely.
The biographer follows Harriet’s letter with a conjecture. He conjectures that she “would now gladly have retraced her steps.” Which means that it is proven that she had steps to retrace—proven by the poem. Well, if the poem is better evidence than the letter, we must let it stand at that.
Then the biographer attacks Harriet Shelley’s honor—by authority of random and unverified gossip scavengered from a group of people whose very names make a person shudder: Mary Godwin, mistress to Shelley; her part-sister, discarded mistress of Lord Byron; Godwin, the philosophical tramp, who gathers his share of it from a shadow—that is to say, from a person whom he shirks out of naming. Yet the biographer dignifies this sorry rubbish with the name of “evidence.”
Nothing remotely resembling a distinct charge from a named person professing to know is offered among this precious “evidence.”
1. “Shelley believed” so and so.
2. Byron’s discarded mistress says that Shelley told Mary Godwin so and so, and Mary told her.
3. “Shelley said” so and so—and later “admitted over and over again that he had been in error.”
4. The unspeakable Godwin “wrote to Mr. Baxter” that he knew so and so “from unquestionable authority”—name not furnished.
How any man in his right mind could bring himself to defile the grave of a shamefully abused and defenceless girl with these baseless fabrications, this manufactured filth, is inconceivable. How any man, in his right mind or out of it, could sit down and coldly try to persuade anybody to believe it, or listen patiently to it, or, indeed, do anything but scoff at it and deride it, is astonishing.
The charge insinuated by these odious slanders is one of the most difficult of all offences to prove; it is also one which no man has a right to mention even in a whisper about any woman, living or dead, unless he knows it to be true, and not even then unless he can also prove it to be true. There is no justification for the abomination of putting this stuff in the book.
Against Harriet Shelley’s good name there is not one scrap of tarnishing evidence, and not even a scrap of evil gossip, that comes from a source that entitles it to a hearing.
On the credit side of the account we have strong opinions from the people who knew her best. Peacock says:
"I feel it due to the memory of Harriet to state my most decided conviction that her conduct as a wife was as pure, as true, as absolutely faultless, as that of any who for such conduct are held most in honor."
Thornton Hunt, who had picked and published slight flaws in Harriet’s character, says, as regards this alleged large one:
"There is not a trace of evidence or a whisper of scandal against her before her voluntary departure from Shelley."
"I was assured by the evidence of the few friends who knew both Shelley and his wife—Hookham, Hogg, Peacock, and one of the Godwins—that Harriet was perfectly innocent of all offence."
What excuse was there for raking up a parcel of foul rumors from malicious and discredited sources and flinging them at this dead girl’s head? Her very defenselessness should have been her protection. The fact that all letters to her or about her, with almost every scrap of her own writing, had been diligently mislaid, leaving her case destitute of a voice, while every pen-stroke which could help her husband’s side had been as diligently preserved, should have excused her from being brought to trial. Her witnesses have all disappeared, yet we see her summoned in her grave-clothes to plead for the life of her character, without the help of an advocate, before a disqualified judge and a packed jury.
Harriet Shelley wrote her distressed letter on the 7th of July. On the 28th her husband ran away with Mary Godwin and her part-sister Claire to the Continent. He deserted his wife when her confinement was approaching. She bore him a child at the end of November, his mistress bore him another one something over two months later. The truants were back in London before either of these events occurred.
On one occasion, presently, Shelley was so pressed for money to support his mistress with that he went to his wife and got some money of his that was in her hands—twenty pounds. Yet the mistress was not moved to gratitude; for later, when the wife was troubled to meet her engagements, the mistress makes this entry in her diary:
"Harriet sends her creditors here; nasty woman. Now we shall have to change our lodgings."
The deserted wife bore the bitterness and obloquy of her situation two years and a quarter; then she gave up, and drowned herself. A month afterwards the body was found in the water. Three weeks later Shelley married his mistress.
I must here be allowed to italicize a remark of the biographer’s concerning Harriet Shelley:
"That no act of Shelley's during the two years which immediately preceded her death tended to cause the rash act which brought her life to its close seems certain."
Yet her husband had deserted her and her children, and was living with a concubine all that time! Why should a person attempt to write biography when the simplest facts have no meaning to him? This book is littered with as crass stupidities as that one—deductions by the page which bear no discoverable kinship to their premises.
The biographer throws off that extraordinary remark without any perceptible disturbance to his serenity; for he follows it with a sentimental justification of Shelley’s conduct which has not a pang of conscience in it, but is silky and smooth and undulating and pious—a cake-walk with all the colored brethren at their best. There may be people who can read that page and keep their temper, but it is doubtful. Shelley’s life has the one indelible blot upon it, but is otherwise worshipfully noble and beautiful. It even stands out indestructibly gracious and lovely from the ruck of these disastrous pages, in spite of the fact that they expose and establish his responsibility for his forsaken wife’s pitiful fate—a responsibility which he himself tacitly admits in a letter to Eliza Westbrook, wherein he refers to his taking up with Mary Godwin as an act which Eliza “might excusably regard as the cause of her sister’s ruin.”
Image Source: Harriet Shelley’s Engagement Ring Given to Her by Percy Shelley. Bodleian Library, Oxford.