Shelley Sunday Monday: Letter from Shelley to Mary Regarding Rumours

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From Oxford’s Shelley Ghost:

In August 1821 Shelley travelled to Ravenna to see Byron, who wished to speak to him urgently about Allegra. While in Ravenna Shelley learned that Byron’s friends the Hoppners had been told a ‘monstrous & incredible’ story by the Shelleys’ former servant Elise. He immediately wrote this letter to Mary, informing her of the story: that Claire Clairmont had been his mistress, had had a child by him (despite her attempts to have an abortion), and that this child had been placed in a foundling hospital.

At Shelley’s request Mary wrote to Mrs Hoppner refuting the story. ‘Shocked beyond all measure as I was I instantly wrote the enclosed’, she told Shelley. –our bark is indeed tempest tost but love me as you have ever done & God preserve my child to me and our enemies shall not be too much for us.’

The end of this letter is lost, and the remaining fragment was later subjected to heavy deletions. Dowden included a full transcription of it in his life of Shelley, and the accuracy of the accusations against Shelley have been the subject of debate and speculation ever since. We know, for instance, that a child was born in December 1818, named in the Neapolitan archives ‘Elena Adelaide Shelley’.  For a while, at least, Byron believed the rumours: ‘It is just like them’, he told Hoppner.

Partial Transcript

Lord Byron has also told me a circumstance that shocks me exceedingly; because it exhibits a degree of desperate & wicked malice for which I am at a loss to account. When I hear such things my patience & my philosophy are put to a severe proof, whilst I refrain from seeking out some obscure hiding place where the countenance of man may never meet more. It seems that Elise, actuated either by some inconceivable malice for our dismissing her – or bribed by my enemies – or making common cause with her infamous husband has persuaded the Hoppners of a story so monstrous & incredible that they must have been prone to believe any evil to have believed such assertions upon such evidence. Mr. Hoppner wrote to Lord B. to state this story as the reason why he declined any further communication with her, & why he advised him to do the same. Elise says that Clare was my mistress – that is all very well & so far there is nothing new: all the world has heard so much & people may believe or not believe as they think good. – She then proceeds to say that Clare was with child by me – that I gave her the most violent medicines to procure abortion– that this not succeeding she was brought to bed & that I immediately tore the child from her & sent it to the foundling hospital … In addition she says that both I & Clare treated you in the most shameful manner – that I neglected & beat you, & that Clare never let a day pass without offering you insults of the most violent kind in which she was abetted by me. – As to what Reviews and the world says I do not care a jot; but when persons who have known me are capable of concieving of me – not that I have fallen into a great error & imprudence as would have been the living with Clare as my mistress – but that I have committed such unutterable crimes as destroying or abandoning a child – & that my own – imagine my despair of good – imagine how it is possible that one of so weak & sensitive a nature as mine can run further the gauntlet through this hellish society of men.

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