In Defence of Harriet Shelley
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
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
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 Cakewalk.
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
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
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
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:
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 hove 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
"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,"
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
Towards 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
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
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 then so well that he is resolved to leave off
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
"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 s 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
"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
"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
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
3d. Harriet's walks with Hogg "commonly conducted us to some fashionable
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
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
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 towards 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 an 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
This shows penetration. No deduction could be more accurate than this.
There were indeed some causes of deep division. But next comes another
"To guess at the precise nature of these cafes, 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
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
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 towards 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
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
"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 tract for once no erring guide!
Bid the remorseless feeling flee;
'Tis malice, 'tis revenge, 'tis pride,
'Tis anything but thee;
I 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
"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
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,
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 defencelessness 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."