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
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 the
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
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 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
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
"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
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 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
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 upon
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
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 ['']
"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
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 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
"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
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
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 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
"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
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.
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
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
"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 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."