Defense of Harriet Shelley
by Mark Twain
I have committed sins, of course; but I have not committed enough
of them to entitle me to the punishment of reduction to the bread and
water of ordinary literature during six years when I might have been
living on the fat diet spread for the righteous in Professor Dowden's
Life of Shelley, if I had been justly dealt with.
During these six years I have been living a life of peaceful
ignorance. I was not aware that Shelley's first wife was unfaithful to
him, and that that was why he deserted her and wiped the stain from
his sensitive honor by entering into soiled relations with Godwin's
young daughter. This was all new to me when I heard it lately, and
was told that the proofs of it were in this book, and that this book's
verdict is accepted in the girls' colleges of America and its view
taught in their literary classes.
In each of these six years multitudes of young people in our
country have arrived at the Shelley-reading age. Are these six
multitudes unacquainted with this life of Shelley? Perhaps they are;
indeed, one may feel pretty sure that the great bulk of them are. To
these, then, I address myself, in the hope that some account of this
romantic historical fable and the fabulist's manner of constructing
and adorning it may interest them.
First, as to its literary style. Our negroes in America have
several ways of entertaining themselves which are not found among the
whites anywhere. Among these inventions of theirs is one which is
particularly popular with them. It is a competition in elegant
deportment. They hire a hall and bank the spectators' seats in rising
tiers along the two sides, leaving all the middle stretch of the floor
free. A cake is provided as a prize for the winner in the
competition, and a bench of experts in deportment is appointed to
award it. Sometimes there are as many as fifty contestants, male and
female, and five hundred spectators. One at a time the contestants
enter, clothed regardless of expense in what each considers the
perfection of style and taste, and walk down the vacant central space
and back again with that multitude of critical eyes on them. All that
the competitor knows of fine airs and graces he throws into his
carriage, all that he knows of seductive expression he throws into his
countenance. He may use all the helps he can devise: watch- chain to
twirl with his fingers, cane to do graceful things with, snowy
handkerchief to flourish and get artful effects out of, shiny new
stovepipe hat to assist in his courtly bows; and the colored lady may
have a fan to work up her effects with, and smile over and blush
behind, and she may add other helps, according to her judgment. When
the review by individual detail is over, a grand review of all the
contestants in procession follows, with all the airs and graces and
all the bowings and smirkings on exhibition at once, and this enables
the bench of experts to make the necessary comparisons and arrive at a
verdict. The successful competitor gets the prize which I have before
mentioned, and an abundance of applause and envy along with it. The
negroes have a name for this grave deportment-tournament; a name taken
from the prize contended for. They call it a 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
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
Any one will suspect that this task has its difficulties. Any one
will divine that nice work is necessary here, cautious work, wily
work, and that there is entertainment to be had in watching the
magician do it. There is indeed entertainment in watching him. He
arranges his facts, his rumors, and his poems on his table in full
view of the house, and shows you that everything is there—no
deception, everything fair and above board. And this is apparently
true, yet there is a defect, for some of his best stock is hid in an
appendix-basket behind the door, and you do not come upon it until the
exhibition is over and the enchantment of your mind accomplished—as
the magician thinks.
There is an insistent atmosphere of candor and fairness about this
book which is engaging at first, then a little burdensome, then a
trifle fatiguing, then progressively suspicious, annoying, irritating,
and oppressive. It takes one some little time to find out that
phrases which seem intended to guide the reader aright are there to
mislead him; that phrases which seem intended to throw light are there
to throw darkness; that phrases which seem intended to interpret a
fact are there to misinterpret it; that phrases which seem intended to
forestall prejudice are there to create it; that phrases which seem
antidotes are poisons in disguise. The naked facts arrayed in the
book establish Shelley's guilt in that one episode which disfigures
his otherwise superlatively lofty and beautiful life; but the
historian's careful and methodical misinterpretation of them transfers
the responsibility to the wife's shoulders as he persuades himself.
The few meagre facts of Harriet Shelley's life, as furnished by the
book, acquit her of offense; but by calling in the forbidden helps of
rumor, gossip, conjecture, insinuation, and innuendo he destroys her
character and rehabilitates Shelley's—as he believes. And in truth
his unheroic work has not been barren of the results he aimed at; as
witness the assertion made to me that girls in the colleges of America
are taught that Harriet Shelley put a stain upon her husband's honor,
and that that was what stung him into repurifying himself by deserting
her and his child and entering into scandalous relations with a
school-girl acquaintance of his.
If that assertion is true, they probably use a reduction of this
work in those colleges, maybe only a sketch outlined from it. Such a
thing as that could be harmful and misleading. They ought to cast it
out and put the whole book in its place. It would not deceive. It
would not deceive the janitor.
All of this book is interesting on account of the sorcerer's
methods and the attractiveness of some of his characters and the
repulsiveness of the rest, but no part of it is so much so as are the
chapters wherein he tries to think he thinks he sets forth the causes
which led to Shelley's desertion of his wife in 1814.
Harriet Westbrook was a school-girl sixteen years old. Shelley was
teeming with advanced thought. He believed that Christianity was a
degrading and selfish superstition, and he had a deep and sincere
desire to rescue one of his sisters from it. Harriet was impressed by
his various philosophies and looked upon him as an intellectual
wonder— which indeed he was. He had an idea that she could give him
valuable help in his scheme regarding his sister; therefore he asked
her to correspond with him. She was quite willing. Shelley was not
thinking of love, for he was just getting over a passion for his
cousin, Harriet Grove, and just getting well steeped in one for Miss
Hitchener, a school- teacher. What might happen to Harriet Westbrook
before the letter- writing was ended did not enter his mind. Yet an
older person could have made a good guess at it, for in person Shelley
was as beautiful as an angel, he was frank, sweet, winning,
unassuming, and so rich in unselfishness, generosities, and
magnanimities that he made his whole generation seem poor in these
great qualities by comparison. Besides, he was in distress. His
college had expelled him for writing an atheistical pamphlet and
afflicting the reverend heads of the university with it, his rich
father and grandfather had closed their purses against him, his
friends were cold. Necessarily, Harriet fell in love with him; and so
deeply, indeed, that there was no way for Shelley to save her from
suicide but to marry her. He believed himself to blame for this state
of things, so the marriage took place. He was pretty fairly in love
with Harriet, although he loved Miss Hitchener better. He wrote and
explained the case to Miss Hitchener after the wedding, and he could
not have been franker or more naive and less stirred up about the
circumstance if the matter in issue had been a commercial transaction
involving thirty-five dollars.
Shelley was nineteen. He was not a youth, but a man. He had never
had any youth. He was an erratic and fantastic child during eighteen
years, then he stepped into manhood, as one steps over a door-sill.
He was curiously mature at nineteen in his ability to do independent
thinking on the deep questions of life and to arrive at sharply
definite decisions regarding them, and stick to them—stick to them
and stand by them at cost of bread, friendships, esteem, respect, and
For the sake of his opinions he was willing to sacrifice all these
valuable things, and did sacrifice them; and went on doing it, too,
when he could at any moment have made himself rich and supplied
himself with friends and esteem by compromising with his father, at
the moderate expense of throwing overboard one or two indifferent
details of his cargo of principles.
He and Harriet eloped to Scotland and got married. They took
lodgings in Edinburgh of a sort answerable to their purse, which was
about empty, and there their life was a happy, one and grew daily more
so. They had only themselves for company, but they needed no
additions to it. They were as cozy and contented as birds in a nest.
Harriet sang evenings or read aloud; also she studied and tried to
improve her mind, her husband instructing her in Latin. She was very
beautiful, she was modest, quiet, genuine, and, according to her
husband's testimony, she had no fine lady airs or aspirations about
her. In Matthew Arnold's judgment, she was "a pleasing figure."
The pair remained five weeks in Edinburgh, and then took lodgings
in York, where Shelley's college mate, Hogg, lived. Shelley presently
ran down to London, and Hogg took this opportunity to make love to the
young wife. She repulsed him, and reported the fact to her husband
when he got back. It seems a pity that Shelley did not copy this
creditable conduct of hers some time or other when under temptation,
so that we might have seen the author of his biography hang the
miracle in the skies and squirt rainbows at it.
At the end of the first year of marriage—the most trying year for
any young couple, for then the mutual failings are coming one by one
to light, and the necessary adjustments are being made in pain and
tribulation—Shelley was able to recognize that his marriage venture
had been a safe one. As we have seen, his love for his wife had begun
in a rather shallow way and with not much force, but now it was become
deep and strong, which entitles his wife to a broad credit mark, one
may admit. He addresses a long and loving poem to her, in which both
passion and worship appear:
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
"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.
"The greater part of her associates were odious. I
found there two or three sentimental young butchers, an
eminently philosophical tinker, and several very
unsophisticated medical practitioners or medical
of low origin and vulgar and offensive manners. They
turned up their eyes, retailed philosophy, such as it
Shelley moved to Bracknell, July 27th (this is still 1813)
purposely to be near this unwholesome prairie-dogs' nest. The
fabulist says: "It was the entrance into a world more amiable and
exquisite than he had yet known."
"In this acquaintance the attraction was mutual"—and presently it
grew to be very mutual indeed, between Shelley and Cornelia Turner,
when they got to studying the Italian poets together. Shelley,
"responding like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or
of sentiment," had his chance here. It took only four days for
Cornelia's attractions to begin to dim Harriet's. Shelley arrived on
the 27th of July; on the 31st he wrote a sonnet to Harriet in which
"one detects already the little rift in the lover's lute which had
seemed to be healed or never to have gaped at all when the later and
happier sonnet to Ianthe was written"—in September, we remember:
"EVENING. TO HARRIET
"O thou bright Sun! Beneath the dark blue line
Of western distance that sublime descendest,
And, gleaming lovelier as thy beams decline,
Thy million hues to every vapor lendest,
And over cobweb, lawn, and grove, and stream
Sheddest the liquid magic of thy light,
Till calm Earth, with the parting splendor bright,
Shows like the vision of a beauteous dream;
What gazer now with astronomic eye
Could coldly count the spots within thy sphere?
Such were thy lover, Harriet, could he fly
The thoughts of all that makes his passion dear,
And turning senseless from thy warm caress
Pick flaws in our close-woven happiness."
I cannot find the "rift"; still it may be there. What the poem
seems to say is, that a person would be coldly ungrateful who could
consent to count and consider little spots and flaws in such a warm,
great, satisfying sun as Harriet is. It is a "little rift which had
seemed to be healed, or never to have gaped at all." That is, "one
detects" a little rift which perhaps had never existed. How does one
do that? How does one see the invisible? It is the fabulist's secret;
he knows how to detect what does not exist, he knows how to see what
is not seeable; it is his gift, and he works it many a time to poor
dead Harriet Shelley's deep damage.
"As yet, however, if there was a speck upon Shelley's happiness it
was no more than a speck"—meaning the one which one detects where "it
may never have gaped at all"—"nor had Harriet cause for discontent."
Shelley's Latin instructions to his wife had ceased. "From a
teacher he had now become a pupil." Mrs. Boinville and her young
married daughter Cornelia were teaching him Italian poetry; a fact
which warns one to receive with some caution that other statement that
Harriet had no "cause for discontent."
Shelley had stopped instructing Harriet in Latin, as before
mentioned. The biographer thinks that the busy life in London some
time back, and the intrusion of the baby, account for this. These
were hindrances, but were there no others? He is always overlooking a
detail here and there that might be valuable in helping us understand
a situation. For instance, when a man has been hard at work at the
Italian poets with a pretty woman, hour after hour, and responding
like a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment
in the meantime, that man is dog-tired when he gets home, and he can't
teach his wife Latin; it would be unreasonable to expect it.
Up to this time we have submitted to having Mrs. Boinville pushed
upon us as ostensibly concerned in these Italian lessons, but the
biographer drops her now, of his own accord. Cornelia "perhaps" is
sole teacher. Hogg says she was a prey to a kind of sweet melancholy,
arising from causes purely imaginary; she required consolation, and
found it in Petrarch. He also says, "Bysshe entered at once fully
into her views and caught the soft infection, breathing the tenderest
and sweetest melancholy, as every true poet ought."
Then the author of the book interlards a most stately and fine
compliment to Cornelia, furnished by a man of approved judgment who
knew her well "in later years." It is a very good compliment indeed,
and she no doubt deserved it in her "later years," when she had for
generations ceased to be sentimental and lackadaisical, and was no
longer engaged in enchanting young husbands and sowing sorrow for
young wives. But why is that compliment to that old gentlewoman
intruded there? Is it to make the reader believe she was well-chosen
and safe society for a young, sentimental husband? The biographer's
device was not well planned. That old person was not present—it was
her other self that was there, her young, sentimental, melancholy,
warm-blooded self, in those early sweet times before antiquity had
cooled her off and mossed her back.
"In choosing for friends such women as Mrs. Newton, Mrs. Boinville,
and Cornelia Turner, Shelley gave good proof of his insight and
discrimination." That is the fabulist's opinion—Harriet Shelley's is
Early in August, Shelley was in London trying to raise money. In
September he wrote the poem to the baby, already quoted from. In the
first week of October Shelley and family went to Warwick, then to
Edinburgh, arriving there about the middle of the month.
"Harriet was happy." Why? The author furnishes a reason, but
hides from us whether it is history or conjecture; it is because "the
babe had borne the journey well." It has all the aspect of one of his
artful devices— flung in in his favorite casual way—the way he has
when he wants to draw one's attention away from an obvious thing and
amuse it with some trifle that is less obvious but more useful—in a
history like this. The obvious thing is, that Harriet was happy
because there was much territory between her husband and Cornelia
Turner now; and because the perilous Italian lessons were taking a
rest; and because, if there chanced to be any respondings like a
tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment in
stock in these days, she might hope to get a share of them herself;
and because, with her husband liberated, now, from the fetid
fascinations of that sentimental retreat so pitilessly described by
Hogg, who also dubbed it "Shelley's paradise" later, she might hope to
persuade him to stay away from it permanently; and because she might
also hope that his brain would cool, now, and his heart become
healthy, and both brain and heart consider the situation and resolve
that it would be a right and manly thing to stand by this girl-wife
and her child and see that they were honorably dealt with, and
cherished and protected and loved by the man that had promised these
things, and so be made happy and kept so. And because, also—may we
conjecture this?—we may hope for the privilege of taking up our cozy
Latin lessons again, that used to be so pleasant, and brought us so
near together—so near, indeed, that often our heads touched, just as
heads do over Italian lessons; and our hands met in casual and
unintentional, but still most delicious and thrilling little contacts
and momentary clasps, just as they inevitably do over Italian lessons.
Suppose one should say to any young wife: "I find that your husband
is poring over the Italian poets and being instructed in the beautiful
Italian language by the lovely Cornelia Robinson"—would that cozy
picture fail to rise before her mind? would its possibilities fail to
suggest themselves to her? would there be a pang in her heart and a
blush on her face? or, on the contrary, would the remark give her
pleasure, make her joyous and gay? Why, one needs only to make the
experiment—the result will not be uncertain.
However, we learn—by authority of deeply reasoned and searching
conjecture—that the baby bore the journey well, and that that was why
the young wife was happy. That accounts for two per cent. of the
happiness, but it was not right to imply that it accounted for the
other ninety-eight also.
Peacock, a scholar, poet, and friend of the Shelleys, was of their
party when they went away. He used to laugh at the Boinville
menagerie, and "was not a favorite." One of the Boinville group,
writing to Hogg, said, "The Shelleys have made an addition to their
party in the person of a cold scholar, who, I think, has neither taste
nor feeling. This, Shelley will perceive sooner or later, for his
warm nature craves sympathy." True, and Shelley will fight his way
back there to get it—there will be no way to head him off.
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
his boyhood, in any wanderings to Windsor. Dr. Lind had
a year since, and with his death Windsor must have lost,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
purse and his tranquillity. He is resolved to take a
care of the former, in pity to the latter, which I
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
he must have made you feel what we now feel for him. He
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
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.
. . . . . . .
"I have been staying with Mrs. Boinville for the last
I have escaped, in the society of all that philosophy and
friendship combine, from the dismaying solitude of
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
of mortality but its transitoriness; my heart sickens at
view of that necessity which will quickly divide me from
delightful tranquillity of this happy home—for it has
. . . . . . .
"Eliza is still with us—not here!—but will be with me
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
"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
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
wretch. But she is no more than a blind and loathsome
that cannot see to sting.
"I have begun to learn Italian again . . . . Cornelia
assists me in this language. Did I not once tell you
thought her cold and reserved? She is the reverse of
she is the reverse of everything bad. She inherits all
divinity of her mother . . . . I have sometimes
that I am not an inmate of this delightful home—that a
will come which will cast me again into the boundless
"I have written nothing but one stanza, which has no
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,
passes away at the cold clear light of morning. Its
excellence and exquisite perfections have no more
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
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
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
3d. Harriet's walks with Hogg "commonly conducted us to some
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
6th. Eliza Westbrook, sister-in-law, was still of the household.
The evidence against Harriet Shelley is all in; there is no more.
Upon these six counts she stands indicted of the crime of driving her
husband into that sty at Bracknell; and this crime, by these helps,
the biographical prosecuting attorney has set himself the task of
proving upon her.
Does the biographer call himself the attorney for the prosecution?
No, only to himself, privately; publicly he is the passionless,
disinterested, impartial judge on the bench. He holds up his judicial
scales before the world, that all may see; and it all tries to look so
fair that a blind person would sometimes fail to see him slip the
false weights in.
Shelley's happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost
to death, first, because Harriet had persuaded him to set up a
carriage. I cannot discover that any evidence is offered that she
asked him to set up a carriage. Still, if she did, was it a heavy
offence? Was it unique? Other young wives had committed it before,
others have committed it since. Shelley had dearly loved her in those
London days; possibly he set up the carriage gladly to please her;
affectionate young husbands do such things. When Shelley ran away
with another girl, by-and-by, this girl persuaded him to pour the
price of many carriages and many horses down the bottomless well of
her father's debts, but this impartial judge finds no fault with that.
Once she appeals to Shelley to raise money— necessarily by
borrowing, there was no other way—to pay her father's debts with at a
time when Shelley was in danger of being arrested and imprisoned for
his own debts; yet the good judge finds no fault with her even for
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
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
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
also, that he knew where duty lay; he felt that his part
take up his burden, silently and sorrowfully, and to
henceforth with the quietness of despair. But we can
that he scarcely possessed the strength and fortitude
for success in such an attempt. And clearly Shelley
was aware how perilous it was to accept that respite of
blissful ease which he enjoyed in the Boinville
gentle voices and dewy looks and words of sympathy could
fail to remind him of an ideal of tranquillity or of joy
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
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
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
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
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
"However the mischief may have been wrought—and at this
one can wish to heap blame on any buried head—'it is
that some cause or causes of deep division between
his wife were in operation during the early part of the
This shows penetration. No deduction could be more accurate than
this. There were indeed some causes of deep division. But next comes
another disappointing sentence:
"To guess at the precise nature of these cafes, in the
of definite statement, were useless."
Why, he has already been guessing at them for several pages, and we
have been trying to outguess him, and now all of a sudden he is tired
of it and won't play any more. It is not quite fair to us. However,
he will get over this by-and-by, when Shelley commits his next
indiscretion and has to be guessed out of it at Harriet's expense.
"We may rest content with Shelley's own words"—in a Chancery paper
drawn up by him three years later. They were these: "Delicacy forbids
me to say more than that we were disunited by incurable dissensions."
As for me, I do not quite see why we should rest content with
anything of the sort. It is not a very definite statement. It does
not necessarily mean anything more than that he did not wish to go
into the tedious details of those family quarrels. Delicacy could
quite properly excuse him from saying, "I was in love with Cornelia
all that time; my wife kept crying and worrying about it and
upbraiding me and begging me to cut myself free from a connection
which was wronging her and disgracing us both; and I being stung by
these reproaches retorted with fierce and bitter speeches—for it is
my nature to do that when I am stirred, especially if the target of
them is a person whom I had greatly loved and respected before, as
witness my various attitudes towards Miss Hitchener, the Gisbornes,
Harriet's sister, and others—and finally I did not improve this state
of things when I deserted my wife and spent a whole month with the
woman who had infatuated me."
No, he could not go into those details, and we excuse him; but,
nevertheless, we do not rest content with this bland proposition to
puff away that whole long disreputable episode with a single mean,
meaningless remark of Shelley's.
We do admit that "it is certain that some cause or causes of deep
division were in operation." We would admit it just the same if the
grammar of the statement were as straight as a string, for we drift
into pretty indifferent grammar ourselves when we are absorbed in
historical work; but we have to decline to admit that we cannot guess
those cause or causes.
But guessing is not really necessary. There is evidence
attainable— evidence from the batch discredited by the biographer and
set out at the back door in his appendix-basket; and yet a court of
law would think twice before throwing it out, whereas it would be a
hardy person who would venture to offer in such a place a good part of
the material which is placed before the readers of this book as
"evidence," and so treated by this daring biographer. Among some
letters (in the appendix-basket) from Mrs. Godwin, detailing the
Godwinian share in the Shelleyan events of 1814, she tells how Harriet
Shelley came to her and her husband, agitated and weeping, to implore
them to forbid Shelley the house, and prevent his seeing Mary Godwin.
"She related that last November he had fallen in love
Turner and paid her such marked attentions Mr. Turner,
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
back and Shelley was staying with her and her mother on
of cordial intimacy in March, 1814."
We accept the "cordial intimacy"—it was the very thing Harriet was
complaining of—but there is nothing to show that it was Turner who
brought his wife back. The statement is thrown in as if it were not
only true, but was proof that Turner was not uneasy. Turner's
movements are proof of nothing. Nothing but a statement from Turner's
mouth would have any value here, and he made none.
Six days after writing his letter Shelley and his wife were
together again for a moment—to get remarried according to the rites
of the English Church.
Within three weeks the new husband and wife were apart again, and
the former was back in his odorous paradise. This time it is the wife
who does the deserting. She finds Cornelia too strong for her,
probably. At any rate, she goes away with her baby and sister, and we
have a playful fling at her from good Mrs. Boinville, the "mysterious
spinner Maimuna"; she whose "face was as a damsel's face, and yet her
hair was gray"; she of whom the biographer has said, "Shelley was
indeed caught in an almost invisible thread spun around him, but
unconsciously, by this subtle and benignant enchantress." The subtle
and benignant enchantress writes to Hogg, April 18: "Shelley is again
a widower; his beauteous half went to town on Thursday."
Then Shelley writes a poem—a chant of grief over the hard fate
which obliges him now to leave his paradise and take up with his wife
again. It seems to intimate that the paradise is cooling 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
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
Thy remembrance and repentance and deep musings are not free
From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet
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
of reconciliation with Harriet, nor had he ceased to
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
grief but one—the grief of having known and lost his
"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
"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
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
To spend years thus and be rewarded,
As thou, sweet love, requited me
When none were near.
. . . thy lips did meet
Mine tremblingly; . . ,
" Gentle and good and mild thou art,
Nor can I live if thou appear
Aught but thyself." . . .
And so on. "Before the close of June it was known and felt by Mary
and Shelley that each was inexpressibly dear to the other." Yes,
Shelley had found this child of sixteen to his liking, and had wooed
and won her in the graveyard. But that is nothing; it was better than
wooing her in her nursery, at any rate, where it might have disturbed
the other children.
However, she was a child in years only. From the day that she set
her masculine grip on Shelley he was to frisk no more. If she had
occupied the only kind and gentle Harriet's place in March it would
have been a thrilling spectacle to see her invade the Boinville
rookery and read the riot act. That holiday of Shelley's would have
been of short duration, and Cornelia's hair would have been as gray as
her mother's when the services were over.
Hogg went to the Godwin residence in Skinner Street with Shelley on
that 8th of June. They passed through Godwin's little debt-factory of
a book- shop and went up-stairs hunting for the proprietor. Nobody
there. Shelley strode about the room impatiently, making its crazy
floor quake under him. Then a door "was partially and softly opened.
A thrilling voice called 'Shelley!' A thrilling voice answered,
'Mary!' And he darted out of the room like an arrow from the bow of
the far-shooting King. A very young female, fair and fair-haired,
pale, indeed, and with a piercing look, wearing a frock of tartan, an
unusual dress in London at that time, had called him out of the room."
This is Mary Godwin, as described by Hogg. The thrill of the
voices shows that the love of Shelley and Mary was already upward of a
fortnight old; therefore it had been born within the month of
May—born while Harriet was still trying to get her poem by heart, we
think. I must not be asked how I know so much about that thrill; it
is my secret. The biographer and I have private ways of finding out
things when it is necessary to find them out and the customary methods
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
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
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
Mary herself was not unlearned in the lore of pain. His
generous zeal in her father's behalf, his spiritual
Godwin, his reverence for her mother's memory, were
with Mary of his excellence.—[What she was after was
guarantees of his excellence. That he stood ready to
his wife and child was one of them, apparently.]—The new
friends could not lack subjects of discourse, and
their words about Mary's mother, and 'Political
'Rights of Woman,' were two young hearts, each feeling
the other, each perhaps unaware, trembling in the
the other. The desire to assuage the suffering of one
happiness has grown precious to us may become a hunger
spirit as keen as any other, and this hunger now
Mary's heart; when her eyes rested unseen on Shelley, it
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,
never truly loved him, who loved only his fortune and
and who proved her selfishness by deserting him in his
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
union with Harriet was a thing of the past, he had not
to regard her with affectionate consideration; he wrote
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
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
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
manifest emanations of pure and truthful nature that to
in her company was to know her thoroughly. She was fond
husband, and accommodated herself in every way to his
If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived
retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she
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
now four days since I have heard from him, which to me
age. Will you write by return of post and tell me what
become of him? as I always fancy something dreadful has
happened if I do not hear from him. If you tell me that
well I shall not come to London, but if I do not hear
or him I shall certainly come, as I cannot endure this
state of suspense. You are his friend and you can feel
"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
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
true, as absolutely faultless, as that of any who for
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
"I was assured by the evidence of the few friends who
Shelley and his wife—Hookham, Hogg, Peacock, and one of
Godwins—that Harriet was perfectly innocent of all
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
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
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."