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Some Passages in Shelley's Early History by January Searle

Shelley's connection with Stockdale is one of the curiosities of literary history. It is as if Miranda had attached herself to the fortunes of Caliban. An inexplicable thing, except upon the assumption of the young poet's inexperience of men and his ignorance of affairs. It is, moreover, a new passage in his life which has hitherto eluded the most sagacious of his biographers. Who was Stockdale, and what was the relationship between these two personages, so opposite in character, intellect and pursuits? Stockdale's name was altogether unknown to honest folks before Shelley gave it currency and introduced the owner of it to polite society—at all events on paper. He owes his notoriety, therefore, entirely to the boy-poet, into whose way the good man was thrown by one of those inexplicable freaks of chance which often bring about such strange results both to subject and object.

John Joseph Stockdale was, like his father, a bookseller, who did a low sort of business in Pall Mall. For some forty years the Stockdales, father and son, were jointly or separately the John Murrays of the London Bohemians. Their house was the resort of novelists, poets, and especially dramatic writers, for twenty years before and twenty years after the close of the eighteenth century, and they were purveyors-general of circulating libraries, tempting the ambition of young authors with rosy promises of success and alluring baits of immortality, if they could only find the base metals in quantum stiff, to pay the cold-blooded paper-merchant and the vulgar type-setter. Many a poetic pigeon did the Stockdales pluck, no doubt, by these expedients. For in those days, as in these present, a young suckling full of innocence and his mother's nourishment deemed it the highest earthly honor to be admitted to the society of Bohemian bulls and fire-breathing poets; and to be further allowed the privilege of paying for dinner and wine, with dramatists and men of the Bohemian kidney as guests, was a distinction for which no amount of pecuniary disbursement could by any possibility be regarded as an equivalent.

It is hardly to be supposed, however, that Shelley—even if it could be shown that he actually joined the mob of Stockdale's wits as hale-fellow-well-met—ever participated in this loyalty to their sovran virtues and superiorities. He was the god, not they; and although he hid his divinity under a mask and knew the value of silence in a court of fools, yet he could not fail to be conscious that small and unimportant as he was held to be among those Titans of imagination and song, yet it would be found upon trial that he alone could bend the mighty bow of Ulysses, and had the right to wear the garland and singing-robes of the poet.

But the prior question remains, how Shelley, of all men then living, came to have any knowledge of such a person as Stockdale—still more, any dealings with him.

And it is remarkable that the answer to this question comes from one and the same source; and that is the private journal of Stockdale himself, who, like the petty Boswells of the serial literature of the present day, cozened, by flattery and other arts best known to that class, a considerable number of scholars and authors into a correspondence with him, and carefully preserving these their private letters until time should have enhanced the value of the autographs, and he could glorify himself in the fame of the writers, deliberately ransacked his old archives for this purpose; and finding a number of the boy Shelley's business-letters to him—curious, to be sure, and interesting enough to a hero-worshiper—he audaciously published them in an unclean magazine called Stockdale's Budget.

Personally, we know nothing of the Budget, but an English bookworm sets it down as "a sort of appendix to the more celebrated Memoirs of Harriet Wilson", which Stockdale had himself published a few years before. This was so boldly licentious, and so reckless in its attacks upon the private characters of the Upper Ten, that the publisher was prosecuted with merciless persistency until his business gave up the ghost. To convince the public that he was a martyr he started the Budget in 1827, and still appears to have kept his poets and dramatic satellites around him, and to have been a man of some repute for good-nature to young authors. Indeed, it is but fair to say that from the first moment of Shelley's introduction to him until we find him betraying Shelley's confidence in him to his father, to save him, if possible, from the publication of an atheistic theorem, he seems to have been fascinated by the young poet's character, and has testified under his own name that he had the highest confidence in his integrity, although it seems he lost a round sum by him in the end; and he adds that, in his belief, Shelley would "vegetate rather than live, in order to pay any honest debt."

It was in 1810 that Shelley, impressed somehow or other with the belief that Stockdale was the poet's friend, rushed pell-mell into the publisher's Pall Mall shop, and besought him to do the friendly thing by him, and help him out of a scrape he had got into with his printer by ordering him to print fourteen hundred and eighty copies of a volume of poems, without having the money at hand to pay him. "Aldus of Horsham, the mute and the inglorious," was finally, appeased, although not by Stockdale's money, and the edition of the poems passed into Stockdale's hands for sale. The book was entitled Original Poetry, by Victor and Cazire, and we are informed that an advertisement of the same appeared in the Morning Chronicle, September 18, 1810.

Shelley had previously published a romance called Zastrozzi, and his first kitten-love, Harriet Grove, is said to have helped both in this performance and the poems. But Harriet was not mindful of the commandment against stealing, and when Stockdale came to examine the poems he found that she had taken one entire poem by Monk Lewis and put it in among the "original" poetry. Shelley ordered the edition to be "squelched," but nearly a hundred copies had already been issued; and this fact, so maddening to the poet, may yet rejoice the collector of rare books.

These poems, the Wandering Jew, an epic, the joint production of himself and Captain Medwin, a school-boy production, St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian, and his first story, Zastrozzi, are the first books of the poet; and their history is detailed with more or less interest in the letters which passed between Shelley and Stockdale respecting them. The poet tells Stockdale, in offering him the manuscript of the Jew for publication, that he had previously to knowing him sent it to John Ballantyne & Co., and encloses their letter setting forth the reason that they did not publish it—namely, that it contained "atheistical opinions." The canny Scots are sorry to return it, and do so only "after the most mature deliberation." They think that it is better suited, "perhaps," to the "character and liberal feelings of the English than the bigoted spirit which yet pervades many cultivated minds in this country;" adding, "Even Walter Scott is assailed on all hands at present by our Scotch spiritual and evangelical magazines and instructors for having promulgated atheistical doctrines in the Lady of the Lake."

Shelley assures Stockdale he is unconscious of atheism in the Few, and asks him "upon his honor as a gentleman to pay a fair price for the copy-right."

Stockdale never received the manuscript of the Jew, and Shelley, having submitted a copy in manuscript to Campbell and received an adverse judgment, does not seem to have troubled himself further about it. So it remained in must and dust until 1831, when somebody of the Stockdale ilk discovered it, and printed parts of it in Frazer's Magazine. Judging from these excerpts, the book was entirely worthless, and as for the stories, they were neither better nor worse than other school-boy pieces of those days.

The betrayal of confidence of which Shelley complained as proceeding from Stockdale arose from a letter of the poet's, in which (November 12, 1810) he asks his friend the publisher to send him a "Hebrew essay demonstrating the falsehood of the Christian religion," and which the Christian Observer, he says, calls "an unanswerable but sophistical argument." Have it he must, be it translated into "Greek, Latin or any of the European languages."

Pendulous Stockdale—"long and lank and brown"—comes from the reek and sin and filth of Harriet Wilson's Memoirs, his pet publication, and actually trembles with godly fear for the safety of a human soul, and that soul the interior, eternal esse of the son of a baronet; which baronet he hopes to make a good money-friend of by betraying his son's secrets to him. Love, of a sort, for Shelley may also have been a constituent of his motive to this treachery, as the poet called it, for there can be no doubt that he did love him in his way, as all the rough fellows—his Comus crew of the Budget office—loved him.

Old Sir Timothy is grateful to the bookseller for abusing the trust put in him by his son, and he thanks him for what he calls the "liberal and handsome manner" in which Stockdale has imparted to him his sentiments toward Shelley, and says he shall ever esteem it and hold it in remembrance.

The publication of the letters before us sets at rest the disputed point as to the date of Shelley's first acquaintance with Harriet Westbrook, whom he subsequently married. Writing to Stockdale December 18, 1810, he requests him to send copies of the new romance to Miss Marshall, Horsham, Sussex, T. Medwin, Esq., Horsham, Sussex, T.J. Hogg, Esq., Rev. Dayrells Lynnington, Dayrell, Bucks; and Jan. 11, 1811, writing to the same person, he asks him to send a copy of St. Irvyne to Miss Harriet Westbrook, 10 Chapel street, Grosvenor Square. It is pretty certain, therefore, that the acquaintance began between the dates of these two letters, for if he had known Harriet when he ordered his book to be sent to Miss Marshall, he would certainly have coupled the two names together and added them to the little list of his friends already given. Our English friend suggests here that Shelley may not have known Harriet personally at this time, but merely through the reports of his sisters, who were always talking about her, as reported in the Shelley Memorials. We think this is likely to be the case, as during that period Shelley does not seem to have journeyed to London. The aforesaid friend says also that he possessed a manuscript (unpublished) in which somebody who knows states that Shelley first saw her in January, 1811, and that whenever this manuscript is published it will be seen how very slight was Shelley's acquaintance with Harriet before their marriage, and "what advantage was taken of his chivalry of sentiment and her complacent disposition, and the inexperience of both, and how little entitled or disposed she felt herself to complain of his behavior." "Shelley and his girl-wife visited Windermere," we think are the words of De Quincey in alluding to their sudden apparition in the Lake district just after their union. And two more discordant natures could hardly have been bound together till death.

The last friendly communication which passed between Shelley and his publisher was dated January 11, 1811, as we have seen; and he must immediately afterward have discovered the treachery of Stockdale, for only three days later he writes a vituperative letter against him to Hogg, in that he had been traducing Hogg's character; and informs him that he will, while on his way to Oxford, compel the publisher to explain not only why he "dared to make so free with the character of a gentleman about whom he knew nothing," but why he had been treacherous enough to inform Sir Timothy that he (Shelley) had sent him "a work" which had been submitted to him in the strictest confidence and honor.

This performance was probably the pamphlet which caused Shelley's expulsion from Oxford; and Stockdale hoped to be regarded as a friend of the family by telling Sir T. all about it, and thus preventing a young aristocrat of such high birth and pretensions from falling into the slough of the blackguard Free-thinkers. No doubt he was influenced to do this good turn to the family by the fact that the bill for the last romance was unpaid, and he knew that if Sir Timothy would not, and Shelley, being a minor, could not, liquidate it, he would, between the two unreliable stools, come to the ground. In order to apologize for Shelley, and make it appear to his father that he was not to blame for writing such wickedness, but that another had indoctrinated him with all bad notions, he pitched upon Hogg as the scapegoat. This is, at all events, the English writer's explanation; but it was a futile as well as a foolish thing for the cunning publisher to do, for he made them all his enemies, and Sir Timothy refused to pay a farthing of the printing account. So the publisher lost it. Shelley, it is true, in a cool, polite business letter (April 11, 1811), asks for his account, which is delayed, and does not reach the poet until some time after it is sent, when it finds him in Radnorshire, Wales, too poor to pay it. With an innocency worthy of the days of Adam and Eve, he, after promising to pay as soon as he can, offers Stockdale the manuscript of some metaphysical and moral essays—the result of "some serious studies"—"in part payment of his debt."