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Percy Bysshe Shelley And Mary Godwin

A great deal has been said and written in favor of early marriage;
and, in a general way, early marriage may be an admirable thing.
Young men and young women who have no special gift of imagination,
and who have practically reached their full mental development at
twenty-one or twenty-two--or earlier, even in their teens--may
marry safely; because they are already what they will be. They are
not going to experience any growth upward and outward. Passing
years simply bring them more closely together, until they have
settled down into a sort of domestic unity, by which they think
alike, act alike, and even gradually come to look alike.

But early wedlock spells tragedy to the man or the woman of
genius. In their teens they have only begun to grow. What they
will be ten years hence, no one can prophesy. Therefore, to mate
so early in life is to insure almost certain storm and stress,
and, in the end, domestic wreckage.

As a rule, it is the man, and not the woman, who makes the false
step; because it is the man who elects to marry when he is still
very young. If he choose some ill-fitting, commonplace, and
unresponsive nature to match his own, it is he who is bound in the
course of time to learn his great mistake. When the splendid eagle
shall have got his growth, and shall begin to soar up into the
vault of heaven, the poor little barn-yard fowl that he once
believed to be his equal seems very far away in everything. He
discovers that she is quite unable to follow him in his towering

The story of Percy Bysshe Shelley is a singular one. The
circumstances of his early marriage were strange. The breaking of
his marriage-bond was also strange. Shelley himself was an
extraordinary creature. He was blamed a great deal in his lifetime
for what he did, and since then some have echoed the reproach. Yet
it would seem as if, at the very beginning of his life, he was put
into a false position against his will. Because of this he was
misunderstood until the end of his brief and brilliant and erratic


In 1792 the French Revolution burst into flame, the mob of Paris
stormed the Tuileries, the King of France was cast into a dungeon
to await his execution, and the wild sons of anarchy flung their
gauntlet of defiance into the face of Europe. In this tremendous
year was born young Shelley; and perhaps his nature represented
the spirit of the time.

Certainly, neither from his father nor from his mother did he
derive that perpetual unrest and that frantic fondness for revolt
which blazed out in the poet when he was still a boy. His father,
Mr. Timothy Shelley, was a very usual, thick-headed, unromantic
English squire. His mother--a woman of much beauty, but of no
exceptional traits--was the daughter of another squire, and at the
time of her marriage was simply one of ten thousand fresh-faced,
pleasant-spoken English country girls. If we look for a strain of
the romantic in Shelley's ancestry, we shall have to find it in
the person of his grandfather, who was a very remarkable and
powerful character.

This person, Bysshe Shelley by name, had in his youth been
associated with some mystery. He was not born in England, but in
America--and in those days the name "America" meant almost
anything indefinite and peculiar. However this might be, Bysshe
Shelley, though a scion of a good old English family, had wandered
in strange lands, and it was whispered that he had seen strange
sights and done strange things. According to one legend, he had
been married in America, though no one knew whether his wife was
white or black, or how he had got rid of her.

He might have remained in America all his life, had not a small
inheritance fallen to his share. This brought him back to England,
and he soon found that England was in reality the place to make
his fortune. He was a man of magnificent physique. His rovings had
given him ease and grace, and the power which comes from a wide
experience of life. He could be extremely pleasing when he chose;
and he soon won his way into the good graces of a rich heiress,
whom he married.

With her wealth he became an important personage, and consorted
with gentlemen and statesmen of influence, attaching himself
particularly to the Duke of Northumberland, by whose influence he
was made a baronet. When his rich wife died, Shelley married a
still richer bride; and so this man, who started out as a mere
adventurer without a shilling to his name, died in 1813, leaving
more than a million dollars in cash, with lands whose rent-roll
yielded a hundred thousand dollars every year.

If any touch of the romantic which we find in Shelley is a matter
of heredity, we must trace it to this able, daring, restless, and
magnificent old grandfather, who was the beau ideal of an English
squire--the sort of squire who had added foreign graces to native
sturdiness. But young Shelley, the future poet, seemed scarcely to
be English at all. As a young boy he cared nothing for athletic
sports. He was given to much reading. He thought a good deal about
abstractions with which most schoolboys never concern themselves
at all.

Consequently, both in private schools and afterward at Eton, he
became a sort of rebel against authority. He resisted the fagging-
system. He spoke contemptuously of physical prowess. He disliked
anything that he was obliged to do, and he rushed eagerly into
whatever was forbidden.

Finally, when he was sent to University College, Oxford, he broke
all bounds. At a time when Tory England was aghast over the French
Revolution and its results, Shelley talked of liberty and equality
on all occasions. He made friends with an uncouth but able fellow
student, who bore the remarkable name of Thomas Jefferson Hogg--a
name that seems rampant with republicanism--and very soon he got
himself expelled from the university for publishing a little tract
of an infidel character called "A Defense of Atheism."

His expulsion for such a cause naturally shocked his father. It
probably disturbed Shelley himself; but, after all, it gave him
some satisfaction to be a martyr for the cause of free speech. He
went to London with his friend Hogg, and took lodgings there. He
read omnivorously--Hogg says as much as sixteen hours a day. He
would walk through the most crowded streets poring over a volume,
while holding another under one arm.

His mind was full of fancies. He had begun what was afterward
called "his passion for reforming everything." He despised most of
the laws of England. He thought its Parliament ridiculous. He
hated its religion. He was particularly opposed to marriage. This
last fact gives some point to the circumstances which almost
immediately confronted him.

Shelley was now about nineteen years old--an age at which most
English boys are emerging from the public schools, and are still
in the hobbledehoy stage of their formation. In a way, he was
quite far from boyish; yet in his knowledge of life he was little
more than a mere child. He knew nothing thoroughly--much less the
ways of men and women. He had no visible means of existence except
a small allowance from his father. His four sisters, who were at a
boarding-school on Clapham Common, used to save their pin-money
and send it to their gifted brother so that he might not actually
starve. These sisters he used to call upon from time to time, and
through them he made the acquaintance of a sixteen-year-old girl
named Harriet Westbrook.

Harriet Westbrook was the daughter of a black-visaged keeper of a
coffee-house in Mount Street, called "Jew Westbrook," partly
because of his complexion, and partly because of his ability to
retain what he had made. He was, indeed, fairly well off, and had
sent his younger daughter, Harriet, to the school where Shelley's
sisters studied.

Harriet Westbrook seems to have been a most precocious person. Any
girl of sixteen is, of course, a great deal older and more mature
than a youth of nineteen. In the present instance Harriet might
have been Shelley's senior by five years. There is no doubt that
she fell in love with him; but, having done so, she by no means
acted in the shy and timid way that would have been most natural
to a very young girl in her first love-affair. Having decided that
she wanted him, she made up her mind to get Mm at any cost, and
her audacity was equaled only by his simplicity. She was rather
attractive in appearance, with abundant hair, a plump figure, and
a pink-and-white complexion. This description makes of her a
rather doll-like girl; but doll-like girls are just the sort to
attract an inexperienced young man who has yet to learn that
beauty and charm are quite distinct from prettiness, and
infinitely superior to it.

In addition to her prettiness, Harriet Westbrook had a vivacious
manner and talked quite pleasingly. She was likewise not a bad
listener; and she would listen by the hour to Shelley in his
rhapsodies about chemistry, poetry, the failure of Christianity,
the national debt, and human liberty, all of which he jumbled up
without much knowledge, but in a lyric strain of impassioned
eagerness which would probably have made the multiplication-table

For Shelley himself was a creature of extraordinary fascination,
both then and afterward. There are no likenesses of him that do
him justice, because they cannot convey that singular appeal which
the man himself made to almost every one who met him.

The eminent painter, Mulready, once said that Shelley was too
beautiful for portraiture; and yet the descriptions of him hardly
seem to bear this out. He was quite tall and slender, but he
stooped so much as to make him appear undersized. His head was
very small-quite disproportionately so; but this was counteracted
to the eye by his long and tumbled hair which, when excited, he
would rub and twist in a thousand different directions until it
was actually bushy. His eyes and mouth were his best features. The
former were of a deep violet blue, and when Shelley felt deeply
moved they seemed luminous with a wonderful and almost unearthly
light. His mouth was finely chiseled, and might be regarded as
representing perfection.

One great defect he had, and this might well have overbalanced his
attractive face. The defect in question was his voice. One would
have expected to hear from him melodious sounds, and vocal tones
both rich and penetrating; but, as a matter of fact, his voice was
shrill at the very best, and became actually discordant and
peacock-like in moments of emotion.

Such, then, was Shelley, star-eyed, with the delicate complexion
of a girl, wonderfully mobile in his features, yet speaking in a
voice high pitched and almost raucous. For the rest, he arrayed
himself with care and in expensive clothing, even though he took
no thought of neatness, so that his garments were almost always
rumpled and wrinkled from his frequent writhings on couches and on
the floor. Shelley had a strange and almost primitive habit of
rolling on the earth, and another of thrusting his tousled head
close up to the hottest fire in the house, or of lying in the
glaring sun when out of doors. It is related that he composed one
of his finest poems--"The Cenci"--in Italy, while stretched out
with face upturned to an almost tropical sun.

But such as he was, and though he was not yet famous, Harriet
Westbrook, the rosy-faced schoolgirl, fell in love with him, and
rather plainly let him know that she had done so. There are a
thousand ways in which a woman can convey this information without
doing anything un-maidenly; and of all these little arts Miss
Westbrook was instinctively a mistress.

She played upon Shelley's feelings by telling him that her father
was cruel to her, and that he contemplated actions still more
cruel. There is something absurdly comical about the grievance
which she brought to Shelley; but it is much more comical to note
the tremendous seriousness with which he took it. He wrote to his
friend Hogg:

Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way, by
endeavoring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice;
resistance was the answer. At the same time I essayed to mollify
Mr. Westbrook, in vain! I advised her to resist. She wrote to say
that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me and
throw herself on my protection.

Some letters that have recently come to light show that there was
a dramatic scene between Harriet Westbrook and Shelley--a scene in
the course of which she threw her arms about his neck and wept
upon his shoulder. Here was a curious situation. Shelley was not
at all in love with her. He had explicitly declared this only a
short time before. Yet here was a pretty girl about to suffer the
"horrible persecution" of being sent to school, and finding no
alternative save to "throw herself on his protection"--in other
words, to let him treat her as he would, and to become his

The absurdity of the situation makes one smile. Common sense
should have led some one to box Harriet's ears and send her off to
school without a moment's hesitation; while as for Shelley, he
should have been told how ludicrous was the whole affair. But he
was only nineteen, and she was only sixteen, and the crisis seemed
portentous. Nothing could be more flattering to a young man's
vanity than to have this girl cast herself upon him for
protection. It did not really matter that he had not loved her
hitherto, and that he was already half engaged to another Harriet
--his cousin, Miss Grove. He could not stop and reason with
himself. He must like a true knight rescue lovely girlhood from
the horrors of a school!

It is not unlikely that this whole affair was partly managed or
manipulated by the girl's father. Jew Westbrook knew that Shelley
was related to rich and titled people, and that he was certain, if
he lived, to become Sir Percy, and to be the heir of his
grandfather's estates. Hence it may be that Harriet's queer
conduct was not wholly of her own prompting.

In any case, however, it proved to be successful. Shelley's ardent
and impulsive nature could not bear to see a girl in tears and
appealing for his help. Hence, though in his heart she was very
little to him, his romantic nature gave up for her sake the
affection that he had felt for his cousin, his own disbelief in
marriage, and finally the common sense which ought to have told
him not to marry any one on two hundred pounds a year.

So the pair set off for Edinburgh by stagecoach. It was a weary
and most uncomfortable journey. When they reached the Scottish
capital, they were married by the Scottish law. Their money was
all gone; but their landlord, with a jovial sympathy for romance,
let them have a room, and treated them to a rather promiscuous
wedding-banquet, in which every one in the house participated.

Such is the story of Shelley's marriage, contracted at nineteen
with a girl of sixteen who most certainly lured him on against his
own better judgment and in the absence of any actual love.

The girl whom he had taken to himself was a well-meaning little
thing. She tried for a time to meet her husband's moods and to be
a real companion to him. But what could one expect from such a
union? Shelley's father withdrew the income which he had
previously given. Jew Westbrook refused to contribute anything,
hoping, probably, that this course would bring the Shelleys to the
rescue. But as it was, the young pair drifted about from place to
place, getting very precarious supplies, running deeper into debt
each day, and finding less and less to admire in each other.

Shelley took to laudanum. Harriet dropped her abstruse studies,
which she had taken up to please her husband, but which could only
puzzle her small brain. She soon developed some of the unpleasant
traits of the class to which she belonged. In this her sister
Eliza--a hard and grasping middle-aged woman--had her share. She
set Harriet against her husband, and made life less endurable for
both. She was so much older than the pair that she came in and
ruled their household like a typical stepmother.

A child was born, and Shelley very generously went through a
second form of marriage, so as to comply with the English law; but
by this time there was little hope of righting things again.
Shelley was much offended because Harriet would not nurse the
child. He believed her hard because she saw without emotion an
operation performed upon the infant.

Finally, when Shelley at last came into a considerable sum of
money, Harriet and Eliza made no pretense of caring for anything
except the spending of it in "bonnet-shops" and on carriages and
display. In time--that is to say, in three years after their
marriage--Harriet left her husband and went to London and to Bath,
prompted by her elder sister.

This proved to be the end of an unfortunate marriage. Word was
brought to Shelley that his wife was no longer faithful to him.
He, on his side, had carried on a semi-sentimental platonic
correspondence with a schoolmistress, one Miss Hitchener. But
until now his life had been one great mistake--a life of
restlessness, of unsatisfied longing, of a desire that had no
name. Then came the perhaps inevitable meeting with the one whom
he should have met before.

Shelley had taken a great interest in William Godwin, the writer
and radical philosopher. Godwin's household was a strange one.
There was Fanny Imlay, a child born out of wedlock, the offspring
of Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant, and of Mary
Wollstonecraft, whom Godwin had subsequently married. There was
also a singularly striking girl who then styled herself Mary Jane
Clairmont, and who was afterward known as Claire Clairmont, she
and her brother being the early children of Godwin's second wife.

One day in 1814, Shelley called on Godwin, and found there a
beautiful young girl in her seventeenth year, "with shapely golden
head, a face very pale and pure, a great forehead, earnest hazel
eyes, and an expression at once of sensibility and firmness about
her delicately curved lips." This was Mary Godwin--one who had
inherited her mother's power of mind and likewise her grace and

From the very moment of their meeting Shelley and this girl were
fated to be joined together, and both of them were well aware of
it. Each felt the other's presence exert a magnetic thrill. Each
listened eagerly to what the other said. Each thought of nothing,
and each cared for nothing, in the other's absence. It was a great
compelling elemental force which drove the two together and bound
them fast. Beside this marvelous experience, how pale and pitiful
and paltry seemed the affectations of Harriet Westbrook!

In little more than a month from the time of their first meeting,
Shelley and Mary Godwin and Miss Clairmont left Godwin's house at
four o 'clock in the morning, and hurried across the Channel to
Calais. They wandered almost like vagabonds across France, eating
black bread and the coarsest fare, walking on the highways when
they could not afford to ride, and putting up with every possible
inconvenience. Yet it is worth noting that neither then nor at any
other time did either Shelley or Mary regret what they had done.
To the very end of the poet's brief career they were inseparable.

Later he was able to pension Harriet, who, being of a morbid
disposition, ended her life by drowning--not, it may be said,
because of grief for Shelley. It has been told that Fanny Imlay,
Mary's sister, likewise committed suicide because Shelley did not
care for her, but this has also been disproved. There was really
nothing to mar the inner happiness of the poet and the woman who,
at the very end, became his wife. Living, as they did, in Italy
and Switzerland, they saw much of their own countrymen, such as
Landor and Leigh Hunt and Byron, to whose fascinations poor Miss
Clairmont yielded, and became the mother of the little girl

But there could have been no truer union than this of Shelley's
with the woman whom nature had intended for him. It was in his
love-life, far more than in his poetry, that he attained
completeness. When he died by drowning, in 1822, and his body was
burned in the presence of Lord Byron, he was truly mourned by the
one whom he had only lately made his wife. As a poet he never
reached the same perfection; for his genius was fitful and
uncertain, rare in its flights, and mingled always with that which

As the lover and husband of Mary Godwin, there was nothing left to
wish. In his verse, however, the truest word concerning him will
always be that exquisite sentence of Matthew Arnold:

"A beautiful and ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings
against the void in vain."

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