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

flights.



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

career.



SHELLEY AND MARY GODWIN



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

thrilling.



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

mistress.



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

sweetness.



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

Allegra.



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

disappoints.



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."





Oliver Goldsmith Peter the Hermit facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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