VII. ELOPEMENT II: SHELLEY, 1812–16

Through all his wanderings Shelley seems never to have thought of earning his own living. Perhaps he shared Wordsworth’s view that a dedicated poet should be excused from labors or concerns that might stifle the poetry in his blood. He saw no contradiction between his propaganda for equal rights under a republic and his efforts to get his share of the wealth that his grandfather bequeathed to his father. He added to the paternal annuity by selling “post-obits” to moneylenders; so, in 1813, he pledged two thousand pounds of his expected inheritance in exchange for six hundred in hand.

Perhaps the moneylenders were encouraged by his frail physique and recurrent illnesses. A constant pain in his left side (his second wife would report) “wound up his nerves to a pitch of sensibility that rendered his views of life different from those of a man in the enjoyment of healthy sensations. Perfectly gentle and forbearing in manner, he suffered a good deal of irritability, or rather excitement, and his fortitude to bear was almost always on a stretch.”68

He thought he might ease his pains by a vegetarian diet. He was confirmed in this hope by experiments described in John Newton’s Return to Nature, or Defence of a Vegetable Regimen (1811). By 1812 he and Harriet were confirmed vegetarians. By 1813 he was so enthusiastic about what she called “the Pythagorean system”69 that he interpolated in his notes to Queen Mab an appeal to all and sundry:

By all that is sacred in our hope for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth to give a fair trial to the vegetable system! … There is no disease, bodily or mental, which adoption of a vegetable diet and pure water has not infallibly mitigated, wherever the experiment has been tried. Debility is gradually converted into strength, disease into healthfulness.70

In Vindication of Natural Diet (1813) he traced man’s evil impulses, and most wars, to a meat diet, and pleaded for a return from commerce and industry to agriculture:

On a natural system of diet we should require no spices from India, no wines from Portugal, Spain, France, or Madeira …. The spirit of the nation, that should take the lead in this great reform, would insensibly become agricultural; commerce, with all its vices, selfishness, and corruption, would gradually decline; more natural habits would produce gentler manners.71

A strange concatenation of circumstances led from his vegetarianism to the breakup of his first marriage. Through his admiration for John Newton he met Newton’s sister-in-law, Mrs. John Boynton, a vegetarian, a republican, charming despite her white hair, and capable of educated conversation in two languages. In June, 1813, Harriet had given birth to a pretty daughter, whom Shelley named Ianthe; that summer he moved with them, and sister Eliza, to Bracknell, a pleasant place thirty miles from London. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Boynton took a house there, and gathered about her a circle of French émigrés and English radicals whose views on government and diet pleased Shelley. More and more frequently he left Harriet and Ianthe with Eliza, and went off to enjoy the company of Mrs. Boynton, her friends, and her married daughter.

Several shadows had fallen across his relations with his wife. He seems to have felt a certain retardation in her intellectual growth: she was increasingly absorbed in her child, and careless about politics, and yet she had developed a liking for gay comforts and fine clothes; partly for her sake he had bought an expensive carriage. At this critical juncture in his affairs (May 26, 1813) he received notice from his father that unless he retracted his atheism and apologized to the master of his college at Oxford, he would disinherit him and end all financial aid. In expectation of a substantial bequest on his coming of age (August 4, 1813), Shelley had contracted debts that mortgaged his future. Harriet and Eliza panicked, and obviously wondered whether Paris was not worth a Mass. Shelley refused to recant, and continued to frequent the soirees of Mrs. Boynton. Godwin sent word that he was facing arrest by his creditors, and implied that he would welcome aid. In June, 1814, Harriet moved with her child to Bath, apparently in the expectation that her husband would soon join her there. Shelley went to London, took a room in Fleet Street, tried to raise money for Godwin, and almost daily dined at the philosopher’s home in Skinner Street. There he met Mary Godwin.

She was the child in whose birth, seventeen years back, the gifted but unfortunate vindicator of the rights of woman had lost her life. Mary’s fresh youth, her alert mind, her pale and thoughtful face, her unconcealed admiration for Shelley, were too much for the poet, who was still a lad of twenty-one. Again pity mingled with desire. He had often heard of Mary Wollstonecraft and her remarkable book; here was her daughter who, unhappy under a stern stepmother, went often to sit alone beside her mother’s grave. Here—Shelley felt—with her double heritage of sensitivity and intellect, was a finer mind and spirit than Harriet. Within a week he was in the throes of a passion such as he seems never to have experienced before. On July 6 he asked Godwin for the hand of his daughter. The astonished philosopher denounced his acolyte as “licentious,” forbade him the house, and put Mary under the custody of her stepmother.72

Soon afterward Thomas Love Peacock found the poet almost delirious in his Fleet Street room. “Nothing that I have ever read, in tale or history, could present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible … passion, than that under which I found him labouring, when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him …. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said, ‘I never part from this.’”73

Despite all obstacles, Shelley arranged to meet Mary at her mother’s grave. He reduced her resistance by telling her that Harriet had been unfaithful to him with a Mr. Ryan.74 He continued for some time to deny the legitimacy of the child that Harriet was now carrying (later he claimed it was his own). She denied his charge, and Shelley’s friends Peacock, Hogg, Trelawny, and his publisher Hookham supported her; Godwin later rejected it.75

Shelley wrote to Harriet (still at Bath) and asked her to come to London. She came (July 14, 1814), and was received into her father’s house. The poet visited her there, and found her alarmingly ill. He begged her to give him a separation; she refused. On returning to his room he wrote to her a hectic letter assuming some kind of agreement:

MY DEAREST FRIEND:

Exhausted as I am with our interview, and secure of seeing you tomorrow, at 12, I cannot refrain from writing to you.

I am made calm and happier by your assurances ….

For this, dearest Harriet, from my inmost soul I thank you. This is perhaps the greatest among the many blessings which I have received, and still am destined to receive, at your hands. I loathed the very light of day, and looked upon my own being with deep and unutterable abhorrence. I lived in the hope of consolation and happiness from you and have not been deceived.

I repeat (believe me for I am sincere) that my attachment to you is unimpaired: I conceive that it has acquired even a deeper and more lasting character, that it is now less exposed than ever to the fluctuations of phantasy or caprice. Our connection was not one of passion and impulse. Friendship was its basis, and on this basis it has been enlarged and strengthened. It is no reproach to me that you have never filled my heart with an all-sufficing passion ….

Shall I not be more than a friend? Oh, far more Brother, Father of your child, so dear as it is to us both ….

If you want to draw on the Bankers before I see you, Hookham will give you the cheques.

Adieu. Bring my sweet babe. I must ever love her for your sake.

Ever most affectionately yours,

P. B. SHELLEY.76

Harriet gave her own account in a letter of November 20, 1814, to Catherine Nugent:

… Mary was determined to seduce him…. She heated his imagination by talking of her mother, and going to her grave with him every day, till at last she told him she was dying in love for him …. Why [Mary asked] could we not all live together? I as his sister, she as his wife? He had the folly to believe this possible, and sent for me, then residing at Bath. You may suppose how I felt at the disclosure. I was laid up for a fortnight after. I could do nothing for myself. He begged me to live…. Here I am, my dear friend, waiting to bring another infant into this woeful world. Next month I shall be confined. He will not be near me.

H. SHELLEY.77

Godwin gave some details in a letter of August 27, 1814, to John Taylor:

I had the utmost confidence in him [Shelley]; I knew him susceptible of the noblest sentiments; he was a married man, who had lived happily with his wife for three years…. On Sunday, June 26th, he accompanied Mary, and her sister Jane Clairmont, to the tomb of Mary’s mother…. There, it seems, the impious idea occurred to him of seducing her, playing the traitor to me, and deserting his wife…. On Wednesday, the 6th of July, … he had the madness to disclose his plans to me and to ask my consent. I expostulated with him, … and with so much effect that for the moment he promised to give up his licentious love …. They both deceived me. In the night of the 27th Mary and her sister Jane escaped from my home; and the next morning I found a letter informing me what they had done.78

Jane Clairmont was only stepsister to Mary, being the daughter of the second Mrs. Godwin by a former husband. Originally named Clara Mary Jane, she preferred to be called Clara, and became Clare or Claire. Born April 27, 1798, she was now sixteen years old, and was quite consciously nubile. Talented and generous, sensitive and proud, she fretted under the authority of a worried and irritable mother, and a stepfather too burdened and bankrupt to spare her any love. She appealed to Mary and Shelley to take her with them. They did, and on July 28, 1814, the three fled from London to Dover, and thence to France.

On August 20 the pilgrims reached Lucerne. There Shelley found no message for him, and no money from London. He had in his purse only twenty-eight pounds. Sadly he told his comrades that he must return to England and settle his finances. By boat and carriage they hurried north, and on September 13, 1814, they were again in London. He spent the next twenty months hiding from his creditors, and raising more loans to feed himself, Mary, Claire, and Godwin, who still refused to see him but welcomed cash remittances. Meanwhile Harriet gave birth to her second child, Charles; Mary gave birth to her first, William; and Claire leaped into Byron’s bed. Finally the poet’s grandfather died, leaving to Shelley’s father, now Sir Timothy Shelley, property valued at eighty thousand pounds. Shelley was now heir apparent, but not so recognized by his father. He offered to resign his rights in exchange for a life annuity of a thousand pounds; it was agreed; and Shelley pledged two hundred a year to Harriet. On May 4, 1816, he, Mary, William, and Claire left again for Dover and France. Nine days before them Byron had “kicked the dust of England from his feet.”

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