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   Chapter 4 MARY AND SHELLEY.

Mrs. Shelley By Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti Characters: 23796

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


We left Godwin about to write in answer to the letter referred to from Shelley. The correspondence which followed, though very interesting in itself, is only important here as it led to the increasing intimacy of the families. These letters are full of sound advice from an elderly philosopher to an over-enthusiastic youth; and one dated March 14, 1812, begging Shelley to leave Ireland and come to London, ends with the pregnant phrase, "You cannot imagine how much all the females of my family, Mrs. Godwin and three daughters, are interested in your letters and your history." So here, at fourteen, we find Mary deeply interested in all concerning Shelley; poor Mary, who used to wander forth, when in London, from the Skinner Street Juvenile Library northwards to the old St. Pancras Cemetery, to sit with a book beside her mother's grave to find that sympathy so sadly lacking in her home.

About this time Godwin wrote a letter concerning Mary's education to some correspondent anxious to be informed on the subject. We cannot do better than quote from it:-

Your inquiries relate principally to the two daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft. They are neither of them brought up with an exclusive attention to the system and ideas of their mother. I lost her in 1797, and in 1801 I married a second time. One among the motives which led me to choose this was the feeling I had in myself of an incompetence for the education of daughters. The present Mrs. Godwin has great strength and activity of mind, but is not exclusively a follower of the notions of their mother; and, indeed, having formed a family establishment without having a previous provision for the support of a family, neither Mrs. Godwin nor I have leisure enough for reducing novel theories of education to practice; while we both of us honestly endeavour, as far as our opportunities will permit, to improve the mind and characters of the younger branches of our family.

Of the two persons to whom your inquiries relate, my own daughter is considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before. Fanny, the eldest, is of a quiet, modest, unshowy disposition, somewhat given to indolence, which is her greatest fault, but sober, observing, peculiarly clear and distinct in the faculty of memory, and disposed to exercise her own thoughts and follow her own judgment. Mary, my daughter, is the reverse of her in many particulars. She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty. Fanny is by no means handsome, but, in general, prepossessing.

By this letter necessity appears to have been the chief motor in the education of the children. Constantly increasing difficulties surrounded the family, who were, however, kept above the lowering influences of narrow circumstances by the intellect of Godwin and his friends. Even the speculations into which Mrs. Godwin is considered to have rashly drawn her husband in the Skinner Street Juvenile Library, perhaps, for a time, really assisted in bringing up the family and educating the sons.

Before the meeting with Shelley, Mary was known as a young girl of strong poetic and emotional nature. A story is still remembered by friends, proving this: just before her last return from the Highlands preceding her eventful meetings with Shelley, she visited, while staying with the Baxters, some of the most picturesque parts of the Highlands, in company with Mr. Miller, a bookseller of Edinburgh; and he told of her passionate enthusiasm when taken into a room arranged with looking-glasses round it to reflect the magic view without of cascade and cloud-capped mountains; how she fell on her knees, entranced at the sight, and thanked Providence for letting her witness so much beauty. This was the nature, with its antecedents and surroundings, to come shortly into communion with Shelley, at the time of his despondency at his wife's hardness and supposed desertion; Shelley then, so far from self-sufficiency, yearning after sympathy and an ideal in life, with all his former idols shattered. Godwin's house became for him the home of intellectual intercourse. Godwin, surrounded by a cultivated family, was not thought less of by Shelley, owing to the accident of his then having a book-shop to look after-Shelley, whose childhood, though passed in the comforts of an English country house, yet lacked the riches of the higher culture. Through two months of various trials Shelley remained on terms of great intimacy, visiting Godwin's house and constantly dining there. This was during his wife's voluntary withdrawal to Bath, from May-when he seems to have entreated her to be reconciled to him-till July, when she, in her turn, becoming anxious at a four days' cessation of news, wrote an imploring letter to Hookham, the Bond Street bookseller, for information about her husband.

In the meantime, what had been passing in Godwin's house? The Philosopher, whom Shelley loved and revered, was becoming inextricably involved in money matters. What was needed but this to draw still closer the sympathies of the poet, who had not been exempt from like straits? He was thus in the anomalous position of an heir to twenty thousand a year, who could wish to raise three thousand pounds on his future expectations, not for discreditable gambling debts, or worse extravagances, but to save his beloved master and his family from dire distress.

What a coil of circumstances to be entangling all concerned! Mary returning from the delights of her Scottish home to find her father, whom she always devotedly loved, on the verge of bankruptcy, with all the hopeless vista which her emotional and highly imaginative nature could conjure up; and then to find this dreaded state of distress relieved, and by her hero-the poet who, for more than two years, "all the women of her family had been profoundly interested in."

And for Shelley, the contrast from the desolate home, where sulks and ill-humour assailed him, and which, for a time, was a deserted home for him; where facts, or his fitful imagination, ran riot with his honour, to the home where all showed its roseate side for him; where all vied to please the young benefactor, who was the humble pupil of its master; where Mary, in the expanding glow of youth and intellect, could talk on equal terms with the enthusiastic poet.

Were not the eyes of Godwin and his wife blinded for the time, when still reconciliation with Harriet was possible? Surely gratitude came in to play honour false. The one who-were it only from personal feeling-might have tried to turn the course of the rushing torrent was not there. Fanny, who had formerly written of Shelley as a hero of romance, was in Wales during this period.

So, step by step, and day by day, the march of fate continued, till, by the time that Hookham apparently unbandaged Godwin's eyes, on receiving Harriet's letter on July 7, 1814, passion seemed to have subdued the power of will; and the obstacle now imposed by Godwin only gave added impetus to the torrent, which nothing further could check.

Such times as these in a life seem to exemplify the contrasting doctrines of Calvin and of Schopenhauer; of two courses, either is open. But at that time Shelley was more the being of emotion than of will-unless, indeed, will be confounded with emotion.

We have seen enough to gather that Shelley did not need to enter furtively the house of his benefactor to injure him in his nearest tie, but that circumstances drew Shelley to Mary with equal force as her to him. The meetings by her mother's grave seemed to sanctify the love which should have been another's. They vaguely tried to justify themselves with crude principles. But self-deception could not endure much longer; and when Godwin forbade Shelley his house on July 8, Shelley, ever impetuous and headstrong, whose very virtues became for the time vices, thrust all barriers aside.

What deceptions beside self-deception must have been necessary to carry out so wild a project can be imagined; for certainly neither Godwin nor, still less, his wife, was inclined to sanction so illegal and unjust an act. We see, from Hogg's description, how impassioned was a meeting between Mary and Shelley, which he chanced to witness; and later on Shelley is said to have rushed into her room with laudanum, threatening to take it if she would not have pity on him. These and such like scenes, together with the philosophical notions which Mary must have imbibed, led up to her acting at sixteen as she certainly would not have done at twenty-six; but now her knowledge of the world was small, her enthusiasm great-and evidently she believed in Harriet's faithlessness-so that love added to the impatience of youth, which could not foresee the dreadful future. Without doubt, could they both have imagined the scene by the Serpentine three years later, they would have shrunk from the action which was a strong link in the chain that conduced to it.

But now all thoughts but love and self, or each for the other, were set aside, and on July 20, 1814, we find Mary Godwin leaving her father's house before five o'clock in the morning, much as Harriet had left her home three years earlier.

An entry made by Mary in a copy of Queen Mab given to her by Shelley, and dated in July 1814, shows us how a few days before their departure they had not settled on so desperate a move. The words are these:-"This book is sacred to me, and as no other creature shall ever look into it, I may write in it what I please. Yet what shall I write-that I love the author beyond all powers of expression, and that I am parted from him? Dearest and only love, by that love we have promised to each other, although I may not be yours I can never be another's. But I am thine, exclusively thine."

Mary in her novel of Lodore, published in 1835, gave a version of the differences between Harriet and Shelley. Though Lord Lodore is more an impersonation of Mary's idea of Lord Byron than of Shelley, Cornelia Santerre, the heroine, may be partly drawn from Harriet, while Lady Santerre, her match-making mother, is taken from Eliza Westbrook. Lady Santerre, when her daughter is married, still keeps her under her influence. She is described as clever, though uneducated, with all the petty manoeuvring which frequently accompanies this condition. When differences arise between Lodore and his wife the mother, instead of counselling conciliation, advises her daughter to reject her husband's advances. Under these circumstances estrangements lead to hatred, and Cornelia declares she will never quit her mother, and desires her husband to leave her in peace with her child. This Lodore will not consent to, but takes the child with him to America. The mother-in-law speaks of desertion and cruelty, and instigates law proceedings. By these proceedings all further hope is lost. We trace much of the history of Shelley and Harriet in this romance, even to the age of Lady Lodore at her separation, which is nineteen, the same age as Harriet's. Lady Lodore henceforth is regarded as an injured and deserted wife. This might apply equally to Lady Byron; but there are traits and descriptions evidently applicable to Harriet. Lady Santerre encourages her to expect submission later from her husband, but the time for that is passed. We here trace the period when Shelley also begged his wife to be reconciled to him in May, and likewise Harriet's attempt at reconciliation with Shelley, all too late, in July, when Shelley had an interview with his wife and explanations were given, which ended in Harriet apparently consenting to a separation. The interview resulted in giving Harriet an illness very dangerous in her state of health; she w

as even then looking forward to the birth of a child. It is true that Shelley is said to have believed that this child was not his, though later he acknowledged this belief was not correct. The name of a certain Major Ryan figures in the domestic history of the Shelleys at this time; but certainly there seems no evidence to convict poor Harriet upon, although Godwin at a later date informed Shelley that he had evidence of Harriet having been false to him four months before he left her. This evidence is not forthcoming, and the position of his daughter Mary may have made slender evidence seem more weighty at the time to Godwin; in fact, the small amount of evidence of any kind respecting Shelley's and Harriet's disagreements and separation seems to point to the curious anomaly in Shelley's character, that while he did not hesitate to act upon his avowed early and crude opinions as to the duration of marriage-opinions which he later expressed disapproval of in his own criticism of Queen Mab-yet the innate feeling of a gentleman forbade him to talk of his wife's real or supposed defects even to his intimate friends. Thus when Peacock cross-questioned him about his liking for Harriet, he only replied, "Ah, but you do not know how I hated her sister."

However more or less faulty, or sinned against, or sinning, we must now leave Harriet for a while and accompany Shelley and Mary on that 28th of July when she left her father's house with Jane, henceforth called "Claire" Clairmont, to meet Shelley near Hatton Garden about five in the morning. Of the subsequent journey we have ample records, for with this tour Mary also began a life of literary work, in which she was fortunately able to confide much to the unknown friend, the public, which though not always directly grateful to those who open their hearts to it, is still eager for their works and influenced by them. And so from Mary herself we learn all that she cared to publish from her journal in the Six Weeks' Tour, and now we have the original journal by Mary and Shelley, as given by Professor Dowden. We must repeat for Mary the oft-told tale of Shelley; for henceforth, till death separates them, their lives are together.

On July 27, 1814, having previously arranged a plan with Mary, which must have been also known to Claire in spite of her statement that she only thought of taking an early walk, Shelley ordered the postchaise, and, as Claire says, he and Mary persuaded her to go too, as she knew French, with which language they were unfamiliar. Shelley gives the account of the subsequent journey to Dover and passage to Calais, of the first security they felt in each other in spite of all risk and danger. Mary suffered much physically, and no doubt morally, having to pause at each stage on the road to Dover in spite of the danger of being overtaken, owing to the excessive heat causing faintness. On reaching Dover they found the packet already gone at 4 o'clock, so, after bathing in the sea and dining, they engaged a sailing boat to take them to Calais, and once more felt security from their pursuers; for, undoubtedly, had they been found in England, Shelley would have been unable to carry out his plan.

They were not allowed to pass the Channel together without danger, for after some hours of calm, during which they could make no progress, a violent squall broke, and the sails of the little boat were well nigh shattered, the lightning and thunder were incessant, and the imminent danger gave Shelley cause for serious thought, as he with difficulty supported the sleeping form of Mary in his arms. Surely all this scene is well described in "The Fugitives"-

While around the lashed ocean.

Though Mary woke to hear they were still far from land, and might be forced to make for Boulogne if they could not reach Calais, still with the dawn of a fresh day the lightning paled, and at length they were landed on Calais sands, and walked across them to their hotel. The fresh sights and sounds of a new language soon restored Mary, and she was able to remark the different costumes; and the salient contrast from the other side of the Channel could not fail to charm three young people so open to impressions. But before night they were reminded that there were others whom their destiny affected, for they were informed that a "fat lady" had been inquiring for them, who said that Shelley had run away with her daughter. It was poor Mrs. Godwin who had followed them through heat and storm, and who hoped at least to induce her daughter Claire to return to the protection of Godwin's roof; but this, after mature deliberation, which Shelley advised, she refused to do. Having escaped so far from the routine and fancied dulness of home life, the impetuous Claire was not to be so easily debarred from sharing in the magic delight of seeing new countries and gaining fresh experience. So Mrs. Godwin returned alone, to make the best story she could so as to satisfy the curious about the strange doings in her family.

Meanwhile the travellers proceeded by diligence on the evening of the 30th to Boulogne, and then, as Mary was far from well, hastened on their journey to Paris, where by a week's rest, in spite of many annoyances through want of money and difficulty in procuring it, Mary regained sufficient strength to enjoy some of the interesting sights. A pedestrian tour was undertaken across France into Switzerland. In Paris the entries in the diary are chiefly Shelley's; he makes some curious remarks about the pictures in the Louvre, and mentions with pleasure meeting a Frenchman who could speak English who was some help, as Claire's French does not seem to have stood the test of a lengthy discussion on business at that time. At length a remittance of sixty pounds was received, and they forthwith settled to buy an ass to carry the necessary portmanteau and Mary when unable to walk; and so they started on their journey in 1814, across a country recently devastated by the invading armies of Europe. They were not to be deterred by the harrowing tales of their landlady, and set out for Charenton on the evening of August 8, but soon found their ass needed more assistance than they did, which necessitated selling it at a loss and purchasing a mule the next day. On this animal Mary set out dressed in black silk, accompanied by Claire in a like dress, and by Shelley who walked beside. This primitive way of travelling was not without its drawbacks, especially after the disastrous wars. Their fare was of the coarsest, and their accommodation frequently of the most squalid; but they were young and enthusiastic, and could enter with delight into the fact that Napoleon had slept in their room at one inn. And the picturesque though frequently ruined French towns, with their ramparts and old cathedrals, gave them happiness and content; on the other hand, the dirt, discomfort, and ignorance they met with were extreme. At one wretched village, Echemine, people would not rebuild their houses as they expected the Cossacks to return, and they had not heard that Napoleon was deposed; while two leagues farther, at Pavillon, all was different, showing the small amount of communication between one town and another in France at that time.

Shelley was now obliged to ride the mule, having sprained his ankle, and on reaching Troyes Mary and Claire were thoroughly fatigued with walking. There they had to reconsider ways and means; the mule, no longer sufficing, was sold and a voiture bought, and a man and a mule engaged for eight days to take them to Neuchatel. But their troubles did not end here, for the man turned out far more obstinate than the mule, and was determined to enjoy the sweets of tyranny: he stopped where he would, regardless of accommodation or no accommodation, and went on when he chose, careless whether his travellers were in or out of the carriage. Mary describes how they had to sit one night over a wretched kitchen fire in the village of Mort, till they were only too glad to pursue their journey at 3 A.M. In fact, in those days Mary was able, in the middle of France, to experience the same discomforts which tourists have now to go much farther to find out. Their tour was far different from a later one described by Mary, when comfortable hotels are chronicled; but, oh! how she then looked back to the happy days of this time. The trio would willingly have prolonged the present state of things; but, alas! money vanished in spite of frugal fare, and they decided, on arriving in Switzerland, and with difficulty raising about thirty-eight pounds in silver, that their only expedient was to return to England in the least expensive way possible. They first tried, however, to live cheaply in an old chateau on the lake of Arx, which they hired at a guinea a month; but the discomfort and difficulties were too great, and even the customary resources of reading and writing failed to induce them to remain in these circumstances. They at one time contemplated a journey south of the Alps, but, only twenty-eight pounds remaining to live on from September till December, they naturally felt it would be safer to return to England, and decided to travel the eight hundred miles by water as the cheapest mode of transit. They proceeded from Lucerne by the Reuss, descending several falls on the way, but had to land at Loffenberg as the falls there were impassable. The next day they took a rude kind of canoe to Mumph, when they were forced to continue their journey in a return cabriolet; but this breaking down, they had to walk some distance to the nearest place for boats, and were fortunate in meeting with some soldiers to carry their box. Having procured a boat they reached Basle by the evening, and leaving there for Mayence the next morning in a boat laden with merchandise. This ended their short Swiss tour; but they passed the time delightfully, Shelley reading Mary Wollstonecraft's letters from Norway, and then, again, perfectly entranced, as night approached, with the magic effects of sunset sky, hills surmounted with ruined castles, and the reflected colours on the changing stream. They proceeded in this manner, staying for the night at inns, and taking whatever boat could be found in the morning. Thus they reached Cologne, passing the romantic scenery of the Rhine, recalled to them later when reading Childe Harold. From this point they proceeded through Holland by diligence, as they found travelling by the canals and winding rivers would be too slow, and consequently more expensive. Mary does not appear to have been impressed with the picturesque flat country of Holland, and gladly reached Rotterdam; but they were unfortunately detained two days at Marsluys by contrary winds, spending their last guinea, but feeling triumphant in having travelled so far for less than thirty pounds.

The captain, being an Englishman, ventured to cross the bar of the Rhine sooner than the Dutch would have done, and consequently they returned to England in a severe squall, which must have recalled the night of their departure and banished tranquillity from their minds, if they had for a time been soothed by the changing scenes and their trust in each other.

This account, taken chiefly from Mary's Six Weeks' Tour, published in 1817 first, differs in some details from the diary made at the time. In the published edition the names are suppressed. Nor does Mary refer to the extraordinary letter written by Shelley from Troyes on August 13, to the unfortunate Harriet, inviting her to come and stay with them in Switzerland, writing to her as his "dearest Harriet," and signing himself "ever most affectionately yours." Fortunately the proposal was not carried out; probably neither Harriet nor Mary desired the other's company, and Shelley was saved the ridicule, or worse, of this arrangement.

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