Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 13



The last ceremony was over, hope, fear, despair, were past, and Mary Shelley had to recommence her life, or death in life, her one solace her little son, her one resource for many years her work. Fortunately for her, her education and her studious habits were a shield against the cold world which she had to encounter, and her accustomed personal economy, which had fitted her to be the worthy companion to her generous husband, whom she had encouraged rather than thwarted in his constantly recurring acts of philanthropy, would help her in her present struggle; and one friend was ready to assist with advice and out of his then slender means, Mr. Trelawny. But from England no help was forth- coming. Godwin's affairs having reached the climax of bankruptcy already referred to, were not likely to settle down easily now that the ever-ready supply was suddenly cut short.

Sir Timothy Shelley was not inclined to continue the terms he made with his son, nor was anything to be arranged but on conditions which Mrs. Shelley could never consent to. Of her despondent state of misery we can judge in her letters of 1822 to Claire, as when she writes from Genoa, September 15, "This hateful Genoa"; and, describing her misery on her husband's death, she exclaims: "Well, I shall have his books and his MSS., and in these I shall live, and from the study of these I do expect some instants of content. . . . some seconds of exaltation that may render me both happier here, and more worthy of him hereafter." Then, " There is nothing but unhappiness to me, if indeed I except Trelawny, who appears so truly generous and kind. . . . Nothing but the horror of being a burden to my family prevents my accompanying Jane (to England). If I had any fixed income, I should go at least to Paris, and i shall go the moment I have one." And again in December of the same year she writes to Claire, addressing her as Mdlle. de Clairmont, chez Mdme. de Hennistein, Vienna. She mentions an approach to Sir Timothy, through lawyers, abortive as yet; how she detests Genoa; "Hunt does not like me." Her daily routine is copying Shelley's manuscripts and reading Greek; in her despair, study is her only relief. She sees no one but Lord Byron and the Guiccioli once a month, Trelawny seldom, and he is on the eve of his departure for Leghorn.

Thus we find Mary Shelley going on from day to day, too poor to travel so far as Paris, as yet her child and her work of love on her husband's MS. filling up her time, till in February she had to undergo the mortification of her father-in-law proposing that she should give her son up entirely to him, and in return receive a settled income. But Mary was not of those who can be either bought or sold, and, having the means of subsistence in herself, she could be inde pendent; a letter from her father shows how they were at one on this important subject, and it must have been a great encouragement to her in her loneliness, as she was always diffident of her own powers. However, now her work lay in arranging and copying her husband's MSS., and saving treasures which but for her loving care might have been lost. In the spring of this year, 1823, Trelawny was in Home arranging Shelley's grave, which he bought with the adjoining ground for himself, and he had the massive slab of stone placed there which still tells of the "Cor cordium." In the autumn of the same year Mary found means for leaving the hated Genoa, and, travelling through France; she stayed for a time at Versailles with her father's old friends, the Kennys, and of this visit one of the daughters, now Mrs. Cox, then a child of about six years, retains a lively and pleasing recollection. Brought up in France and imbued with the idea and pictures of the Madonna and child, the little girl, on seeing Mrs. Shelley arrive with her small son, became impressed with the idea that the pale, sweet, oval-faced lady was the Madonna come to visit them; and this idea was not dispelled by the gentle manner and kind way that she had with the children, reminding one who had been punished by mistake that the next time she was naughty she would have had her punishment in advance. This visit was followed later by the intimacy and friendship of the two families. In London (as we learn from a letter to Miss Holcrolt, Mrs. Kenny's daughter, by her previous marriage with Holcroft) Mrs. Shelley was settled at 14, Sheldhurst Street, Brunswick Square. She was then hoping that her father-in-law would make her an allowance sufficient for her to live comfortably in dear Italy; and, at all events, she had received "a present supply, so that much good at least has been accomplished by my journey." She felt quite lost in London, and Percy had not yet learnt English. She had seen Lamb, but he did not remark on her being altered. She would then have returned to Italy, but her lather did not like the idea.

Among other work at this time Mary Shelley attempted a drama, but in this her father did not encourage her, as he writes to her in February 1824 that her personages are mere abstractions, not men and women. Godwin does not regret that she has not dramatic talent, as the want of it will save her much trouble and mortification.

This disappointment did not discourage Mary, for in the next year she published, with Henry Colburn of New Burlington Street, her novel The Last Man, of which a second edition appeared in the succeeding year. This must have been a great help to Mary's limited means: she had received four hundred pounds for her previous romance.

During this year we find Mrs. Shelley living in Kentish Town, as she writes from that address to Trelawny in July 1824. She is much cheered by finding her old friend still remembers her. She speaks of him as her warm-hearted friend, the remnant of the happy days of her vagabond life in beloved Italy, and now, shortly before writing, she had seen another link in her past life disappear ; for the hearse containing the body of Lord Byron had passed her window going up Highgate Hill, on his last journey to the seat of his ancestors. Mary had been much interested in the account Trelawny had sent her of Byron's latest moments. She had been to see the poet's remains at the house where they lay in London. She saw his valet, Fletcher, and " from a few words he imprudently let fall, it would seem that his Lordship spoke of C—— in his last moments, and of his wish to do something for her, at a time when his mind, vacillating between consciousness and delirium, would not permit him to do anything." She describes how Fletcher found Lady Byron in great grief, but inexorable, and how Byron's memoirs had been destroyed by Mrs. Leigh and Hobhouse, but adds: "There was not much in them, I know, for I read them some years ago at Venice; but the world fancied that it was to have a confession of the hidden feelings of one concerning whom they were always passionately curious." She says that Moore was much disgusted. He was writing a life of Byron, but it was considered that although he had had the MSS. so long in his hands, he had not found time to read them. She asks Trelawny to help Moore with any facts or details. Mary thanks Trelawny for his wish that she and Jane Williams, who see each other arid little else every day, should join him in Greece. That is impossible, but she looks for him to come in the winter to England. She speaks of July as fatal to her for good and ill. "On this very very day" she is writing July 28 "I went to France with my Shelley. How young, heedless, and happy and poor we were then, and now my sleeping boy is all that is left to me of that time my boy and a thousand recollections which never sleep." She describes the pretty country lanes round Kentish Town. If only there were cloudless skies and orange sunsets, she would not mind the scenery; but she can attach herself to no one. She and Jane live alone; her child is in excellent health, a tall, fine, handsome boy. She is still in hopes that she will get an income of three or four hundred a year from Sir Timothy in a few months ; one of her chief wishes in being independent would be to help Claire, who is in Russia. Of this time Claire wrote a good account in her diary.

These letters to Trelawny give much insight into the present life of Mary Shelley, and refer to much of interest in her past. On February 25 she tells how she had been with Jane, her father, and Count Gamba to see Kean in Othello, but she adds: "Yet, my dear friend, I wish we had seen it represented as was talked of at Pisa. lago would never have found a better representative than that strange and wondrous creature whom one regrets daily more; for who can equal him?" Trelawny adds a note that in 1822 Byron had contemplated that he, Trelawny, Williams, Medwin, Mary Shelley, and Mrs. Williams were to take the several parts : Byron, Iago; Trelawny, Othello; Mary, Desdemona. Trelawny adds that Byron recited a great portion of his part with great gusto, and looked it too. Byron said that all Pisa were to be the audience. Letters from Trelawny from Zante in 1826, carry on the correspondence. He regrets that poverty keeps them apart; speaks of the difficulty of travelling without money; he rejoices that he still holds a place in her affections, and says, "You know, Mary, that I always loved you impetuously and sincerely." In 1827, still writing from Kentish Town, on Easter Sunday, but saying that in future her address will be at her father's, 44, Gower Place, Bedford Square, we have another of her charming letters to her friend, full of good reflections. In this letter she tells how Jane Williams has united her life with that of Shelley's early friend, Mr. Jefferson Hogg. He had loved her devotedly since her arrival in England five years earlier, but till now she had been too constant to Williams's memory to accept him. Claire was still in Russia. Mary writes: "I wrote to you last while I entertained the hope that my money cares were diminishing, but shabby as the best of these shabby people was, I am not to arrive at that best without due waiting and anxiety. Nor do I yet see the end of this worse than tedious uncertainty." Mary was to see Shelley's younger brother, who was just married, but she had small hope of reaping any good from his visit. She adds, "Adieu, my ever dear friend; while hearts such as yours beat, I will not wholly despond." Mary refers with great kindness to Hunt, and is most anxious as to his future. She also notices with high satisfaction that the Whigs with Canning are in the ascendant, and that they may be favourable to Greece. While Mary Shelley was residing in Kentish Town, before she joined her father in Gower Place after the winding up of his affairs, a letter from Godwin to his wife at the sea-side shows that the latter considered he did not need her society as Mrs. Shelley was with him; he explains that he sees her about twice a week, but is feeling lonely every day.

After Mary removed to Gower Place in 1827, among other work, she was occupied by her Lives of Eminent Literary Men, for Lardner's Cyclopedia. About the same year Godwin writes to his daughter who is evidently in very low spirits, wishing that she resembled him in temperament rather than the Wollstonecrafts, but explains that his present good spirits may be owing to his work on Cromwell. A little later we find Godwin writing to Mary, himself in depression. He is troubled by publishers who will not decide to take a novel. "Three, four, or five hundred pounds, and to be subsisted by them while I write it," is what he hoped to get. Mrs. Shelley was at Southend for change of air, and wishing her father to join her; but this he could not decide on. Every day lost is taking away from his means of subsistence; for he is writing now, not for marble to be placed over his remains, but for bread to be put into his mouth.

In April 1829, Mrs. Shelley, writing still from her father's address, 44, Gower Street, complains to Trelawny in a truly English way, as she says, of the weather. She rejoices that her friend has taken to work, and hopes that his friends will keep him to recording his own adventures; but she strongly dissuades him from writing a life of Shelley, for how could that be done without bringing her into publicity? which she shrinks from fearfully, though she is forced by her hard situation to meet it in a thousand ways; or as she expresses it, "I will tell you what I am, a silly goose, who, far from wishing to stand forward to assert myself in any way, now that I am alone in the world have but the desire to wrap night and the obscurity of insignificance around me. This is weakness, but I cannot help it." Neither does Mary consider that the time has come to write Shelley's life, though she herself hopes to do so some day.

Towards the end of 1830 we find Mary in Somerset Street, Portman Square, from which place she writes to Trelawny on the subject of his MS. of The Adventures of a Younger Son, which he had consigned to her hands to place with a publisher, make the best terms for that she could, and see through the press; a task distasteful to Trelawny to the last. Mrs. Shelley much admired the work, considering it full of passion and interest. But she does not hesitate to point out the blemishes, certain coarsenesses, which she begs him to allow her to deal with, as she would have dealt with parts of Lord Byron's Don Juan. She is sure that without this she will have great difficulty in disposing of the book.

Mary finds the absorbing politics of the day a great hindrance to publishing, and says: "God knows how it will all end, but it looks as if the aristocrats would have the good sense to make the necessary sacrifices to a starving population."

The worry of awaiting the decision of the publisher was felt by Mrs. Shelley more for Trelawny than for herself; she finds it difficult to make the terms she wishes for him, and, writing to her friend on March 22 of the next year, she regrets that she cannot make Colburn, the best publisher she knows of, give five hundred pounds as she wishes, but trusts to get three hundred pounds for first edition and two hundred pounds for second; but times have changed since she first returned to England, neither she nor her father can command the same prices which they did then.

At that time "publishers came to seek me," she writes; "now money is scarcer and readers fewer than ever." Three days later she is able to add the news that she has received "the ultimatum of these great people," three hundred pounds down and one hundred pounds on second edition, she thinks, for 1,000 copies. She advises acceptance, but will try other publishers if he wish it.

Mary again regrets that it is impossible for her to go to Italy. She expresses herself as wretched in England, and in spite of her sanguine disposition and capacity to endure, which have borne her up hitherto, she feels sinking at last; situated as she is, it is impossible for her not to be wretched.

Mary does not give way long to despondency, she goes on to tell news as to Medwin, Hogg, Jane, &c.; she can even tease Trelawny about the different ladies who believe themselves the sole object of his affection, and tells him she is having a certain letter of his about "Caroline" lithographed, and thinks of dispensing 100 copies among "the many hapless fair."

A third letter on the subject of the book, on June 14, 1831, tells Trelawny how his work is in progress, and Horace Smith, who much admires it, has promised to revise it. Again, in July of the same year, she writes that the third volume is in print, and his book will soon be published; but that as his mother talks openly of his memoirs in society, he must not hope for secrecy. In this letter, also, we have a fact which redounds to the credit of both Mary Shelley and Trelawny, as she clearly tells him she cannot marry him; but remains in "all gratitude and friendship" his M. S. Trelawny had evidently made her an offer of marriage, moved perhaps by gratitude for her help, as well as probably, in his case, a passing love; for she writes to him: "My name will never be Trelawny. I am not so young as I was when you first knew me, but I am as proud. I must have the entire affection, devotion, and, above all, the solicitous protection of any one who would win me. You belong to womenkind in general, and Mary S. will never be yours. I write in haste," &c, &c.

Trelawny would never have offered his name thus to a woman he could not respect, and perhaps few know better than those of his reckless class who are most worthy of respect. Mary Shelley, who dreaded men's looks or words, by her own knowledge and her intimate friends' accounts had no fear of him; he had the instincts of a gentleman for a true lady, who may be found in any class.

Four years later, we have Mary again writing to Mr. Trelawny with regard to his book, a second edition being called for, when, to her confusion, she finds that through her not having read over the agreement, and having taken for granted that the proposal of three hundred pounds on first edition with one hundred pounds more on second was inserted, she had signed the contract ; but now it turned out that what was proposed by letter was not inserted by Oilier in the agreement, and she knew not what to do. In a second letter a few days later from Harrow, where she lived for a while to be near her son at school, she wrote in answer to Trelawny, proposing Peacock as umpire, because, she writes, "he would not lean to the strongest side, which Jefferson, as a lawyer, is inclined, I think, to do." Oilier, she writes, devoutly wished she had read the agreement, as the clause ought to have been in it.

Again, a few months later, on April 7, 1836, there is another letter asking Trelawny if he would like to attend her father's funeral, and if he would go with the undertaker to choose the spot nearest to her mother's, in St. Pancras Churchyard, and, if he could do this, to write to Mrs. Godwin, at the Exchequer, to tell her so. The last few years of Godwin's life had not ended, as he had so bitterly apprehended, in penury; as his friends in power had obtained for him the post of Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer, with residence in New Palace Yard, in 1833. The office was in fact a sinecure, and was soon abolished; but it was arranged that no change should be made in the old philosopher's position. His old friends had died, but his work had its reward for him, as well as its place in the thought of the world, for such people as the Duke of Wellington and Lord Melbourne had used their influence for him. Mary had been his constant devoted daughter to the last. In 1834 he writes to his wife of Mrs. Shelley, as he always called his daughter to Mrs. Godwin, of various meetings and dinners with each other, though he cannot attend her evenings as he would wish, since the walk across the park to reach Somerset Street, where she then lived, was by no means pleasant after dark : and now we find Mary honouring Trelawny with the last service for her father, apologising, but adding, " Are you not the best and most constant of friends?"

Godwin's last grief was the loss of his son William in 1832; he had been settled in a literary career and left a widow. One of Mary's first acts of generosity later on was to settle a pension on her.