Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 17



This last literary work by Mrs. Shelley, of which she herself speaks siightiugly as a poor performance, was noticed about the time of its publication as an interesting and truthful piece of writing by an authority on the subject. Mrs. Shelley's very modest and retiring disposition gave her little confidence in herself, and she seems to have met. with various discouraging remarks from acquaintances; she used to wonder afterwards that she was not able to defend herself and suppress impertinence. This last book is spoken of by Mary as written to help an unfortunate person whose acquaintance Claire had made in Paris while staying in some capacity in that city with Lady Sussex Lennox. A title has a factitious prestige with some people, and certainly in this case the acquaintance which at first seemed advantageous to Mary proved to be much the contrary, both in respect of money and of peace of mind ; but, before referring further to this subject, we must explain that the year 1844 brought with it a perhaps questionable advantage for her.

Sir Timothy Shelley, who had been ailing for some while, and whom Percy Shelley had visited from time to time at Field Place, having become rather a favourite with the old gentleman, now reached the bourne of life—he was ninety. His death in April 1844 brought his grandson Percy Florence to the baronetcy. That portion of the estate which had been entailed previous to Sir Bysshe's proposed rearrangement of the entire property now came to Mrs. Shelley by her husband's will. Owing to the poet's having refused to join in the entail, the larger portion of the property would not under any circumstances, as we have before mentioned, have devolved on him.

A sum of £80,000 is mentioned by the different biographers of Shelley as the probable value of the minor estate entailed on him, of which he had the absolute right of disposal. This estate, on Sir Timothy's death, was found to be burdened to the extent of £50,000, which Mary borrowed on mortgage at 3½ per cent. This large sum included £13,000 due to Lady Shelley for "the pittance" Mary had received; £4,500 to John Shelley for a mortgage Shelley signed to pay his debts, probably for the £2,000 borrowed on leaving Marlow, when he paid all his debts there; so that if any trifle was left unpaid on that occasion, it must have been from oversight and want of dunning, as he undoubtedly left there with sufficient money, having also resold his house for £1,000. A jointure had to be paid Lady Shelley of £500 a year. The different legacies still due in 1844 were £6,000 to Ianthe, two sums of £6,000 each to Claire, £2,000 to Hogg, £2,500 to Peacock. These various sums mounting up to £40,000, the remaining £10,000 can easily have been swallowed up by other post-obits and legal expenses. Two sums of £6,000 each left to his two sons who died, and £2,000 left to Lord Byron, had lapsed to the estate. Mrs. Shelley's first care was to raise the necessary money and pay all the outstanding obligations. Her chief anxiety through her struggles had always been not to incur debts; her next thought was to give an annual pension of £50 to her brother's widow, and £200 a year (afterwards reduced to £120) to Leigh Hunt. This was her manner of deriving immediate pleasure from her inheritance. By her husband's will, executed in 1817, everything, "whether in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy," was left to her; but as she always mentioned her son, Sir Percy, as acting with herself, and said that owing to the embarrassed condition of the estate they intended to share all in common for a time, it is evident that Mary had made her son's interest her first duty.

The estate had brought £5,000 the previous year, and this would agree, deducting £1,750 for interest on mortgage, and 500 Lady Shelley's jointure, in reducing their income to a little below £3,000 a year, as Mrs. Shelley stated. Field Place was let in the first instance for sixty pounds a year, it was so damp. Mrs. Shelley continued with her son to live at Putney till 1846. They had tried Putney in 1839, and towards the end of 1843 she took a house there, the White Cottage, Lower Richmond Road, Putney. Mary thus describes it:—"Our cot is on the banks of the Thames, not looking on it, but the garden-gate opens on the towing-path. It has a nice little garden, but sadly out of order. It is shabbily furnished, and has no spare room, except by great contrivance, if at all; so, perforce, economy will be the order of the day. It is secluded but cheerful, at the extreme verge of Putney, close to Barnes Common; just the situation Percy desired. He has bought a boat."

Mrs. Shelley moved into this house shortly after the visit to Claire in Paris, referred to at the commencement of this chapter.

Her life in London, in spite of a few very good friends, of ten appeared solitary to her; for, as she herself observes, those who produce and give original work to the world require the social contact of their fellow-beings. Thus, saddened by the neglect which she experienced, she tried to counteract it by sympathising with those less fortunate than herself; but this, also, is at times a very difficult task to carry out single-handed beyond a certain point.

During this visit to Paris in 1843 she had the misfortune to meet, at the house of Lady Sussex Lennox, an Italian adventurer of the name of Gatteschi. They had known some people of that name formerly in Florence, as noted in Claire's diary of 1820; and this may have caused them to take a more special interest in him. Suffice it to say, that he appeared to be in the greatest distress, and at the same time was considered by Mary and Claire to have the eclat of "good birth," and also to have talents, which, if they got but a fair chance, might raise him to any post of eminence. These ideas continued for some time; on one occasion he helped Mrs. Shelley with her literary work, finding the historical passages for Rambles in Germany and Italy. She and Claire used to contrive to give him small sums of money, in some delicate way, so as not to wound his feelings, as he would die of mortification. He was invited over to England in 1844, under the idea that he might obtain some place as tutor in a family, and he brought over MSS. of his own, which were thought highly of. While in England Gatteschi lodged with Mr. Knox, who had travelled with Mrs. Shelley and her son, as a friend of the latter. Mr. Knox seems to have been at that time on friendly terms with Gatteschi, though Mrs. Shelley regretted that her son did not take to him. With all the impulse of a generous nature, she spared no pains to be of assistance to the Italian, and evidently must have written imprudently gushing letters at times to this object of her commiseration. Whilst Mary was poor Gatteschi must have approached sentimental gratitude; she says later, "He cannot now be wishing to marry me, or he would not insult me." In fact he had proposed to marry her when she came into her money. Gatteschi waited his time, he aimed at larger sums of money. Failing to get these by fair means, the scoundrel began to use threats of publishing her correspondence with him. In 1845 he was said to be "ravenous for money," and, knowing how Mary had yielded to vehement letters on former occasions, and had at first answered him imprudently, instead of at once putting his letters into legal hands, the villain made each fresh letter a tool to serve his purpose. He thus worked upon her sensitive nature and dread of ridicule, especially at a time when she more than ever wished to stand well with the world and the society which she felt it her son's right to belong to her son, who had never failed in his duty, and who, she said, was utterly without vice, although at times she wished he had more love of reading and steady application.

It is easy to see now how perfectly innocent, although Quixotically generous, Mary Shelley was; but it can also be discerned how difficult it would have been to stop the flood of social mirth and calumny, had more of this subject been made public. Mary, knowing this only too well, bitterly deplored it, and accused herself of folly in a way that might even now deceive a passing thinker; but it has been the pleasant task of the writer to make this subject perfectly clear to herself, and some others.

It must be added that the letters in question, written by Mrs. Shelley to Gatteschi, were obtained by a requisition of the French police under the pretext of political motives: Gatteschi had been known to be mixed up with an insurrection in Bologna. Mr. Knox, who managed this affair for Mrs. Shelley, showed the talents of an incipient police magistrate.

The whole of Mary's correspondence with Claire Clairmont is very cordial. Mary did her best to help her from time to time in her usual generous manner, and evidently gave her the best advice in her power. We find her regretting at times Claire's ill-health, sending her carriage to her while in Osnaburgh Street, and so on. She strongly urged her to come to England to settle about the investment of her money, telling her that one £6,000 she cannot interfere with, as Shelley had left it for an annuity which could not be lost or disposed of; but that the other £6,000 she can invest where she likes. At one time Mary tells her of a good investment she has heard of in an opera-box, but that she must act for herself, as it is too dangerous a matter to give advice in.

In 1845 Mary Shelley visited Brighton for her health, her nerves having been much shaken by the anxiety she had gone through. While there she mentioned seeing Mr. and Mrs. John Shelley at the Theatre, but they took no notice of her. When Mrs. Shelley went over Field Place after Sir Timothy's death, Lady Shelley had expressed herself to a friend as being much pleased with her, and said she wished she had known her before: Mary on hearing this exclaimed, " Then why on earth didn't she?" In 1846 they moved from Putney to Chester Square, and in the summer Mary went to Baden for her health. From here again she wrote how glad she was to be away from the mortifications of London, and that she detested Chester Square. Her health from this time needed frequent change. In 1847, she moved to Field Place; she found it damp, but visits to Brighton and elsewhere helped to keep up her gradually failing health. The next year she had the satisfaction of seeing her son married to a lady (Mrs. St. John) in every way to her liking. A letter received by Mrs. Shelley from her daughter-in-law while on her wedding tour, and enclosed to Claire, shows how she wished the latter to partake in the joy she felt at the happy marriage of her son. Mary now had not only a son to love, but a daughter to care for her, and the pleasant duty was not unwillingly performed, for the lady speaks of her to this day with emotion.

From this time there is little to record. We find Mary in 1849 inviting Willie Clairmont, Claire's nephew, to see her at Field Place, where she was living with her son and his wife. In the same year they rather dissuaded Claire, who was then at Maid- stone, from a somewhat wild project which she entertained, that of going to California. The ground of dissuasion was still wilder than the project, for it was just now said the hoped-for gold had turned out to be merely sulphate of iron. The house in Chester Square had been given up in 1848, and another was taken at 77, Warwick Square, before the marriage of Sir Percy, and thence at the end of that year Mary writes of an improvement in her health, but there was still a tendency to neuralgic rheumatism. The life-long nerve strain for a time was relaxed, but without doubt the tension had been too strong, and loving care could not prevail beyond a certain point. The next year the son and his wife took the drooping Mary to Nice for her health, and a short respite was given; but the pressure could not much longer remain. The strong brain, and tender, if once too impassioned heart, failed on February 21, 1851, and nothing remained but a cherished memory of the devoted daughter and mother, and the faithful wife of Shelley.

London: Printed by W. H. Allen & Co., 13 Waterloo Place. S.W.