Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 5
LIFE IN ENGLAND.
On leaving the vessel at Gravesend, they engaged a boatman to take them up the Thames to Blackwall, where they had to take a coach, and the boatman with them, to drive about London in search of money to pay him. There was none at Shelley's banker, nor elsewhere, so he had to go to Harriet, who had drawn every pound out of the bank. He was detained two hours, the ladies having to remain under the care of the boatman till his return with money, when they bade the boatman a friendly farewell and proceeded to an hotel in Oxford Street.
With Shelley and Mary's return to England their troubles naturally were not at an end. Instead of money and security, debts and overdue bills assailed Shelley on all sides; so much so, that he dared not remain with Mary at this critical moment of their existence, when she, unable to return to her justly indignant father, had to stay in obscure lodgings with Claire, while Shelley, from some other retreat, ransacked London for money from attorneys and on post obits at gigantic interest. We have now letters which passed between Mary and Shelley at this time; also Mary's diary, which recounts many of their misadventures.
Day after day we have such phrases as (October 22) "Shelley goes with Peacock to the lawyers, but nothing is done," till on December 21 we find that an agreement is entered into to repay by three thousand pounds a loan of one thousand. Godwin, even if he would have helped, could not have done so, as his own affairs were now in their perennial state of distress; and before long, one of Shelley's chief anxieties was to raise two hundred pounds to save Mary's father from bankruptcy, although apparently they only communicated through a lawyer. It is curious to note how Mary complains of the selfishness of Harriet; poor Harriet who, according to Mrs. Godwin, still hoped for the return of her husband's affection to herself, and who sent for Shelley, after passing a night of danger, some time before her confinement. At one time Mary entertained an idea, rightly or wrongly conceived, that Harriet had a plan for ruining her father by dissuading Hookham from bailing him out from a menaced arrest. And so we find, in the extracts from the joint diary of Mary and Shelley, Harriet written of as selfish, as indulging in strange behaviour, and even, when she sends her creditors to Shelley, as the nasty woman who compels them to change their lodgings.
Before this entry of January 2, 1815, Harriet had given birth (November 30) to a second child, a son and heir, which fact Mary notes a week later as having been communicated to them in a letter from a deserted wife. What recriminations and heart-burnings, neglect felt on one side and "insulting selfishness" on the other!
In April, Mary writes, "Shelley passes the morning with Harriet, who is in a surprisingly good humour;" and then we hear how Shelley went to Harriet to procure his son who is to appear in one of the courts; and yet once more Mary writes, "Shelley goes to Harriet about his son, returns at four; he has been much teased by Harriet"; and then a blank as to Harriet, for the diary is lost from May 1815 to July 1816.
In the meantime we see in the diary how Mary, far from well at times, is happy in her love of Shelley how they enjoy intellectual pleasures together. They fortunately were satisfied with each other's company, as most of their few friends fell from them, Mrs. Boinville writing a "cold and even sarcastic letter;" the Newtons were considered to hold aloof; and Mrs. Turner, whom they saw a little, told Shelley her brother considered "you've been playing a German tragedy," Shelley replied, "Very severe, but very true." About this time Hogg renewed his acquaintance with Shelley and made that of Mary, though at first his answer to Shelley's letter was far from sympathetic. On his first visit they also were disappointed with him ; but a little later (November 14) Hogg called at his friend's lodging in Nelson Square, when he made a more favourable impression on Shelley by being himself pleased with Mary. She in return found him amusing when he jested, but far astray in his opinions when discussing serious matters in fact, on a later visit of his, she finds Hogg makes a sad bungle, quite muddied on the point when in an argument on virtue. In spite of being shocked by Hogg in matters of philosophy and ethics, she gets to like him better daily, and he helps them to pass the long November and December evenings with his lively talk. On one occasion he would describe an apparition of a lady whom he had loved, and who, he averred, visited him frequently after her death. They were all much interested, but annoyed by the interruption of Claire's childish superstitions. In fact, Hogg glides back to the old friendship of the university days, and his witticisms must have beguiled many a leisure hour, while he would also help Mary with her Latin studies now commenced. Claire frequently accompanied Shelley in his walks to the lawyers and other business engagements, as Mary's health not infrequently prevented her taking long walks, and Claire stated later that Shelley had a positive fear of being alone in London, as he was haunted by the fear of an attack from Leeson, the supposed Tanyrallt assassin.
Claire's cleverness and liveliness made her a pleasant companion at times for Shelley and Mary; but even had they been sisters and they had been brought up together as such—Mary might have found her constant presence in confined lodgings irksome, especially as Claire tormented herself with superstitious alarms which at times, even in reading Shakespeare, quite overcame her. Her fanciful imagination also conjured up causes of offence where none were intended, and magnified slight changes of mood on Shelley's or Mary's part into intentional affronts, when she ought rather to have taken Mary's delicate health and difficult position into consideration. Mary, by all accounts, seems naturally to have had a sweet and unselfish disposition, although she had sufficient character to be self-absorbed in her work, without which no work is worth doing. It is true that her friend Trelawny later appeared to consider her some what selfishly indifferent to some of Shelley's caprices or whims ; but this was with the pardonable weakness of a man who, although he liked character in a woman, still considered it was her first duty to indulge her husband in all his freaks. However this may be, we have constantly recurring such entries in the joint diary as: "Nov. 9. Jane gloomy; she is very sullen with Shelley. Well, never mind, my love, we are happy. Nov. 10. Jane is not well, and does not speak the whole day. . . . Go to bed early; Shelley and Jane sit up till twelve talking; Shelley talks her into good humour." Then "Shelley explains with Clara." Again " Shelley and Clara explain as usual."
Mary writes—"Nov. 26. Work,—&c. &c. Clara in ill humour. She reads The Italian. Shelley sits up and talks her into humour." Dec. 19.—A discussion concerning female character. Clara imagines that I treat her unkindly. Mary consoles her with her all- powerful benevolence. I rise (having already gone to bed) and speak with Clara. She was very unhappy; I leave her tranquil." Clara herself writes as early as October—"Mary says things which I construe into unkindness. I was wrong. We soon became friends; but I felt deeply the imaginary cruelties I conjured up."
It is clear that where such constant explaining is necessary there could not be much satisfaction in perpetual intimacy.
Mary is amused at the way Shelley and Claire sit up and "frighten themselves" by different reasons or forms of superstition, and on one occasion we have their two accounts of the miraculous removal of a pillow in Claire's room, Claire avowing it had moved while she did not see it; and Shelley attesting the miracle because the pillow was on a chair, much as Victor Hugo describes the peasants of Brittany declaring that "the frog must have talked on the stone because there was the stone it talked upon." The result might certainly have been injurious to Mary, who was awakened by the excited entrance of Claire into her room. Shelley had to interpose and get her into the next room, where he informed Claire that Mary was not in a state of health to be suddenly alarmed. They talked all night, till the dawn, showing Shelley in a very haggard aspect to Claire's excited imagination (Shelley had been quite ill the previous day, as noted by Mary). She excited herself into strong convulsions, and Mary had finally to be called up to quiet her. The same effect tried a little later fortunately fell flat; but there seemed no end to the vagaries of Claire's "unsettled mind," as Shelley calls it, for she takes to walking in her sleep and groaning horribly, Shelley watching for two hours, finally having to take her to Mary. Certainly philosophy did not seem to have a calming effect on CJaire Claremont's nature, and often must Shelley and Mary have bemoaned the fatal step of letting her leave her home with them. It was more difficult to induce her to return, if indeed it was possible for her to do so, with the remaining sister, Fanny, still under Godwin's roof. Fanny's reputation was jealously looked after by her aunts Everina and Eliza, who contemplated her succeeding in a school they had embarked in in Ireland. But it is not to be wondered at that the excitable, lively Clara should have groaned and bemoaned her fate when transferred from the exhilaration of travel and the beauties of the Rhine and Switzerland to the monotony of London life in her anomalous position; and although both Mary and Shelley evidently wished to be kind to her, she felt more her own wants than their kindness. Want of occupation and any settled purpose in life caused pillows and fire-boards to walk in poor Claire's room, much as other uninteresting objects have to assume a fictitious interest in the houses and lives of many fashionably unoccupied ladies of the present day, who divide their interest between a twanging voice or a damp hand and the last poem of the last fashionable poet. Shelley is not the only imaginative and simple-minded poet who could apparently believe in such a phenomenon as a faded but supernatural flower slipped under his hand in the dark, other people in whom he has faith being present, and perchance helping in the performance. Genius is often very confiding.
Peacock was perhaps the one other friend who, during these sombre, if not altogether unhappy, days of Mary, visited them in their lodgings. Shelley, through him, hears of some of the movements of his family, and at one time Mary enters with delight into the romantic idea of carrying off two heiresses (Shelley's sisters) to the west coast of Ireland. This idea occupies them for some days through many delightful walks and talks with Hogg. Peacock also frequently accompanied Shelley to a pond touching Primrose Hill, where the poet would take a fleet of paper boats, prepared for him by Mary, to sail in the pond, or he would twist paper up to serve the purpose it must have been a relaxation from his projects of Reform.
We must not leave this delightfully unhappy time without making reference to the series of letters exchanged between Mary and Shelley during an enforced separation. Unseen meetings had to be arranged to avoid encounters with bailiffs, at a time when the landlady refused to send them up dinner, as she wanted her money, and Shelley, after a hopeless search for money, could only return home with cake. During this time some of their most precious letters were written to each other. We cannot refrain from quoting some touching passages after Mary had received letters from Shelley expressing the greatest impatience and grief at his separation from her, appointing vague meeting-places where she had to walk backwards and forwards from street to street, in the hopes of: a meeting, and fearful animosity against the whole race of lawyers, money- lenders, &c., though all his hopes depended on them at the time. The London Coffee House seemed to be the safest meeting-place.
Mary, not very clear about business matters at the time, felt most the separation from her husband: the dangers that surrounded them she only felt in a reflected way through him. They must have confidence in each other, she thinks, and their troubles cannot but pass, for there is certainly money which must come to them! She thus writes (October 25):
For what a minute did I see you yesterday! Is this the way, my beloved, we are to live till the 6th? In the morning when I wake, I turn to look for you. Dearest Shelley, you are solitary and uncomfortable. Why cannot I be with you, to cheer you and press you to my heart? Ah! my love, you have no friends. Why then should you be torn from the only one who has affection for you? But I shall see you to-night, and this is the hope that I shall live on through the day. Be happy, dear Shelley, and think of me ! Why do I say this, dearest and only one? I know how tenderly you love me, and how you repine at your absence from me. When shall we be free from fear of treachery? I send you the letter I told you of from Harriet, and a letter we received yesterday from Fanny (this letter made an appointment for a meeting between Fanny and Clara); the history of this interview I will tell you when I come, but, perhaps as it is so rainy a day, Fanny will not be allowed to come at all. I was so dreadfully tired yesterday that I was obliged to take a coach home. Forgive this extravagance; but I am so very weak at present, and I had been so agitated through the day, that I was not able to stand; a morning's rest, however, will set me quite right again; I shall be well when I meet you this evening. Will you be at the door of the coffee-house at five o'clock, as it is disagreeable to go into such places? I shall be there exactly at that time, and we can go into St. Paul's, where we can sit down.
I send you "Diogenes," as you have no books; Hookham was so ill-tempered as not to send the book I asked for.
Two more distracted letters from Shelley follow, showing how he had been in desperation trying to get money from Harriet; how pistols and microscope were taken to a pawnshop; Davidson, Hookham, and others are the most hopeless villains, but must be propitiated. Trying letters also arrive from Mrs. Godwin, who was naturally much incensed with Mary, and of whom Mary expresses her detestation in writing to Shelley. One more short letter:
My own Love,
I do not know by what compulsion I am to answer you, but your letter says I must; so I do.
By a miracle I saved your ₤5, and I will bring it. I hope, indeed, oh, my loved Shelley, we shall indeed be happy. I meet you at three, and bring heaps of Skinner St. news.
Heaven bless my love and take care of him.
His own Mary.
As many as three and four letters in a day pass between Shelley and Mary at this time. Another tender, loving letter on October 28, and then they decide on the experiment of remaining together one night. Warned by Hookham, who regained thus his character for feeling, they dared not return to the London Tavern, but took up their abode for a night or two at a tavern in St. John Street. Soon the master of this inn also became suspicious of the young people, and refused to give more food till he received money for that already given ; and again they had to satisfy their hunger with cakes, which Shelley obtained money from Peacock to purchase. Another day in the lodgings where the landlady won't serve dinner, cakes again supplying the deficiency. Still separation, Shelley seeking refuge at Peacock's. Fresh letters of despair and love, Godwin's affairs causing great anxiety and efforts on Shelley's part to extricate him. A Sussex farmer gives fresh hope. On November 3 Mary writes very dejectedly. She had been nearly two days without a letter from Shelley, that is, she had received one of November 2 early in the morning, and that of November 3 late in the evening. That day had also brought Mary a letter from her old friends the Baxters, or rather from Mr. David Booth, to whom her friend Isabel Baxter was engaged, desiring no further communication with her. This was a great blow to Mary, as, Isabel having been a great admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary had hoped she would remain her friend. Mary writes: "She adores the shade of my mother. But then a married man ! It is impossible to knock into some people's heads that Harriet is selfish and uufeeling, and that my father might be happy if he chose. By that cant of selling his daughter, I should half suspect that there has been some communication between the Skinner Street folks and them."
But now the separation was approaching its end, and the danger of being arrested past, they move from their lodgings in Church Terrace, St. Pancras, to Nelson Square, where we have already seen Hogg in their company and heard of the sulks, fears, and bemoanings of poor Claire.Mary Shelley's novel of Lodore gives a good account of the sufferings of this time, as referred to later. The great resource of intellectual power is manifested during all this period. During a time of ill-health, anxieties of all kinds, constant moves from lodgings where landladies refused to send up dinner, while she was discarded by all her friends, while she had to walk weary distances, dodging creditors, to get a sight from time to time of her loved Shelley, while Claire bemoaned her fate and seems to have done her best to have the lion's share of Shelley's intellectual attention (for she partook in all the studies, was able to take walks, and kept him up half the night "explaining"), Mary indefatigably kept to her studies, read endless books, and made progress with Latin, Greek, and Italian. In fact, she was educating herself in a way to subsist unaided hereafter, to bring up her son, and to fit him for any position that might come to him in this world of changing fortunes. Whatever faults Mary may have had, it is not the depraved who prepare themselves for, and honestly fight out, the battle of life as she did.