Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 6
DEATH OF SHELLEY'S GRANDFATHER, AND BIRTH OF A CHILD.
AFTER Shelley had freed himself, for a time, of some of his worst debts towards the close of 1814, the year 1815, with the death of his grandfather on January 6, brought a prospect of easier circumstances, as he was now his father's immediate heir.Although Shelley was not invited to the funeral, and only knew of the death through the papers, he determined at once to go into Sussex, with Claire as travelling companion, as Mary was not well enough for the journey. Shelley left Claire at Slinfold, and proceeded alone to his father's house, where he was refused admittance; so he adopted the singular plan of sitting in the garden, before the door, passing the time by reading Comus. One or two friends come out to see him, and tell him his father is very angry with him, and the will is most extraordinary; finally he is referred to Sir Timothy's solicitor Whitton. From him, Mary writes in her diary, Shelley hears that if he will entail the estate he is to have the income of one hundred thousand pounds.
The property was really left in this way, as explained by Professor Dowden. Sir Bysshe's possessions did not, probably, fall short of 200,000. One portion, valued at 80,000, consisted of certain entailed estates, but without Shelley's concurrence the entail could not be prolonged beyond himself; the rest consisted of unentailed landed property and personal property amounting to 120,000. Sir Bysshe desired that the whole united property should pass from eldest son to eldest son for generations. This arrangement, however, could not be effected without Shelley. Sir Bysshe, in his will, offered his grandson not only the rentals, but the income of the great personal property, if he would renew the entail of the settled property and would also consent to entail the unsettled property; otherwise he should only receive the entailed property, which was bound to come to him, and which he could dispose of at his pleasure, should he survive his father. He had one year to make his choice in.
Shelley is considered to have been business-like in his negotiations ; but to have retained his original distaste of 1811 to entailing large estates to descend to his children in fact, he appears to have considered too little the contingency of what would come to them or to Mary in the event of his death prior to that of his father. Pressing present needs being paramount at this time, he agreed to an arrangement by which a portion of the estate valued at 18,000 could be disposed of to his father for 11,000, and an income of 1,000 a year secured to Shelley during his and his father's life. At one time there was an idea of disposing of the entailed estate to his father, as a reversion, but this was not sanctioned by the Court of Chancery. Money was also allowed by his father to pay his debts. o now we see Mary and Shelley with one thousand pounds a year, less two hundred pounds which, as Shelley ordered, was to be paid to Harriet in quarterly instalments.
Now that the money troubles were over, which for a time absorbed their whole attention, Mary began to perceive signs of failing health in Shelley, and one doctor asserted that he had abscesses ou the lungs, and was rapidly dying of consumption. Whatever these symptoms were really attributable to they rapidly disappeared, although Shelley was a frequent sufferer in various ways through his life.
In February, we see also the effect of the mental strain and fatigue on Mary, as she gave birth, about the 22nd of that month, to a seven-months' child, a little girl, who only lived a few days, but long enough to win her mother's and father's love, and leave the first blank in their lives. The diary of this time, kept up first by Claire, and then by Mary, gives some details of the baby's short life. On February 22—
Mary is well and at ease, the child not expected to live, Shelley sits up with Mary. Much agitated and exhausted. Hogg sleeps here.
23.—Mary well; child unexpectedly alive. Fanny comes and stays the night. . . . 24. Mary still well ; favourable symptoms of the child. Dr. Clarke confirms our hope. . . . Hogg comes in evening. Shelley unwell and exhausted. 25. Child and Mary very well. Shelley is very unwell. 26. Mary rises to-day. Hogg calls; talk. Mary retires at 6 o'clock. . . . Shelley has a spasm. On 27 Shelley and Clara go about a cradle. 28. Mary goes down-stairs; nurses the baby, and reads Corinne and works. Shelley goes to consult Dr. Pemberton. On March 1st nurse baby, read Corinne, and work. Peacock and Hogg call; stay till half-past eleven.
On March 2 they move to fresh lodgings. It is uncertain whether it was to 26 Marchmont Street, from which place letters are addressed in April and May, or whether they were in some other lodgings in the interval. This early move was probably detrimental to Mary and the baby, for on March 6 we find the entry: "Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg. Talk. A miserable day."
Mary thinks, and talks, and dreams of her little baby, and finds reading the best palliative to her grief.
March 19. Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake to find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits. Shelley is very unwell.
March 20. Dream again about my little baby.
Mrs. Godwin had sent a present of linen for the infant, and Fanny Godwin repeated her visits; but the little baby, who might have been a link towards peace with the Godwins, has escaped from a world of sorrow, where, in spite of a mother's love, she might later on have met with a cold reception.
Godwin at this time was in the anomalous position of communicating with Shelley on his business matters; but for the very reason that Shelley lent him, or gave him, money, he felt it the more necessary to hold back from friendly intercourse, or from seeing his daughter—a curious result of philosophic reasoning, which appears more like worldly wisdom.
From this time the company of Claire was becoming insufferable to Mary and Shelley. At least for a time, it was desirable to have a change. We find Mary sorely puzzled in her diary at times, as on March 11 she writes—"Talk about Clara's going away; nothing settled. I fear it is hopeless. She will not go to Skinner Street; then our house is the only remaining place I plainly see. What is to be done? March 12.—Talk a great deal. Not well, but better. Very quiet in the morning and happy, for Clara does not get up till four. . . ." Again on the 14th March—"The prospect appears more dismal than ever; not the least hope. This is, indeed, hard to bear."
At one time Godwin, Shelley, and Mary tried to induce Mrs. Knapp to take her, but she refused. Claire also tried to get a place as companion, but that fell through, till at length the bright idea occurred to them of sending her into Devonshire, under the excuse of her needing change of air; and there, according to a letter from Mrs. Godwin to Lady Mountcashell, she was placed with a Mrs. Bicknall, the widow of a retired Indian officer. Two more entries in Mary's journal, of this time, show with what feelings of relief she contemplates the departure of Shelley's friend, as she now calls Claire. Noting that Shelley and his friend have their last talk, the next day, May 13, Shelley walks with her, and she is gone! and Mary begins "a new diary with our regeneration."
There is a letter from Claire to Fanny Godwin, of May 28, apparently from Lynmouth, describing the scenery in a very picturesque manner, and saying how she delights in the peace and quiet of the country after the turmoil of passion and hatred she had passed through. She also expresses delight that their father had received one thousand pounds—this was evidently part of what Shelley had undertaken to pay for him, and was included in the sum which Sir Timothy paid for his debts. Claire—or Jane, as she was still called in Skinner Street supposed her family would be comfortable for a month or two.
Shelley and Mary now yearned for the country, and truly their eight months' experience in London had been a trying period, from various causes, but redeemed by their love and intellectual conversation. Now they felt unencumbered by pressing money troubles, and free from the burden of Claire's still more trying presence, at least to Mary. In June we find them together at Torquay, and we can imagine the delight of the poet and his loved Mary in their first unshared companionship the quiet rambles by sea and cliff in the long June evenings, the sunsets, the quiet and undisturbed peace which surrounded them. They were able to give each other quaint pet names, which no one could or need understand which would have sounded silly in the presence of a third person. This was a time in which they could grow really to know each other without reserve, when there need be no jealous competition as to who was most proficient in Greek or Latin; when Shelley was drawn to poetry, and Alastor was contemplated, the melancholy strain of which seems to indicate love as the only redeeming element of life, and which might well follow the time of turmoil in Shelley's career. May not this poem have been his self-vindication as exhibiting what he might have become had he not followed the dictates of his heart? "Pecksie" and the "Elfin Knight" were the names which still stand written at the 'end of the first journal, ending with Claire's departure. Mary added some useful receipts for future use. One is: "A tablespoonful of the spirit of aniseed, with a small quantity of spermaceti;" to which Shelley adds the following: "9 drops of human blood, 7 grains of gunpowder, oz. of putrified brain, 13 mashed grave-worms—the Pecksie's doom salve. The Maie and her Elfin Knight."
We next find Mary at Clifton, July 27, 1815, writing in much despondency at being alone while Shelley is house-hunting in South Devon. Although she wishes to have a home of her own, she dreads the time it will take Shelley to find it. He ought to be with her the next day, the anniversary of their journey to Dover; without him it will be insupportable. And then the 4th of August will be his birthday, when they must be together. They might go to Tintern Abbey. If Shelley does not come to her, or give her leave to join him, she will leave in the morning and be with him before night to give him her present with her own hand. And then, is not Claire in North Devon? If Shelley has let her know where he is, is she not sure to join him if she think he is alone? Insufferable thought! As Professor Dowden shows, Mary must have been very soon joined by Shelley after this touching appeal. In all probability a house was fixed on, but in a very opposite direction, before the end of the week, and the lease or arrangements made by August 3, as the following year he writes from Geneva to Langdill to give up possession of his house at Bishopsgate by August 3, 1816. So here, far from Devonshire, by the gates of Windsor Forest, near the familiar haunts of his Eton days, we again find Shelley and Mary. Here Peacock was not far distant at Marlow, and Hogg could arrive from London, and here they were within reach of the river. No long time elapsed before they were tempted to experience again the delights of a holiday on the Thames. So Mary and Shelley, with Peacock and Charles Clainnont to help him with an oar, embarked and went up the river. They passed Reading and Oxford, winding through meadows and woods, till arriving at Lechlade, fourteen miles from the source of the Thames, they still strove to help the boat to reach this point if the boat would not help them. This proved impossible. After three miles, as cows had taken possession of the stream, which only covered their hoofs, the party had perforce to return, still contemplating proceeding by canal and river, even as far as the Clyde, the poet ever yearning forwards. But this, money and prudence forbade, as twenty pounds was needed to pass the first canal; so they returned to their pleasant furnished house at Bishopsgate. On this trip Mary saw Shelley's old quarters at Oxford, where they spent a night, and they must have lingered in Lechlade Churchyard, as the sweet verses there written indicate. Shelley and Mary were now settled for the first time in a home of their own : she was making rapid progress with Latin, having finished the fifth book of the Æneid, much to Shelley's satisfaction, as recounted in a letter to Hogg. Hogg was expected to stay with them in October, and in the meanwhile, under the green shades of Windsor Forest, Shelley was writing his Alastor, and, as his wife describes in her edition of his poems, *' The magnificent woodland was a fitting study to inspire the various descriptions of forest scenery we find in the poem," She writes:—
None of Shelley's poems is more characteristic than this. The solemn spirit that exists throughout, the worship of the majesty of nature, and the breedings of a poet's heart in solitude the mingling of the exulting joy which the various aspects of the visible universe inspire with the sad and trying pangs which human passion imparts give a touching interest to the whole. The death which he had often contemplated during the last months as certain and near, he here represented in such colours as had, in his lonely musings, soothed his soul to peace. The versification sustains the solemn spirit which breathes throughout; it is peculiarly melodious. The poem ought rather to be considered didactic than narrative; it was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.
Poetry was theirs, Nature their mutual love: Nature and two or three friends, if we may include the Quaker, Dr. Pope, who called on Shelley and wished to discuss theology with him, and when Shelley said he feared his views would not be to the Doctor's taste replied "I like to hear thee talk, friend Shelley. I see thou art very deep." But beyond these all friends had fallen off, and certainly Godwin's conduct seems to have been most extraordinary. He did not hesitate to put Shelley to considerable inconvenience for money, for not long after the one thousand pounds had been given, we find Shelley having to sell an annuity to help him with more money. Yet Godwin all this time treated Shelley and Mary with great haughtiness, much to their annoyance, though neither let it interfere with the duty they owed Godwin as father and philosopher. These perpetual worries helped to keep them in an unsettled state in their home. Owing perhaps to the loss of the diary at this period, we have no information about Harriet. Already in January, we find there is an idea of residing in Italy, both for the sake of health, and on account of the annoyance they experienced from their general treatment. Shelley had the poet's yearning for sympathy, and Mary must have suffered with and for him, especially when her father, for whom he did so much, treated him with haughty severity by way of thanks. Mary attributed Godwin's conduct to the influence of his wife, whom she cordially disliked at this time. She Avas loth to recognise inconsistency in her father, whom she always revered. Godwin on his side was by no means anxious for his daughter and Shelley to leave for Italy in a few weeks' time, as intimated to him by Shelley as possible on the 16th February. We thus see that a trip to the Continent was contemplated some months prior to the journey to Geneva. This idea arose after the birth of Mary's first son, William, born January 24, 1816, who was destined to be only for a few short years the joy of his parents, and then to rest in Rome, where Shelley was not long in following him.
It is evident from Godwin's diary that Claire must have been on a visit or in direct communication with Mary at the beginning of January, as Godwin notes "Write to P.B.S. inviting Jane"; and it does not seem to have been possible for Shelley and Mary to have borne resentment. The facts of this meeting early in the year, and that Mary and Shelley contemplated another of their restless journeys abroad, certainly take off from the abruptness of their departure for Geneva in May with Claire Claremout. Undoubtedly Shelley was in a worried and excited state at this period, and he acted so as to rouse the doubts of Peacock as to the reason of the hurried journey. The story of Williams of Tremadock suddenly appearing at Bishopsgate, to warn Shelley that his father and uncle were engaged in a plot to lock him up, seems without foundation. But when, in addition to this story, we consider Claire's history, we can well understand that, in spite of Shelley's love of sincerity and truth, circumstances were too strong for him. At a time when he and Mary were being avoided by society for openly defying its laws, they might well reflect whether they could afford to avow the new complication which had sprung up in their small circle. Claire, in hopes of finding some theatrical engagement, had called upon Lord Byron at Dury Lane Theatre, apparently about March 1816, during the distressing period of his rupture with his wife. The result of this acquaintance is too well known, and has been too much a source of obloquy to all concerned in it, to need much comment here, and it is only as the facts affect Mary that we need refer to them at all.
At this time Byron was about to leave England, pursued, justly or unjustly, by the hatred of the British mob for a poet who dared to quarrel with his wife and follow the low manners of some of the leaders of fashion whom he had been intimate with. Their obscurity has sheltered them from opprobrium. He was accompanied by the young physician, Dr. John Polidori, who has somehow passed with Byron's readers as a fool; yet he certainly could have been no fool in the ordinary sense of the word, as he had taken full degrees as a doctor at an earlier age perhaps than had ever been known before. His family, a simple and highly educated family (his father was Italian, and had been secretary to Alfieri), caring very much for poetry and intellectual intercourse, were delighted at the prospect of the young physician having such an opening to his career, as his sister, the mother of poets, has told the writer. It is true that this exciting short period with Byron must have had an injurious effect on the young physician's after career, though he was still able to obtain the deep interest of Harriet Martineau at Norwich. It might be added that his nephew, not only a poet but a leader in poetic thought, deeply resented the insulting terms in which Byron wrote of Polidori, and, although he deeply admired the genius of Byron, did not fail to note where any weakness of form could be found in his work such is human nature, and so is poetic justice meted out. This might appear to be a slight digression from our subject, if it were not for the fact that when Mary wrote Frankenstein at Secheron, as one of the tales of horror that were projected by the assembled party, it was only John Polidori's story of The Vampire which was completed along with Mary's Frankenstein. The Vampire, published anonymously, was at first extolled everywhere under the idea that it was Byron's, and when this idea was found to be a mistake the tale was slighted in proportion, and its author with it. The fact is that as an imaginative tale of horror The Vampire holds its place beside Mary's Frankenstein, though not so fully developed as a literary performance or as an invention.
So on the eve of Byron's starting for Switzerland, we find Shelley and Mary contemplating a journey with Claire in the same direction by another route, but to the same place and hotel, previously settled on and engaged by Byron. It certainly might appear that Shelley and Mary in this dilemma did not feel justified in acting towards another in a way contrary to their own conduct in life. In all probability Claire confided her belief in Byron's attachment to herself, after his wife had discarded him, to Mary or even to Shelley. Mary, however distasteful the subject must have been to her, would not perhaps allow herself to stand in the way of what, from her own experience, might appear to be a prospect of a settlement in life for Claire, especially as she must deeply have felt their responsibility in having induced or allowed her to accompany them in their own elopement. In fact, the feeling of responsibility in this most trying case might, to a highly imaginative mind, almost conjure up the invention of a Frankenstein.
We now (May 3, 1816) find Shelley, Mary, and Claire at Dover, again on a journey to Switzerland. From Dover Shelley wrote a kind letter to Godwin, explaining money matters, and promising to do all he could to help him. They pass by Paris, then by Troyes, Dijon, and Dole, through the Jura range. This time is graphically described by Shelley in letters appended to the Six Weeks' Tour; the journey and the eight days' excursion in Switzerland. We read of the terrific changes of nature, the thunderstorms, one of which was more imposing than all the others, lighting up lake and pine forests with the most vivid brilliancy, and then nothing but blackness with rolling thunder. These letters are addressed to Peacock, but in them we have no reference to the intimacy with Byron now being carried on; how he arrived at the Hotel Secheron, nor their removal to the Maison Chapuis to avoid the inquisitive English.
There is, fortunately, no further reason to refer to the rumours which scandal- mongers promulgated rumours which undoubtedly hastened the rupture between Byron and Claire; although evil rumours, like fire smouldering in a hold, are difficult to extinguish, and, as Mr. Jeaffreson shows, the slanders of this time were afterwards a trouble to Shelley at Ravenna, in 1821, when his wife had to take his part. These rumours were the source of certain poems, and also, later, stories about Byron. All lovers of Shelley owe a debt of deep gratitude to Mr. Jeaffreson, who, although severe to a fault on many of the blemishes in his character (as if he considered that poets ought to be almost superhuman in all things), nevertheless proves in so clear a way the utter groundlessness of the rumours as to relieve all future biographers from considering the subject. At the same time he shows how distasteful Claire's presence must have become to Byron, who was hoping for reconciliation with his wife, and who naturally construed fresh obduracy on her part as the result of reports that were becoming current. Anyway, it is manifest that Byron did not regard Claire in the light that Mary may have hoped for namely, that he would consider her as a wife, taking the place of her who had left him. Byron had no such new idea of the nature of a wife, but only accepted Claire as she allowed herself to be taken, with the addition that he grew to dislike her intensely.
So after Shelley and Byron had made their eight days' tour of the lake, from June 23, unaccompanied by Mary and Claire, we find a month later Shelley taking them for an eight days' tour to Chamouni, unaccompanied by Byron. Of this tour Shelley each day writes long descriptive letters to Peacock, who is looking out for a house for them somewhere in the neighbourhood of Windsor. They return by July 28 to Montalegre, where he writes of the collection of seeds he has been making, and which Mary intends cultivating in her garden in England.
For another month these young restless beings enjoy the calm of their cottage by the lake, close to the Villa Diodati, while the poets breathe in poetry on all sides, and give it to the world in verse. Mary notes the books they read, and their visits in the evening to Diodati, where she became accustomed to the sound of Byron's voice, with Shelley's always the answering echo, for she was too awed and timid to speak much herself. These conversations caused her, subsequently, when hearing Byron's voice, to feel a sad want for " the sound of a voice that is still."
It is during this sojourn by the Swiss Lake that Mary began her first serious attempt at literature. Being asked each day by Shelley whether she had found a story, she answered ec No/' till one evening after listening to a conversation between Byron and Shelley on the principle of life whether it would be discovered, and the power of communicating life be acquired "perhaps a corpse might be reanimated; galvanism had given tokens of such things" she lay awake, and with the sound of the lake and the sight of the moonlight gleaming through chinks in the shutters, were blended the idea and the figure of a student engaged in the ghastly work of creating a man, until such a horror came to light that he shrank in fear from his own performance. Such was the original idea for this imaginative work of a girl of nineteen, which has held its place among conspicuous works of fiction to the present day. Frankenstein was the outcome of the project before mentioned of writing tales of horror. One night, when pouring rain detained Shelley's party at the Villa Diodati over a blazing fire, they told strange stories, till Byron, leading to poetic ideas, recited the witch's scene from "Christabel," which so excited Shelley's imagination that he shrieked, and ran from the room ; and Polidori writes that he brought him to by throwing water in his face. Upon his reviving, they agreed to write each a super-natural tale. Matthew Gregory Lewis, the author of The Monk, who visited at Diodati, assisted them with these weird fancies.