Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 8



On leaving the Lake of Geneva on August 28, without having accomplished anything in the way of a settlement for Claire, but with pleasant reminiscences of Rousseau's surroundings, and the grandeur of the Alps, the party of three returned towards England by way of Dijon, and thence by a different route from that by which they had gone, returning by Rouvray, Auxerre, Fontainebleau, and Versailles. Here Mary and Shelley visited the palace and town, which a few years hence she would revisit under far different circumstances. Travelling—in those days so very unlike what it is in ours, when Europe can be crossed without being examined—allowed them to become acquainted with the towns they passed through. Rouen was visited; but for some reason they were disappointed with the cathedral. From Havre they sailed for Portsmouth, when, with their usual fate, they encountered a stormy passage of twenty-seven hours. It must have been a trying journey for them in more ways than one, for if there was any uncertainty as to Claire's position on leaving England, Mary could now no longer have been in any doubt. On arriving in land she proceeded, with Claire and her little William, with his Swiss nurse Elise, to Bath, where Claire passed as Mrs. Clairemont. Shelley addressed her as such at 5 Abbey Churchyard, Bath. During this time Shelley was again house-hunting, while staying with Peacock on the banks of the Thames; and Mary paid a visit to Peacock at the same time, leaving little William to the care of Elise and Claire at Bath. From here Claire writes to Mary about the "Itty Babe's" baby ways, and how she and Elise puzzled and puzzled over the little night-gowns, or, quoting Albe, as they called Byron (it has been suggested a condensation of L. B.), "they mused and coddled" without effect, Claire certainly did her best to take care of the baby, walking out with it, and so forth.

Now the three hundred pounds written of by Fanny was falling due. Mary must also have been kept in great apprehension, as we see by a letter from Shelley to Godwin, dated October 2, 1816, that the money was not forthcoming, as hoped. So the fatal Rhine gold is again helping to a tragedy, which the romantic prefer to impute to a still more fatal cause; for, so short a time after the 2nd as October 10, we find Fanny already at Bristol, writing to Godwin that she is about to depart immediately to the place whence she hopes never to return. On October 3 there is a long letter from her to Mary, written just after Shelley's letter had reached Godwin, when she had read its contents on Godwin's countenance as he perused it. Her letter is most clear-sighted, noble, and single-minded; she complains of Mary's way of exaggerating Mrs. Godwin's resentment to herself, explaining that whatever Mrs. Godwin may say in moments of extreme irritation to her, she is quite incapable of making the worst of Mary's behaviour to others. She shows Mary her own carelessness in leaving letters about for the servants to read, so that they and Harriet spread the reports she complians of rather than Mrs. Godwin. She tells how she had tried to convince Shelley that he should only keep French servants, and she endeavours to persuade Mary how important it is that they should prevent bad news coming to Godwin in a way to give a sudden shock, as he is so sensitive. She saw through certain subterfuges of Shelley, and wrote in a calm, affectionate way, trying to set everything right, with a wonderful clearness of vision; for everyone but herself—for herself there was no outlet but despair, no rest but the grave; she, the utterly unselfish one, was useless—all that remained was to smooth her way to the grave. Not for herself, but others, she managed to die where she was unknown, travelling for this purpose to Swansea, where only a few shillings remained to her, and a little watch Mary had brought her from Geneva. She wrote of herself in a letter she left, which neither compromised anyone nor indicated who she was, as one whose birth was unfortunate, but whose existence would soon be forgotten. Poor Fanny! Is she not rather likely to be remembered as a type of self-abnegation? Certainly hers was not the nature to cause her sister a moment's jealous pang, even though her death called forth one of Shelley's sweetest lyrics.

There was nothing to be done. Godwin paid a brief visit to the scene, and ascertained that all was too true. The door that had had to be forced, the laudanum bottle, and her letter told all that need be known. Shelley visited Bristol to obtain information; but there was no use in giving publicity to this fresh family sorrow—discretion was the only sympathy that could be shown. Mary bought mourning, and worked at it. Claire envied for herself Fanny's rest; but life had to proceed, awaiting fresh events.

Work was the great resource. Mary was writing her Frankenstein. She persisted with the utmost fortitude in intellectual employment, as poor Fanny wrote to Mary on September 26:—"I cannot help envying your calm, contented disposition, aud the calm philosophical habits of life which pursue you; or, rather, which you pursue everywhere; I allude to your description of the manner in which you pass your days at Bath, when most women would hardly have recovered from the fatigues of such a journey as you had been taking."

This is, indeed, the key-note of Mary's character, which, with her sensitive, retiring nature, enabled her to live through the stormy times of her life with equanimity.

Mary had Shelley's company through November, but at the beginning of December she writes to Shelley, who is again staying with Peacock house-hunting. Mary tells him what she would like: "A house (with a lawn) near a river or lake, noble trees, or divine mountains"; but she would be content if Shelley would give her "a garden and absentia Claire." This is very different from her way of thinking of Fanny, who, she says, might now have had a home with her. This expression occurs in a letter to Shelley when she was on the point of marrying him, and might have had Fanny with her. Mary also speaks of her drawing lessons, and how (thank God!) she had finished "that tedious, ugly picture" she had been so long about. This points to that terrible way of teaching Art, by accustoming its students to hideousness and vulgarity, till Art itself might become an unknown quantity. Mary also tells, what is more interesting, that she has finished the fourth chapter, a very long one, of her Frankenstein, which she thinks Shelley will like. She wishes for his return. On December 13 Mary receives a letter from Shelley, who is with Leigh Hunt. On December 15, 1816, he is back with Mary at Bath, when a letter from Hookham, who had been requested by Shelley to obtain information about Harriet for him, brought further fatal news for Harriet had now committed suicide, and had been found drowned in the Serpentine. Unknown, she was called Harriet Smith; uncared for, she had gone to her grave beneath the water unloved, the lovely Harriet cared not to live. What may have happened, it is not for those who may not have been tried to question; of cause and effect it is not for us to judge; but that her memory must have been a haunting shadow to Shelley and to Mary no one would wish to think them heartless enough to deny. Surely the lovely "Lines," with no name affixed, must be the dirge to Harriet's fate, and Shelley's life's failure:—

{{block center|The cold earth slept below;
Aboye, the cold sky shone ;
And all around
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow,
The breath of night like death did.flow
Beneath the sinking moon.

The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn's breast, Whose roots, beside the pathway-track,
Had bound their folds o'er many a crack
Which the frost had made between.

Thine eyes glowed in the glare
Of the moon's dying light.
As a fen-fire's beam
On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly, so the moon shone there;
And it yellowed the strings of thy tangled hair,
That shook in the wind of night.

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
The wind made thy bosom chill:
The night did shed
On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
Might visit thee at will. }}

These lines are dated 1815 by Mary in her edition, but she says she cannot answer for the accuracy of all the dates of minor poems.

The death of Harriet was necessarily quickly followed by the marriage of Shelley and Mary. The most sound opinions were ascertained as to the desirability of an early marriage, or of postponing the ceremony for a year after the death of Harriet; all agreed that the wedding ought to take place without delay, and it was fixed for December 30, 1816, at St. Mildred's Church in the City, where Godwin and his wife were present, to their no little satisfaction, as described by Shelley to Claire. Mary notes her marriage thus in her diary: "I have omitted writing my journal for some time. Shelley goes to London, and returns; I go with him; spend the time between Leigh Hunt's and Godwin's. A marriage takes place on the 30th December 1816. Draw. Read Lord Chesterfield and Locke."

No sooner was the marriage over than their one anxiety was to return to Bath ; for now the time of Claire's trial was approaching, and on January 13 a little girl was born, not destined to remain long in a world so sad for some. Little Allegra, a child of rare beauty, was welcomed by Shelley and Mary with all the benevolence they were capable of, and Byron's duty to his child devolved, for the time at least, on Shelley.

During this period, Shelley's and Mary's chief anxiety was to welcome and care for the little children left by poor Harriet. They had been placed, before her death, under the care of a clergyman who kept a school in Warwick, the Rev. John Kendall, vicar of Budbrooke. Shelley had hoped that his marriage with Mary would remove all difficulty, and Mary was waiting to welcome lanthe and Charles; but in this matter they were doomed to disappointment.

On January 8 a Bill was filed in the Court of Chancery, on the part of the infants Charles and lanthe Shelley, John Westbrook, their maternal grandfather, acting on their behalf, praying that they might not be transferred to the care of their father, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had deserted their mother; who was the author of Queen Mob, and an avowed atheist, who wrote against the institution of marriage, and who had been living unlawfully with a woman whom Eliza Westbrook (as Shelley had written to her) might excusably regard as the cause of her sister's ruin. Shelley filed his answer on the 18th, denying the desertion of his wife, as she and he had separated with mutual consent, owing to various causes. He had wished for his children on parting with her, but left them with her at her urgent entreaty. He had given her two hundred pounds to pay her debts, and an allowance of a fifth of his income. As to his theological opinions, he understands that they are abandoned as not applicable to the case. His views on matrimony, he alleged, were only in accordance with the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers that divorce ought to be possible under various conditions.

Lord Eldon gave his judgment on March 27, 1817. In fifteen carefully worded paragraphs he showed his reasons for depriving Shelley of his children. He insists through all that it is Shelley's avowed and published opinions, as they affected his conduct in life, which unfitted him to be the guardian of his children.

The wording in some passages caused grave anxiety to Shelley and Mary (as shown in their letters) as to whether they would be deprived of their own children; and they were prepared to abandon everything, property, country, all, and to escape with the infants. The poem "To William" was written under this misapprehension, although when he left England in 1818, Shelley's chief reason, as given in his letter to Godwin, was on account of his health. Undoubtedly the judgment, and all the trying circumstances they had been passing through ever since their return from Geneva, helped to decide them in this determination.

Charles and Ianthe were finally placed under the care of Dr. and Mrs. Hume, who were to receive two hundred pounds a year—eighty pounds settled on them by Westbrook, and one hundred and twenty pounds to be paid by Shelley for the charge. Shelley might see them twelve times a year in the presence of the Humes, the Westbrooks twelve times alone, and Sir Timothy and his family when they chose.

While these proceedings were progressing, Mary with Claire and the two children had moved to Marlow, having previously joined Shelley in London on January 26, as she feared to leave him in his depressed state alone. The intellectual society they met at Hunt's and at Godwin's helped to pass over this trying period. One evening Mary saw together the "three poets"—Hunt, Shelley, and Keats; Keats not being much drawn towards Shelley, while Hazlitt, who was also present, was unfavourably impressed by his worn and sickly appearance, induced by the terrible anxieties and trials which he had recently passed through. Horace Smith also proved a staunch friend: Shelley once remarked it was odd that the only truly generous wealthy person he ever met should be a stockbroker, and that he should write and care for poetry, and yet make money. In the midst of her anxieties, Mary Shelley enjoyed more social intercourse and amusement than before. We find her noting in her diary, in February, dining with the Hunts and Horace Smith, going to the opera of Figaro, music, &c. But now they had found their Marlow retreat a house with a garden as Mary desired, not with a river view, but a shady little orchard, a kitchen garden, yews, cypresses, and a cedar tree. Here Mary was able to live unsaddened for a time ; the Swiss nurse for the children, a cook and man-servant, sufficed for indoor and out-door work, and Mary, true to her name, was able to occupy herself with spiritual and intellectual employment, not to the neglect of domestic, as the succession of visitors entertained must prove; study, drawing, and her beloved work of Frankenstein were making rapid progress. Nor could Mary have been indifferent to the woes of the poor, for Shelley would scarcely have been so actively benevolent as recorded during the residence at Marlow without the co-operation of his wife. While Shelley enquired into cases of distress and gave written orders for money, Mary dispensed the latter. Here Godwin paid them his first visit, and the Hunts passed a pleasant time. Shelley wrote his Revolt of Islam under the Bisham Beeches, and Mary had the pleasure of welcoming her old friend Mr. Baxter, of Dundee, although his daughter Isabel, married to Mr. Booth, still held aloof. Peacock, Horace Smith, and Hogg were also among the guests.

We find constant references to Godwin having been irritated and querulous with Mary or Shelley. A forced, unnatural, equanimity during one period of his life seems to have resulted in a querulous irritability later a not unusual case and he had to vent it on those who loved and revered him most, or in fact, on those who would alone endure it from amiability of disposition, a quality not remarkable in his second wife.

On May 14 we find Mary has finished and corrected her Frankenstein, and she decides to go to London and stay with her father while carrying on the negotiations with Murray whom she wishes to publish it. Shelley accompanies Mary for a few days at Godwin's invitation, but returns to look alter "Blue Eyes," to whom he is charged with a million kisses from Mary. But Mary returns speedily to Shelley and "Blue Eyes," having felt very restless while absent. She soon falls into a plan of Shelley's for partially adopting a little Polly who frequently spent the day or slept in their house, and Mary would find time to tell her before she went to bed whatever she or Shelley had been reading that day, always asking her what she thought of it.

Mary, who was expecting another child in the autumn, was not long idle after the completion of Frankenstein, but set to work copying and revising her Six Weeks' Tour. This work, begun in August, she completed after the birth of her baby Clara on September 2. In October the book was bought and published by Hookham.

She tells, in her notes on this year 1817, how she felt the illness and sorrows which Shelley passed through had widened his intellect, and how it was the source of some of his noblest poems, but that he had lost his early dreams of changing the world by an idea, or, at least, he no longer expected to see the result.

A letter from Mary to her husband, written soon after the birth of her baby, shows how anxious she was at that time about his health. It had been a positive pain to her to see him languid and ill, and she counselled him obtaining the best advice. Change being recommended by the physician, Mary has to decide between going to the seaside or Italy. With all the reasons for and against Italy, Mary asks Shelley to let her know distinctly his wish in the matter, as she can be well anywhere. One strong reason for their going to Italy is that Alba, as Allegra was then called, should join her father. Evidently the embarrassment was too great to settle how to account for the poor child longer in England; and had not she a just claim upon Byron?

In another letter, September 28, Mary speaks of Claires return to Marlow in a croaking state everything wrong; Harriet's debts enormous. She had just been out for her first walk after the birth of Clara, and was surprised to find how much warmer it was out than in. Shelley is commissioned to buy a seal-skin fur hat for Willy, and to take care that it is a round fashionable shape for a boy. She is surrounded by babies while writing William, Alba, and little Clara. Her love is to be given to Godwin when Mrs. Godwin is not there, as she does not love her. Frankenstein is still undisposed of.

The house at Marlow is soon found to be far too cold for a winter residence. Italy or the sea must speedily be settled on. Alba is the great consideration in favour of Italy, Mary feels she will not be safe except with them; Byron is so difficult to fix in any way, and the one hope seems to be to get him to provide for the child. Anxiety for Alba's future ruled their present, so impossible is it to foretell the future, which, read and judged as our past, is easy to be severe upon. This dream of health and rest in Italy was not to be so easily realised. Instead of being there, they were still dispensing charity at Marlow at the end of December, in spite of various negotiations for money in October and November. Horace Smith had lent two hundred pounds, and, Shelley thought, would lend more. Mary continued extremely anxious on Alba's account. If she could only be got to her father! Who could tell how he might change his mind if there be much delay? Might he not "change his mind, or go to Greece, or to the devil; and then what happens?" The lawyers' delays were heavy trials, and they could not go and leave Godwin unprovided for; he was a great anxiety to Mary at this time. It was not till December 7 that Shelley wrote to tell Godwin how he felt bound to go to Italy, as he had been informed that he was in a consumption.

Owing to a visit of Mr. Baxter to them at Marlow, when he wrote a most enthusiastic letter about Shelley and Mary to his daughter Isabel Booth, Mary had hoped for a renewal of the friendship which had afforded her so much pleasure as a girl, and she invited Isabel to accompany them to Italy; but this Mr. Booth would not allow, and, in fact, he appears to have treated his father-in-law, Mr. Baxter, who was six years younger than himself, with much severity, and wished him to stop all intimacy with Shelley. He did not, however, prevent him having a friendly parting with Shelley on March 2, although he would not allow his wife to have any communication with Mary—much to their sorrow. Mary was in constant anxiety about Shelley in the last months of 1817, writing of his suffering and the distress she feels in seeing him in such pain and looking so ill. In January 1818, the month before they left Marlow, his sufferings became very great. But two thousand pounds being borrowed on the promise of four thousand five hundred pounds on his father's death, and the house at Marlow being sold on January 25th, we find the packing and flitting taking place soon after. By February 7, Shelley leaves for London, and on Tuesday 10th Mary follows. Godwin, as usual now, had been beseeching for money, and then, feeling his dignity wounded by the effort, retaliated on the giver with haughtiness and insulting demands. In a biography, unfortunately, characters cannot always be made the consistent beings they frequently become in romances.

One more happy month Mary is to pass in England with Shelley. We, again, have accounts of visits to the opera, to museums, plays, dinners, and pleasant evenings spent with friends. Keats is again met, and Shelley calls on Mr. Baxter, who is not allowed by his son-in-law to say farewell to Mary Shelley: such a martinet may a Scotch schoolmaster be. Mary Lamb calls, and visits are paid and received till the last evening arrives, when Shelley, exhausted with ill-health, fatigue, and excitement, fell into one of his profound sleeps on the sofa before some of his friends left the lodgings in Great Russell Street, and thus the Hunts were unable to exchange with him their farewells. This small band of literary friends were all to bid Shelley and Mary farewell on his last few days in England. The contrast is indeed marked between that time and this, when Shelley societies are found in various parts of the world, when enthusiasts write from the most remote regions and form friendships in his name, when churches, including Westminster Abbey, have rung in praise of his ideal yearnings, and when, not least, some have certainly tried to lead pure unselfish lives in memory of the godlike part of the man in him ; but he now left his native shores, never to return, with Claire and Allegra, and his own two little children, and certainly a true wife willing to follow him through weal or woe.