Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 9

Mrs. Shelley  (1890)  by Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti
Chapter IX. Life in Italy



A third time, on March 11, 1818, Shelley, Mary, and Claire are on the road to Dover, this time with three young lives to care for Willie, aged two years and two months; Clara, six months; and Allegra, one year and two months. These small beings kept well during their journey, and it is touching to note how Claire Clairmont, in her part of the diary recording their progress, mentions bathing her darling at Dover, and then cancels the passage from her diary, as many others where her name is given—surely one of the saddest of things for a mother to fear to mention her child's name! After another stormy passage the party again reached Calais, which they found as delightful as ever, and where they stayed at the Grand Cerf Hotel.

Mary continues to note the journey. They took a different route this time—by Douai, La Fere, Rheims, Berri-le-bac, and St. Dizier, the road winding by the Marne. They sleep at Langres, which ramparted town surely ought to have left a pleasant reminiscence; but they had hitherto found the route uninteresting and fatiguing. Mary finds more interest in the country after Langres, and with the help of Schlegel, from whom Shelley read out loud to her, the time passed pleasantly ; no long weary evenings in hotels; no complaints when a carriage broke down and they were kept three hours at Macon for it to be repaired : they had with them the friends of whom they never tired.

At Lyons they rested three days. Mary much admired the city, and they visited the theatre, where they saw L'homme gris et le Physionomiste; and on Wednesday, March 25, they set out towards the mountains whose white tops were seen at a distance.

In crossing the frontier there was a difficulty in getting their books allowed to enter Sardinian territory, until a Canon, who had met Shelley's father at the Duke of Norfolk's, helped to get them through. After leaving Chambery, where Mary stayed to allow her nurse Elise to see her child, they crossed Mont Cenis and dined on the top. The beauty of the scenery greatly raised Shelley's spirits, causing him to sing with exultation. They stayed one night at Turin, visiting the opera; and after reaching Milan, Shelley and Mary went to Lake Como for a few days, having some idea of spending the summer on its banks; but not being able to suit themselves with a house they returned to Milan on April 12 and rejoined Claire, who had remained with the children. During the stay at Milan till the end of April there had been frequent letters from Claire to Byron. These were evidently far from satisfactory, as we find Shelley writing letters of caution to Claire in 1822, with regard to Byron and Allegra : he mentions having warned her against letting Byron get possession of Allegra in the spring of 1818, but Claire thought it for the interest of the child, whom she undoubtedly loved, to let her go to her father. Walks in the public gardens with the "Chicks" are noted by Claire several times, and the last entry in her diary, before April 28, when Allegra was taken by the nurse Elise to Byron, mentions a walk with the "Chicks" in the morning and drive in the evening with them, Mary and Shelley. Mary had sent her own trusted nurse Elise with the little Allegra, feeling that she would remain and in some degree replace the mother; and Claire believed that the child would stay with its father, though certainly this did not seem desirable or likely to last for long.

A change of scene being needed after these trying emotions, Mary, with her husband and two children, and Claire, now left for Pisa and Leghorn. They slept on the way at Piacenza, Parma, Modena, and then passed a night at a little inn among the Apennines, the fifth at Barberino, the sixth at La Scala, and on the seventh reached Pisa, where they lodged at Le Tre Donzelle. On this journey Mary was able to enjoy the Italian scenery under the unclouded Italian sky—the vine-festooned trees amid the fields of corn, the hedges full of flowers; all these seen from the carriage convey a lasting impression, and poor Claire remarks that, driving in a long, straight road; she always hopes it will take her to some place where she will be happier. They pass through beautiful chestnut woods on the southern side of the Apennines, and along the fertile banks of the Arno to Pisa. After a few days' stay at Pisa, where the cathedral, "loaded with pictures arid ornaments," and the leaning tower are visited, and where, perhaps, the quiet Campo Santo, with its chapel covered with the beautiful frescos of Orcagna and Gozzoli, &c., was enjoyed, they proceed to Leghorn ; here, alter a few days at L'Aquila Nera, they move into apartments. They meet and see much of Mary's mother's friend, Mrs. Gisborne, who grew much attached to both Shelley and Mary, and who, from her acquaintance with literary people, must have been a pleasant companion to them. They had letters of introduction to the Gisbornes from Godwin. While here Mary made progress with Italian, reading Ariosto with her husband. Leghorn was not a sufficiently interesting place to detain the wandering Shelieys long, in spite of the attractions of the Gisbornes. On June 11 Mary, with her two children and Claire, follows Shelley to Bagni di Lucca, where he had taken a house. Here Mary much enjoyed the quiet alter noisy Leghorn, as she wrote to Mrs. Gisborne, hoping to attract her to visit them. Mary was in her element in shady woods within the sound of running waters ; her only annoyance was the number of English she came in contact with in her walks, where the English nursery-maid nourished, "a kind of animal I by no means like/' she wrote; neither was she pleased by "the dashing, staring Englishwomen, who surprise the Italians (who always are carried about in sedan chairs) by riding on horseback."

Mary and Claire used to visit the Casino with Shelley, and look on at the dancing in which they did not join. Mary, however, did not agree with Shelley in admiring the Italian style of dancing; but those things on which they were ever of the same mind they had in plenty, for their beloved books arrived after being scrutinised by the Church authority; and while Shelley revelled in the delights of Greek literature, Mary shared those of English with him, for who can estimate the advantage of hearing Shakespeare and other poets read by Shelley! It was at the baths of Lucca also that Mary found her husband's unfinished Rosalind and Helen, and prevailed on him to complete it, for, as she says in her notes, "Shelley had no care for any of his poems that did not emanate from the depths of his mind and develop some high or abstruse truth." Without doubt, Mary was the ideal wife for Shelley. At this stage in the career of the poet one ran but deplore that relentless destiny should only bring Mary to Shelley when a victim had already been sacrificed on the altar of fate ; and the more one realises the sympathetic and intellectual nature of Claire, the less possible is it to help wasting a regret that Byron could not have met with the philosopher bookseller's adopted daughter earlier, instead of ruining his nature and his life by the fashionable follies he tampered with. But who would alter the workings of destiny? Does not the finest Lacryma Christi grow on the once devastated slopes of Vesuvius? Life, too, has its earthquakes, and the eruptions of its hidden depths seen through the minds of its poets, though causing at times agony to those who come in contact with them, work surely for the good of the whole. Mary had the years of pleasure, which are inestimable to those who can appreciate them, of contact with a great mind ; but few among poets' wives have had the gifts which allow them fully to participate in such pleasures. Well for Mary that she also inherited much of her father's philosophic nature, which enabled her to endure some of the trials inherent in her position. What Shelley wrote Mary would transcribe— no mere task for her—for did she not, through Shelley, enjoy Plato's Symposium, a translation of which he was employed upon at Lucca? How could the fashionable idlers at the Baths find time to drink in inspiration from the poet and his wife? The poet gives the depths of his nature, but it is not he who writes with the fever or the tear of emotion who can stoop to be his own interpreter to the uninitiated, which seems to be a necessity of modern times, with few exceptions. Mary's education, defective though it may have been in some details, made her a fitting companion for some of the greatest of her day, and this quality in a woman could scarcely exist without a refinement of manner and tastes which, at times, might be misleading as to her disposition.

The spirit of wandering now came over Claire, and by the middle of August her desire to see her child again could no longer be suppressed. Accordingly she set out with Shelley on August 19, and reached Florence the next day, when Shelley wrote to Mary the impression the lovely city made on him, begging her, at the same time, not to let little William forget him before his return—little Clara could not remember. Claire thought at one time of remaining at Padua, but on reaching that city could not endure being left alone, and they reached Venice in the middle of the night, during a violent storm, which Shelley did not fail to write an account of to his wife. He also told her how the Hoppners, whom they called on (Mr. Hoppner being the British Consul in Venice), advised them to act with regard to Byron. By their advice Shelley called alone on him, and Byron proposed to send Allegra to Padua for a week on a visit; he would not like her to remain longer, as the Vene tians would think he had grown tired of her. He afterwards offered them his villa at Este, thinking they were all at Padua. Shelley accepted this proposal, and wrote requesting Mary to join him there with the children, not knowing whether lie was acting for good or harm, but looking forward to be scolded if he had done wrong, or kissed if right the event would prove. The event did prove; but it was out of their power to rule it.

Mary had invited the Gisbornes to stay with her at the Baths. They arrived on August 25, but the circumstances seemed imperative for Mary to go to Este, and she left on the 31st with a servant, Paolo, as attendant. They were detained a day at Florence, and did not reach Este till poor little Clara was dangerously ill from dysentery, which reduced her to a state of fever and weakness. Mary endured the misery of an incompetent doctor at Este; neither had they confidence in the Paduau physician. Shelley proceeded to Venice to obtain further advice, and prepare for the arrival of his wife and child, writing from there that he felt somewhat uneasy, but trusted there was no cause for real anxiety. This arrangement made, Mary set out with her baby and Claire to meet Shelley at Padua, and then proceeded to Venice, Claire returning to mind William and Allegra at Este; and now Mary had to endure that terrible tension of mind, with her dying child in her arms, driving to Venice, the time remembered by her so well when, on the same route, nearly a quarter of a century later, each turn in the road and the very trees seemed as the most familiar objects of her daily life; for had they not been impressed on her mental vision by the strength of despair? The Austrian soldiers at the frontier could not detain them, though without passports, for even they would not prevent a dying child from being conveyed on a forlorn hope. Such grief could scarcely be rendered more or less acute by circumstances. They arrived at their inn in a gondola, but only for Clara to die in her mother's arms within an hour.

In this trial the Hoppners proved most kind friends, taking Mary to their house, and relieving the first hopelessness of grief by kindness, which it seemed ingratitude not to respond to. Mary, whatever she may have felt, knew that no expression of her feelings in her diary would nerve her to endure. She went about her daily occupations as usual. One idle day elapsed, after her little Clara had been buried on the Lido; we find her as usual reading, shopping, and seeing Byron, with whom she hoped to make better terms for Claire with regard to Allegra. There is a curious passage in a letter from Godwin to his daughter, illustrative of his own turn of mind, and not without some general truth:—"We seldom indulge long in depression and mourning except when we think secretly that there is something very refined in it, and that it does us honour."

On September 29, Shelley and Mary return to Este. Claire had taken the children to Padua, but returned the next day to the Villa I Cappuccini. In the evening they went to the Opera. Their house was most beautifully situated. Here Shelley wrote his " Lines among the Euganean Hills," for no intense feeling could come to the poet without the necessity of expressing himself in poetry; and it was during this September month that Shelley wrote the first act of his Prometheus Unbound. Mary revisited Venice with her husband,, little William, and the nurse Elise, on October 12. The impression then formed of Byron and his surroundings was so painful as to render it a matter of surprise that they could think of returning Allegra to him; but her extreme youth was her safe- guard in this respect, and Shelley returned to Este on September 24, to take Allegra a second time from her mother who, with all her love for her "darling," as she always wrote of her in the effaced passages of her diary, could not get over the insuperable difficulties of her birth. On January 22 of this same year Claire had entered in her diary the fact of its being Byron's (Albe's) birthday; a note carefully effaced soon after. Shelley and Mary having decided to spend the winter further south, after a few days of preparation they left Este on November 5, and spent the night at Ferrara, where they visited the relics of Ariosto and Tasso, and the dungeon where the latter was incarcerated. Thence to Bologna, where they endured much fatigue in the picture galleries, poor Shelley being obliged to confess he did not pretend to taste. From Bologna, by Faenza and Cesena, they followed the coast from Rimini to Fano, and passed an uncomfortable night at an inn at Fossombrone among the Apennines. Mary was greatly impressed by the beauty and grandeur of Spoleto. The impressive falls at Terui are duly chronicled by her; and November 19 and 20 are spent in winding through the Apennines, and then crossing the solitude of the Eoman Campagna, and then Rome is reached.

In Italy, where wonder succeeds wonder, and where no place is a mere repetition of another, Mary may well have been impressed by her first visit to the Eternal City. Here, in November, she was able tosit and sketch in the Coliseum with her child and her husband, who found the wonderful ruin a source of inspiration. But Rome was now only a resting-place on their road to still sunnier Naples; and on November 27 Shelley set out a day in advance of Mary and her child to secure rooms in Naples, where Mary arrived on December 1. In the best part of the city, facing the royal gardens in front of the marvellous bay, with Shelley for her guide, who himself made use of Madame de Staël’s Corinne as a handbook, Livy for the antiquities, and Winckelmann for art, Mary could enjoy the sights of Naples as no ordinary sightseer would. December was devoted to expeditions Baise, Vesuvius, and Pompeii. The day at Baiae was perhaps the most delightful, with the return by moonlight in the boat to Naples. Vesuvius, with its stupendous spectacle as of heaven and hell made visible, naturally produced a profound impression, but it was a very tiring expedition, as apparently it was only Claire who had a chaise a porteurs for the ascent of the cone ; Mary and Shelley rode on mules as far as they could go, and Claire was carried all the way in a chair though this seems scarcely possible—from Resina. How Mary could walk through the cinders up the cone seems incomprehensible. She must have had great strength, as it is a trying task for a man, and no wonder Shelley, in spite of his pedestrian strength, was exhausted when they arrived at the hermitage of San Salvador. The winter at Naples seems to have been a trying one to Mary, in spite of sunshine and the beauties of Nature; for Shelley was in a state of depression, as is exemplified in the "Stanzas written in dejection near Naples." What the immediate cause of this was cannot be said; it seems to be one of the mysteries, or perhaps rather the one mystery, of Shelley's life. He asserted to Mechvin that a lady, young, married, and of noble connections, had become infatuated with him, and declared her love of him on the eve of his departure for the Continent in 1816; that he had gently but firmly repulsed her; that she arrived in Naples on the day he did, and had soon afterwards died. It is suggested that a little girl who was left under his guardianship in Naples, and whom he spoke of as his poor Neapolitan, might possibly be the child of this lady; others doubt the story altogether, which is not to be wondered at, although nothing can be declared impossible in a life where truth is frequently so much stranger than romance.

Mary was also troubled while at Naples by her servants, an unusual subject with her; but Paolo, having gone far beyond the limits of cheating, was detected by Mary, and also obliged by her to marry Elise, whom he had betrayed. They left for Rome, but Paolo declared he would be revenged on the Shelleys, and wrote threatening letters, which a lawyer disposed of for a time. This is known to be the origin of later calumnies, uhich Mr. Jeaffreson has now carefully and finally refuted.

Mary, later, with the regret of love that would be all sufficient, wished that at Naples she had entered more into the cause of the grief, which Shelley had kept from her, in order not to add to the melancholy she was then feeling with regard to her father.

Before leaving Naples they succeeded in visiting the Greek ruins at Paestum, which give still a fresh impression in Italy; and then, on February 28, 1819, Mary takes leave of Naples, never to revisit it with any of her companions of that time.

In Rome they found rooms in the Villa Parigi, hut removed from them to the Palazzo Verospi on the Corso, and we soon find them busy exploring the treasures of Rome the inexhaustible. Here they had not to take fatiguing journeys as in Naples to visit the chief points of interest, for they were to be found at every turn. Visits to St. Peter's and the museum of the Vatican are mentioned; walks with Shelley to the Forum, the Capitol, and the Coliseum, which is visited and re-visited. Frequent visits are paid in the evening to the Signora Marianna Dionigi, and with her they hear Mass in St. Peter's, where the poor old Pope Pius VII was nearly dying. The Palazzo Doria and its picture gallery are examined, where the landscapes of Claude Lorraine particularly strike them. Then to the baths of Caracalla, where the romantic beauty of the ruins forms one of their chief attractions in Rome. They also take walks and drives in the Borghese Gardens. The statue of Pompey, at the base of which Caesar fell, is not passed over but it would be impossible to tell of all they saw and enjoyed in Rome. Mary made more acquaintances in Rome, nor did the English altogether neglect to call on Shelley. Mary also recommenced lessons in drawing, while Claire had singing lessons, and they met some celebrities at the Signora Dionigi's conversazioni. Altogether this early part of their stay in Rome was happy, but Shelley's health always fluctuating made them contemplate taking a house for the summer at Castellamare, as a doctor recommended this for him. But the days were hurrying towards a fresh calamity, for little "William now fell ill, {and we find the visits of a physician, Dr. Bell, chronicled, and on June 2nd three visits are noted. Claire helps to her utmost; Shelley does not close his eyes for sixty hours, and Mary, the hopes of whose life were bound up with the child, could only endure, watch the wasting of fever, and see the last of three perish on "Monday, June 7th, at noonday," as Claire enters in her diary. Mary and Shelley were deprived of their gentle, blue-eyed darling, by a stronger hand than that of the Court of Chancery, and little William was buried where Shelley was soon to follow, in the cemetery which "might make one in love with death."