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Full Online Book HomeEssaysIn Defense Of Harriet Shelley - Chapter III
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In Defense Of Harriet Shelley - Chapter III Post by :debtfree Category :Essays Author :Mark Twain Date :April 2011 Read :1208

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In Defense Of Harriet Shelley - Chapter III

It is 1814, it is the 16th of March, Shelley has, written his letter, he
has been in the Boinville paradise a month, his deserted wife is in her
husbandless home. Mischief had been wrought. It is the biographer who
concedes this. We greatly need some light on Harriet's side of the case
now; we need to know how she enjoyed the month, but there is no way to
inform ourselves; there seems to be a strange absence of documents and
letters and diaries on that side. Shelley kept a diary, the approaching
Mary Godwin kept a diary, her father kept one, her half-sister by
marriage, adoption, and the dispensation of God kept one, and the entire
tribe and all its friends wrote and received letters, and the letters
were kept and are producible when this biography needs them; but there
are only three or four scraps of Harriet's writing, and no diary.
Harriet wrote plenty of letters to her husband--nobody knows where they
are, I suppose; she wrote plenty of letters to other people--apparently
they have disappeared, too. Peacock says she wrote good letters, but
apparently interested people had sagacity enough to mislay them in time.
After all her industry she went down into her grave and lies silent
there--silent, when she has so much need to speak. We can only wonder at
this mystery, not account for it.

No, there is no way of finding out what Harriet's state of feeling was
during the month that Shelley was disporting himself in the Bracknell
paradise. We have to fall back upon conjecture, as our fabulist does
when he has nothing more substantial to work with. Then we easily
conjecture that as the days dragged by Harriet's heart grew heavier and
heavier under its two burdens--shame and resentment: the shame of being
pointed at and gossiped about as a deserted wife, and resentment against
the woman who had beguiled her husband from her and now kept him in a
disreputable captivity. Deserted wives--deserted whether for cause or
without cause--find small charity among the virtuous and the discreet.
We conjecture that one after another the neighbors ceased to call; that
one after another they got to being "engaged" when Harriet called; that
finally they one after the other cut her dead on the street; that after
that she stayed in the house daytimes, and brooded over her sorrows, and
nighttimes did the same, there being nothing else to do with the heavy
hours and the silence and solitude and the dreary intervals which sleep
should have charitably bridged, but didn't.

Yes, mischief had been wrought. The biographer arrives at this
conclusion, and it is a most just one. Then, just as you begin to half
hope he is going to discover the cause of it and launch hot bolts of
wrath at the guilty manufacturers of it, you have to turn away
disappointed. You are disappointed, and you sigh. This is what he says
--the italics ('') are mine:

"However the mischief may have been wrought--'and at this day
no one can wish to heap blame an any buried head'--"

So it is poor Harriet, after all. Stern justice must take its course--
justice tempered with delicacy, justice tempered with compassion, justice
that pities a forlorn dead girl and refuses to strike her. Except in the
back. Will not be ignoble and say the harsh thing, but only insinuate
it. Stern justice knows about the carriage and the wet-nurse and the
bonnet-shop and the other dark things that caused this sad mischief, and
may not, must not blink them; so it delivers judgment where judgment
belongs, but softens the blow by not seeming to deliver judgment at all.
To resume--the italics are mine:

"However the mischief may have been wrought--and at this day no
one can wish to heap blame on any buried head--'it is certain
that some cause or causes of deep division between Shelley and
his wife were in operation during the early part of the year
1814'."

This shows penetration. No deduction could be more accurate than this.
There were indeed some causes of deep division. But next comes another
disappointing sentence:

"To guess at the precise nature of these cafes, in the absence
of definite statement, were useless."

Why, he has already been guessing at them for several pages, and we have
been trying to outguess him, and now all of a sudden he is tired of it
and won't play any more. It is not quite fair to us. However, he will
get over this by-and-by, when Shelley commits his next indiscretion and
has to be guessed out of it at Harriet's expense.

"We may rest content with Shelley's own words"--in a Chancery paper drawn
up by him three years later. They were these: "Delicacy forbids me to
say more than that we were disunited by incurable dissensions."

As for me, I do not quite see why we should rest content with anything of
the sort. It is not a very definite statement. It does not necessarily
mean anything more than that he did not wish to go into the tedious
details of those family quarrels. Delicacy could quite properly excuse
him from saying, "I was in love with Cornelia all that time; my wife kept
crying and worrying about it and upbraiding me and begging me to cut
myself free from a connection which was wronging her and disgracing us
both; and I being stung by these reproaches retorted with fierce and
bitter speeches--for it is my nature to do that when I am stirred,
especially if the target of them is a person whom I had greatly loved and
respected before, as witness my various attitudes towards Miss Hitchener,
the Gisbornes, Harriet's sister, and others--and finally I did not
improve this state of things when I deserted my wife and spent a whole
month with the woman who had infatuated me."

No, he could not go into those details, and we excuse him; but,
nevertheless, we do not rest content with this bland proposition to puff
away that whole long disreputable episode with a single mean, meaningless
remark of Shelley's.

We do admit that "it is certain that some cause or causes of deep
division were in operation." We would admit it just the same if the
grammar of the statement were as straight as a string, for we drift into
pretty indifferent grammar ourselves when we are absorbed in historical
work; but we have to decline to admit that we cannot guess those cause or
causes.

But guessing is not really necessary. There is evidence attainable--
evidence from the batch discredited by the biographer and set out at the
back door in his appendix-basket; and yet a court of law would think
twice before throwing it out, whereas it would be a hardy person who
would venture to offer in such a place a good part of the material which
is placed before the readers of this book as "evidence," and so treated
by this daring biographer. Among some letters (in the appendix-basket)
from Mrs. Godwin, detailing the Godwinian share in the Shelleyan events
of 1814, she tells how Harriet Shelley came to her and her husband,
agitated and weeping, to implore them to forbid Shelley the house, and
prevent his seeing Mary Godwin.

"She related that last November he had fallen in love with Mrs.
Turner and paid her such marked attentions Mr. Turner, the
husband, had carried off his wife to Devonshire."

The biographer finds a technical fault in this; "the Shelleys were in
Edinburgh in November." What of that? The woman is recalling a
conversation which is more than two months old; besides, she was probably
more intent upon the central and important fact of it than upon its
unimportant date. Harriet's quoted statement has some sense in it; for
that reason, if for no other, it ought to have been put in the body of
the book. Still, that would not have answered; even the biographer's
enemy could not be cruel enough to ask him to let this real grievance,
this compact and substantial and picturesque figure, this rawhead-and-
bloody-bones, come striding in there among those pale shams, those
rickety spectres labeled WET-NURSE, BONNET-SHOP, and so on--no, the
father of all malice could not ask the biographer to expose his pathetic
goblins to a competition like that.

The fabulist finds fault with the statement because it has a technical
error in it; and he does this at the moment that he is furnishing us an
error himself, and of a graver sort. He says:

"If Turner carried off his wife to Devonshire he brought her
back and Shelley was staying with her and her mother on terms
of cordial intimacy in March, 1814."

We accept the "cordial intimacy"--it was the very thing Harriet was
complaining of--but there is nothing to show that it was Turner who
brought his wife back. The statement is thrown in as if it were not only
true, but was proof that Turner was not uneasy. Turner's movements are
proof of nothing. Nothing but a statement from Turner's mouth would have
any value here, and he made none.

Six days after writing his letter Shelley and his wife were together
again for a moment--to get remarried according to the rites of the
English Church.

Within three weeks the new husband and wife were apart again, and the
former was back in his odorous paradise. This time it is the wife who
does the deserting. She finds Cornelia too strong for her, probably.
At any rate, she goes away with her baby and sister, and we have a
playful fling at her from good Mrs. Boinville, the "mysterious spinner
Maimuna"; she whose "face was as a damsel's face, and yet her hair was
gray"; she of whom the biographer has said, "Shelley was indeed caught in
an almost invisible thread spun around him, but unconsciously, by this
subtle and benignant enchantress." The subtle and benignant enchantress
writes to Hogg, April 18: "Shelley is again a widower; his beauteous half
went to town on Thursday."

Then Shelley writes a poem--a chant of grief over the hard fate which
obliges him now to leave his paradise and take up with his wife again.
It seems to intimate that the paradise is cooling towards him; that he is
warned off by acclamation; that he must not even venture to tempt with
one last tear his friend Cornelia's ungentle mood, for her eye is glazed
and cold and dares not entreat her lover to stay:

Exhibit E

"Pause not! the time is past! Every voice cries 'Away!'
Tempt not with one last tear thy friend's ungentle mood;
Thy lover's eye, so glazed and cold, dares not entreat thy
stay:
Duty and dereliction guide thee back to solitude."

Back to the solitude of his now empty home, that is!

"Away! away! to thy sad and silent home;
Pour bitter tears on its desolated hearth."
. . . . . . . .

But he will have rest in the grave by-and-by. Until that time comes,
the charms of Bracknell will remain in his memory, along with Mrs.
Boinville's voice and Cornelia Turner's smile:

"Thou in the grave shalt rest--yet, till the phantoms flee
Which that house and hearth and garden made dear to thee ere while,
Thy remembrance and repentance and deep musings are not free
From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet smile."

We cannot wonder that Harriet could not stand it. Any of us would have
left. We would not even stay with a cat that was in this condition.
Even the Boinvilles could not endure it; and so, as we have seen, they
gave this one notice.

"Early in May, Shelley was in London. He did not yet despair
of reconciliation with Harriet, nor had he ceased to love her."

Shelley's poems are a good deal of trouble to his biographer. They are
constantly inserted as "evidence," and they make much confusion. As soon
as one of them has proved one thing, another one follows and proves quite
a different thing. The poem just quoted shows that he was in love with
Cornelia, but a month later he is in love with Harriet again, and there
is a poem to prove it.

"In this piteous appeal Shelley declares that he has now no
grief but one--the grief of having known and lost his wife's
love."

Exhibit F

"Thy look of love has power to calm
The stormiest passion of my soul."


But without doubt she had been reserving her looks of love a good part of
the time for ten months, now--ever since he began to lavish his own on
Cornelia Turner at the end of the previous July. He does really seem to
have already forgotten Cornelia's merits in one brief month, for he
eulogizes Harriet in a way which rules all competition out:

"Thou only virtuous, gentle, kind,
Amid a world of hate."

He complains of her hardness, and begs her to make the concession of
a "slight endurance"--of his waywardness, perhaps--for the sake of
"a fellow-being's lasting weal." But the main force of his appeal is
in his closing stanza, and is strongly worded:

"O tract for once no erring guide!
Bid the remorseless feeling flee;
'Tis malice, 'tis revenge, 'tis pride,
'Tis anything but thee;
I deign a nobler pride to prove,
And pity if thou canst not love."

This is in May--apparently towards the end of it. Harriet and Shelley
were corresponding all the time. Harriet got the poem--a copy exists in
her own handwriting; she being the only gentle and kind person amid a
world of hate, according to Shelley's own testimony in the poem, we are
permitted to think that the daily letters would presently have melted
that kind and gentle heart and brought about the reconciliation, if there
had been time but there wasn't; for in a very few days--in fact, before
the 8th of June--Shelley was in love with another woman.

And so--perhaps while Harriet was walking the floor nights, trying to get
her poem by heart--her husband was doing a fresh one--for the other girl
--Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin--with sentiments like these in it:

Exhibit G

To spend years thus and be rewarded,
As thou, sweet love, requited me
When none were near.
. . . thy lips did meet
Mine tremblingly; . . ,

" Gentle and good and mild thou art,
Nor can I live if thou appear
Aught but thyself." . . .


And so on. "Before the close of June it was known and felt by Mary and
Shelley that each was inexpressibly dear to the other." Yes, Shelley had
found this child of sixteen to his liking, and had wooed and won her in
the graveyard. But that is nothing; it was better than wooing her in her
nursery, at any rate, where it might have disturbed the other children.

However, she was a child in years only. From the day that she set her
masculine grip on Shelley he was to frisk no more. If she had occupied
the only kind and gentle Harriet's place in March it would have been a
thrilling spectacle to see her invade the Boinville rookery and read the
riot act. That holiday of Shelley's would have been of short duration,
and Cornelia's hair would have been as gray as her mother's when the
services were over.

Hogg went to the Godwin residence in Skinner Street with Shelley on that
8th of June. They passed through Godwin's little debt-factory of a book-
shop and went up-stairs hunting for the proprietor. Nobody there.
Shelley strode about the room impatiently, making its crazy floor quake
under him. Then a door "was partially and softly opened. A thrilling
voice called 'Shelley!' A thrilling voice answered, 'Mary!' And he
darted out of the room like an arrow from the bow of the far-shooting
King. A very young female, fair and fair-haired, pale, indeed, and with
a piercing look, wearing a frock of tartan, an unusual dress in London at
that time, had called him out of the room."

This is Mary Godwin, as described by Hogg. The thrill of the voices
shows that the love of Shelley and Mary was already upward of a fortnight
old; therefore it had been born within the month of May--born while
Harriet was still trying to get her poem by heart, we think. I must not
be asked how I know so much about that thrill; it is my secret. The
biographer and I have private ways of finding out things when it is
necessary to find them out and the customary methods fail.

Shelley left London that day, and was gone ten days. The biographer
conjectures that he spent this interval with Harriet in Bath. It would
be just like him. To the end of his days he liked to be in love with two
women at once. He was more in love with Miss Hitchener when he married
Harriet than he was with Harriet, and told the lady so with simple and
unostentatious candor. He was more in love with Cornelia than he was
with Harriet in the end of 1813 and the beginning of 1814, yet he
supplied both of them with love poems of an equal temperature meantime;
he loved Mary and Harriet in June, and while getting ready to run off
with the one, it is conjectured that he put in his odd time trying to get
reconciled to the other; by-and-by, while still in love with Mary, he
will make love to her half-sister by marriage, adoption, and the
visitation of God, through the medium of clandestine letters, and she
will answer with letters that are for no eye but his own.

When Shelley encountered Mary Godwin he was looking around for another
paradise. He had, tastes of his own, and there were features about the
Godwin establishment that strongly recommended it. Godwin was an
advanced thinker and an able writer. One of his romances is still read,
but his philosophical works, once so esteemed, are out of vogue now;
their authority was already declining when Shelley made his acquaintance
--that is, it was declining with the public, but not with Shelley. They
had been his moral and political Bible, and they were that yet. Shelley
the infidel would himself have claimed to be less a work of God than a
work of Godwin. Godwin's philosophies had formed his mind and interwoven
themselves into it and become a part of its texture; he regarded himself
as Godwin's spiritual son. Godwin was not without self-appreciation;
indeed, it may be conjectured that from his point of view the last
syllable of his name was surplusage. He lived serene in his lofty world
of philosophy, far above the mean interests that absorbed smaller men,
and only came down to the ground at intervals to pass the hat for alms to
pay his debts with, and insult the man that relieved him. Several of his
principles were out of the ordinary. For example, he was opposed to
marriage. He was not aware that his preachings from this text were but
theory and wind; he supposed he was in earnest in imploring people to
live together without marrying, until Shelley furnished him a working
model of his scheme and a practical example to analyze, by applying the
principle in his own family; the matter took a different and surprising
aspect then. The late Matthew Arnold said that the main defect in
Shelley's make-up was that he was destitute of the sense of humor. This
episode must have escaped Mr. Arnold's attention.

But we have said enough about the head of the new paradise. Mrs. Godwin
is described as being in several ways a terror; and even when her soul
was in repose she wore green spectacles. But I suspect that her main
unattractiveness was born of the fact that she wrote the letters that are
out in the appendix-basket in the back yard--letters which are an outrage
and wholly untrustworthy, for they say some kind things about poor
Harriet and tell some disagreeable truths about her husband; and these
things make the fabulist grit his teeth a good deal.

Next we have Fanny Godwin--a Godwin by courtesy only; she was Mrs.
Godwin's natural daughter by a former friend. She was a sweet and
winning girl, but she presently wearied of the Godwin paradise, and
poisoned herself.

Last in the list is Jane (or Claire, as she preferred to call herself)
Clairmont, daughter of Mrs. Godwin by a former marriage. She was very
young and pretty and accommodating, and always ready to do what she could
to make things pleasant. After Shelley ran off with her part-sister
Mary, she became the guest of the pair, and contributed a natural child
to their nursery--Allegra. Lord Byron was the father.

We have named the several members and advantages of the new paradise in
Skinner Street, with its crazy book-shop underneath. Shelley was all
right now, this was a better place than the other; more variety anyway,
and more different kinds of fragrance. One could turn out poetry here
without any trouble at all.

The way the new love-match came about was this:

Shelley told Mary all his aggravations and sorrows and griefs, and about
the wet-nurse and the bonnetshop and the surgeon and the carriage, and
the sister-in-law that blocked the London game, and about Cornelia and
her mamma, and how they had turned him out of the house after making so
much of him; and how he had deserted Harriet and then Harriet had
deserted him, and how the reconciliation was working along and Harriet
getting her poem by heart; and still he was not happy, and Mary pitied
him, for she had had trouble herself. But I am not satisfied with this.
It reads too much like statistics. It lacks smoothness and grace, and is
too earthy and business-like. It has the sordid look of a trades-union
procession out on strike. That is not the right form for it. The book
does it better; we will fall back on the book and have a cake-walk:

"It was easy to divine that some restless grief possessed him;
Mary herself was not unlearned in the lore of pain. His
generous zeal in her father's behalf, his spiritual sonship to
Godwin, his reverence for her mother's memory, were guarantees
with Mary of his excellence.--(What she was after was
guarantees of his excellence. That he stood ready to desert
his wife and child was one of them, apparently.)--The new
friends could not lack subjects of discourse, and underneath
their words about Mary's mother, and 'Political Justice,' and
'Rights of Woman,' were two young hearts, each feeling towards
the other, each perhaps unaware, trembling in the direction of
the other. The desire to assuage the suffering of one whose
happiness has grown precious to us may become a hunger of the
spirit as keen as any other, and this hunger now possessed
Mary's heart; when her eyes rested unseen on Shelley, it was
with a look full of the ardor of a 'soothing pity.'"

Yes, that is better and has more composure. That is just the way it
happened. He told her about the wet-nurse, she told him about political
justice; he told her about the deadly sister-in-law, she told him about
her mother; he told her about the bonnet-shop, she murmured back about
the rights of woman; then he assuaged her, then she assuaged him; then he
assuaged her some more, next she assuaged him some more; then they both
assuaged one another simultaneously; and so they went on by the hour
assuaging and assuaging and assuaging, until at last what was the result?
They were in love. It will happen so every time.

"He had married a woman who, as he now persuaded himself, had
never truly loved him, who loved only his fortune and his rank,
and who proved her selfishness by deserting him in his misery."

I think that that is not quite fair to Harriet. We have no certainty
that she knew Cornelia had turned him out of the house. He went back to
Cornelia, and Harriet may have supposed that he was as happy with her as
ever. Still, it was judicious to begin to lay on the whitewash, for
Shelley is going to need many a coat of it now, and the sooner the reader
becomes used to the intrusion of the brush the sooner he will get
reconciled to it and stop fretting about it.

After Shelley's (conjectured) visit to Harriet at Bath--8th of June to
18th--"it seems to have been arranged that Shelley should henceforth
join the Skinner Street household each day at dinner."

Nothing could be handier than this; things will swim along now.

"Although now Shelley was coming to believe that his wedded
union with Harriet was a thing of the past, he had not ceased
to regard her with affectionate consideration; he wrote to her
frequently, and kept her informed of his whereabouts."

We must not get impatient over these curious inharmoniousnesses and
irreconcilabilities in Shelley's character. You can see by the
biographer's attitude towards them that there is nothing objectionable
about them. Shelley was doing his best to make two adoring young
creatures happy: he was regarding the one with affectionate consideration
by mail, and he was assuaging the other one at home.

"Unhappy Harriet, residing at Bath, had perhaps never desired
that the breach between herself and her husband should be
irreparable and complete."

I find no fault with that sentence except that the "perhaps" is not
strictly warranted. It should have been left out. In support--or shall
we say extenuation?--of this opinion I submit that there is not
sufficient evidence to warrant the uncertainty which it implies. The
only "evidence" offered that Harriet was hard and proud and standing out
against a reconciliation is a poem--the poem in which Shelley beseeches
her to "bid the remorseless feeling flee" and "pity" if she "cannot
love." We have just that as "evidence," and out of its meagre materials
the biographer builds a cobhouse of conjectures as big as the Coliseum;
conjectures which convince him, the prosecuting attorney, but ought to
fall far short of convincing any fair-minded jury.

Shelley's love-poems may be very good evidence, but we know well that
they are "good for this day and train only." We are able to believe that
they spoke the truth for that one day, but we know by experience that
they could not be depended on to speak it the next. The very
supplication for a rewarming of Harriet's chilled love was followed so
suddenly by the poet's plunge into an adoring passion for Mary Godwin
that if it had been a check it would have lost its value before a lazy
person could have gotten to the bank with it.

Hardness, stubbornness, pride, vindictiveness--these may sometimes reside
in a young wife and mother of nineteen, but they are not charged against
Harriet Shelley outside of that poem, and one has no right to insert them
into her character on such shadowy "evidence" as that. Peacock knew
Harriet well, and she has a flexible and persuadable look, as painted by
him:

"Her manners were good, and her whole aspect and demeanor such
manifest emanations of pure and truthful nature that to be once
in her company was to know her thoroughly. She was fond of her
husband, and accommodated herself in every way to his tastes.
If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived in
retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she enjoyed
the change of scene."

"Perhaps" she had never desired that the breach should be irreparable and
complete. The truth is, we do not even know that there was any breach at
all at this time. We know that the husband and wife went before the
altar and took a new oath on the 24th of March to love and cherish each
other until death--and this may be regarded as a sort of reconciliation
itself, and a wiping out of the old grudges. Then Harriet went away, and
the sister-in-law removed herself from her society. That was in April.
Shelley wrote his "appeal" in May, but the corresponding went right along
afterwards. We have a right to doubt that the subject of it was a
"reconciliation," or that Harriet had any suspicion that she needed to be
reconciled and that her husband was trying to persuade her to it--as the
biographer has sought to make us believe, with his Coliseum of
conjectures built out of a waste-basket of poetry. For we have
"evidence" now--not poetry and conjecture. When Shelley had been dining
daily in the Skinner Street paradise fifteen days and continuing the
love-match which was already a fortnight old twenty-five days earlier,
he forgot to write Harriet; forgot it the next day and the next. During
four days Harriet got no letter from him. Then her fright and anxiety
rose to expression-heat, and she wrote a letter to Shelley's publisher
which seems to reveal to us that Shelley's letters to her had been the
customary affectionate letters of husband to wife, and had carried no
appeals for reconciliation and had not needed to:

"BATH (postmark July 7, 1814).
"MY DEAR SIR,--You will greatly oblige me by giving the
enclosed to Mr. Shelley. I would not trouble you, but it is
now four days since I have heard from him, which to me is an
age. Will you write by return of post and tell me what has
become of him? as I always fancy something dreadful has
happened if I do not hear from him. If you tell me that he is
well I shall not come to London, but if I do not hear from you
or him I shall certainly come, as I cannot endure this dreadful
state of suspense. You are his friend and you can feel for me.
"I remain yours truly,
"H. S."


Even without Peacock's testimony that "her whole aspect and demeanor were
manifest emanations of a pure and truthful nature," we should hold this
to be a truthful letter, a sincere letter, a loving letter; it bears
those marks; I think it is also the letter of a person accustomed to
receiving letters from her husband frequently, and that they have been of
a welcome and satisfactory sort, too, this long time back--ever since the
solemn remarriage and reconciliation at the altar most likely.

The biographer follows Harriet's letter with a conjecture.
He conjectures that she "would now gladly have retraced her steps."
Which means that it is proven that she had steps to retrace--proven by
the poem. Well, if the poem is better evidence than the letter, we must
let it stand at that.

Then the biographer attacks Harriet Shelley's honor--by authority of
random and unverified gossip scavengered from a group of people whose
very names make a person shudder: Mary Godwin, mistress to Shelley; her
part-sister, discarded mistress of Lord Byron; Godwin, the philosophical
tramp, who gathers his share of it from a shadow--that is to say, from a
person whom he shirks out of naming. Yet the biographer dignifies this
sorry rubbish with the name of "evidence."

Nothing remotely resembling a distinct charge from a named person
professing to know is offered among this precious "evidence."

1. "Shelley believed" so and so.

2. Byron's discarded mistress says that Shelley told Mary Godwin so and
so, and Mary told her.

3. "Shelley said" so and so--and later "admitted over and over again
that he had been in error."

4. The unspeakable Godwin "wrote to Mr. Baxter" that he knew so and so
"from unquestionable authority"--name not furnished.

How-any man in his right mind could bring himself to defile the grave of
a shamefully abused and defenceless girl with these baseless
fabrications, this manufactured filth, is inconceivable. How any man, in
his right mind or out of it, could sit down and coldly try to persuade
anybody to believe it, or listen patiently to it, or, indeed, do anything
but scoff at it and deride it, is astonishing.

The charge insinuated by these odious slanders is one of the most
difficult of all offences to prove; it is also one which no man has a
right to mention even in a whisper about any woman, living or dead,
unless he knows it to be true, and not even then unless he can also prove
it to be true. There is no justification for the abomination of putting
this stuff in the book.

Against Harriet Shelley's good name there is not one scrap of tarnishing
evidence, and not even a scrap of evil gossip, that comes from a source
that entitles it to a hearing.

On the credit side of the account we have strong opinions from the people
who knew her best. Peacock says:

"I feel it due to the memory of Harriet to state my most
decided conviction that her conduct as a wife was as pure, as
true, as absolutely faultless, as that of any who for such
conduct are held most in honor."

Thornton Hunt, who had picked and published slight flaws in Harriet's
character, says, as regards this alleged large one:

"There is not a trace of evidence or a whisper of scandal
against her before her voluntary departure from Shelley."

Trelawney says:

"I was assured by the evidence of the few friends who knew both
Shelley and his wife--Hookham, Hogg, Peacock, and one of the
Godwins--that Harriet was perfectly innocent of all offence."

What excuse was there for raking up a parcel of foul rumors from
malicious and discredited sources and flinging them at this dead girl's
head? Her very defencelessness should have been her protection. The
fact that all letters to her or about her, with almost every scrap of her
own writing, had been diligently mislaid, leaving her case destitute of a
voice, while every pen-stroke which could help her husband's side had
been as diligently preserved, should have excused her from being brought
to trial. Her witnesses have all disappeared, yet we see her summoned in
her grave-clothes to plead for the life of her character, without the
help of an advocate, before a disqualified judge and a packed jury.

Harriet Shelley wrote her distressed letter on the 7th of July. On the
28th her husband ran away with Mary Godwin and her part-sister Claire to
the Continent. He deserted his wife when her confinement was
approaching. She bore him a child at the end of November, his mistress
bore him another one something over two months later. The truants were
back in London before either of these events occurred.

On one occasion, presently, Shelley was so pressed for money to support
his mistress with that he went to his wife and got some money of his that
was in her hands--twenty pounds. Yet the mistress was not moved to
gratitude; for later, when the wife was troubled to meet her engagements,
the mistress makes this entry in her diary:

"Harriet sends her creditors here; nasty woman. Now we shall
have to change our lodgings."

The deserted wife bore the bitterness and obloquy of her situation two
years and a quarter; then she gave up, and drowned herself. A month
afterwards the body was found in the water. Three weeks later Shelley
married his mistress.

I must here be allowed to italicize a remark of the biographer's
concerning Harriet Shelley:

"That no act of Shelley's during the two years which
immediately preceded her death tended to cause the rash act
which brought her life to its close seems certain."

Yet her husband had deserted her and her children, and was living with a
concubine all that time! Why should a person attempt to write biography
when the simplest facts have no meaning to him? This book is littered
with as crass stupidities as that one--deductions by the page which bear
no discoverable kinship to their premises.

The biographer throws off that extraordinary remark without any
perceptible disturbance to his serenity; for he follows it with a
sentimental justification of Shelley's conduct which has not a pang of
conscience in it, but is silky and smooth and undulating and pious--
a cake-walk with all the colored brethren at their best. There may be
people who can read that page and keep their temper, but it is doubtful.
Shelley's life has the one indelible blot upon it, but is otherwise
worshipfully noble and beautiful. It even stands out indestructibly
gracious and lovely from the ruck of these disastrous pages, in spite of
the fact that they expose and establish his responsibility for his
forsaken wife's pitiful fate--a responsibility which he himself tacitly
admits in a letter to Eliza Westbrook, wherein he refers to his taking up
with Mary Godwin as an act which Eliza "might excusably regard as the
cause of her sister's ruin."


THE END.
In Defense of Harriet Shelley, by Mark Twain

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