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In Defence of Harriet Shelley online

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Produced by David Widger


by Mark Twain


I have committed sins, of course; but I have not committed enough of
them to entitle me to the punishment of reduction to the bread and water
of ordinary literature during six years when I might have been living
on the fat diet spread for the righteous in Professor Dowden's Life of
Shelley, if I had been justly dealt with.

During these six years I have been living a life of peaceful ignorance.
I was not aware that Shelley's first wife was unfaithful to him, and
that that was why he deserted her and wiped the stain from his sensitive
honor by entering into soiled relations with Godwin's young daughter.
This was all new to me when I heard it lately, and was told that the
proofs of it were in this book, and that this book's verdict is accepted
in the girls' colleges of America and its view taught in their literary

In each of these six years multitudes of young people in our country
have arrived at the Shelley-reading age. Are these six multitudes
unacquainted with this life of Shelley? Perhaps they are; indeed, one
may feel pretty sure that the great bulk of them are. To these, then,
I address myself, in the hope that some account of this romantic
historical fable and the fabulist's manner of constructing and adorning
it may interest them.

First, as to its literary style. Our negroes in America have several
ways of entertaining themselves which are not found among the whites
anywhere. Among these inventions of theirs is one which is particularly
popular with them. It is a competition in elegant deportment. They hire
a hall and bank the spectators' seats in rising tiers along the two
sides, leaving all the middle stretch of the floor free. A cake is
provided as a prize for the winner in the competition, and a bench of
experts in deportment is appointed to award it. Sometimes there are as
many as fifty contestants, male and female, and five hundred spectators.
One at a time the contestants enter, clothed regardless of expense in
what each considers the perfection of style and taste, and walk down the
vacant central space and back again with that multitude of critical eyes
on them. All that the competitor knows of fine airs and graces he throws
into his carriage, all that he knows of seductive expression he
throws into his countenance. He may use all the helps he can devise:
watch-chain to twirl with his fingers, cane to do graceful things with,
snowy handkerchief to flourish and get artful effects out of, shiny new
stovepipe hat to assist in his courtly bows; and the colored lady may
have a fan to work up her effects with, and smile over and blush behind,
and she may add other helps, according to her judgment. When the review
by individual detail is over, a grand review of all the contestants in
procession follows, with all the airs and graces and all the bowings and
smirkings on exhibition at once, and this enables the bench of
experts to make the necessary comparisons and arrive at a verdict. The
successful competitor gets the prize which I have before mentioned, and
an abundance of applause and envy along with it. The negroes have a
name for this grave deportment-tournament; a name taken from the prize
contended for. They call it a Cake-walk.

This Shelley biography is a literary cake-walk. The ordinary forms of
speech are absent from it. All the pages, all the paragraphs, walk by
sedately, elegantly, not to say mincingly, in their Sunday-best, shiny
and sleek, perfumed, and with boutonnieres in their button-holes; it is
rare to find even a chance sentence that has forgotten to dress. If the
book wishes to tell us that Mary Godwin, child of sixteen, had known
afflictions, the fact saunters forth in this nobby outfit: "Mary was
herself not unlearned in the lore of pain" - meaning by that that she had
not always traveled on asphalt; or, as some authorities would frame it,
that she had "been there herself," a form which, while preferable to the
book's form, is still not to be recommended. If the book wishes to tell
us that Harriet Shelley hired a wet-nurse, that commonplace fact gets
turned into a dancing-master, who does his professional bow before us in
pumps and knee-breeches, with his fiddle under one arm and his crush-hat
under the other, thus: "The beauty of Harriet's motherly relation to her
babe was marred in Shelley's eyes by the introduction into his house of
a hireling nurse to whom was delegated the mother's tenderest office."

This is perhaps the strangest book that has seen the light since
Frankenstein. Indeed, it is a Frankenstein itself; a Frankenstein with
the original infirmity supplemented by a new one; a Frankenstein with
the reasoning faculty wanting. Yet it believes it can reason, and is
always trying. It is not content to leave a mountain of fact standing in
the clear sunshine, where the simplest reader can perceive its form, its
details, and its relation to the rest of the landscape, but thinks it
must help him examine it and understand it; so its drifting mind settles
upon it with that intent, but always with one and the same result: there
is a change of temperature and the mountain is hid in a fog. Every time
it sets up a premise and starts to reason from it, there is a surprise
in store for the reader. It is strangely nearsighted, cross-eyed, and
purblind. Sometimes when a mastodon walks across the field of its vision
it takes it for a rat; at other times it does not see it at all.

The materials of this biographical fable are facts, rumors, and poetry.
They are connected together and harmonized by the help of suggestion,
conjecture, innuendo, perversion, and semi-suppression.

The fable has a distinct object in view, but this object is not
acknowledged in set words. Percy Bysshe Shelley has done something which
in the case of other men is called a grave crime; it must be shown that
in his case it is not that, because he does not think as other men do
about these things.

Ought not that to be enough, if the fabulist is serious? Having proved
that a crime is not a crime, was it worth while to go on and fasten the
responsibility of a crime which was not a crime upon somebody else? What
is the use of hunting down and holding to bitter account people who are
responsible for other people's innocent acts?

Still, the fabulist thinks it a good idea to do that. In his view
Shelley's first wife, Harriet, free of all offense as far as we have
historical facts for guidance, must be held unforgivably responsible for
her husband's innocent act in deserting her and taking up with another

Any one will suspect that this task has its difficulties. Any one will
divine that nice work is necessary here, cautious work, wily work, and
that there is entertainment to be had in watching the magician do it.
There is indeed entertainment in watching him. He arranges his facts,
his rumors, and his poems on his table in full view of the house, and
shows you that everything is there - no deception, everything fair and
above board. And this is apparently true, yet there is a defect, for
some of his best stock is hid in an appendix-basket behind the door, and
you do not come upon it until the exhibition is over and the enchantment
of your mind accomplished - as the magician thinks.

There is an insistent atmosphere of candor and fairness about this book
which is engaging at first, then a little burdensome, then a trifle
fatiguing, then progressively suspicious, annoying, irritating, and
oppressive. It takes one some little time to find out that phrases which
seem intended to guide the reader aright are there to mislead him; that
phrases which seem intended to throw light are there to throw darkness;
that phrases which seem intended to interpret a fact are there to
misinterpret it; that phrases which seem intended to forestall prejudice
are there to create it; that phrases which seem antidotes are poisons in
disguise. The naked facts arrayed in the book establish Shelley's guilt
in that one episode which disfigures his otherwise superlatively
lofty and beautiful life; but the historian's careful and methodical
misinterpretation of them transfers the responsibility to the wife's
shoulders as he persuades himself. The few meagre facts of Harriet
Shelley's life, as furnished by the book, acquit her of offense; but
by calling in the forbidden helps of rumor, gossip, conjecture,
insinuation, and innuendo he destroys her character and rehabilitates
Shelley's - as he believes. And in truth his unheroic work has not been
barren of the results he aimed at; as witness the assertion made to me
that girls in the colleges of America are taught that Harriet Shelley
put a stain upon her husband's honor, and that that was what stung him
into repurifying himself by deserting her and his child and entering
into scandalous relations with a school-girl acquaintance of his.

If that assertion is true, they probably use a reduction of this work
in those colleges, maybe only a sketch outlined from it. Such a thing as
that could be harmful and misleading. They ought to cast it out and put
the whole book in its place. It would not deceive. It would not deceive
the janitor.

All of this book is interesting on account of the sorcerer's methods and
the attractiveness of some of his characters and the repulsiveness of
the rest, but no part of it is so much so as are the chapters wherein he
tries to think he thinks he sets forth the causes which led to Shelley's
desertion of his wife in 1814.

Harriet Westbrook was a school-girl sixteen years old. Shelley was
teeming with advanced thought. He believed that Christianity was a
degrading and selfish superstition, and he had a deep and sincere desire
to rescue one of his sisters from it. Harriet was impressed by
his various philosophies and looked upon him as an intellectual
wonder - which indeed he was. He had an idea that she could give him
valuable help in his scheme regarding his sister; therefore he asked her
to correspond with him. She was quite willing. Shelley was not thinking
of love, for he was just getting over a passion for his cousin, Harriet
Grove, and just getting well steeped in one for Miss Hitchener, a
school-teacher. What might happen to Harriet Westbrook before the
letter-writing was ended did not enter his mind. Yet an older person
could have made a good guess at it, for in person Shelley was as
beautiful as an angel, he was frank, sweet, winning, unassuming, and so
rich in unselfishness, generosities, and magnanimities that he made
his whole generation seem poor in these great qualities by comparison.
Besides, he was in distress. His college had expelled him for writing an
atheistical pamphlet and afflicting the reverend heads of the university
with it, his rich father and grandfather had closed their purses against
him, his friends were cold. Necessarily, Harriet fell in love with him;
and so deeply, indeed, that there was no way for Shelley to save her
from suicide but to marry her. He believed himself to blame for this
state of things, so the marriage took place. He was pretty fairly in
love with Harriet, although he loved Miss Hitchener better. He wrote and
explained the case to Miss Hitchener after the wedding, and he could
not have been franker or more naive and less stirred up about the
circumstance if the matter in issue had been a commercial transaction
involving thirty-five dollars.

Shelley was nineteen. He was not a youth, but a man. He had never had
any youth. He was an erratic and fantastic child during eighteen years,
then he stepped into manhood, as one steps over a door-sill. He was
curiously mature at nineteen in his ability to do independent thinking
on the deep questions of life and to arrive at sharply definite
decisions regarding them, and stick to them - stick to them and stand by
them at cost of bread, friendships, esteem, respect, and approbation.

For the sake of his opinions he was willing to sacrifice all these
valuable things, and did sacrifice them; and went on doing it, too, when
he could at any moment have made himself rich and supplied himself with
friends and esteem by compromising with his father, at the moderate
expense of throwing overboard one or two indifferent details of his
cargo of principles.

He and Harriet eloped to Scotland and got married. They took lodgings
in Edinburgh of a sort answerable to their purse, which was about empty,
and there their life was a happy, one and grew daily more so. They had
only themselves for company, but they needed no additions to it. They
were as cozy and contented as birds in a nest. Harriet sang evenings or
read aloud; also she studied and tried to improve her mind, her husband
instructing her in Latin. She was very beautiful, she was modest, quiet,
genuine, and, according to her husband's testimony, she had no fine lady
airs or aspirations about her. In Matthew Arnold's judgment, she was "a
pleasing figure."

The pair remained five weeks in Edinburgh, and then took lodgings in
York, where Shelley's college mate, Hogg, lived. Shelley presently ran
down to London, and Hogg took this opportunity to make love to the young
wife. She repulsed him, and reported the fact to her husband when he got
back. It seems a pity that Shelley did not copy this creditable conduct
of hers some time or other when under temptation, so that we might
have seen the author of his biography hang the miracle in the skies and
squirt rainbows at it.

At the end of the first year of marriage - the most trying year for any
young couple, for then the mutual failings are coming one by one
to light, and the necessary adjustments are being made in pain and
tribulation - Shelley was able to recognize that his marriage venture had
been a safe one. As we have seen, his love for his wife had begun in a
rather shallow way and with not much force, but now it was become deep
and strong, which entitles his wife to a broad credit mark, one may
admit. He addresses a long and loving poem to her, in which both passion
and worship appear:

Exhibit A

"O thou
Whose dear love gleamed upon the gloomy path
Which this lone spirit travelled,
... wilt thou not turn
Those spirit-beaming eyes and look on me.
Until I be assured that Earth is Heaven
And Heaven is Earth?
Harriet! let death all mortal ties dissolve,
But ours shall not be mortal."

Shelley also wrote a sonnet to her in August of this same year in
celebration of her birthday:

Exhibit B

"Ever as now with Love and Virtue's glow
May thy unwithering soul not cease to burn,
Still may thine heart with those pure thoughts o'erflow
Which force from mine such quick and warm return."

Was the girl of seventeen glad and proud and happy? We may conjecture
that she was.

That was the year 1812. Another year passed still happily, still
successfully - a child was born in June, 1813, and in September, three
months later, Shelley addresses a poem to this child, Ianthe, in which
he points out just when the little creature is most particularly dear to

Exhibit C

"Dearest when most thy tender traits express
The image of thy mother's loveliness."

Up to this point the fabulist counsel for Shelley and prosecutor of his
young wife has had easy sailing, but now his trouble begins, for Shelley
is getting ready to make some unpleasant history for himself, and it
will be necessary to put the blame of it on the wife.

Shelley had made the acquaintance of a charming gray-haired,
young-hearted Mrs. Boinville, whose face "retained a certain youthful
beauty"; she lived at Bracknell, and had a young daughter named Cornelia
Turner, who was equipped with many fascinations. Apparently these people
were sufficiently sentimental. Hogg says of Mrs. Boinville:

"The greater part of her associates were odious. I generally
found there two or three sentimental young butchers, an
eminently philosophical tinker, and several very
unsophisticated medical practitioners or medical students, all
of low origin and vulgar and offensive manners. They sighed,
turned up their eyes, retailed philosophy, such as it was,"

Shelley moved to Bracknell, July 27th (this is still 1813) purposely to
be near this unwholesome prairie-dogs' nest. The fabulist says: "It was
the entrance into a world more amiable and exquisite than he had yet

"In this acquaintance the attraction was mutual" - and presently it grew
to be very mutual indeed, between Shelley and Cornelia Turner, when they
got to studying the Italian poets together. Shelley, "responding like
a tremulous instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment," had
his chance here. It took only four days for Cornelia's attractions to
begin to dim Harriet's. Shelley arrived on the 27th of July; on the 31st
he wrote a sonnet to Harriet in which "one detects already the little
rift in the lover's lute which had seemed to be healed or never to
have gaped at all when the later and happier sonnet to Ianthe was
written" - in September, we remember:

Exhibit D


"O thou bright Sun! Beneath the dark blue line
Of western distance that sublime descendest,
And, gleaming lovelier as thy beams decline,
Thy million hues to every vapor lendest,
And over cobweb, lawn, and grove, and stream
Sheddest the liquid magic of thy light,
Till calm Earth, with the parting splendor bright,
Shows like the vision of a beauteous dream;
What gazer now with astronomic eye
Could coldly count the spots within thy sphere?
Such were thy lover, Harriet, could he fly
The thoughts of all that makes his passion dear,
And turning senseless from thy warm caress
Pick flaws in our close-woven happiness."

I cannot find the "rift"; still it may be there. What the poem seems to
say is, that a person would be coldly ungrateful who could consent
to count and consider little spots and flaws in such a warm, great,
satisfying sun as Harriet is. It is a "little rift which had seemed
to be healed, or never to have gaped at all." That is, "one detects" a
little rift which perhaps had never existed. How does one do that? How
does one see the invisible? It is the fabulist's secret; he knows how to
detect what does not exist, he knows how to see what is not seeable; it
is his gift, and he works it many a time to poor dead Harriet Shelley's
deep damage.

"As yet, however, if there was a speck upon Shelley's happiness it was
no more than a speck" - meaning the one which one detects where "it may
never have gaped at all" - "nor had Harriet cause for discontent."

Shelley's Latin instructions to his wife had ceased. "From a teacher he
had now become a pupil." Mrs. Boinville and her young married daughter
Cornelia were teaching him Italian poetry; a fact which warns one to
receive with some caution that other statement that Harriet had no
"cause for discontent."

Shelley had stopped instructing Harriet in Latin, as before mentioned.
The biographer thinks that the busy life in London some time back, and
the intrusion of the baby, account for this. These were hindrances, but
were there no others? He is always overlooking a detail here and
there that might be valuable in helping us understand a situation. For
instance, when a man has been hard at work at the Italian poets with
a pretty woman, hour after hour, and responding like a tremulous
instrument to every breath of passion or of sentiment in the meantime,
that man is dog-tired when he gets home, and he can't teach his wife
Latin; it would be unreasonable to expect it.

Up to this time we have submitted to having Mrs. Boinville pushed upon
us as ostensibly concerned in these Italian lessons, but the biographer
drops her now, of his own accord. Cornelia "perhaps" is sole teacher.
Hogg says she was a prey to a kind of sweet melancholy, arising from
causes purely imaginary; she required consolation, and found it in
Petrarch. He also says, "Bysshe entered at once fully into her views
and caught the soft infection, breathing the tenderest and sweetest
melancholy, as every true poet ought."

Then the author of the book interlards a most stately and fine
compliment to Cornelia, furnished by a man of approved judgment who knew
her well "in later years." It is a very good compliment indeed, and she
no doubt deserved it in her "later years," when she had for generations
ceased to be sentimental and lackadaisical, and was no longer engaged in
enchanting young husbands and sowing sorrow for young wives. But why is
that compliment to that old gentlewoman intruded there? Is it to make
the reader believe she was well-chosen and safe society for a young,
sentimental husband? The biographer's device was not well planned. That
old person was not present - it was her other self that was there, her
young, sentimental, melancholy, warm-blooded self, in those early sweet
times before antiquity had cooled her off and mossed her back.

"In choosing for friends such women as Mrs. Newton, Mrs. Boinville,
and Cornelia Turner, Shelley gave good proof of his insight and
discrimination." That is the fabulist's opinion - Harriet Shelley's is
not reported.

Early in August, Shelley was in London trying to raise money. In
September he wrote the poem to the baby, already quoted from. In the
first week of October Shelley and family went to Warwick, then to
Edinburgh, arriving there about the middle of the month.

"Harriet was happy." Why? The author furnishes a reason, but hides from
us whether it is history or conjecture; it is because "the babe had
borne the journey well." It has all the aspect of one of his artful
devices - flung in in his favorite casual way - the way he has when he
wants to draw one's attention away from an obvious thing and amuse it
with some trifle that is less obvious but more useful - in a history like
this. The obvious thing is, that Harriet was happy because there was
much territory between her husband and Cornelia Turner now; and because
the perilous Italian lessons were taking a rest; and because, if there
chanced to be any respondings like a tremulous instrument to every
breath of passion or of sentiment in stock in these days, she might hope
to get a share of them herself; and because, with her husband liberated,
now, from the fetid fascinations of that sentimental retreat so
pitilessly described by Hogg, who also dubbed it "Shelley's paradise"
later, she might hope to persuade him to stay away from it permanently;
and because she might also hope that his brain would cool, now, and his
heart become healthy, and both brain and heart consider the situation
and resolve that it would be a right and manly thing to stand by this
girl-wife and her child and see that they were honorably dealt with,
and cherished and protected and loved by the man that had promised these
things, and so be made happy and kept so. And because, also - may we
conjecture this? - we may hope for the privilege of taking up our cozy
Latin lessons again, that used to be so pleasant, and brought us so near
together - so near, indeed, that often our heads touched, just as heads
do over Italian lessons; and our hands met in casual and unintentional,
but still most delicious and thrilling little contacts and momentary
clasps, just as they inevitably do over Italian lessons. Suppose one
should say to any young wife: "I find that your husband is poring over
the Italian poets and being instructed in the beautiful Italian language
by the lovely Cornelia Robinson" - would that cozy picture fail to rise
before her mind? would its possibilities fail to suggest themselves to
her? would there be a pang in her heart and a blush on her face? or, on
the contrary, would the remark give her pleasure, make her joyous and
gay? Why, one needs only to make the experiment - the result will not be

However, we learn - by authority of deeply reasoned and searching
conjecture - that the baby bore the journey well, and that that was
why the young wife was happy. That accounts for two per cent. of the
happiness, but it was not right to imply that it accounted for the other
ninety-eight also.

Peacock, a scholar, poet, and friend of the Shelleys, was of their party
when they went away. He used to laugh at the Boinville menagerie, and

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Online LibraryMark TwainIn Defence of Harriet Shelley → online text (page 1 of 4)