Fawley village’s alternative energy after sheep comes back (9)
Jobless and marooned on my island, I have been somewhat preoccupied these last few days mugging up on my distinguished forebear, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. I cling to the twiglet of hope that by understanding the strange life of the old buffer, I may somehow prolong my own. And I have made some alarming discoveries …
Amongst his many writings, the one that achieved some modest impact was his memoir ‘Shelley at Oxford’, first published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1832 and 1833, a decade after the poet’s death. This was a major part of the rehabilitation process which transformed Shelley’s reputation from dangerous renegade and failed poet to tortured genius and influential radical. The memoir reads more like a love letter, an elegiac account of a doomed romance.
The first line is telling: ‘What is the greatest disappointment in life?’ The answer turns out to be Oxford University. Hogg has grown up like Hardy’s Jude in Marygreen, excited to be approaching the fabled university:
‘I was already familiar with the aspect of the noble buildings that adorn that famous city. After travelling for several days we reached the last stage, and soon afterwards approached the point whence, I was told, we might discern the first glimpse of the metropolis of learning. I strained my eyes to catch a view of that land of promise, for which I had so eagerly longed. The summits of towers and spires and domes appeared afar and faintly; then the prospect was obstructed. By degrees it opened upon us again, and we saw the tall trees that shaded the colleges. At three o’clock on a fine autumnal afternoon we entered the streets of Oxford.’
Indeed, Thomas Hardy, perhaps the greatest of all Shelley’s disciples, almost certainly borrowed from this opening for his own tale of academic frustration. Here is Jude approaching the fabled city for the first time:
He now paused at the top of a crooked and gentle declivity, and obtained his first near view of the city. Grey-stoned and dun-roofed, it stood within hail of the Wessex border, and almost with the tip of one small toe within it, at the northernmost point of the crinkled line along which the leisurely Thames strokes the fields of that ancient kingdom. The buildings now lay quiet in the sunset, a vane here and there on their many spires and domes giving sparkle to a picture of sober secondary and tertiary hues. (Jude the Obscure, II,i)
Hmm, a slight step up in quality there, I think, perhaps inspired by Hardy’s study of Turner’s townscapes at the Royal Academy in 1889. While Jude remained the perpetual outsider, Hogg seems to have had little difficulty in securing a place at his father’s alma mater, only to find that college life was, academically at least, a sham. Hogg rolled up at Univ in January 1810, some nine months before Shelley, and yet seems to have made no friends at all prior to an accidental encounter with the precocious young novelist from Horsham at Formal Hall. After arguing over the relative merits of Italian and German romances, they become inseparable friends, at least in Hogg’s account.
But it is never an equal friendship; Shelley has everything that Hogg lacks – wealth, social position, talent and beauty – and Hogg must besiege him in his rooms (the site of the current JCR) if he is to get any of the great man’s company. There is little suggestion of Shelley returning the compliment and paying Hogg the occasional visit. Even when Shelley falls asleep on the carpet, Hogg does not take the hint and leave him in peace. Shelley has accumulated so much scientific clutter that there is hardly room for Hogg to sit down but there he always is, like Boswell or Dr Watson, making a mental note of his friend’s genius and eccentricity.
Shelley, fascinated by water and electricity, studies John Dalton’s pioneering work on the atomic make-up of water and conceives exotic schemes for harnessing the latest technology (e.g. galvanic batteries) to irrigate the desert regions of Africa. Hogg accompanies him on lengthy rambles into the Oxfordshire and Berkshire countryside, during which Shelley indulges his favourite hobbies of skimming stones and playing with paper boats.
‘It has been said that he once found himself on the north bank of the Serpentine river without the materials for indulging those inclinations which the sight of water invariably inspired, for he had exhausted his supplies on the round pond in Kensington Gardens. Not a single scrap of paper could be found, save only a bank-post bill for fifty pounds. He hesitated long, but yielded at last. He twisted it into a boat with the extreme refinement of his skill ….’ (p. 52)
Jefferson, as he is known to his family, is three months older than Bysshe and at least as widely-read amongst the dangerous philosophers of the day. So who radicalizes whom on their perambulations together around the Oxford countryside? Does Hogg deserve a co-writing credit (at the very least) for the surprisingly innocuous pamphlet on the necessity of atheism? If so, it was to be their last experiment in joint authorship.
Religious toleration is not exactly widespread in quasi-monastic Oxford in 1810-11. Nor are women. Apart from immediate members of their family, Jefferson and Bysshe have little direct experience of the opposite sex. Hardly surprising, then, that they are very much in favour of free love, the exciting new concept they have found in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, reflected, in muted form, in her partner, William Godwin’s.
The two boys’ homoerotic idyll is disturbed not so much by their expulsion from the Magnae Aulae but by the intrusion of a pretty schoolgirl called Harriet Westbrook. After one sex-starved term in Oxford, Shelley glimpses this 15-year-old vision of loveliness at the Fête Champêtre staged by his sister’s school. Young Harriet quickly supplants the sturdy but slightly dull Jefferson in Bysshe’s waking dreams. Bysshe feels guilty about this, so he tries to set Jefferson up with the aforementioned sister, Elizabeth. Egged on by his friend, Jefferson is soon bombarding the unsuspecting schoolgirl (whom he has never met) with billets doux. Bysshe and Jefferson dream of a private island on which the four of them will enjoy a life of carefree equality and sharing.
The pragmatic Elizabeth soon tells the clod-hopping Northerner where he can sling his hook while the fragrant Harriet proves to be rather more amenable to Bysshe’s blandishments. This is a pattern which will recur throughout the lives of our two young erotonauts. As time goes by, Shelley will discover his inner babe-magnet while Hogg … simply won’t.
After their expulsion from Univ in March 1811, our boys decamp to London where Bysshe is better placed to loiter at the school gates and pass on the odd copy of Zastrozzi, the slightly racy romance he has penned in his Eton dorm. How could the 15-year-old Harriet resist? But credit to the poor girl; despite all the talk of free love, she is not going to roll over and surrender the Crown Jewels. Bysshe will have to marry her first. Bysshe has absolutely no intention of marrying anyone. But after a couple of months of fumbling foreplay, Harriet wins the battle. They will elope on her sixteenth birthday in August. Gretna Green, here we come! Or, rather, Edinburgh, for a slightly more up-market ceremony on 28th August 1811.
Harriet’s new life of marital bliss lasts approximately two days. After the porridge and the kedgeree, her reluctant husband is already moving the goalposts …
“Harriet, my love …”
“Yes, dearest Bysshe?”
“Just an idea, my precious … um, how would you feel if I were to beseech my good friend Hogg to come and join us?”
“What, on our honeymoon?”
“It’s just that we had made preparations for a gentlemen’s walking tour this summer and all this …”
“… has rather got in the way?”
“Don’t be silly, Mrs Shelley, it’s just …”
“Oh, I don’t know … let’s just forget it. It was an ill-conceived notion.”
“No, no, I’m just being silly. Of course we will invite your friend up, whoever he is. If that is what you really want …”
Hogg needs no second invitation. He’s at the Edinburgh Coach Station before you can say ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Mr and Mrs Shelley’s marital love-nest has already morphed into a ménage-à-trois. Hogg takes one look at the radiant bride – they have not been permitted to meet before – and he is smitten. Any doubts he has had about his sexuality are instantly banished. Hogg kips on the sofa for a night or two before Shelley informs the landlord that an additional bed must be provided for their sub-tenant. Even so, the honeymoon suite in George Street starts to feel a little cramped for all concerned.
What about decamping to Hogg’s lodgings in York? Brilliant! Since the Oxford débâcle, Hogg has been exiled to York to undergo the penance of a conveyancing job in a solicitor’s office. Hogg will return to work while the two newly-weds are out romping round the Dales. Each evening they will read improving literature, like Rousseau’s Emile, to each other.
But somehow the fun has already drained out of the elopement. Things seem to have gone a bit grown-up. Hogg’s landlady won’t countenance such a threesome and suitable replacement digs prove hard to find. Money’s too tight to mention. Autumn in York is like winter in London, only drearier. But worse, much worse, is to come. Shelley announces that he is going to have to nip off to London to sort out a few financial matters. A day, two days at the outside. No, dear, he says, you can’t come with me – you and Hogg will be fine, just for that short time … no, don’t get up, I can see myself out.
Who knows whether the two 19-year-old boys have had words before the baronet’s son naffs off down to London? Perhaps Hogg is simply confused by all the talk of free love and blind to all the body-language of the blushing bride. The days go by and there’s no sign of Shelley returning. Hogg assumes there is some kind of ‘understanding’ between husband and wife. Harriet has finished her course of improving literature. Hogg screws his courage to the sticking place and plonks his size twelves deep into the quicksand.
In my mind’s eye, I see Hogg in his dressing gown, chomping buttered toast at the breakfast table in York. Harriet, primly dressed and buttoned up to the throat, is fussing about her chores.
HARRIET: What will you do today, Mr Hogg?
HOGG: I will write to Bysshe. As will you, I’m sure.
HARRIET: (sighing) I can hardly bear to. We have only been married a few weeks. Every day he is away feels like an eternity…
HOGG: Harriet …
HOGG: Harriet … (he shuts his eyes in an attempt to compose his thoughts)
HARRIET: Are you all right, Mr Hogg?’
HOGG: (with great difficulty) No, Harriet, I am not all right. A woman of your undoubted acuity cannot but be aware that I have been at great pains to hide from you the depth of my feelings … (he looks at her expectantly; she is lost for words) … but it is impossible to contain myself any longer. Harriet!’
Hogg goes down on one knee and toast-crumbs fly everywhere. Harriet freezes.
HOGG: I would simply like you to be aware that …if your own feelings were ever to reciprocate my own … and I feel that I have Shelley’s blessing in being so forthright with you … then I hope you would not hesitate in … day or night, whatever … you have only to say the word and I’ll be …. Oh God, I think you know what I am trying to say! I … I …
HARRIET: (whispering) Mr Hogg … Mr Hogg, I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about!’
HOGG: Then, for the avoidance of misunderstanding, I feel duty-bound to … to … (unable to continue, he lifts one knee from the bare floorboards and rubs it. Harriet remains well out of reach) …. to be clear. How can I put it? If we had world enough and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime…
HARRIET: Andrew Marvell!
HOGG: I’m sorry, I did not expect you would have …
HARRIET: To his coy mistress!
HOGG: Yes … no …. what I really mean is …
HARRIET: I think I understand your meaning all too well now. Is this what they teach you in Oxford?
HOGG: (climbing to his feet and advancing; she backs away) I only meant …
HARRIET: How could you think such a thing might even be possible? I love Bysshe with all my heart. He is my husband. We have been married a fortnight. No other man shall have me till the day I die.
HOGG: Of course. Please … please, forget …
HARRIET: You are his best friend and yet you would betray him in this way?
HOGG: But … but … Bysshe need never know!
HARRIET: (frying pan in hand now, she squares up to him) So it’s only a betrayal if we tell him about it? Is that Buffon? Or Plato? My husband will surely be back later today. I think it would be appropriate if…
HOGG: As it happens, I have an urgent appointment at Norton. I think I should pack my bags immediately and wait outside for a stagecoach.
HARRIET: Yes, I think perhaps you should.
HOGG: Harriet, you won’t … you won’t tell … (she is close to exploding now) Very well! Very well!
Hogg makes a hasty exit stage right. Harriet collapses in a chair, head in hands. Curtain.