Friday 16th December

Thomas Jefferson to travel back aboard Mercury (4)

Curtains, indeed. Harriet’s cries for help can be heard in the most distant unirrigated deserts of Africa, never mind London, and the young poet promptly shelves his cash-grab, racing back to York on the next available phaeton, rehearsing his lines carefully. What? That scoundrel propositioned you? I had not the slightest premonition. Don’t worry, dear, he won’t darken our doors again … but don’t you think you might have humoured him just a little? No, no, quite understandable, the man is a complete cad. We’ll double-bolt the doors.

But York has lost a little of its allure by now and so the not-so-newly-weds head off on the wings of Mercury to the Lake District, leaving a note on the mantelpiece saying they are going to Richmond. But the world has already shifted imperceptibly on its axis.

It will be some years before the friendship between Bysshe and Jefferson is partially restored. Hogg must grieve for not one lost love but two. He will need all his stoutness to overcome this disappointment. Still, at least his size twelve faux pas will remain a secret between the three of them? In that respect, as in so many others, Hogg is to be sadly mistaken, even though he assumes that he will take his secret with him to his grave.

During the remaining grey months of 1811, numerous letters are exchanged between this awkward threesome, exercises in conciliation and desperation, winging their way to and from Keswick and the later staging posts in the nomadic lives of the young Mr and Mrs Shelley. Here is one such, from Shelley to Hogg:

I am dismayed. I tremble – is it so? Are we parted, you – I – Forgive this wildness. I am half mad. I am wretchedly miserable. I look on Harriet. I start – she is before me – Has she convinced you? … Will you come – dearest, best beloved of friends, will you come? Will you share my fortune, enter into my schemes, love me as I love you; be inseparable as once I fondly hoped you were … Ah! how I have loved you, I was even ashamed to tell you how … (Letters 1, No. 134)

The love that dares speak its name, at last? Almost fifty years later, Hogg will face the dilemma of how to write up these events in the official biography (or hagiography) commissioned by Lady Wrennie, wife of Sir Percy Shelley, himself the only surviving son of the poet and his second wife, Mary. Lady Wrennie wants to see Harriet airbrushed out of history but Hogg gives Harriet an obstinately good write-up without, of course, mentioning the unfortunate misunderstanding in York.

Hogg does include extracts from Shelley’s subsequent letters to him from Keswick, carefully adjusting the pronouns so that the secret of his conduct in York will remain safe (at least until other editors and biographers come to scrutinise those same letters). If that represents a minor breach of the biographer’s covenant, Hogg then commits the more major transgression of taking the most explicit of the Yorkgate letters and redrafting them as a ‘Fragment of a Novel’. Harriet’s name is changed to Charlotte (as in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther) and this purple prose is plonked down somewhat later in the time-scheme of Hogg’s Volume 1. Hogg even has the temerity to criticise the ‘frigid’ style of the fragment in comparison with the Godwinian school of philosophical romance.

Through 1812, Hogg knuckles down to his legal career, now at the Middle Temple, while Bysshe and Harriet travel hither and thither, one step ahead of their creditors, working out some sort of modus operandi for married life together. In November, Shelley hunts out his old Univ friend in London and there is a brief, tentative rapprochement. Come and stay with us, old chum, Shelley begs.

Faced with Shelley’s eloquent come-hithers, Hogg vacillates until February 1813 but eventually the siren call proves too strong. He reluctantly accepts an invitation to join the Shelleys and Harriet’s forbidding older sister, Eliza, at their cottage in Tan-yr-Allt, near Porthmadog, in one of the most inaccessible corners of West Wales. But by the time Hogg gets there, the Shelley party has decamped to Ireland, spooked by an incident in which Shelley suspects he is about to be shot by a robber/ghost/assassin (delete according to taste). Like a faithful old retainer, our Jefferson (still only 20, lest we forget) makes his way to Dublin despite incessant rain, only to find that the Shelley caravanserai has moved on yet again.

Now in Killarney, Shelley has somehow omitted to leave a forwarding address for their expected visitor. Sigh. Hogg mooches around Dublin for a few days, thinking dark thoughts. When Shelley hears of his arrival there, he drags Harriet (now heavily pregnant, of course) back up the east coast of Ireland, only to find that Hogg has given up and trogged off home to England.

I feel Hogg’s pain as if it were my own, sodden and shivering in Tan-yr-Allt, abandoned (deliberately?) in Dublin, still mortified to recall the Oxford and York debacles, consigned to a dead-end job. What else could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, actually.

Little by little, Mrs Harriet Shelley loses the energy to traipse after her will-o’-the-wisp husband. By the time their first child, Ianthe, is born on 23rd June 1813, she is seeing as much of Hogg as she is of her husband. While Shelley is off talking Platonism with the dewy-eyed Cornelia Boinville in Bracknell, Hogg is keeping the gravid Mrs Shelley amused in Half Moon St. If Hogg’s own account is to be believed, he is regularly dining alone with Harriet, taking tea, or allowing her to read to him for long periods without him actually falling asleep. No doubt, Shelley has tipped him the wink once again and Hogg dares to dream, but it seems unlikely that he is any more successful in his suit than he had been in 1811. Hogg is more Prufrock than Don Juan, after all.


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