Re-mounted main polo-horse (8)
Jobs – who needs ’em? Shelley never had a proper job, did he? Never even applied for a job. He relied on pen and ink to furnish him with a living … except that he spent half his adult life trying to cadge a fiver off his father, his indulgent grandfather (what an old rogue he was!) and almost everyone who crossed his path.
Here in my insular eyrie, I have had ample time to immerse myself in the fetid waters of Bysshe’s back-story. Is it his fault he’s too much of a gigolo? Or does he go out of his way to bewitch as many girls as possible, knowing full well that he would never be able to squire them all?
There seems little doubt that he conquered the entire Godwin household with his winsome smile and a few radical-sounding couplets. Not just sensible Mary and wild, black-eyed Claire but the third of the Weird Half-Sisters as well, the unglamorous, untalented Fanny Imlay.
“Poor” Fanny, as she was so often known, resembles the Cinderella of Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812) and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814) – an uncomplaining doormat for her marriage-hunting step-sisters. But, unlike her fictional counterparts, Fanny Imlay never gets to marry her prince.
Mary Godwin is the one with the good looks, the sweet manner, the vivacity and the intellectual accomplishments to attract the earnest but inconveniently married young poet. Having been brought up in such a liberal and unconventional household, Mary sees Bysshe as a kindred spirit and perhaps as a potential means of escape from the hothouse of her family life in Skinner Street. Claire Clairmont, her less gifted and less obviously attractive step-sister, also sixteen, is happy to chaperone Mary in the days and weeks that follow their first meeting in June 1814 and turn a blind eye to their intensifying relationship, even on visits (it is rumoured) to Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. Claire must bide her time and hope that her turn will be next. Orphan Fanny sits at home, embroidering.
By the end of June, Shelley is telling Godwin of his love for Mary and, to the poet’s surprise, the old advocate of free love is appalled. Godwin cannot condone the pursuit of his only daughter, aged just sixteen, by a married man. Soon Shelley is no longer welcome at Skinner St, there are furious rows, threats of suicide and Godwin even enlists the pregnant Harriet Shelley in his attempts to nip the romance in the bud. This is not a winning move. On 28th July, Godwin gets up to find a letter propped up on the breakfast table. Not only has Mary eloped with her lover to Calais and beyond, but Claire has gone too! Harriet has the good sense to reject Shelley’s magnanimous invitation to join them in Switzerland. No one thinks to invite poor Fanny.
This rehearsal for exile lasts a mere six weeks before the money runs out and the intrepid threesome are back in Kentish Town to face the music. Shelley’s marriage is irreparably broken, for all Harriet’s attempts to forgive and forget, and Shelley only hears of the birth of his son and heir, Charles, by post. Mary is pregnant too by now; she and Claire are no longer welcome at Godwin Towers in Skinner St. Shelley, beset by women and their babies as well as his numerous creditors and bailiffs, begs Hogg to come and save the day and/or join his commune of like-minded souls.
Hogg duly trots down from Norton and is quickly assimilated into the Shelley ménage. His role is to entertain the increasingly bed-bound Mary while Bysshe, with Claire now his constant companion, is out negotiating with lawyers and money-men, or simply out. It is clear to all four of them what Shelley has in mind and Hogg, still a virgin (one presumes), hopes that his lottery numbers have come up at last. Mary, depressed by the realization that she can never have Shelley all to herself, is flattered by Hogg’s attentions and encourages him to hope, at least. But does she really fancy him? I suspect not. Only just seventeen and about to have a baby, the last thing she needs is a physical relationship with her lover’s best friend.
From a distance of two hundred years, we watch the children play. It’s all a little bit like the Adventures of the Famous Five. Bysshe is, of course, Julian, tall, good-looking, the natural leader of the group – some years later he will dramatise his relationship with Byron in Julian and Maddalo – while Mary is pretty, obedient Anne and Claire is a natural as George, the obstinate, gender-confused, name-changing rebel of the group. But does Hogg have what it takes to play cheeky, dependable Dick, doing his best to cheer Anne up whenever she is in low spirits? Or is his natural role as Timmy the dog, forever biting on the rough end of the stick?
But it’s even rougher for poor Fanny, famous only for carrying herself off in October 1816 to a random, Swansea hotel (the Mackworth Arms) and killing herself in a suitably unimaginative way, with a draught of some dull opiate. Poor Fanny! Poor, poor Cinderella! While Mary and Claire had, in their different ways, an outside chance of pinning the butterfly down in mid-air, Fanny had none.
Stuck at home in Skinner St with her tut-tutting mother and step-father, Fanny begs to be allowed to join the great Shelleyan adventure in Bristol and beyond. She would be no trouble, she promises. Shelley, always on the look-out for fresh votaries and vestal virgins, would no doubt have said yes but Mary and Claire will hear nothing of it. Fanny’s last hours are still the subject of much conjecture. Does she make one last desperate plea to Shelley himself? It seems so. She has no bargaining chips except empty promises and pathetic threats. Does he slam the door on her inarticulate infatuation with a little too much force?
Shelley takes Fanny’s threats sufficiently seriously to follow her to Swansea and, it seems, sweet-talk his way into her rented room. Is he too late? Does he even check Fanny’s pulse? Our hero seems to have been more concerned with locating a suicide note. Not only does he fail to call the alarm or summon a doctor, he tears off the incriminating half (one assumes) of Fanny’s valediction and skulks off into the night and out of Swansea. It is left to the hotel proprietors to discover the anonymous corpse and what is left of her last will and testament.
Despite everything, Fanny is identified and her next of kin is contacted. Mortified, although not quite as mortified as his inconvenient step-daughter, William Godwin forbids the whole of his extended family from going to Swansea to identify the body. Let the Welsh bury the English dead! Not one member of her family sees Fanny interred. Relatives are told she has gone to Ireland and then, later on, if anyone is so foolish as to ask, that she has died of a severe head-cold. It is as if poor, illegitimate Fanny has never lived at all.
The truth is that love-lorn suicide had become a little bit passé by 1816. A generation earlier it had been all the rage. It was almost a badge of honour amongst the beau-monde to have thrown yourself off at least one London bridge in the last years of the eighteenth century. Why, even the great Mary Wollstonecraft, having given birth to Fanny and been rejected by the baby’s father, Gilbert Imlay, made two attempts to kill herself, first with laudanum and then by hurling herself into the Thames one rainy night. A stranger fished her out but may not have received much thanks. A little over a year later, she gave birth to her second daughter, Mary (by Godwin), and died of septicaemia a few days later. Godwin’s memoir of their short, passionate time together, combined with the circumstances of her death, transformed the public’s perception of her.
But by 1816 the bottle of laudanum in the garret room had become an embarrassing cliché. Too many vaporous and vapid teenagers had taken the easy way out. But Fanny Imlay’s inconvenient life was over before it had really begun.
Which brings me, of course, to the tragic demise of Mrs Harriet (née Westbrook) Shelley, just a few weeks later.
While the modern Prometheus and his entourage (Mary and Claire) have been enjoying Lord Byron’s grudging hospitality in Geneva, dreaming up Frankenstein, etc, the discarded Harriet is left to bring up Ianthe and Charles in one of the less fashionable corners of London.
Ianthe and Charles? At this point, I need hardly point out some alarming parallels two hundred years on. For Harriet, read Hattie (who was indeed christened Harriet, I believe, although it is not a name I have ever known her by). As far as I am aware, Hattie knows nothing of the Shelley circle and yet she too has children called Xanthe and Charley. Those are popular names nowadays and one could put that down as coincidence if it were not for the other still more alarming parallels. But you can dot the i’s and cross the t’s for yourself; I will simply summarise what history tells us of the last days of Harriet Westbrook.
It is hard to say when or indeed whether Harriet, now just turned 21, hears about Fanny Imlay’s lonely valediction. The news may have exacerbated her depression and sense of isolation. Or it may simply be another coincidence and Harriet’s precipitate action is triggered more by the undeniable evidence of her latest pregnancy, this time without any input from her estranged husband. Harriet has been brought up as a good little middle-class girl and within such bourgeois circles there is still considerable shame attached to motherhood outside wedlock.
There was retrospective talk of a Mr Smith, a soldier perhaps, said to be her new partner, but there is virtually no evidence that such another man actually existed. She takes to calling herself Harriet Smith but that was probably no more than a ruse inspired by a reading of Emma (published 1815) in which the well-meaning Harriet Smith pays a high price for mixing with her social superiors. The most common surname in England is a convenient one to hide behind in her last days.
Pregnant, desperate and having left the children with her parents, Harriet walks out of her final lodgings in Elizabeth St in early November 1816. Six weeks later, what is left of her is fished out of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, identifiable only from the ring on her finger. There has been no manhunt in the interim period – her absence has gone almost completely unremarked. News travels fast, they say, but evidently not in those days. Shelley has absolutely no idea that his wife is missing until after her body is recovered. He finds out that he has been widowed, not from Harriet’s family or from any official body (the Metropolitan Police had not yet been invented, of course) but from his publisher, Thomas Hookham. Yes, his publisher and only then because he had made a casual enquiry after her welfare a few weeks previously.
These days, such a story involving a prominent rap artist (say) would dominate the front pages for a week or more. But in 1816 there is no vilification of the estranged husband. The Times mentions the death of a “respectable woman with an expensive ring on her finger” but there is no indication of her identity. The coroner records a verdict of “found drowned” but there is no very lengthy inquest. Harriet is brushed under the carpet as quickly and effectively as Fanny Imlay before her.
But Harriet does leave us a suicide note, addressed to her sister, Eliza, free of any poetic redaction. Here is a transcript:
To you my dear Sister I leave all my things as they more properly belong to you than any one & you will preserve them for Ianthe . Hog bless you both My dearest & much belod Sister
When you read this letr. I shall be [no] more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my hert ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his live may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate
Is it too late to grieve for poor Harriet now? I shed a tear anyway. “Hog bless you both”? Surely that is not what she intended to write?
When does Harriet’s sister, Elizabeth, receive or find this note? Does she raise the alarm or wait calmly for a body to be discovered (or not) in the fullness of time? Who else sees the note, and when? Is an active decision taken not to tell Shelley until it is too late? These questions remain unanswered.
And what of Shelley when he discovers her fate? Does he weep tears of remorse at her funeral? Does he retire to a monastery to rue his appalling treatment of the schoolgirl he seduced, married and abandoned to her fate? Does he heck. Je ne regrette rien has become the poet’s motto.
And whither Charles and Ianthe? Would they stay with Auntie Eliza and their grandparents? “My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request…”
Naturally, Shelley decides that he should take custody of the children. The Westbrooks are suitably appalled by the proposal and outright war is declared. M’learned friends (possibly including Hogg) advise Shelley that “ownership” of the children does not automatically revert to the father in such circumstances, even when the father is the son of a baronet. The case will still have to be argued in court. Shelley’s family solicitor, Longdill, tells him that, to win custody of his children, he will need to demonstrate a stable domestic environment. He must make an honest woman of Mary, something that William Godwin has been pressing him to do since the day they met.
If Shelley was sceptical about the institution of marriage before his union with Harriet, he is even more certain now that matrimony is anathema to him. Wild palominos could not drag him to the altar a second time. And yet, and yet … if that is the way to spite the Westbrooks and assuage his fatherly guilt …
Mary, pregnant, exhausted and under pressure from all sides, is in no position to save Shelley from himself. She knows (or hopes) it will make no difference to their relationship – Bysshe will remain the least uxorious man alive. But perhaps society will view her in a slightly different way? Who would not want to be “respectable”?
And so Bysshe and Mary are married in St Mildred’s Church, just a few short weeks after the interment (in a small cemetery off the Bayswater Rd) of the drowned and unlamented ‘Harriet Smith’.
The date of the nuptials of two of the greatest figures of English literary history? No, it cannot be possible. 30th December, 1816.