Promoting Oscar, the Roman co-respondent (5,3)
Yes, that’s right, Shelley marries Mary on Monday 30th December 1816, in St Mildred’s Church, Bread St, one hundred years to the day before Rasputin is launched into the icy waters of the Neva by Felix Yusupov and his hapless cronies, and two hundred years to the day before … I cannot bring myself to write the words.
So let’s check we have this right. My old college’s most infamous alumnus marries on the same morning as its next most infamous old boy commits that murder a hundred years on? Has no one spotted this before? I reach for the 600-page History of University College by Robin Darwall-Smith – surely this “coincidence” is noted there?
Both Shelley and Yusupov feature prominently in this meticulous tome and yet the significance of this shared date has unaccountably slipped beneath the radar. As the world’s media seizes on the centenary of Rasputin’s assassination in the next fortnight, surely this strange concatenation will be noted? Or will I take the secret to my own grave?
Amongst this mortal triumvirate, I do not want to play Lepidus to Mark Antony and Octavius. If the tendrils of time bind me to these past dramas, surely I correspond to TJ Hogg, not Shelley, and to Yusupov, not Rasputin. Neither Hogg nor Yusupov died on December 30th, nor did they drown at a later date. Both grew old in relative peace. Suddenly, I feel a lot more hopeful. Perhaps that fateful date may not be Drowned Hogg Day after all?
It is often said that we must learn the lessons of history if we are to avoid making the same mistakes again. I ought to spend what time I have during my enforced and watery exile scrutinising the evidence. What exactly happened one hundred years ago and indeed two hundred years ago? Are there some crucial clues I’ve missed? Clues that would keep me safely undrowned on the sixth day of Christmas?
Even the most detailed Shelley biographies provide scant detail of the events of December 30th 1816. We learn that Bysshe and Mary were invited to dine (for the first time since their elopement) at the modest Godwin family home in Skinner St on the previous evening. One can only speculate on how this exercise in Sabbath Day rapprochement must have gone – it would take more than a shotgun wedding to dissipate the years of mutual suspicion and frustrated hopes. The atmosphere may well have been frostier inside than out as 1816 prepared to bid its own farewell. Godwin’s teeth would have been as gritted as the roads outside. Did Shelley, remembering Zastrozzi, sniff the propitiatory MadeiraMadeira, just in case? Did the cakes appear a little tart that night in the gloomy recesses, not of the Moika Palace, but of Godwin’s fusty parlour?
It is not unreasonable to assume the consumption of Madeira, at least. Throughout the eighteenth century, the tiny island of Madeira produced a surprisingly vast proportion of the world’s wine. The addition of distilled alcohol meant that it could be shipped around the world and remain unspoiled and drinkable. Madeira was a favourite of Thomas Jefferson and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was impossible for England to import wine from France or its colonies and Madeira enjoyed something of a monopoly.
Hogg mentions his college friend’s love of sweet cakes in Shelley at Oxford but it is left to another mutual friend, Thomas Love Peacock, to provide a more telling picture of the Shelley circle in Nightmare Abbey (1818). The plot of Nightmare Abbey revolves around the hero, Scythrop Glowry (Shelley’s) unwillingness to make up his mind which of two young women (based on Harriet and Mary) he is in love with. Scythrop ‘drank Madeira, and laid deep schemes for a thorough repair of the crazy fabric of human nature’ (end of ch. 2). In the end he plumps for Marionietta despite plenty of opposition:
‘But when Marionetta hinted that she was to leave the Abbey immediately, Scythrop snatched from its repository his ancestor’s skull, filled it with Madeira, and presenting himself before Mr Glowry, threatened to drink off the contents if Mr Glowry did not immediately promise that Marionetta should not be taken from the Abbey without her own consent. Mr Glowry, who took the Madeira to be some deadly brewage, gave the required promise in dismal panic. Scythrop returned to Marionetta with a joyful heart, and drank the Madeira by the way.’
At the end of this bibulous tale, Scythrop, rejected by all his women, is determined on suicide yet again, by one means or another, and calls for his butler, Raven. These are the final lines:
‘Raven appeared. Scythrop looked at him very fiercely two or three minutes; and Raven, still remembering the pistol, stood quaking in mute apprehension, till Scythrop, pointing significantly towards the dining-room, said, “Bring some Madeira.”’
For those who were half in love with easeful death, a fortified wine had clearly become the accessory of choice. Did Felix Yusupov read Nightmare Abbey? Was the whole murder plot against Rasputin a strange homage to his illustrious forebear at Univ?
So soon after Christmas 1816, it isn’t clear who would have come to St Mildred’s on a Monday to speed the happy couple on their way. We can be fairly sure, I feel, that Sir Timothy and Lady Shelley would not have swept up in the brougham from Field Place, and even sister Elizabeth would have been barred from attendance. Shelley’s doting grandfather had died the previous year, so it is probable that there was not a single representative of the Shelley clan on his side of the pews. Peacock and Leigh Hunt would surely have been there and perhaps Hogg too – we know that he had returned to London in November and mixed in all the same circles.
On Mary’s side: Fanny was dead and Claire, the stroppiest of Shelley’s marionettes, had stayed behind in Bristol, confined by the imminent birth of Alba/Allegra, the long-awaited consequence of Byron’s grudging sperm-donation. Claire’s cynicism about the Shelley nuptials is apparent from the fragmentary memoir she wrote some sixty years on, after all the other players in this melodrama had passed on.
At the meagre wedding reception chez Godwin, there would have been more ghosts than living guests and the marriage did not even achieve its primary objective. Shelley was not granted custody of his children with Harriet and this marriage of convenience on the penultimate day of 1816 was to prove more than a little inconvenient as the years went by. It was, on paper, the greatest wedding in English literary history but appears now as an act of grand folly after a year in which one disaster followed another.