Obrazy na stronie

in character and manner, she became under Shelley's guidance perfectly “unprejudiced” in mind. This, however, took some while : Harriett was a Methodist in bringing-up, and felt at first a lively horror at learning that he was an atheist. In process of time, ethical ideas had a considerable attraction for her, religious ideas none at all. So far she seemed excellently fitted both to acquire and to retain a hold upon Shelley's affections. Yet there was in reality a fatal deficiency. When we have summed up all Harriett's attractions and merits—and they were neither few nor unsubstantial—we find that we have described at best a sweet young creature qualified to adorn any ordinary position in life; we have not described a poet's ideal, but only the simulacrum and external imitation of such. Depth of character or of mind-a real distinctive personality of whatever sort —was not included among Harriett Westbrook's qualifications. There was indeed no absolute reason why the void should make itself painfully felt; but, once felt by so ardent and penetrating a nature as Shelley's, it remained, neither to be filled nor forgotten-an aching void, a craving and persecuting want. Harriett was beautiful, amiable, good, accommodating, affectionate ; but-deadly and at last unevadeable discovery-she was commonplace.

I fail to find any evidence that Shelley was ever deeply or even impulsively in love with Harriett; and have come across only one suggestion that there was anything like a romantic passion on her part either. He visited at her father's house, and took pleasure in inducing upon her mental faculties something that might be regarded as a conformity to his own daring and fervent tone of opinion; he escorted her back to school to wards the end of April after an illness which had laid her up; lent a ready ear to tales, more or less genuine, of domestic coercion and incompatibilities. And it is easily open to conjecture that the family, though they may have done nothing underhand or entrapping, seconded to the utmost of their power any uncertain chances of a possible alliance with the grandson and eventual heir of a very wealthy baronet.

The letters of Shelley show that he was now eagerly bent upon promoting a match between Mr. Hogg and his eldest sister Elizabeth. She also wrote verses, of which some specimens, far from good, are preserved, and she painted besides : her mental gifts impressed him intermittently, but at times

strongly; at other times he gave her up as a victim of conventionality and prejudice. The project, however, resulted in nothing-Shelley's advocacy being no doubt a minus quantity under the circumstances; and Elizabeth died unmarried in 1831. By the middle of May the inconvenient son was readmitted to Field Place, and came to an arrangement with his father, under which he was to receive an allowance of £200 per annum, with liberty to choose his own place of abode. His maternal uncle Captain Pilfold, residing at Cuckfield, a naval officer who had seen service under Nelson at the Nile and Trafalgar, exerted a conciliatory influence; and stands out indeed as a very pleasant figure amid the various family complications which Percy's erratic course gave rise to. The latter next, from about the beginning of July, paid a visit of two or three weeks to his cousin Mr. Thomas Grove, at Cwm Elan, Rhayader, in Radnorshire.

A storm was now brewing in the Westbrookian teapot; and the liquor boiled over into Shelley's lips, guided thereto by steady female manipulation. The details appear in print, in letters addressed by Shelley to Hogg from Cwm Elan, undated, and seemingly misplaced in the printing. Presumably they were written towards the middle or end of July.t

During Shelley's stay at Cwm Elan, Eliza and Harriett Westbrook were going to a house of their father at Aberystwith. Percy expected to meet them there, the father having invited him. The letter printed next after the one which names this fact contains the following passage :-“ Your jokes on Harriett Westbrook amuse me. It is a common error for people to fancy others in their own situation ; but, if I know anything about love, I am not in love. I have heard from the Westbrooks, both of whom I highly esteem.” The next following letter is momentous. “I shall certainly come to York, but Harriett Westbrook will decide whether now or in three weeks. Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way by endeavouring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice.... I advised her to resist. She wrote to say that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me; and threw herself upon my protection. We shall have £ 200 a-year: when we find it run short, we must live, I suppose, upon love. Gratitude and admiration, all demand that I should love her for ever. We shall see you at York. I will hear your arguments for matrimonialism, by which I am now almost convinced.” The upshot was that Shelley returned to London, where he lodged with his cousin, Mr Grove, a surgeon; and in August or September 1811, after some half-dozen stolen interviews with Harriett, eloped with her from her father's house. * He had been much moved by finding her pining, and suffering in health ; and learning, from her lips or her not less expressive silence, that love for him was the cause. They went off straight to Edinburgh, and there became man and wife according to the law of Scotland.

* One of his letters, dated 4th July 1811, printed by Hogg (vol. i. p. 411 claims 2tertive pondering by the student of Shelley's life, A very grave conjecture might be Filt upon its terms; but I suspect that, owing to Hogg's slovenly editorship, there is a serious misprint in it, and shall leave it without further comment. This course I adopt not because the question raised is " painful,” for that I consider no adequate ground for biographic reticence in the case of so important a man as Shelley; but because the document which raises the question is unsafe--and one cannot afford to rummage cupboards for skeletons, if a strong presumption exists that the skeletons themselves are only plaster of Paris.

Lady Shelley (Shelley Memorials, p. 22 refers to two of these letters, and says she is “not able to guarantee" their authenticity. No doubt Lady Shelley speaks advisedly : but a biographer who knows nothing to the contrary must accept as genuine letters printed by Hogg as having been addressed to himself, and by himself received at the date of the transactions,

Until we reject the above-cited letters as spurious, or as written with an intention to deceive, we must conclude from them that the advances, immediately leading to elopement, came from Harriett to Shelley, and not from Shelley to Harriett, and were founded on complaints of domestic tyranny seemingly exaggerated or frivolous; that Harriett (a schoolgirl of sixteen, hardly more than a child, and lately philosophized out of the ordinary standard of propriety) was quite ready to be Shelley's mistress,t and professedly-not perhaps in truth-aspired to nothing higher; and that it was wholly and solely the poet's strong sense of honour which induced him, and this in the teeth of some pet theories of his own, to make her at once his wife. I Consequently, instead of pulling long

* I do not find the exact date stated : it was either the last week in August or the first in September; see Hogg, Life, vol. i. p. 425. Mr. C. H. Grove, who saw Shelley and Harriett off from London, inclines to September (vol. ii. p. 554.)

+ So at least I interpret the phrase "threw herself upon my protection;" which phrase, however, we must in fairness recollect, is at the utmost Shelley's summingup of Harriett's expressions, and not the ipsissima verba of Harriett herself.

The MS, diary of Dr. Polidori, written while he was in habits of daily intercourse with the Shelleys on the shores of the Lake of Geneva in 1816 30th May) makes a noticeable statement which, though certainly not to be accepted as conclusive, deserves to be borne in mind. The primary likelihood is that the diarist made his jotting direct from what he had heard Shelley say-or at farthest from what Byron reported to him as said by Shelley.--"Gone through much misery, thinking he was dying. Married a girl for the mere sake of letting her have the jointure that would

faces or shaking middle-aged heads over this escapade of a youth just nineteen years of age, we shall do much better to regard it as a beautiful example of chivalry shining through juvenility; or, if the calculating habit is still strong upon us, we may compute what percentage of faultlessly Christian young heirs of opulent baronets would have acted like the atheist Shelley, and married a retired hotel-keeper's daughter offering herself as a mistress. To deny that the act was foolish would be absurd under any circumstances, and doubly so when we reflect upon the ultimate issue of it to Shelley and Harriett themselves : let us then distinctly recognize that it was foolish, and no less distinctly that it was noble.

VII.- MARRIED LIFE WITH HARRIETT. The bridegroom and bride took groundfloor lodgings in George Street, Edinburgh, a handsome house on the left side of the recently built street, and were soon joined there by Hogg. The poet had borrowed £25 from Mr. Medwin (his connexion by marriage, a solicitor at Horsham, and father of his schoolfellow and subsequent biographer), but without letting him into the secret of the approaching elopement : he was expecting also to receive £75 at the end of the month. All supplies from his father were now cut off. But Mr. Westbrook made some allowance to the young couple which has been stated (probably very much over-stated) at £200 per annum ; it was clearly not always forthcoming in time of need. Besides this, Shelley raised money on his expectations from time to time ; and must be viewed as now living in a state of permanent embarrassment-not far removed, however, from a modest sufficiency, save at moments of exceptional pressure. In a letter of 5th July 1812 he speaks of himself as having an income of £400 per annum from his relatives; but there is no ground for thinking that by any means as much did really come in to him year by year during his first marriage. accrue to her Recovered. Found he could not agree. Separated." The more obvious motive for marrying that of avoiding obloquy to the woman, and impediments in any future effort to do good-is distinctly put forward in a letter of Shelley to Godwin, 28th January 1812 (Hogg, vol. ii. pp. 63-4), and in other letters that I have seen, in which Shelley treats the whole affair as natural and right, save only the act of formal marriage a truckling to custom which needs and receives reiterated apology. The statement of Dr. Polidori that the poet in early youth expected a very short lease of life is fully confirmed by a remark made by Mrs Shelley (p. 91) relauve to Queen Maó, and the period, 1812-13. when it was written. “Ill-health made him believe that his race would soon be run ; that a year or two was all he had of life."

In October * Hogg returned to York, and the Shelleys accompanied him : they all three took lodgings with some dingy milliners of advanced age-the Misses Dancer, in Coney Street. Bysshe (he was designated by this name in his own family, and as yet by Harriett) went to London and Cuckfield to negotiate with his father. For the while, nothing could mollify the offended parent, and the poet returned to York : but towards the beginning of 1812 the allowance of £200 was renewed, accompanied by a gracious message from Mr. Shelley senior “that his sole reason for so doing was to prevent his son's cheating strangers.” This meagre but convenient result closed a series of attempts at coming to terms, in the course of which Bysshe gave a noble proof of his ideal purity of principle. About the beginning of December Captain Pilfold told him of a meditated proposal from his father and grandfather of an immediate income for him of £2000 per annum (Shelley wrote of it as a capital fund of £120,000) on condition that he would entail the estate on his eldest son, or, in default of issue, on his younger brother John. This Shelley rejected, not only with peremptory decision, but with consuming indignation. That he should be supposed capable of entailing all this “command over labour” upon a possible fool or scoundrel !

Meantime, and just before his return to York, Miss Westbrook had arrived there as pre-arranged, and had taken possession of the establishment, and especially of Harriett, who had always been much under her control, and looked up to her with a long-confirmed habit of trustful and almost daughterly affection. Besides, she was quite destitute of housewifery. Shelley found himself at once an infinitesimal quantity ; Harriett was a cipher, and Hogg a zero. Eliza Westbrook, overruling everything that everybody else wanted to do, solicitous for Harriett's hitherto unapparent nerves, dominating her by the terrible query “What would Miss Warne say?”—and brushing her own harsh but glossy black hair for hours in her bedroom-is an inimitable portrait limned by the equally skilful and ruthless hand of Mr. Hogg. That she may have meant well he allows; and more than this will not readily be conceded by the reader who regards Shelley, and his comfort and proper position in his own house, as of somewhat more consequence

.* Hogg gives the date as “the end of October:" I believe it was really the begin. ning of that month, or perhaps the end of September.

« PoprzedniaDalej »