Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
H. S. SALT
THE ELF CHILD.
On August 4th, 1792, there was probably no country gentleman in England who was better satisfied with himself, his position, and his prospects, than Mr. Timothy Shelley, of Field Place, Horsham, Sussex. For on that day the felicity of his marriage with the beautiful Elizabeth Pilfold was crowned by the birth of a son, who was to all appearances destined to maintain the time-honoured traditions of the Shelley house and property. The heir of a wealthy landowner, the child of a father who studied the interests of the Whig party in politics and the precepts of the accomplished Lord Chesterfield in private life, could scarcely fail to follow dutifully in the course which Providence had evidently marked out for him. It was gratifying also to reflect that the boy's mother was a lady not only of faultless bearing, but of keen observation and sound common sense, and quite free from any womanish sentimentality or morbid enthusiasm.
In addition to the family name of Percy, the child was called Bysshe, after his grandfather, Mr.Bysshe Shelley; though of course it was not for a moment to be imagined that he would in any degree resemble that rather eccentric old gentleman, who, after leading a strange and chequered life, and eloping with two heiresses, was now living in a cottage at Horsham, where he set all propriety at defiance, and spent his time in talking politics at the "Swan Inn." Very different had been Mr. Timothy Shelley's well-ordered career; and very different — such was his confident anticipation — would be the career of his son. It could not be doubted that if he lived to manhood he would be a sturdy country squire of the old-fashioned sort, fond of his bottle of wine, devoted to field sports, and, above all, a determined upholder of all orthodox and constitutional principles. Mr. Timothy Shelley, well-meaning and kind-hearted man that he was, felt that he could be the best of fathers to the son who promised to be so close a likeness of himself.
But as years passed by and Bysshe grew into a tall, slim boy, with large dreamy eyes and long curling hair, Mr. Shelley found himself less and less able to forecast with positive certainty the future bent of his son's character. There was something strange and elfish about his manner which seemed to be out of harmony with the ordinary course of life at Field Place, and made him a puzzle and enigma to his anxious and disappointed relatives.
Can it be that there is some truth in the old belief that infants are some-times stolen away from their cradles by mischief-loving fairies, and elfish changelings deposited in their stead? If we incline to the notion that Mr. Timothy Shelley was the victim of a fraud of this kind, we must further conclude that the exchange was effected before September 7th, 1792, for that is the date on which the child's christening is registered, and it has always been understood that the fairies have no power to carry off any but unchristened babes. Had this explanation of the boy's conduct been adopted, it would at least have saved his parents much disappointment and heart-burning ; as it was, they were loth to admit the possibility of their son growing up otherwise than as they had anticipated, and they were consequently not a little perplexed and annoyed as his aberrations became more and more pronounced.
It was naturally disquieting to a country gentleman's mind to hear that his son and heir, instead of employing his holidays learning the art of killing pheasants and partridges, was in the habit of playing familiarly with a large snake on the lawn ; or entertaining his infant sisters with idle stories of an aged alchemist, said to have his abode in certain disused garrets and passages of Field Place; or, worse still, endangering his own safety and that of the household by the recklessness of his chemical experiments. It was an unhealthy sign, too, that an English boy should care less for the society of grooms and gamekeepers than for solitary rambles about the Sussex lanes and mysterious nocturnal wanderings in which neither sense nor purpose could be discovered.
Then, again, the reports from Dr. Greenlaw, of whose school at Brentford Bysshe had now become an inmate, were far from satisfactory. If Tom Medwin, his cousin and school-fellow, could get on well with masters and boys, why could not Bysshe do the same, since he might be presumed to be Tom's equal in ability? It was provoking to the father to learn that his son was ridiculed and teased by his school-fellows, since, being a man of the world, he knew well that in such cases it is the victim himself who is to blame; nor was he any better pleased by a letter which Mrs. Shelley received from Bysshe, giving a long account of a sentimental attachment to one particular school-fellow, whose admirable qualities were described with much emphasis and exaggeration. Mrs. Shelley wisely decided to return no answer to this letter, in the hope that her silence might administer the most forcible reproof to this sentimental tendency, which was probably fostered by the boy's unfortunate habit of reading volume after volume of sensational romances.
But of all Bysshe's singularities, the most alarming to his parents was his strange and reprehensible habit of recounting imaginary scenes and conversations; for they clearly saw that this confusion of the boundary-line between fact and fiction was a symptom of an intellectual and moral laxity especially deplorable in a boy of Bysshe's position. Such eccentricities might be smiled at or pardoned in the case of a poor aspirant in art or literature ; but they could not be tolerated in one who was destined to be a county magnate and Whig member for the borough of Shoreham.
What did it all portend — snakes, alchemists, star-gazings, romance-readings, and inflammable liquids? These things were little to the liking of a sober-minded country gentleman such as Mr. Timothy Shelley, who, being by nature somewhat irascible and domineering, would occasionally speak out rather strongly on the subject of Bysshe's misdemeanours, never for a moment thinking of that more charitable explanation of the mystery — that the lad was not responsible for his actions, being, in reality, a poor fairy changeling, instead of a hearty English boy.
On the other hand, there were occasions when Mr. Shelley was inclined to feel proud of his son, and to become reconciled to the idea that he was going to be clever like his grandfather. Sir Bysshe, who at that very time was about to receive a baronetcy from his leader, the Duke of Norfolk, in return for his services to the Whig cause. Could it be that the boy was likely to prove what is called a genius? We are not told whether Mr. Shelley ever speculated on this point; but we may be quite sure that, if he did so, he looked forward with some complacency to the enlistment of Bysshe's powers on the side of social order and respectability, which were already threatened by the insidious and pernicious doctrines of the revolutionary party. Whigs and Tories were at least agreed upon one point — that the strongholds of constitutionalism and religion must be henceforth defended with no uncertain hand against the increasing assaults of democracy and free-thought.
It was a time when revolution was "in the air." The example of France and America had already given the signal for other national uprisings ; Ireland was in a state of chronic commotion and overt rebellion; while in England certain mischievous agitators were busily engaged in setting class against class, and were striving to impress the labourers and artisans with the wild notion that they were the victims of social injustice and oppression. One William Godwin had lately published a book named "Political Justice," which Mr. Shelley doubtless heard spoken of as particularly dangerous and seditious; and it was possibly reported at Field Place, as an instance of the extreme depravity of the times, that a woman of the name of Wollstonecraft had been wicked enough to write a vindication of the supposed "Rights" of her sex. The good old cause of the throne and the constitution evidently needed a champion ; and if Bysshe, who seemed to be so unlike boys of his own age, should turn out to have talent, here was a fitting object for his ambition.
At any rate, Mr. Shelley now looked forward to his clever son gaining academical distinction, and hereafter filling his seat in Parliament with honour and success; and to gain this end, he was of opinion that he must at once give him the advantage of the best school education which it was in his power to secure. Himself a disciple of Chesterfield, he knew the paramount importance of an easy grace of manner and elegance of bearing ; he therefore determined to send the boy to Eton, where, in the contact with others of his own social position, he would rapidly lose those very unfortunate and unaccountable eccentricities by which his character was at present deformed.
So at twelve years of age the unlucky elf-child — who, being himself ignorant of his own origin, was not able to explain or protest — found himself subjected to no less an ordeal than that of undergoing the education of a gentleman.
Chapter II | Index