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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley's Vegetarianism

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

H. S. SALT

CHAPTER IV.

MARRIAGE WITHOUT LOVE.

It was not until the middle of May, 1811, or nearly two months after the expulsion from Oxford, that Shelley's father, finding him deaf to threats and expostulations, consented to receive him at Field Place, and to make him an allowance of £200 a year, with permission to live where and how he liked. On his reappearance at Field Place, Shelley was doubtless regarded by his relatives much in the light of a prodigal son, though he himself was so far from admitting that he had sinned before Heaven, that we find him on May 19th successfully "illuminating" his uncle with the very pamphlet which had been the cause of. his present troubles.

Nevertheless, his position at this time was especially lonely and disheartening, and had not his nature, though sensitive and impressionable in the extreme, possessed also a singular faculty of hopefulness and recovery, he could hardly have persevered longer in what must have seemed a vain and useless struggle. He had long passed that point which is often reached in the early stage of independent thought, where young gentlemen may yet discover that they have made an error of judgment, and may make their way back to the fold of propriety and affluence. He had completely lost the affections of his cousin; he had forfeited his bright prospect at the University, and the goodwill of his parents. What was he to do in life, and what hope could he entertain of carrying out any of the numerous philanthropic schemes on which he had set his heart? He had thought at one time of studying medicine, but that plan did not commend itself to his advisers. His father urged him to become a Whig politician, but Whiggism was not exactly congenial to Shelley's tastes.

In this restless and unsettled state he found a temporary consolation in his correspondence with his friend Hogg, who was now studying for the legal profession at York, and thither he accordingly despatched a series of letters, written in alternate moods of gloomy depression and nervous excitement. Always quick to magnify and idealize what interested and affected him, he had now conceived an exalted notion of Hogg's virtues and magnanimity, and he devoted himself eagerly to the consideration of a plan for the union of that "noble being*' with his sister Elizabeth.

Miss Hitchener, a Sussex schoolmistress of advanced views, whose acquaintance he had recently made, was another correspondent to whom Shelley freely unburdened his mind on controversial subjects, and whom he regarded at this time as the ideal of female excellence. Then, again, there were letters to be exchanged, chiefly on religious questions, with Miss Harriet Westbrook, a school-fellow of his sisters, to whom he had been introduced during his recent stay in London ; but his interest in this correspondence did not at all equal that which he felt in the two former. Harriet Westbrook was a charming and good-natured girl; but Shelley's mind was still too full of another and yet more beautiful Harriet for him to be in any danger of again falling in love.

Yet this Westbrook family was fated within a short time to have a most powerful and malignant influence on the course of Shelley's life, or rather on his chances of personal happiness.

Eliza Westbrook, Harriet's elder sister, a grown-up woman of unprepossessing appearance and character that corresponded to her features, was evidently interested and attracted by the young enthusiast who preached the regeneration of society, and was heir to Field Place. When she invited Shelley to the house of her father, a wealthy retired hotel-keeper, and talked to him of love, and (to quote Shelley's own words) was "too civil by half," was it her sole object that Shelley and Harriet should be brought together, or was she herself in love with him, and using her more youthful and engaging sister as the readiest means of securing and prolonging her opportunities of enjoying his society ? The exact truth about these matters will probably never be published, even if any record survives; but those who read the various accounts of Shelley's life can hardly doubt that Eliza Westbrook was playing some deep game at this time, and that Harriet was a mere tool and instrument in her hands.

How could it be otherwise? Harriet was a school-girl of only sixteen, pretty and pleasing in appearance and manner, but utterly destitute of any real strength of character — the mere reflex of the surroundings in which her lot was cast; at first a methodist in religious creed, and looking forward to some day marrying a clergyman, though at the same time confessing in her own mind that the military were the most fascinating of men — afterwards an easy convert to Shelley's revolutionary arguments and social heresies. It is true that she was far from being actually illiterate; but her interest in literature was a mere phantom and simulacrum derived at second-hand from the opinions which she chanced to hear expressed around her. Neither in religion nor in culture had she any fixed principle or intellectual power which might prove a support and guidance. But though at this early age she was bright, winning, and compliant, there was a fibre of coarseness and worldliness in her nature which was destined to make itself felt as the years went on. Philanthropic schemes, simplicity of living, and theories of universal freedom might charm her fancy for awhile, but she was not one who would endure to make sacrifices for notions which could only affect her superficially, or dedicate a lifetime to a work for which in her heart she cared not at all.

This was the girl who was corresponding with Shelley in the early summer of 1811, until, in August of the same year, under the stress of her father's real or pretended tyranny, she threw herself on Shelley's protection, confessed her secret affection, and so aroused the sympathy and pity of one who, "if he knew anything about love, was not in love," that the affair ended in their elopement and marriage.

"Foolish, but noble," seems to be the usual verdict of Shelley's critics and biographers, regarding this momentous act, the unhappy consequences of which were apparent to the last day of his life. I think, however, it should be recognised that the folly was greatly in excess of the nobility. In sacrificing the strong objections which he felt to the ceremony of marriage out of consideration for Harriet's personal interests, Shelley undoubtedly acted with his natural unselfishness; but otherwise we look in vain for that clear-sighted and faithful adhesion to rational principles which was conspicuous in all the other great turning, points of his life.

Had it not been for the restless, excited condition of his mind at this time, he would have seen, as he saw afterwards, that it could be no duty of his to devote himself to a girl whom he did not love, and of whose fitness to be his permanent companion he had by no means satisfied himself. From such a blunder there could only ensue a painful crop of lifelong calamity, which, though insufficient to warp the main purpose of his strong and indomitable will, would yet have the power to cause him and others much acute suffering and domestic misery. Unfortunately, in the low state of his spirits at that time, it seemed to Shelley that "the only thing worth living for was self-sacrifice," and this self-sacrifice took the form of becoming the brother-in-law of Eliza Westbrook.

It is odd that the hostile critics who have been at pains to rake up every fault and foible of Shelley's career should, as a rule, have looked complacently on this one great error of his lifetime ; but no doubt their leniency is chiefly due to the tranquillizing effect of the marriage ceremony performed at Edinburgh on August 28th, 1811. That Shelley himself was soon a wiser and severer judge of his own conduct is proved by the tone of his letters to Miss Hitchener in October of the same year. "In one short week," he writes, referring to his marriage with Harriet, "how changed were all my prospects! How are we the slaves of circumstances! How bitterly I curse their bondage! Yet this was unavoidable." And again. "Blame me if thou wilt, dearest friend, for still thou art dearest to me; yet pity even this error if thou blamest me."

Soon after their arrival in Edinburgh, Shelley and Harriet were joined by the admirable Hogg, in whose company they returned after a few weeks to York. There the party was further reinforced by the presence of Eliza Westbrook, who was henceforth to be a constant inmate of Shelley's household, and to exercise complete control over Harriet in all domestic matters — an infliction which Shelley, for pecuniary reasons, was unable to resent as he might otherwise have done. It was under these auspices that Shelley, whose age was then nineteen, commenced that crusade against tyranny and intolerance which, in one form or another, was always the main object of his life.

It is no part of our purpose to follow him step by step through all his early wanderings during this most confused and restless period, in which he served a trying but perhaps useful apprenticeship before entering on a greater and more serious warfare; it will be sufficient to note the position in which he found himself two years after his marriage, and to view from his own standpoint that retrospect of his past life which must have forced itself on his mind about that time.

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