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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 VI.

DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN.

On March 24th, 1814, Shelley and Harriet were remarried in London, the object of this second ceremony being simply to establish beyond doubt the legitimacy of their child, as the validity of the Scotch marriage was considered to be open to question.

Seldom, if ever, has a marriage been celebrated under such gloomy and depressing circumstances. In one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's " Twice-told Tales " there is a description of the wedding of an aged couple, once lovers, but now long separated by years of misunderstanding, at which the usual marriage rites were replaced by funereal solemnities, typical of a lifetime lost in emptiness and despair. The train of withered mourners, the hoary bridegroom in his shroud, the pale features of the aged bride, and the death-bell tolling through the whole, till its deep voice overpowered the marriage words, all marked the funeral of earthly hopes." Scarcely less portentous to Shelley's imaginative mind must have appeared the solemn mockery of this second union with Harriet; it was a veritable "wedding-knell," which sounded the approaching extinction of his early aspirations and youthful dreams of happiness.

Towards the end of the previous year grave discussions had arisen between Shelley and his wife ; and he was now face to face with the alternative of living on in a state of continual domestic disagreement, or cutting the knot of his own troubles, and not less, as he might well believe, of Harriet's, by a bold and decisive step. "The institutions and opinions of all ages and countries have admitted in various degrees the principle of divorce," So wrote Shelley in his Chancery paper three years later, and the desire to obtain release from the matrimonial bond, practically if not legally, must certainly have existed in Shelley's mind in the spring of 1814, although, for his children's sake, he was even then willing to be nominally bound. If so many persons of ordinary temperament have found it an almost intolerable burden to be yoked throughout life to an unsympathetic companion, we can judge what a death-in-life such an existence must have been to Shelley, whose quick and emotional disposition the more eagerly craved rest and sympathy at home, in proportion to the strength of his declared hostility against the outer world. "In looking back to this marriage," says his cousin and biographer, Medwin, "it is surprising, not that it should have ended in a separation, but that for so long a time he should have continued to drag on a chain, every link of which was a protraction of torture."

It might have been foretold that a girl who always looked "as if she had just that moment stepped out of a glass case" could not be a fit companion for one whose mind was set on wholly other objects than personal elegance; but though Shelley, as I have said, must himself bear the blame of having married one whom he did not love, and whose character he had not rightly fathomed, he might be pardoned for not foreseeing that Harriet's easy good temper would be replaced, as the years went on, by hardness and cold insensibility, which would not only cause a division between husband and wife, but would render vain all attempts at reconciliation. For, through all the conflicting and perplexing records of this period of Shelley's life, one fact is distinctly evident, that it was Harriet and not Shelley who took up an attitude of deliberate coldness and estrangement.

When we seek to go a step further, and to inquire into the precise origin of the discord, and the reason of Harriet's inflexibility, we find that the whole subject is shrouded in a mystery, which none of Shelley's biographers have been able, or willing, to dispel. "We who bear his name," wrote the authoress of the "Shelley Memorials," in 1859, "we who bear his name, and are of his family, have in our possession papers written by his own hand, which in after years may make the story of his life complete, and which few now living, except Shelley's own children, have ever perused."We look in vain for these papers in the latest and most authentic "Life of Shelley," which has been generally understood to be the full and final account of his career — the only clue to the mystery which is there indicated being the statement that Shelley, rightly or wrongly, was firmly convinced that Harriet had been unfaithful to him at this time.

It so happens, however, that in his poem of "Julian and Maddalo," Shelley himself left a sketch of a character, — that of a deserted and distracted lover, — which was certainly meant to be an idealized record of this passage of his life, though the true import of the poem has been generally overlooked.

The impression conveyed by the poetical autobiography of "Julian and Maddalo" is that the gradual alienation of Shelley's affections from his wife was due — or at any rate was supposed by the writer to be due — to some coarse tendency, some moral grossness, in Harriet's character, which shocked and outraged Shelley's finer susceptibilities. If there be any truth in this view of the case, we can well believe that the influence of the ever-present Eliza Westbrook was not exercised with the object of allaying the dissensions that had now sprung up between her sister and her sister's husband.

This, then, was Shelley's position in the early months of 1814. There was a hopeless lack of sympathy between himself and his wife, but the barrier that separated them was not of his making; for, however great the measure of his folly in originally allowing himself to be entrapped into the marriage, his conscience acquitted him of any guilt in his after-conduct towards Harriet, who had coldly rejected his offers of renewed affection. What, then, was it his duty to do ? Was he to sacrifice happiness to respectability, and drag on a weary existence until death should relieve him or his wife from their loveless and hypocritical union? In the opinion of the orthodox world he was bound to do this ; but in his own opinion, as expressed in his Notes to "Queen Mab," the opposite course was far more in accordance with true morality. " A husband and wife," he had written, "ought to continue so long united as they love each other."

Conscientiously holding these views, he looked upon his marriage with Harriet as already at an end. To his protection, support, and assistance she had still, and would always have, a right; but their closer union must henceforth be as irrevocably dissolved as if the divorce court had pronounced a formal decree of judicial separation.

It was at this critical period of his affairs that Shelley first became acquainted with the noble woman whose life and fortunes were soon to be indissolubly blended with his own. We have seen how he sought relief from the dull monotony of his domestic troubles in the pleasant conversation and congenial society of his friends at Bracknell and elsewhere — one of the houses at which he was always sure of a kindly welcome being that of William Godwin, who was now carrying on the trade of a bookseller in Skinner Street. Godwin himself had long exercised a moderating and, on the whole, beneficial influence on the eager mind of his youthful pupil and admirer, while on his part Shelley was doing his best to assist the veteran philosopher in the pecuniary embarrassments which were already embittering his declining years; they were thus drawn somewhat closely together when Shelley was in London in the early part of 1814.

In this way an intimacy arose between Shelley and Mary Godwin, then in her seventeenth year, the daughter of the famous Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin's first wife; and the friendship thus formed soon ripened into love — a love, be it remembered, which was not the cause but the consequence of Shelley's estrangement from Harriet.

Before passing judgment on Shelley and Mary for their conduct in this matter, it would be well if orthodox moralists would bring themselves to view what happened from the standpoint of those whom they condemn, and to remember that both Shelley and Mary, and, indeed, Harriet also, belonged to that not inconsiderable class of social heretics who see in the marriage-bond nothing more than a conventional institution, devoid alike of moral sanctity and true utility. Shelley's union with Harriet being practically, if not legally, at an end, neither he nor Mary could reasonably be blamed for not conforming to a standard of morality from which they conscientiously and emphatically dissented. It was in no reckless or immoral spirit, but with a deep and earnest conviction of the essential innocence and rightness of their act, that they plighted their love as they stood by Mary Wolstonecraft's grave, in the old St. Pancras' churchyard. As the spot was full of sacred memories, so the vow there made was full of solemn and loyal intent.

On the 28th of July, some two or three weeks after this event, Shelley and Mary left England for the Continent. About the middle of the preceding month Harriet had gone to live with her father and sister at Bath; and before his departure from England, Shelley, after a final interview, had been careful to provide that she should be in no want of money. If there was one crime of which he was by his very nature absolutely and specially incapable, it was that of a cruel and selfish desertion; and he therefore appears to have had no sort of apprehension that in thus gravely, deliberately, and determinately separating himself from his wife, he would incur the odious charge of having wantonly deserted her. With all his early experience of intolerance, he had yet to realize that calumny is the most effective weapon of religious bigotry, and that the social Pharisaism which can look complacently on marriage without love can never forget or forgive the far less reprehensible practice of love without marriage.

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