Shelley's Lost Letters to Harriet

The startling discovery of letters so intimately connected with one of the most interesting and moving dramas of literary history leads us to remake this number of the Atlantic at the moment of going to press. Our readers will recall that they owe to Dr. Hotson the true story of the death of Marlowe (see the Atlantic for July 1926). This latest trouvaille must take its place among the supreme rewards of original and intelligent literary research. — The Editor



So much controversial ink, all too often from partisan pens, has been poured out on Shelley’s marital difficulties that one would be glad to let the subject rest. The reader who cares enough for truth to have stepped behind the pages of defamer and whitewasher alike and scanned the original evidence for himself will have formed his own opinion. He will agree that Shelley incurred his measure of blame not so much by separating himself from Harriet as by yielding in the first place to the chivalrous and sentimental folly of his nineteen years and marrying her. Not less will the reader agree that such blame, whatever be its amount, has been long outweighed in any fair mind by the signal nobility, constancy, and generosity of his life taken as a whole.

‘If you were my friend,’ wrote Shelley, six years after the separation, to Southey, who had presumed to condemn him for the tragic death of Harriet, ‘I could tell you a history that would make you open your eyes; but I shall certainly never make the public my familiar confidant.’ The public of 1820 knew him only as an outcast to be abhorred and abused. A century of change has made the public sufficiently his friend to hear him with a degree of sympathy and understanding. Simple justice to his memory, moreover, demands the production of all available evidence that can lead to a clearer view of Shelley’s mind at this chief turning point in his life.

Up to the present, only one letter from Shelley to Harriet has been known to the world. To this, by reason of a fortunate discovery, I can now add nine more, written between July 14 and October 25, 1814; and, finally, a letter dated December 18, 1816, written to Eliza Westbrook shortly after her sister Harriet’s suicide.

Before we come to the text of the letters, several queries must be answered. Where, it will be asked, have these letters been hidden away these hundred years? Why have they not been found before this? And how did I come to discover them?

In the first place, it will be remembered that after Harriet’s death, in 1816, the Westbrooks instituted proceedings in the Court of Chancery with a view to combating Shelley’s claim to the custody of his motherless children, little Ianthe and Charles. For this purpose they submitted evidence which they regarded as damaging to Shelley’s character. But since the hearing was held behind closed doors, and Lord Chancellor Eldon forbade any public report of the proceedings, the details of the nature of the Westbrooks’ exhibits remained a secret.

Copyright 1929, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

In 1860, more than forty years after the Chancery case, Shelley’s friend and executor, Thomas Love Peacock, was seeking evidence to corroborate his personal recollection of the manner of Shelley’s separation from Harriet. To this end he caused a search to be made in the Record Office for documents in the case of Shelley v. Wesbrooke. He was rewarded by the discovery of an affidavit of Eliza Westbrook which revealed that the secret evidence already mentioned included ten letters written by Shelley. On January 10, 1817, Eliza Westbrook ‘maketh oath and saith . . . that she hath looked upon certain paper Writings now produced and shewn to her at the time of swearing this her Affidavit and marked respectively 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. That the said Paper Writings are all of the Handwriting of the said Defendant Percy Bysshe Shelley and were respectively addressed by him to Harriet his late Wife deceased the sister of this Deponent. . . . That she hath looked upon a certain other paper Writing . . . marked 10. That the same Paper Writing is of the Handwriting of the said Defendant Percy Bysshe Shelley.’

Suspecting the probable importance of these mysterious letters, Peacock redoubled his efforts to discover their whereabouts, but with no result. His supplementary article on Shelley, published in Fraser’s Magazine in March 1862, owed its belated appearance, as he tells us, to his tenacious hope of recovering the lost letters.

Twenty years after this, Godwin’s biographer, Kegan Paul, attacked the problem afresh, in the interests of Professor Dowden, who was then preparing his two-volume Life of Shelley.

Paul succeeded in obtaining some documents, but the ten letters eluded him as they had eluded Peacock.

No one knows how many later students have attempted the solution of this major mystery in the Public Records; but every inquiry at the Record Office would naturally be met by the statement that it is not the practice of the Court of Chancery to file exhibits. The original letters, the property of the Westbrooks, were in all probability returned to their solicitors, Messrs. Desse, Dendy, and Morphett, and have not been heard of since.

Yet, although the originals have vanished, no one seems to have realized that certified Public Record copies might have been preserved for the use of counsel and of Mr. William Alexander, the officer to whom the Chancellor referred certain matters of the cause for report. If Mr. Alexander did not destroy those copies, where might they be found?

Among the obscurer records of the Chancery there is preserved a series of documents, little known and less used, called Masters’ Papers: officially described as consisting of ‘The Evidence, as Affidavits, Examinations of Witnesses, Accounts, and other documents on which the Master founded his Report, together with the Drafts of the said Reports.’

It was in searching the indexes of this series, while engaged on a quest far removed from Shelley, but one which had led me further and further into the unexplored corners of Chancery, that my eye fell upon the entry, Shelley v. Westbrooke. Since the Masters’ Papers are quite distinct from the files of Proceedings in which the petition, answers, and affidavits in the case had been discovered, it seemed likely that this further source had escaped search. Here might possibly be found the lost letters of Shelley. I was not slow in making out a ticket of application for the documents.

A bundle was brought out, covered thick with black dust. To all appearances, the dossier had not been opened since it was tied up in red tape more than a hundred years ago. At the bottom of a heap of affidavits and other original papers in the Shelley case, I came upon the quarry: a file of twelve large folio sheets with the superscription, Shelley v. Westbrooke. Mr Shelley’s Letters referred to in the Affidavit of the Defendant Elizabeth Westbrook.

Though the copies were perfectly clear, I found it difficult at the moment to read these letters. Before me lay the undiscovered evidence, so long and so ardently sought. What might such letters not contain? Eagerness to know their secrets, and the fear of finding out too little or too much, made the words swim before my eyes. With an effort, I read them through. To one immersed in the moveless atmosphere of legal form and ancient record it was painfully startling to be thrown on a sudden into the midst of this the greatest convulsion of Shelley’s sensitive nature.

Another momentary obstacle in the path of clear understanding arose from the discovery that the letters, some of which were undated, had not been arranged in their proper order. For example, while Letter Number 1 was dated September 15, 1814, the contents of Letter Number 2 (undated) showed that it belonged to July 14, a date two months before Number 1. Fortunately, however, it is not difficult to assign dates to the undated with some degree of certainty.

Publication of these letters presents a curious problem. Properly, they should be read in their places in the body of Shelley’s letters, where, in the future, they will be found. All I can hope to do here is to furnish a necessarily imperfect introduction and comment.


The earliest letter of the series to Harriet — July 14, 1814 — is of the deepest interest, and demands a brief recollection of the events which led up to it; and, in the first place, of Shelley’s marriage with Harriet.

On his expulsion from Oxford for ‘atheism,’ and at odds with his horrified father, Shelley came up to London. His sisters, Mary and Hellen, were at school near by, in Clapham. Through them he became acquainted with their friend Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a well-to-do retired coffeehouse keeper. She was sixteen, and easily the prettiest girl at Miss Fenning’s school. Peacock describes her: ‘She had a good figure, light, active, and graceful. Her hair was light brown, and dressed with taste and simplicity. In her dress she was truly simplex munditiis. Her complexion was beautifully transparent; the tint of the blush rose shining through the lily. The tone of her voice was pleasant; her speech the essence of frankness and cordiality; her spirits always cheerful; her laugh spontaneous, hearty, and joyous. She was well educated. She read agreeably and intelligently. She wrote only letters, but she wrote them well. Her manners were good; and her whole aspect and demeanor such manifest emanations of pure and truthful nature, that to be once in her company was to know her thoroughly.’

Such, considered by the favorable observer, was Harriet. But unfortunately, as Shelley discovered only too late, she could not be considered by herself. From her childhood she had been under the care of her elder sister, Eliza, a woman almost old enough to be her mother. The result of this training was that her thoughts and desires were completely subject to the control of this sister-and-director, to whom she was blindly devoted.

Eliza promptly saw in young Bysshe Shelley the heir to a great estate, and set about making a match for little Harriet. Already attracted by her beauty, Shelley found his quick sympathies further engaged by Harriet’s unhappiness under the ‘tyranny’ of her father, who obliged her to continue at the school, which she had grown to dislike.

To an eye less discerning than Eliza’s, Shelley’s Godwinian detestation of the slavish institution of marriage might well have loomed as a real obstacle. ‘For God’s sake,’ he had written to Hogg in a discussion of matrimonialism, ‘if you want more argument, read the marriage service before you think of allowing an amiable, beloved female to submit to such degradation.’ Undismayed by such talk, Eliza permitted Harriet, after an acquaintance of some months, to fall in love with the desirable youth, and to propose elopement.

From Wales, a few days after assuring Hogg that he was not in love with Harriet., Shelley writes: —

I shall certainly come to York, but Harriet 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: resistance was the answer. . . . 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.

Some months after writing this letter, he confided to Elizabeth Hitchener that suicide had been a favorite theme of Harriet’s letters to him, and that they became more and more gloomy. ‘At length one assumed a tone of such despair as induced me to quit Wales precipitately.’

Within a few days after his arrival in London, he writes to Hogg: ‘Harriet is yet undecided, not with respect to me, but herself. ... I am become a perfect convert to matrimony . . . [persuaded that] the sacrifice made by the woman [in an extra-marital union] is so disproportionate to any which the man can give.’ When Shelley had arrived at this state of mind, acceptable to Eliza, Harriet’s decision soon followed. At the end of August, 1811, they eloped and were married in Edinburgh. After a brief interval of happiness, Harriet sent for her indispensable Eliza, who not only came, but stayed.

The two years of married life which followed were the happiest years of Harriet’s existence. She had now not merely her Eliza, but a husband and, in due time, a baby as well. Her father no longer obliged her to go to school. She traveled about the British Isles with her companions, and enjoyed the change of scene to the full.

But for Shelley the winter of 18131814 and the succeeding spring brought a crisis of profound unhappiness. His unbelievably quixotic attempts at political reform had failed wretchedly. In a barren pursuit of Reason he had exiled himself from nature and poetry. Less fortunate than the knights of romance, he had lived to see that his hasty carrying off of the oppressed, enamored, and sixteen-year-old Harriet had been a tragic mistake. Their relation could never have survived as a true marriage of minds; never, even if Eliza had not added her weight to their frail matrimonial skiff. To compensate for the want of passionate feeling between them, Shelley’s fantastic plan had been to make of the daughter of the coffeehouse keeper an intellectual comrade. Here, too, he met with utter failure. Although she could never have understood his attitude toward formal religion, an unfettered Harriet might have echoed his revolutionary political formulas with an undivided attention; but after the baby Ianthe had come it was clearly hopeless to expect the young mother to carry on her rôle of philosophical neophyte.

As early as the summer of 1813, a growing discouragement and hunger of the mind had driven Shelley to seek out new friends. A Mr. Turner, who had introduced him to the philosophy of vegetarianism, now went further and made him acquainted with his wife, Cornelia, and her mother, Mrs. Boinville. Charming, cultivated, and sentimental, these ladies took their chief delight in turning their house, first in London and afterward in Bracknell, into a centre for Godwinian theorizing and literary studies. Shelley, a brilliant planet among the muddy glimmerings of their commonplace satellites, was warmly welcomed. To begin the study of belles-lettres with those who sympathized with his philosophical and political notions was to bridge the gap between the old Shelley and the new.

Peacock, the devoted scholar, had certainly the largest part in guiding his friend out of the lunar desert of the worship of Reason and into the field of classical letters. Yet the genial influence of the Boinvilles’ interest in Tasso and Petrarch must be allowed to have led him to the literature of the Renaissance. And when, at the summer’s end, Shelley took his little family north to spend the autumn in Edinburgh, he entered on an intense period of reading. His study of Homer marks the first dim movements of his soul before waking from a nightmare of futile political action into the full life of poetry.


In this fateful winter and spring there is very little direct evidence of the progress of the estrangement between Shelley and Harriet. It is clear enough, however, that Eliza’s presence made home a misery for Shelley; that his efforts to dislodge her were met by dogged resistance on Harriet’s part. The folly of insisting on Eliza’s company was not apparent to her. Painful contention ended in Shelley’s defeat, and, under Eliza’s influence, in altered behavior in his wife.

After returning to London in December, as early as February he had gone to live at Bracknell with the Boinvilles. Here, in spite of the kindness that he found and the delight he took in his renewed studies of Italian, he was deeply unhappy. The struggles of his spirit had reduced him to the dejection which appears unmistakably in the following passages to Hogg, written on March 16.

My friend, you are happier than I. You have the pleasures as well as the pains of sensibility. I have sunk into a premature old age of exhaustion, which renders me dead to everything, but the unenviable capacity of indulging the vanity of hope, and a terrible susceptibility to objects of disgust and hatred.

My temporal concerns are slowly rectifying themselves; I am astonished at my own indifference to their event. I live here like the insect that sports in a transient sunbeam, which the next cloud shall obscure for ever. I am much changed from what I was. . . .

Eliza is still with us — not here! — but will be with me when the infinite malice of destiny forces me to depart. I am now but little inclined to contest this point. I certainly hate her with all my heart and soul. It is a sight which awakens an inexpressible sensation of disgust and horror, to see her caress my poor little Ianthe, in whom I may hereafter find the consolation of sympathy. I sometimes feel faint with the fatigue of checking the overflowings of my unbounded abhorrence for this miserable wretch.

On March 24, as doubts had arisen of the validity in England of their marriage in Scotland, Shelley and Harriet were married again, in London. This act has been gratuitously interpreted on the one hand as an indication that Shelley was in love with Harriet and on the other as a scheme of his to assure the legitimacy of a possible heir. No one has shown it to be more than a simple affirmation of Harriet’s position in the eyes of the law. In April they seem to have tried unsuccessfully to live together again; but by the middle of the month, when Eliza too late disencumbered the household of her presence, the estrangement had deepened. Harriet had lost the little interest she had ever taken in Shelley’s intellectual pursuits, and he no longer attempted to stimulate her mind.

There is no reason to suppose that Harriet could realize the hopelessness of the situation; but for Shelley the pain of double failure and the selfreproach at the folly of his ill-considered marriage were a suffering which no anodynes of pleasant society and study could alleviate.

He was called, in the early part of May, from his retreat at Bracknell to London. Godwin, the theoretical revolutionary, had got himself deep into debt, and demanded pecuniary aid of his valuable young admirer. Although himself in need of money, Shelley devoted his energies with characteristic generosity to the task of mortgaging his future property for the benefit of the indigent philosopher.

From London Shelley addressed touching verses to Harriet entreating her love and a reconciliation of their differences. Despair leads him to the thought of self-destruction: —

In mercy let him not endure
The misery of a fatal cure.

And he closes with a last appeal: —

O trust for once no erring guide!
Bid the remorseless feeling flee;
’T is malice, ’t is revenge, ’t is pride,
’T is anything but thee;
O deign a nobler pride to prove.
And pity if thou canst not love.

His loneliness in Harriet’s cold withdrawal of sympathy is only too apparent. The marriage had been built upon Harriet’s love for him. If that had proved changeable and subject to the guidance of another mind, what was left?

It was while he was a prey to despair, and endeavoring to distract his mind with repeated interviews with Godwin about money, that Shelley first saw the sixteen-year-old Mary, Godwin’s daughter by his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. This remarkable girl combined every quality, except a physical beauty equal to Harriet’s, that could render her irresistible to Shelley. Her mind, intense, enthusiastic, and original, was controlled by an emotional nature powerful and sensitive to the verge of morbidity. More than this, she shared not only his love of poetry but his revolutionary ideas and his passion for study as well. Hogg’s graphic picture of her and Shelley in Godwin’s bookshop in Skinner Street is memorable: —

He continued his uneasy promenade; and I stood reading the names of old English authors on the backs of the venerable volumes, when the door was partially and softly opened. A thrilling voice called, ‘Shelley!’ A thrilling voice answered, ‘Mary!’ And he darted out of the room like an arrow from the bow of the far-shooting king. A very young female, fair and fairhaired, pale indeed, and with a piercing look, wearing a frock of tartan, an unusual dress in London at that time, had called him out of the room. He was absent a very short time — a minute or two; and then returned. ‘Godwin is out; there is no use in waiting.’ So we continued our walk along Holborn.

‘Who was that, pray?’ I asked; ‘a daughter?’


‘A daughter of William Godwin?’

‘The daughter of Godwin and Mary.’

Meetings followed, often in the churchyard of Old St. Pancras, by the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft. Mutual attraction grew to passion, passion to a whirlwind. Imbued with her father’s theories against marriage and the memory of her own mother’s extramarital union, Mary found little to hinder her avowal of love, Shelley’s mind was torn between this new and overwhelming passion and a tormenting fear of hurting Harriet, who had loved him.

Peacock’s often-quoted account of Shelley’s condition in this crisis leaves an ineffaceable impression: ‘Nothing that I ever read in tale or history could ever present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible, uncontrollable passion than that under which I found him labouring when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him in London. Between his old feelings towards Harriet, from whom he was not then separated, and his new passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind suffering, “like a little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection.” His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said, “I never part from this.” . . . Again, he said more calmly, “Everyone who knows me must know that the partner of my life should be one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy. Harriet is a noble animal, but she can do neither.” I said, “It always appeared to me that you were very fond of Harriet.” Without affirming or denying this he answered, “But you did not know how I hated her sister!”’

In such a storm of the passions, little was needed to bring him to the verge of catastrophe. On July 6 he went to Godwin and asked him for his daughter. The revolutionary anti-matrimonialist was horrified, and, like the most conventional father, turned Shelley out of the house, denounced his passion as ‘licentious,’ and put his Mary into the custody of her disagreeable stepmother. This person relates in the sequel that ‘one day when Godwin was out Shelley suddenly entered the shop and went upstairs. . . . He looked extremely wild. He pushed me aside with extreme violence, and entering, walked straight to Mary. “They wish to separate us, my beloved; but Death shall unite us,” and offered her a bottle of laudanum. “ By this you can escape from tyranny; and this,” taking a small pistol from his pocket, “shall reunite me to you.” Boor Mary turned as pale as a ghost.

. . . With the tears streaming down her cheeks, she entreated him to calm himself and to go home. She told us afterwards she believed she said to him, “I won’t take this laudanum; but if you will only be reasonable and calm, I will promise to be ever faithful to you.” This seemed to calm him, and he left the house, leaving the phial of laudanum on the table.’


Elopement or suicide: there was no other way. Yet even in the delirium of love and death Shelley’s tenderness for Harriet forbade him to elope without explaining his passion to her and reassuring her of his affection. She might even prove sufficiently noble to rise to a Platonic scheme he had conceived of an ideal household — all three to live together, Harriet as the sister of his soul, and Mary as his wife. Shelley sent for Harriet, who was now living at Bath, far from the scene of turmoil. She arrived on July 14, and he broke the news to her.

Immediately after this painful conversation he wrote the following undated letter, the first of the newly discovered correspondence.


Exhausted as I am with our interview, and secure of seeing you tomorrow at 12, I cannot yet refrain from writing to you.
I am made calmer and happier by your assurances. It is true that my confidence in the integrity and disinterestedness of your conduct has ever remained firm; but 1 dreaded lest the shock might inflict on you some incurable unhappiness; lest you should doubt the continuance of my affection for you, lest you should see, what I so deeply felt, nothing but misery and despair.
My spirit turned to you for consolation, and it found it; all that vulgar minds regard as so important was considered by you with consistent and becoming contempt. Feeling still persuaded that my affection for you was undim[inlished, you offered to my view, and anticipated2 for yourself that pure and lasting happiness which is the portion only of the great and good.
For this, dearest Harriet, from my inmost Soul. I thank you. This is perhaps the greatest among the many blessings which I have received, and still am destined to receive at your hands. I loathed the very light of day, and looked upon my own being with deep and unutterable abhorrence. I lived — Mary too consented to survive — I lived in the hope of consolation and happiness from you, and I have not been deceived.

I repeat (and believe me, for I am sincere) that my attachment to you is unimpaired. I conceive that it has acquired even a deeper and more lasting character, that it is now less exposed than ever to the fluctuations of phantasy3 or caprice. Our connection was not one of passion anti impulse. Friendship was its basis, and on this basis it has enlarged and strengthened. It is no reproach to me that you have never filled my heart with an all-sufficing passion; perhaps you are even yourself a stranger to these impulses, which one day may be awakened by some nobler and worthier than me; and may you find a lover as passionate and faithful, as I shall ever be a friend affectionate and sincere!
Shall I not be more than a friend? Oh, far more — Brother, Father of your child, so dear as it is to us both, for its own sake and because we love each other.
Mrs Boinville deeply knows the human heart: she predicted that these struggles would one day arrive; she saw that friendship and not passion was the bond of our attachment. But I derided her shortsighted prophecies — I! who was so soon to become the object of their completion.
Can your feelings for me differ in their nature from those which I cherish towards you? Are you my lover whilst I am only your friend, the brother of your heart? If they do not, the purest and most perfect happiness is ours. I wish that you could see Mary; to the most indifferent eyes she would be interesting only from her sufferings, and the tyranny which is exercised upon her. I murmur not if you feel incapable of compassion and love for the object and the sharer of my passion.
If you want to draw on the Bankers before I see you, Hookham will give you the cheeks.
Adieu. Bring my sweet babe. I must ever love her for your sake.
Ever most affectionately yours

Come at 12

Nothing could be plainer here than Shelley’s urgent wish to believe that the announcement of his intended step is not a heavy blow to Harriet. Though self-absorption is annoyingly apparent in the phrase, ‘It is no reproach to me that you have never filled my heart with an all-sufficing passion,’ the feeling throughout is warmly and earnestly conciliatory. What is more, in face of this letter it is impossible to give a shadow of consideration to the misbegotten notion which Dowden fostered — namely, that at this time Shelley thought that Harriet had been unfaithful to him, and that he justified his leaving her on that ground. The reference to Mrs. Boinville and her somewhat officious predictions is a further testimony, if any were needed, to the obviousness of the estrangement from Harriet before Shelley found Mary.

‘Feeling still persuaded that my affection for you was undiminished, you offered to my view, and anticipated for yourself that pure and lasting happiness which is the portion only of the great and good.’ What Shelley imagined to be Harriet’s acquiescence in his plan was certainly no more on her part than temporizing in the hope that this infatuation of his would wear off. Her ‘consistent and becoming contempt’ for conventionality was all in Shelley’s mind, and the shock of his disclosure was a serious one to a wife who was expecting a child within five months.

In the following November, Harriet wrote her version of the affair to her friend Catherine Nugent: —

Mary was determined to secure him. She is to blame. She heated his imagination by talking of her mother, and going to her grave with him every day, till at last she told him she was dying in love for him, accompanied with the most violent gestures and vehement expostulations. He thought of me and my sufferings, and begged her to get the better of a passion as degrading to him as to herself. She then told him she would die — he had rejected her, and what appeared to her as the sublimest virtue was to him a crime. Why could we not all live together? I as his sister, She as his wife? He had the folly to believe this possible, and sent for me, then residing at Bath. You may suppose how I felt at the disclosure. I was laid up for a fortnight after. I could do nothing for myself. He begged me to live. The doctors gave me over. They said ’t was impossible. I saw his despair. The agony of my beloved sister; and owing to the great strength of my constitution I lived.4

According to Harriet, Mary’s threat of death was a decisive move. Three years before, as a girl of sixteen, she herself had successfully used this very device to secure Shelley as a husband. She had now the bitterness of believing, however mistakenly, that another sixteen-year-old had taken him from her by the same well-tried method.

She was prostrated. In this crisis of misery, Mary called on her and told her that she would give Shelley up. The poet, in despair, took poison; but luckily the dose did not prove fatal. All three, therefore, lived. As soon as he was able to be about, and still imagining that she acquiesced in his schemes, Shelley made preliminary arrangements with Harriet and his lawyer Tahourdin for an allowance to be settled on her; and as soon as he could travel he eloped with Mary to the Continent, accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont.


They fled on July 28. From Troyes, two weeks later, Shelley wrote the only letter to Harriet that has hitherto been published: —


I write to you from this detestable town; I write to show that I do not forget you; I write to urge you to come to Switzerland, where you will at last find one firm and constant friend, to whom your interests will be always dear — by whom your feelings will never wilfully be injured. From none can you expect this but me — all else are either unfeeling or selfish, or have beloved friends of their own, as Mrs. Boinville, to whom their attention and affection is confined. . . . [After a description of desolation in France, he continues] You shall hear our adventures more detailed if I do not hear at Neufchatel that I am soon to have the pleasure of communicating to you in person, and of welcoming you to some sweet retreat I will procure for you among the mountains. ... I wish you to bring with you the two deeds which Tahourdin has to prepare for you, as also a copy of the settlement. Ho not part with any of your money. But what shall be done about the books? You can consult on the spot. With love to my sweet little lanthe, ever most affectionately yours,


A month later, instead of seeing Shelley in some sweet retreat among the mountains, Harriet saw him at her door in London. The explanation was that no sooner had the party reached Switzerland than it was discovered that funds were running short, and that Shelley could not obtain further supplies without personal application in London.

Penniless on his arrival, for immediate necessaries he was obliged to turn to Harriet for twenty pounds of the money she had drawn from his account at the bank. Mary records their return to England and this visit in the Journal: —

Tuesday, September 13. We arrive at Gravesend, and with great difficulty prevail on the captain to trust us. We go by boat to London; take a coach; call on Hookham. T. H. not at home. C. treats us very ill. Call at Voisey’s. Henry goes to Harriet. Shelley calls on her, whilst poor Mary and Jane are left in the coach for two whole hours. Our debt is discharged, Shelley gets clothes for himself. Go to Strafford Hotel, dine, and go to bed.6

It appears that even this twohour conference did not permit Harriet sufficiently to voice her discontent at Shelley’s defection, for she followed it at once with a letter of lament.

The two were at cross-purposes. Harriet, entrenched with her sympathizers behind the wall of convention and public opinion, clung to the belief that Shelley’s love for Mary was to be treated as a temporary lapse from virtue, and that consequently she might render him penitent by volleys of alternate reproach and entreaty. Shelley, unconscious of sin, and steadfastly attached to Mary, yet longed to retain Harriet as a sister of his soul. In after years Browning told W. M. Rossetti that ‘Shelley, after returning from his first continental trip with Mary, consulted Basil Montagu with a view to getting back Harriet to live with them (S. and M.) and could hardly be persuaded that the thing would “never do.”’7 Shelley’s notion that Harriet and Mary would get. on together takes its place among the most absurd of his illusions.

Mary’s next entry in the Journal is dated ‘Wednesday, September 14.’

. . . Shelley calls on Harriet, who is certainly a very odd creature; he writes several letters; calls on Hookham, and brings home Wordsworth’s Excursion, of vhich we read a part, much disappointed. He is a slave. Shelley engages lodgings to which we remove in the evening.

One of Shelley’s ‘several letters’ was probably the following one to Harriet, dated September 15; for, since its contents show that he had not yet found the lodgings Mary refers to, no doubt events of the fifteenth got included in the Journal with those of the day preceding.


15th Septr 1814
I have not yet obtained a lodging. I do not know that it will be possible to do so to night.
Indeed my dear friend I cannot write to you in confidence unless my letters are sacredly confined to yourself. I entrust you with circumstances and feelings which prudence and perhaps virtue forbid to be divulged: my conduct in this will be in some respects regulated by yours. A half confidence is not enough. I cannot call her a friend with whom I am to consider concerning what and concerning whom I write. I know not what is the nature and extent of the intercourse which is hereafter to take place between us. Whatever it be let it not be contaminated by the comments and interference of others. Suffice to your own self, and despise the miserable compassion of those who cannot esteem or love.
Forgive this frankness, Harriet. Let us understand each other and ourselves. I deem myself far worthier and better than any of your nominal friends. Me you may keep as a most steadfast and affectionate friend, but I have a certain price. It is confidence and truth.
You think that I have injured you. Since I first beheld you almost, my chief study has been to overwhelm you with benefits. Even now when a violent and lasting passion for another leads me to prefer her society to yours, I am perpetually employed in devising how I can be permanently and truly useful to you, in what manner my time and my fortune may be most securely expended for your real interests. In return for this it is not well that I should be wounded with reproach and blame: so unexampled and singular an attachment demands a return far different. And it would be generous, nay even just to consider with kindness that woman whom my judgment and my heart have selected as the noblest and the most excellent of human beings.
We must agree on certain points, or our intimacy will be the mere gibe and mockery of affection.
Are you above the world, and to what extent?
My attachment to Mary neither could nor ought to have been overcome. Our spirits and [blank] are united. We met with passion, she has resigned all for me.
But I shall probably see you tomorrow. I wish you to answer this letter.
Do not call what I have said cold and unfeeling. I never affected what I did not feel. Give me faith however for what I do express when I say that I am truly and affectionately your friend.

In this almost incredibly sincere and tactless note, the most striking thing is the change of tone. Harriet has carried his confidences to Eliza and her other friends for comment and advice; yet, while naturally annoyed by this, the naïve Shelley is far more disturbed at discovering the loss of his modicum of influence over her mind. Moreover he is astonished that she feels more resentment at being put away than gratitude for his past kindnesses and his plans for benefiting her in future.
On receiving this urgent communication, Harriet neglected to let him know at once whether or not she was above the world. Instead, she incautiously divulged his new address to a lawyer who had business with him. Shelley was at this time embarrassed with debts which he saw little present hope of discharging. Immediately on his return to England creditors had begun to hound him with bailiffs, and his only safety lay in concealing his whereabouts.
Uneasy at Harriet’s silence, and at the danger to which she had exposed him, Shelley promptly addressed her again.


16 [recte 56] MARGARET STREET Sept. 16, 1814
MY DEAR HARRIET I confidently expected to have heard from you today: an answer to my letter of yesterday is indispensible to me. I am deeply solicitous to know the real state of your feelings towards myself and Mary. I will not consent that our intercourse is to be disturbed by misunderstandings so unworthy, so fatal to all peace8 as that which dictated the last letter I received from you.
This morning Cooke’s attorney called on me, and I appeared at the Insurance Office. I fear that my personal safety is endangered by your imprudence in sending him hither. It was not possible to keep the appointment in Chapel St on account of the bailiffs. My absence indeed at present from you arises from the mixed consideration of this danger and of your silence.
Where can I obtain a copy of the settlement? I am desirous that the deeds in Tahourdin’s hands should be executed without delay. I owe it to myself not to continue the subject of unjust suspicion.
I have heard from Turner. Mrs Boinville has just received intelligence of her husband’s death. She is considerably affected by this circumstance, so that probably some time will elapse before I see her,
I have reason to suppose that I am known at my present residence. I shall give you intimation of my removal, and whither, on condition of complete secrecy.
I am anxious for your answer to my letter. Collect your maturest judgment, and acquit yourself with justice towards me and Mary. United as we are we cannot be considered separately. Consider how far you would desire your future life to be placed within the influence of my superintending mind: whether you still confide sufficiently in my tried and unalterable integrity to submit to the laws which any friendship would create between us; whether we are to meet in entire and unreserved faith or allow our intimacy to subside.
On you these things depend.
Affectionately yours

(To be continued)

  1. While I have retained the numbering of these Chancery exhibits from 1 to 10, I have rearranged them according to their apparently proper order, and lettered them from A to J. In printing them, I have changed to ‘and.’ Obvious misspellings are given in footnotes. Some punctuation has been added. — AUTHOR
  2. MS. plantasy
  3. MS. anticapated
  4. Letters of Harriet Shelley to Catherine Nugent, ed. Thomas J. Wise, p. 57
  5. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen (1914); I, 427
  6. This quotation from the Journal and those which follow are drawn from Mrs. Julian Marshall’s Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  7. Letters about Shelley, ed. R. S. Garnett, p. 23
  8. MS. piece