Shelley's Lost Letters to Harriet. Ii


FROM the letters we have thus far published it is obvious that Harriet had no desire to accept the new situation which Shelley pressed upon her. With her hope of getting him back, she was well advised to delay the execution of deeds settling money on her which would confirm her acceptance of a separation. Shelley, meanwhile, felt keenly the contumely of those who ignorantly thought that he was deserting Harriet and cutting off his supplies of money to her.

During the next few days, September 16-26, we find affairs taking on a new aspect. In a letter which has disappeared, Shelley urged Harriet to decide how much of his income she expected to be settled on her. Before replying, she went to Shelley’s solicitor Amory, and divulged all the details of the plan of separation. What advantage she hoped to gain by this is not clear; but it is plain from her husband’s next letter that by her act she had broken a promise to him and injured his immediate prospects. Furthermore, her family was proposing to proceed against Shelley in the courts. At the same time, her bitterness was such that she began to extend the blame, hitherto confined to Shelley and Mary, to Mary’s father, Godwin. There is something pitifully crass in Harriet’s miserable attempt to incriminate Godwin, who sympathized with her and stigmatized Shelley’s behavior as wicked and licentious. She spread the evil report that he had sold Mary to Shelley for a substantial sum; and then, to see what he would say, visited Godwin and told him what was being said of him, wdth the assurance that she did n’t believe a word of it.

Shelley was indignant. His next letter is perhaps the sharpest that he ever wrote to Harriet: —


Sept.T 26, 1814
You abruptly closed all communication with me. You left unanswered the questions which I urged to you on the subject of money. This I should have attributed perhaps to carelessness1 on the subject had I not received information of the most unworthy and contemptible proceedings on your part.
In the first place, I find that you have detailed the circumstances of our separation to Amory, in opposition to your own agreement with me, in contradiction to your own sense of right, and with the most perfect contempt for my safety or comfort. He, as you foresaw, has determined to resign the affairs of mine that were on the point of completion.
In the second place, I learn that Miss Westbrook told MT Edward Hookham that it was the intention of your father to take legal steps in consequence of my conduct. In this proceeding, if it be indeed true that your perversity has reached this excess, you destroy your own designs. The memory of our former kindness, the hope that you might still not be utterly lost to virtue and generosity would influence me, even now, to concede far more than the law will force. If after you receive this letter you persist in appealing to the law, it is obvious that I can no longer consider you but as an enemy, as one who under the mask of friendship and affection has acted a part of the basest and blackest treachery.
If Miss Westbrook has spoken falsely, I beg you to pardon me. I would not willingly occasion you the slightest pain.
I was an idiot to expect greatness or generosity from you, that when an occasion of the sublimest virtue occurred, you would fail to play a part of mean and despicable selfishness. The pure and liberal principles of which you used to boast that you were a disciple, served only for display. In your heart it seems you were always enslaved to the vilest superstitions, or ready to accept their support for your own narrow and worldly views. You are plainly lost to me for ever. I foresee no probability of change.
The subject of money alone remains; I request you to inform me of your expectations on this head. But for the information I have received, I should have relied on your confidence that I would scrupulously transmit you a portion of whatever sums came into my possession.
I do not know that it is conducive to your interest to injure an innocent man struggling with distress. You have asserted to various persons that Godwin favored my passion for his Daughter. This, Harriet, you know to be most false. It is wanton cruelty and injustice to circulate this report.
If you can represent your conduct to me in a more favorable light than I now behold it, I shall rejoice.

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

This rebuke stung Harriet out of her silence. She labored to justify her conduct: she had gone to the lawyer only for advice, and did not intend to prosecute her husband. She reiterated her ignorant conviction that Godwin had acted the pander to his daughter and Shelley, and took this opportunity of again telling the latter what she thought of his mistress. A quicker means of losing Shelley’s affection and of lowering herself in his opinion it would be hard to find; and Shelley’s rejoinder shows that he despaired of maintaining their friendship.


Sept.r 27, 1814
I rejoice at least to observe that you desire to vindicate yourself. If reason should restore you to philosophy and to my friendship, I shall have additional occasion of satisfaction. Of this I foresee no hope. It remains for you to collect the best resources of your judgment, that you may communicate to me your final determinations, your principles and your views. If thro’ your prejudices and delusions it is impossible that we can sympathize, at least let me have that information from you, which will prevent any scheme that I may devise for your advantage from proving injurious to your plan of life.
I recommended you to apply to an attorney in case you had lost all confidence in me. You have applied to an attorney: the consequence is obvious — you are plainly lost to me, lost to the principles which are the guide and hope of my life. You say that you have employed an attorney, but that you intend to take no legal measures. This is itself a legal measure. Wherefore not let Hookham, or any common friend, be the arbiter of our differences, if any difference exists? He can explain to you my resources, my powers, my intentions. I repeat that I consider this application as an act of determined hostility.
I desire to renew no intercourse of whatsoever nature with you, whilst you act under the principles which yon recently avowed: these you were formerly the foremost 2 to stigmatize and abhor. A common love for all that the world detests was once the bond of union between us. This you have been the first to break: and you have lost a friend whom you will with difficulty replace. Your contumelious language toward Mary is equally impotent and mean. You appeal to the vilest superstitions of the most ignorant and slavish of mankind. I consider it an insult that you address such cant to me.
Harriet, if you still continued what I once hoped you would never cease to be, if you deserved my affection, with what eagerness would I devote myself to your pleasure! Desert the selfish and the worldly wretches with whom you seem to pride yourself in making common cause, and I will be your friend, not in the vulgar sense of friend, but in the most emphatic meaning of the word.
I address these exhortations to you without the slightest3 hope that they will make the least impression. You are plainly lost to me.
With respect to Godwin you are mistaken, or you deceive yourself. Godwin refuses with bitter invective and keen injustice all further communication with me. Whatever proofs you have, as you value whatever good opinion of you your narrow conduct has yet left in my breast, send them without delay.
If you feel yet any ambition to be ranked among the wise and good, write to me. I am hardly anxious however to hear from you, as I despair4 of any generosity or virtue on your part. How happy should I be if I have done you injustice.

Address me at Hookham’s. I am unable to raise money yet. I have not a farthing for myself. If therefore your resources are exhausted, I cannot assist you. I inclose H’s. letter.

This letter was written just before Shelley and Mary changed their London lodgings from Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, to 5 Church Terrace, St. Pancras, in the much meaner and obscurer district of Somers Town. Need for rigid economy and a safer hiding place from bailiffs dictated the move.

Mary’s entries in the Journal are laconic: —

Monday, September 26. Shelley goes with Peacock to Ballachy’s, and engages lodgings at Pancras. Visit from Mrs. Pringer. Read Political Justice and the Empire of the Nairs.

Tuesday, September 27. Read Political Justice; finish the Nairs; pack up and go to our lodgings in Somers Town.


The next letter is without a date. Apparently it was written on or about October 3, in answer to fresh complaints from Harriet. She has taken a new line of attack, somewhat as follows: Though Shelley has deserted his wife, he basely tries to keep his hold over her by reminding her of all the money he has spent for her benefit. Such a charge is too hysterically absurd; and in his reply, though manifestly once more disappointed in Harriet, Shelley merely appeals to her knowledge of his character to dispel these vulgar fancies. To her renewed harping on the wrong he has done her, he answers that he intended no injury, and that what has happened was inevitable. Cold comfort for poor Harriet! Yet in a postscript he becomes again the solicitous husband. Her advanced pregnancy demands that she take good care of her health; but she must be cheerful, and confident of the event. Then, — she still retains his books and part of his wardrobe, — might he have stockings, ‘hanks,’ and Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works?


[? October 3, 1814]
Harriet, you mistake — you obstinately mistake me. I never stated that I had conferred pecuniary benefits on you or that I derived from such sources a claim to your confidence and regard. I had hoped that the more substantial benefits of intellectual improvement, and the constant watchfulness 5 of a friendship, ill understood, it seems, would not have been degraded by so mean and common a mistake.
I perceive that your irritated feelings have led you into this injustice towards me. If my friendship is thus rejected, I cherish little hope of any advantage arising to either of us from our intercourse. I was deeply solicitous that what has taken place should have been avoided: that although united to one perfectly adapted to my nature by a lasting and intense affection, you should have perceived that I continued to be mindful of your happiness, that I would have superintended the progress of your mind, and have assisted you in cultivating an elevated philosophy, to which without the interest I have taken in your improvement, it is probable that you never would have aspired. If you inflexibly resist these advances of kindness, if in return for my intentions you overwhelm me with contumely and reproach, what hope remains of a favorable issue to my ill-requited attempts ?
I am united to another; you are no longer my wife. Perhaps I have done you injury, but surely most innocently and unintentionally, in having commenced any connexion with you. That injury, whatever be its amount, was not to be avoided. If ever in any degree there was sympathy in our feelings and opinions, wherefore deprive ourselves in future of the satisfaction which may result, by this contemptible cavil, these unworthy bickerings? Unless a sincere confidence be accorded by you to my undesigning truth, our intercourse for the present must be discontinued. You derive more pain than advantage from the irritations produced by my visits. The interest which I take in you is disturbed by no feelings which prevent me from calmly calculating on your happiness.
Collect yourself, I entreat you: remember what I am; recall your recollections of my character. The hint respecting my duty to settle the property on you which your letter contains proves how little you can appreciate it. You have little need to fear that I shall fail in real duty.
Affectionately yours

I hope that you will attend to the preservation of your health. I do not apprehend the slightest danger from your approaching labour. I think you may safely repose confidence in Sims’s skill. Your last labour was painful, but auspicious. I understand that cases of difficulty after that are very rare.

My dear Harriett, I am anxious for your answer. You must not do me injustice. [Injustice] you have done, so I expect you to repair it. I see Hookham to night. I am in want of stockings, hanks and Mrs W’s posthumous works.

I cannot keep the engagement made at 3 tomorrow. I hear that my personal safety would be endangered by appearing there. Will you inform me where I can call upon the persons?

Something, either the tone of this letter or a temporary return of her usual good nature, made Harriet’s next communication more conciliatory. Shelley’s indignant words could not have been pleasant to digest, and she had no desire utterly to lose his good opinion. Her milder missive was received on October 5, for which day Mary records in the Journal: ‘Peacock at breakfast. Walk to the Lake of Nangis and sail fireboats. Read Political Justice. Shelley reads the Ancient Mariner aloud. Letter from Harriet, very civil.’

In his prompt answer Shelley gladly responds to her altered tone; but he has at length come to see — what would have long been evident to any eye but his — that the distance between their minds is unbridgeable. She whom he hailed in July as the sister of his soul is in October no more than a friend, and the mother of his dear child Ianthe.


You had better continue to direct to Hookham’s.

PANCHAS Oct.T 5th 1814
Do not imagine that my feelings towards you are ever bitter or unfriendly: that it is necessary for me to wait until I am in a good-humour with you before I read your letters. The manner in which I addressed you of which you complain was produced by your own letters. No cold or distant feelings originated in me. I was desirous to be your friend in the most emphatic meaning of the word. And the milder and more kind tone of your letter gives me encouragement to hope that you at least desire my friendship.
I think I am aware of the meaning of the word. To sympathise in our principles and views, to have common pursuits 6 and habits of feeling is the origin of friendship and the attendant of every species of affection. I shall never cease to interest myself in your welfare. You were my wife, you are the mother of my child: you will bear another to me. But these are ties which only bind to worldly matters where sympathy in the great questions of human happiness is wanting. They produce mutual kindness, compassion and consideration . . . .7 but the sacrifice 8 and self devotion of an elevated friendship cannot exist when the causes have ceased to act. Do not be dispirited by this consideration. There are probably many and very excellent persons in the world who are capable of being to you as the brother of your soul, who can participate your feelings, your tastes, and your opinions. You justly remark that I am not that person. I shall watch over your interests, mark the progress of your future life, be useful to you, be your protector, and consider myself as it were your parent; but as friends, as equals, those who do not sympathise can never meet.
Do not mistake me. I am and will be your friend in every sense of the word but that most delicate and exalted one. I solemnly protest to you that not the slightest unkindness or enmity towards you has ever entered my heart. If in reflecting on your conduct I seem to discover any traces 9 of generosity and virtue I am sensibly affected. Yes! I am enough your friend to make the employment of a lawyer quite unnecessary.
I do not seek an interview until I find that you entirely understand me: until I receive some additional pledge of the correspondence of our sentiments. I do not absent myself from unfriendliness or indifference, but from a consideration of the justice which is due to me and your own feelings.
Do not send me Mary Wollstoncroft’s works. I committed an oversight in requesting them. I beg you to keep them. I can easily procure another copy. If you could copy for me and send one poem called an Indian Tale — I wish to have it. will you send also the Wandering Jew if it is with you?
How is my child? One of the circumstances most painful to me in your estrangement from Mary and myself, is the separation from this infant. I know that by the law of nature she is yours, and not mine — that your feelings towards her depend on physical sympathy, whilst mine are the result of habit and self-persuasion. I yield therefore to an hard, yet real duty.
Allow me to hear from you again soon. Let me know the state of your health.
And ever believe me, dear Harriet,
Your affectionate friend
P. B. S.

When I can procure money, I shall make my arrangement with you. I shall not converse with any lawyer on the subject. In the present case law is out of the question.

Tahourdin has called, but I have been so busily engaged with lawyers as not to see him. Have you a copy of the settlement ?

Shelley’s requests for copies of poems are interesting, but I am unable to identify An Indian Tale, unless it be an early form of Fragments of an Unfinished Drama. The request for The Wandering Jew is important, as showing Shelley’s continued interest in this production of his of four years before. Medwin, his cousin, claimed a share in its composition.


Shortly after writing this letter Shelley suffered an attack of lung trouble. Incessant worry over money and fear of arrest for debt had undermined his health. On Monday, October 10, a gloomy letter from Harriet added to his distress. She is physically upset, and miserably lonely; Eliza has taken Ianthe to Southampton, as London did not agree with the child. She will not allow Shelley to visit her, and the atmosphere of her father’s house breeds despair. But an answer of Shelley’s, telling of his illness, takes her mind off herself; and her concern for him appears in a kind letter urging him to take measures to regain his health.

While the attack of illness passed off, Shelley’s lack of funds now assumed an alarming aspect. He had mortgaged his income to Hookham the bookseller; he had gone into debt for the ingrate Godwin; the coach he had bought in 1813 for Harriet and himself remained unpaid for. The coachmaker Charters and other creditors had lost patience. On October 5 he had tried to arrange a negotiation to obtain £400 for £2400 of post-obit. On the eleventh the negotiation fell through and the money was refused. Without a friend who would help him, Shelley saw nothing ahead but the debtor’s prison for himself and starvation for those who depended on him.

In this harassed state of mind he writes to Harriet on October 12, urging her to make her quarter’s allowance from him go as far as possible, for he has no assurance that he can pay the next. He is particularly anxious to spare her the humiliation of becoming entirely dependent on her father.


Oct. l2th 1814
Altho’ I am entirely free from all apprehension as to your health, I am still very anxious to know the progress of your indisposition. Pray tell me exactly how you are. I do not know whether even now you may not have been confined. You have forbidden me to see you, or certainly my solicitude on your account would long before have led me to visit you.
Your sister is absent from town? On some accounts I regret to hear this. I wonder that her professed affection for you permitted her to leave you in the terrible state of dejection in which your letter of Sunday was written. Remember, dear Harriett, that such attachment as I profess for you is always to be counted upon: that if any exertions in my power, or my presence could amuse or benefit you, I am most anxious to perform these friendly offices, and consider as a misfortune that you feel yourself unable to accept them.
Money affairs are in a desperate 10 state. If November arrives without further success I must go to prison. These matters require an attention on my part which I shall continue to extend to them, until they are settled. I have not any money to send you. I must attempt to procure a small sum at immense sacrifice11 for present necessaries. If I can do this, and send you any, do not let your father be acquainted with it, as he will then entirely put the matter off to one who, however desirous, may not be able to procure the smallest sum. Pride is as efficacious as avarice. I do not doubt but that he would support you until I can procure money; believe me, I am most anxious to spare you this degradation and wretchedness in depending on that selfish fellow. I may remark that an affair which I expected to complete has entirely failed, and that for the present I am without hope or resource.
Do not give Sims a fee every time he comes, and make the advanced quarter last as long as you can. We find ourselves able to live at the rate of £4 a week much within our income. But I am not ignorant of the many additional expenses 12 required by your illness and expected confinement. Ionly remark my incapacity of assisting you at present.
I thank you for your kind attentions in recommending me to abstain 13 from washing my head. I take your advice, but shall not wear flannel yet — the complaint on my lungs which I mentioned is much better. I am in hopes of passing the winter without feeling another attack.
Write to me very soon. Believe me, dear Harriet
Most anxiously yours
P. B. S.


We come now to the darkest period of danger, privation, and suffering for Shelley and Mary. Professor Dowden says that ‘the days of severest trial, including those of severance [of Mary] from Shelley, lay between October 23rd and November 9th.'14 A hunted man, with a mind so distressed that his pulmonary illness returned, Shelley found it unsafe to stay at his lodgings with Mary, unsafe even to remain at Peacock’s. Execution of the claim of the coachmaker Charters was expected on November 1, and there was no possible means of staving it off except by an appeal to Harriet. The coach had been one of her pleasures in their days of comfort. It was now to be his ruin unless she could lend him temporary aid. In helping him she would be acting in her own interest, for she looked to him for income that would keep her partly independent of her father.

On or about October 25, Shelley writes to Mary: ‘I have written an extremely urgent letter to Harriet to induce her to send money. . . . . I have told Harriet that I shall be at Pancras when her answer arrives.’ Certainly the letter which follows ‘extremely urgent.'


[?October 25th, 1814]
Direct to Church Terrace
send the boy I shall be there then.
I cannot raise money soon enough. Unless you can effect something I must go to prison, and all our hopes of independence15 be finished. I see no resource. I must hide myself til the 6th and then if you can raise no money, go to prison to save my bail.
Direct to me still at Pancras,16 and tell me when I can hope to have a sum from you, and what that sum can be. I depend wholly on you. My own exertions have all failed. I tell you again and again that we must both be ruined if I cannot quiet Chartres. And I know not whether, in the event of my going to prison, my estate might not be sold for a mere trifle to benefit my creditors.
Write to me and send the money soon. Send what you can get, if in no other manner, by little and little. I should not have the conscience to press this matter so ungracefully if your danger was not almost equal to my own.
Write quickly . . . send a porter with the letter. If possible, let it contain the £30. I am certain to repay it in a fortnight.
These vexations have induced my antient illness. I am perfectly free from danger but so exhausted as scarcely able to walk. This however does not matter. I have not a friend in the world who can assist me. AIy endeavors have been in vain.
If once in prison, confined in a damp cell, without a sixpence, without a friend (for I have mortgaged my income to M.r Hookham), I must inevitably be starved to death. We have even now sold all that we have to buy bread. I am with a friend who supplies me with food and lodging, but I think you will shudder to hear that before I could sell the last valuable Mary and her sister very near perished with hunger. My dear Harriet, send quick supplies.
Very affectionately yours

This appeal in extremity, which Harriet heard and answered, closes the list of the nine new letters to her. The tenth letter was written after an interval of more than two years. It was addressed to Eliza, shortly after Harriet’s death. There is room only for the briefest summary of events in the interim, so far as they concern Harriet.


The birth, toward the end of November, 1814, of Harriet’s second child, Charles, was followed within a few weeks by the death of Shelley’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe; and, after the winter of his misery, Shelley’s skies slowly grew brighter. In the summer of 1815, as soon as he was able to do so, he gave Harriet £200 for her debts, and settled a further £200 a year on her, which, with her annual £200 from her father, was ample for all her material needs.

But Eliza and her father were determined not to let Shelley off so easily. Under their direction Harriet still refused to sign a deed of separation, and demanded additional allowance for the support of the children. On his side, Shelley felt entitled either to his separation or to the custody of one of the children, and accordingly asked for the care of Ianthe. The Westbrooks refused, and riposted with a threat to take the matter into court, and to make a public scandal of his past behavior and his atheism. Shelley replied that in such case he would stop Harriet’s allowance. Checked by this, the Westbrooks then approached Shelley’s father, but Sir Timothy declined to be drawn into the contention.

Another winter went by. In the summer of 1816 Shelley was absent with Mary on the Continent, but his friend Peacock, always a loyal supporter of Harriet, was doing what he could to straighten out her affairs. Harriet, whose childhood had been made unhappy by her father’s treatment of her, grew more and more miserable under his roof. As early as January 1815, she had written to Catherine Nugent, ‘I am still at my father’s, which is very wretched. When I shall quit this house I know not. Everything goes against me. I am weary of life. I am so restrained here that life is scarcely worth having.’

At some undetermined time between June and September, 1816, Harriet left her children and her father’s house. The immediate cause of her departure remains unknown. Shelley afterward firmly believed that Eliza, to secure her father’s fortune to herself, managed Harriet so that she left home. It may be that at her first misstep her father banished her from the house. Possibly she was so wretched that any irregular connection, however foolishly entered into, which promised affection seemed preferable to life at home. The pathetic and sordid details of her misadventures are mercifully hidden. On November 9, a few days before Shelley wrote anxiously to Hookham for news of her whereabouts, Harriet, overwhelmed with despair, had taken her long farewell of Eliza: —

Sat. eve.
— When you read this let.r I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. Do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation and misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself, lowered in the opinion of everyone, why should I drag on a miserable existence? embittered by past recollections and not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me — because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. Dear amiable woman that I had never left you, oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long and happy, but weak and unsteady have rushed on to my destruction. I have not written to Bysshe. Oh, no, what would it avail, my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him, and yet should he rec. this, perhaps he might grant my request to let Ianthe remain with you always. Dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness, with him none. My dear Bysshe, let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish. Do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. Do not refuse my last request, I never could refuse you and if you had never left me I might have lived, but as it is I freely forgive you and may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy, oh! be careful of him, and his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so will you reap the fruits hereafter. Now comes the sad task of saying farewell. Oh! I must be quick. God bless and watch over you all. You dear Bysshe and you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children — I dare not trust myself there, they are too young to regret me and ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than mine. My parents — do not regret me, I was unworthy of your love and care. Be happy all of ye, so shall my spirit find rest and forgiveness. God bless you is the last prayer of the unfortunate

To you my dear Sister I leave all my things; as they more properly belong to you than anyone and you will preserve them for Ianthe. God bless you both.17

On the same day she disappeared from her lodgings. A month later the poor girl’s body was found in the Serpentine.

The shock of this catastrophe was a terrible one to Shelley. Leigh Hunt says, ‘He never forgot it. For a time it tore his being to pieces.’ It is clear that he had had no inkling from Eliza of the ominous tone of Harriet’s letter or of her sudden disappearance. Hastening at once to London, he sought the aid of Leigh Hunt. His two concerns were to find out what had led to ‘this dark, dreadful death,’ and to demand his children at the hands of the Westbrooks. Inquiry soon satisfied him that Eliza was guilty of Harriet’s death. In an unpalatable and self-centred letter to Mary dated December 15, Shelley eagerly disclaims all responsibility in the tragedy and accuses Eliza of virtual murder. It is proper to add, however, that the authenticity of this letter has been questioned.18 Not only is it misdated, but it turned up under suspicious circumstances years later, when its ‘discoverer’ hoped to sell it for a substantial sum.

Whether or not we are to believe that Shelley was unmanly enough to hasten to excuse himself of all blame, it is certain that he was convinced that most of it lay at the Westbrooks’ door; and he wished all the more to get his children away from them as soon as he could. The two children, previous to the death of Harriet and without his knowledge, had been placed under the care of a clergyman at Warwick. Before resorting to compulsion, however, Shelley tried, by sending Mrs. Boinville as his representative and by fair speaking, to persuade the detested Eliza to relinquish little Ianthe and Charles. Letter Number 10 of the new correspondence is this politic communication.


LONDON De.r’ 18th 1816
Before you receive this letter, Boinville will probably have informed you of my resolution with respect to Ianthe. My feelings of duty as well as affection, as a father, incite me to consider every moment of absence and estrangement from these beloved and unfortunate children, as an evil, the sense of which has been increased to agony by the terrible catastrophe which is the occasion of this address. You will spare me and yourself useless struggles on this occasion, when you learn that there is no earthly consideration which would induce me to forego the exclusive and entire charge of my child. She has only one parent, and that parent, if he could ever be supposed to have forgotten them, is awakened to a sense of his duties and his claims, which at whatever price must be asserted and performed.
I called on you twice yesterday. I wish I had found you at home. I designed to have communicated intelligence which I am aware is painful to you, in a manner the least painful. As it is, allow me to assure you that I give no faith to any of the imputations generally cast on your conduct or that of M.r Westbrook towards the unhappy victim. I cannot help thinking that you might have acted more judiciously, but I do not doubt that you intended well.
My friend M.r Leigh Hunt will take charge of my children and prepare them for their residence with me. I cannot expect that your feelings towards the lady whose union with me you may excusably regard as the cause of your sister’s ruin should permit you to mention her with the honor with which Ianthe must be accustomed to regard the wife of her father’s heart. To deal frankly with you, I cannot believe that you will refrain from inculcating prepossessions on her infant mind the most adverse to my views. I do not think the worse of you for this; perhaps you would have the generosity to curb the feelings that would lead to this effect, but I cannot consent that days and weeks should pass, and that what I consider my duty and the happiness of my child should depend on your forbearance.
I had the strongest wish to consult your feelings in this affair. And I cannot but think that they would be best consulted by immediate compliance. Nothing can shake my resolution. The lapse of a few weeks would only render the execution of it more distressing to you. As to Ianthe, a child’s sorrows are over in a few hours.
M.r Hunt will attend any appointment you may be pleased to make for delivering the children to his care in my behalf. I should feel most happy in complying with any request which you might make that is consistent with that agonizing and impatient sense of duty, which will not endure the absence of my child. I can most sincerely say, that I should eagerly seize any occasion of convincing you that I bear no malice.
I purposely omit adverting to the event from which the occasion of this letter springs. All parties, I imagine, suffer too deeply to find any consolation in the unnecessary display of their sensations.
I remain, dear Eliza,
Yours very truly

I may as well say — tho’ I dare say B. has told you as much — that my applying to my attorney on this occasion was founded entirely on error.

If the ‘ December 15' letter be really Shelley’s, the disingenuousness of saying on December 18 that he gives ‘no faith to the imputations generally cast on your conduct or that of Mr. Westbrook’ is certainly very unlike the frank and sincere Shelley. The rest of the letter is straightforward enough. He recognizes that Eliza hates Mary and that she is convinced that his union with her was the beginning of Harriet’s fall. Consequently, if Eliza kept the children, she would piously teach Ianthe to loathe Mary and abhor her father’s ideas about religion; and, as he explains, this cannot be allowed.

By this letter Shelley not only did his cause no good, but in the phrase ’the lady whose union with me you may excusably regard as the cause of your sister’s ruin’ he furnished Eliza with a weapon against himself which she was not slow to use in the subsequent Chancery dispute.


Of course Shelley never regarded his union with Mary as the cause of Harriet’s ruin. He had admitted to Harriet what he considered his culpability, as we have seen, in Letter Number 3: ‘Perhaps I have done you injury, but surely most innocently and unintentionally, in having commenced any connexion with you.’ He was to blame for having foolishly fallen victim to Eliza’s matchmaking and Harriet’s appealing beauty when she threatened to kill herself for love of him. The mésalliance of ideas and sympathies had made him despondent long before he fell in love with Mary. If Shelley had been forced to remain with Harriet, misery might well have overtaken them both. When he did find Mary, their passionate love was so true, deep, and irresistible that he could never be brought to believe that it might or should have been overcome.

Though his conscience acquitted him, it was nevertheless bitterly plain that he had been used by fate as an instrument in Harriet’s tragedy. Peacock, who was Harriet’s friend no less than Shelley’s, tells us that Harriet’s untimely fate occasioned him deep agony of mind, which he felt the more because for a long time he kept the feeling to himself.’

Harriet has had her cold defamers and her impassioned champions. The apparently contradictory manifestations of her character have given each camp plenty of ammunition. Peacock says that she was always cheerful. Hogg observes that she was obsessed with the idea of suicide. She was fond of Shelley, yet proved cold to him, and voluntarily left him for several periods. She expressed warm affection for her children, but refused to nurse the infant Ianthe, and ultimately deserted them both. How can we understand her?

I am convinced that it is both mistaken and unjust to regard Harriet as an independent, responsible adult character. From Hogg we have a vivid picture of Eliza’s control over Harriet’s every thought and act. He adds, ‘Eliza had tended, guided, and ruled Harriet from her earliest infancy; she doubtless had married her, had made the match, had put her up to everything that was to be said, or done, as Shelley’s letters plainly show.'19 Such complete mental and emotional servitude to Eliza must have retarded her growth. Hogg was puzzled by her suicidal obsession. Even in her happiest and most independent days with Shelley, she made self-murder a staple of conversation, calmly discussing in all companies her resolution of doing away with herself. But is it so puzzling? It is common for the child who feels hopelessly inferior and dependent to make himself interesting and important by meditating suicide. Harriet’s mind never grew out of this childish state.

Though she married and had children, she failed to develop into a wife and mother, and remained Eliza’s little sister to the end. After the inevitable failure of her marriage, she reëntered her father’s house; and the unhappiness and restraints of the dependent child returned on her with added force. Even her children were more Eliza’s than her own. At the last, her one ineffectual effort to be an adult and live her own life led directly to her death. She was twenty-one when she died.

Where is the blame in such a case as this? Certainly Harriet was not responsible. Shelley, drawn unawares into a hopeless situation, struggled in vain to get rid of the sister and emancipate Harriet’s spirit; but Eliza’s hold was stronger than Death. In utter ignorance of their crime, Harriet’s sister and father had made her unfit for the burden of life. There is no heart that will not pity her.

Discovery of these letters has not only extended our knowledge of Shelley’s life during the obscure months of destitution and illness in the autumn of 1814, but has also given us authentic evidence of the progress of his relations with Harriet. We have now his words to her immediately after revealing his desperate love for Mary: an amazing document, eloquent of self-delusion and of his fatuous hope that he could keep her as a best friend whom he had given up as a wife. We now know how persistent, in spite of his earlier disappointments in Harriet, this delusion proved to be. He cherished it through the summer; and for weeks in the autumn he repeatedly exhorted poor Harriet to live up to the philosophy she once so docilely echoed from his lips. We now see Harriet in bitterness forgetting the fundamental generosity of his character; losing all confidence in him, and behaving as anyone but a Shelley might expect her to behave under the circumstances. She carries vulgar abuse, threat, and ignorant slander too far even for Shelley’s endurance, and his scarecrow hope of retaining her as a spiritual comrade falls to pieces before our eyes.

Yet these new letters add nothing which changes our conception of the essential nature of Shelley as a man. It would be difficult to find in all history a mind so sensitive, loving, and generous which had its best efforts more cruelly beaten by disappointment and disillusion. We feel for his sufferings, but we cannot utterly deplore them. Suffering purged him of his early errors and folly, and helped him to become before his thirtieth year the wise and courageous leader who in his love of mankind hoped all things and endured all things.

  1. MS. carlessness
  2. MS. formost.
  3. MS. slighest
  4. MS. dispair
  5. MS. watchfullness
  6. MS. persuits
  7. This is apparently Shelley’s punctuation, and does not indicate omission in the text
  8. MS. sacrafice
  9. MS. tracts
  10. MS. desparate
  11. MS. sacrafice
  12. MS. expences
  13. MS. obstrain
  14. Shelley, I, 488
  15. MS. independance
  16. MS. Pancrass
  17. First published by W. Courthope Forman, Cornhill Magazine, January 1922
  18. See London Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1927, p. 894
  19. Hogg, Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (ed. Dowden), p. 275