Shelley and Mary Godwin
In 1792 the French Revolution burst into flame, the mob of Paris stormed the Tuileries, the King of France was cast into a dungeon to await his execution, and the wild sons of anarchy flung their gauntlet of defiance into the face of Europe. In this tremendous year was born young Shelley; and perhaps his nature represented the spirit of the time.
Certainly, neither from his father nor from his mother did he derive that perpetual unrest and that frantic fondness for revolt which blazed out in the poet when he was still a boy. His father, Mr. Timothy Shelley, was a very usual, thick-headed, unromantic English squire. His mother–a woman of much beauty, but of no exceptional traits–was the daughter of another squire, and at the time of her marriage was simply one of ten thousand fresh-faced, pleasant-spoken English country girls. If we look for a strain of the romantic in Shelley’s ancestry, we shall have to find it in the person of his grandfather, who was a very remarkable and powerful character.
This person, Bysshe Shelley by name, had in his youth been associated with some mystery. He was not born in England, but in America–and in those days the name “America” meant almost anything indefinite and peculiar. However this might be, Bysshe Shelley, though a scion of a good old English family, had wandered in strange lands, and it was whispered that he had seen strange sights and done strange things. According to one legend, he had been married in America, though no one knew whether his wife was white or black, or how he had got rid of her.
He might have remained in America all his life, had not a small inheritance fallen to his share. This brought him back to England, and he soon found that England was in reality the place to make his fortune. He was a man of magnificent physique. His rovings had given him ease and grace, and the power which comes from a wide experience of life. He could be extremely pleasing when he chose; and he soon won his way into the good graces of a rich heiress, whom he married.
With her wealth he became an important personage, and consorted with gentlemen and statesmen of influence, attaching himself particularly to the Duke of Northumberland, by whose influence he was made a baronet. When his rich wife died, Shelley married a still richer bride; and so this man, who started out as a mere adventurer without a shilling to his name, died in 1813, leaving more than a million dollars in cash, with lands whose rent-roll yielded a hundred thousand dollars every year.
If any touch of the romantic which we find in Shelley is a matter of heredity, we must trace it to this able, daring, restless, and magnificent old grandfather, who was the beau ideal of an English squire–the sort of squire who had added foreign graces to native sturdiness. But young Shelley, the future poet, seemed scarcely to be English at all. As a young boy he cared nothing for athletic sports. He was given to much reading. He thought a good deal about abstractions with which most schoolboys never concern themselves at all.
Consequently, both in private schools and afterward at Eton, he became a sort of rebel against authority. He resisted the fagging- system. He spoke contemptuously of physical prowess. He disliked anything that he was obliged to do, and he rushed eagerly into whatever was forbidden.
Finally, when he was sent to University College, Oxford, he broke all bounds. At a time when Tory England was aghast over the French Revolution and its results, Shelley talked of liberty and equality on all occasions. He made friends with an uncouth but able fellow student, who bore the remarkable name of Thomas Jefferson Hogg–a name that seems rampant with republicanism–and very soon he got himself expelled from the university for publishing a little tract of an infidel character called “A Defense of Atheism.”
His expulsion for such a cause naturally shocked his father. It probably disturbed Shelley himself; but, after all, it gave him some satisfaction to be a martyr for the cause of free speech. He went to London with his friend Hogg, and took lodgings there. He read omnivorously–Hogg says as much as sixteen hours a day. He would walk through the most crowded streets poring over a volume, while holding another under one arm.
His mind was full of fancies. He had begun what was afterward called “his passion for reforming everything.” He despised most of the laws of England. He thought its Parliament ridiculous. He hated its religion. He was particularly opposed to marriage. This last fact gives some point to the circumstances which almost immediately confronted him.
Shelley was now about nineteen years old–an age at which most English boys are emerging from the public schools, and are still in the hobbledehoy stage of their formation. In a way, he was quite far from boyish; yet in his knowledge of life he was little more than a mere child. He knew nothing thoroughly–much less the ways of men and women. He had no visible means of existence except a small allowance from his father. His four sisters, who were at a boarding-school on Clapham Common, used to save their pin-money and send it to their gifted brother so that he might not actually starve. These sisters he used to call upon from time to time, and through them he made the acquaintance of a sixteen-year-old girl named Harriet Westbrook.
Harriet Westbrook was the daughter of a black-visaged keeper of a coffee-house in Mount Street, called “Jew Westbrook,” partly because of his complexion, and partly because of his ability to retain what he had made. He was, indeed, fairly well off, and had sent his younger daughter, Harriet, to the school where Shelley’s sisters studied. Harriet Westbrook seems to have been a most precocious person. Any girl of sixteen is, of course, a great deal older and more mature than a youth of nineteen. In the present instance Harriet might have been Shelley’s senior by five years. There is no doubt that she fell in love with him; but, having done so, she by no means acted in the shy and timid way that would have been most natural to a very young girl in her first love-affair. Having decided that she wanted him, she made up her mind to get Mm at any cost, and her audacity was equaled only by his simplicity. She was rather attractive in appearance, with abundant hair, a plump figure, and a pink-and-white complexion. This description makes of her a rather doll-like girl; but doll-like girls are just the sort to attract an inexperienced young man who has yet to learn that beauty and charm are quite distinct from prettiness, and infinitely superior to it.
In addition to her prettiness, Harriet Westbrook had a vivacious manner and talked quite pleasingly. She was likewise not a bad listener; and she would listen by the hour to Shelley in his rhapsodies about chemistry, poetry, the failure of Christianity, the national debt, and human liberty, all of which he jumbled up without much knowledge, but in a lyric strain of impassioned eagerness which would probably have made the multiplication-table thrilling.
For Shelley himself was a creature of extraordinary fascination, both then and afterward. There are no likenesses of him that do him justice, because they cannot convey that singular appeal which the man himself made to almost every one who met him.
The eminent painter, Mulready, once said that Shelley was too beautiful for portraiture; and yet the descriptions of him hardly seem to bear this out. He was quite tall and slender, but he stooped so much as to make him appear undersized. His head was very small-quite disproportionately so; but this was counteracted to the eye by his long and tumbled hair which, when excited, he would rub and twist in a thousand different directions until it was actually bushy. His eyes and mouth were his best features. The former were of a deep violet blue, and when Shelley felt deeply moved they seemed luminous with a wonderful and almost unearthly light. His mouth was finely chiseled, and might be regarded as representing perfection.
One great defect he had, and this might well have overbalanced his attractive face. The defect in question was his voice. One would have expected to hear from him melodious sounds, and vocal tones both rich and penetrating; but, as a matter of fact, his voice was shrill at the very best, and became actually discordant and peacock-like in moments of emotion.
Such, then, was Shelley, star-eyed, with the delicate complexion of a girl, wonderfully mobile in his features, yet speaking in a voice high pitched and almost raucous. For the rest, he arrayed himself with care and in expensive clothing, even though he took no thought of neatness, so that his garments were almost always rumpled and wrinkled from his frequent writhings on couches and on the floor. Shelley had a strange and almost primitive habit of rolling on the earth, and another of thrusting his tousled head close up to the hottest fire in the house, or of lying in the glaring sun when out of doors. It is related that he composed one of his finest poems–"The Cenci"–in Italy, while stretched out with face upturned to an almost tropical sun.