A great deal has been said and written in favor of early marriage; and, in a general way, early marriage may be an admirable thing. Young men and young women who have no special gift of imagination, and who have practically reached their full mental development at twenty-one or twenty-two—or earlier, even in their teens—may marry safely; because they are already what they will be. They are not going to experience any growth upward and outward. Passing years simply bring them more closely together, until they have settled down into a sort of domestic unity, by which they think alike, act alike, and even gradually come to look alike.
But early wedlock spells tragedy to the man or the woman of genius. In their teens they have only begun to grow. What they will be ten years hence, no one can prophesy. Therefore, to mate so early in life is to insure almost certain storm and stress, and, in the end, domestic wreckage.
As a rule, it is the man, and not the woman, who makes the false step; because it is the man who elects to marry when he is still very young. If he choose some ill-fitting, commonplace, and unresponsive nature to match his own, it is he who is bound in the course of time to learn his great mistake. When the splendid eagle shall have got his growth, and shall begin to soar up into the vault of heaven, the poor little barn-yard fowl that he once believed to be his equal seems very far away in everything. He discovers that she is quite unable to follow him in his towering flights.
The story of Percy Bysshe Shelley is a singular one. The circumstances of his early marriage were strange. The breaking of his marriage-bond was also strange. Shelley himself was an extraordinary creature. He was blamed a great deal in his lifetime for what he did, and since then some have echoed the reproach. Yet it would seem as if, at the very beginning of his life, he was put into a false position against his will. Because of this he was misunderstood until the end of his brief and brilliant and erratic career.
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.
But such as he was, and though he was not yet famous, Harriet Westbrook, the rosy-faced schoolgirl, fell in love with him, and rather plainly let him know that she had done so. There are a thousand ways in which a woman can convey this information without doing anything un-maidenly; and of all these little arts Miss Westbrook was instinctively a mistress.
She played upon Shelley's feelings by telling him that her father was cruel to her, and that he contemplated actions still more cruel. There is something absurdly comical about the grievance which she brought to Shelley; but it is much more comical to note the tremendous seriousness with which he took it. He wrote to his friend Hogg:
Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way, by endeavoring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice; resistance was the answer. At the same time I essayed to mollify Mr. Westbrook, in vain! I advised her to resist. She wrote to say that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me and throw herself on my protection.
Some letters that have recently come to light show that there was a dramatic scene between Harriet Westbrook and Shelley—a scene in the course of which she threw her arms about his neck and wept upon his shoulder. Here was a curious situation. Shelley was not at all in love with her. He had explicitly declared this only a short time before. Yet here was a pretty girl about to suffer the "horrible persecution" of being sent to school, and finding no alternative save to "throw herself on his protection"—in other words, to let him treat her as he would, and to become his mistress.
The absurdity of the situation makes one smile. Common sense should have led some one to box Harriet's ears and send her off to school without a moment's hesitation; while as for Shelley, he should have been told how ludicrous was the whole affair. But he was only nineteen, and she was only sixteen, and the crisis seemed portentous. Nothing could be more flattering to a young man's vanity than to have this girl cast herself upon him for protection. It did not really matter that he had not loved her hitherto, and that he was already half engaged to another Harriet—his cousin, Miss Grove. He could not stop and reason with himself. He must like a true knight rescue lovely girlhood from the horrors of a school!
It is not unlikely that this whole affair was partly managed or manipulated by the girl's father. Jew Westbrook knew that Shelley was related to rich and titled people, and that he was certain, if he lived, to become Sir Percy, and to be the heir of his grandfather's estates. Hence it may be that Harriet's queer conduct was not wholly of her own prompting.
In any case, however, it proved to be successful. Shelley's ardent and impulsive nature could not bear to see a girl in tears and appealing for his help. Hence, though in his heart she was very little to him, his romantic nature gave up for her sake the affection that he had felt for his cousin, his own disbelief in marriage, and finally the common sense which ought to have told him not to marry any one on two hundred pounds a year.
So the pair set off for Edinburgh by stagecoach. It was a weary and most uncomfortable journey. When they reached the Scottish capital, they were married by the Scottish law. Their money was all gone; but their landlord, with a jovial sympathy for romance, let them have a room, and treated them to a rather promiscuous wedding-banquet, in which every one in the house participated.
Such is the story of Shelley's marriage, contracted at nineteen with a girl of sixteen who most certainly lured him on against his own better judgment and in the absence of any actual love.
The girl whom he had taken to himself was a well-meaning little thing. She tried for a time to meet her husband's moods and to be a real companion to him. But what could one expect from such a union? Shelley's father withdrew the income which he had previously given. Jew Westbrook refused to contribute anything, hoping, probably, that this course would bring the Shelleys to the rescue. But as it was, the young pair drifted about from place to place, getting very precarious supplies, running deeper into debt each day, and finding less and less to admire in each other.
Shelley took to laudanum. Harriet dropped her abstruse studies, which she had taken up to please her husband, but which could only puzzle her small brain. She soon developed some of the unpleasant traits of the class to which she belonged. In this her sister Eliza—a hard and grasping middle-aged woman—had her share. She set Harriet against her husband, and made life less endurable for both. She was so much older than the pair that she came in and ruled their household like a typical stepmother.
A child was born, and Shelley very generously went through a second form of marriage, so as to comply with the English law; but by this time there was little hope of righting things again. Shelley was much offended because Harriet would not nurse the child. He believed her hard because she saw without emotion an operation performed upon the infant.
Finally, when Shelley at last came into a considerable sum of money, Harriet and Eliza made no pretense of caring for anything except the spending of it in "bonnet-shops" and on carriages and display. In time—that is to say, in three years after their marriage—Harriet left her husband and went to London and to Bath, prompted by her elder sister.
This proved to be the end of an unfortunate marriage. Word was brought to Shelley that his wife was no longer faithful to him. He, on his side, had carried on a semi-sentimental platonic correspondence with a schoolmistress, one Miss Hitchener. But until now his life had been one great mistake—a life of restlessness, of unsatisfied longing, of a desire that had no name. Then came the perhaps inevitable meeting with the one whom he should have met before.
Shelley had taken a great interest in William Godwin, the writer and radical philosopher. Godwin's household was a strange one. There was Fanny Imlay, a child born out of wedlock, the offspring of Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant, and of Mary Wollstonecraft, whom Godwin had subsequently married. There was also a singularly striking girl who then styled herself Mary Jane Clairmont, and who was afterward known as Claire Clairmont, she and her brother being the early children of Godwin's second wife.
One day in 1814, Shelley called on Godwin, and found there a beautiful young girl in her seventeenth year, "with shapely golden head, a face very pale and pure, a great forehead, earnest hazel eyes, and an expression at once of sensibility and firmness about her delicately curved lips." This was Mary Godwin—one who had inherited her mother's power of mind and likewise her grace and sweetness.
From the very moment of their meeting Shelley and this girl were fated to be joined together, and both of them were well aware of it. Each felt the other's presence exert a magnetic thrill. Each listened eagerly to what the other said. Each thought of nothing, and each cared for nothing, in the other's absence. It was a great compelling elemental force which drove the two together and bound them fast. Beside this marvelous experience, how pale and pitiful and paltry seemed the affectations of Harriet Westbrook!
In little more than a month from the time of their first meeting, Shelley and Mary Godwin and Miss Clairmont left Godwin's house at four o 'clock in the morning, and hurried across the Channel to Calais. They wandered almost like vagabonds across France, eating black bread and the coarsest fare, walking on the highways when they could not afford to ride, and putting up with every possible inconvenience. Yet it is worth noting that neither then nor at any other time did either Shelley or Mary regret what they had done. To the very end of the poet's brief career they were inseparable.
Later he was able to pension Harriet, who, being of a morbid disposition, ended her life by drowning—not, it may be said, because of grief for Shelley. It has been told that Fanny Imlay, Mary's sister, likewise committed suicide because Shelley did not care for her, but this has also been disproved. There was really nothing to mar the inner happiness of the poet and the woman who, at the very end, became his wife. Living, as they did, in Italy and Switzerland, they saw much of their own countrymen, such as Landor and Leigh Hunt and Byron, to whose fascinations poor Miss Clairmont yielded, and became the mother of the little girl Allegra.
But there could have been no truer union than this of Shelley's with the woman whom nature had intended for him. It was in his love-life, far more than in his poetry, that he attained completeness. When he died by drowning, in 1822, and his body was burned in the presence of Lord Byron, he was truly mourned by the one whom he had only lately made his wife. As a poet he never reached the same perfection; for his genius was fitful and uncertain, rare in its flights, and mingled always with that which disappoints.
As the lover and husband of Mary Godwin, there was nothing left to wish. In his verse, however, the truest word concerning him will always be that exquisite sentence of Matthew Arnold:
"A beautiful and ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings against the void in vain."