Monday, November 5, 2012
The mystery of Harriet Shelley ...
... did she drown herself - or was she pushed?
Poor Harriet was the much maligned first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who plucked her from her respectable school for young ladies in Clapham (where she was a fellow boarder with his sister) at the tender age of 16 and ran off north with her to get married.
She was a spirited soul, as her few surviving letters show, who indulged her young husband's idealistic fads, handing out revolutionary leaflets and transcribing his manuscripts. And having babies. And putting up with his selfish crushes on other women.
But she suffered a proper dumping when he eventually came into the orbit of the philosopher William Godwin and his daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The story goes that, highly pregnant with her third child (whose father may or may not have been Shelley or an army officer), she walked into the Serpentine one November day in 1816 and drowned herself, aged 21.
Little is known about poor Harriet beyond her tragic end. There is no portrait and only a few letters to show she ever existed. She had brought disgrace on her own family and was living in lodgings at the time of her death, though her father, a well-to-do merchant, provided her with money. Her existence seems to have been well and truly suppressed by Shelley, Godwin and his daughter, a fact which has outraged some and prompted support from some notable supporters down the centuries, most notably Mark Twain who wrote a sizzling essay, In Defence of Harriet Shelley.
More recently she has become the subject of a conspiracy theory which places William Godwin in the frame as murderer.
Godwin spent most of his life in debt and buttonholing people for "loans". Shelley provided him with generous funds to keep him and his dire bookselling business afloat. The theory goes that Shelley looked as if he was going to return to his wife (they had had a second official marriage) and Godwin, seeing his income under serious threat, managed somehow to do away with Harriet. It is a very strange thing that her suicide note, which many claim to be a forgery given that it is not in her hand, was found among Godwin's papers after his death.
Did Mary Shelley, who hated Harriet with a vengeance, know about or even collude in the crime and did some trace of it - or rather her or her father's guilt - subsequently find its way into her masterpiece, Frankenstein?
That is the fascination of conspiracy theories.
In the meantime I was between Writers' Houses and concocted an imaginary portrait of poor Harriet Westbrook Shelley.