January 16, 2018

Shelley in Love

On this day in 1816 Percy Bysshe Shelley's first wife, Harriet Westbrook, committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine, in Hyde Park. She and Shelley had eloped in 1811 -- he upper-class and nineteen, she the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tavern owner -- but the desires and demands of Shelley's radical Romanticism had caused their estrangement. Shelley began their relationship with the idealism that Harriet might be molded into "a really noble soul, in all that can make its nobleness useful and lovely." In practice, given Shelley's affair with sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin after just two years of marriage to Harriet, this meant a proposal that all three should live if not together, then at least amicably. Harriet refused, Shelley left for Europe on his second elopement, and Harriet went back to her parents, then out on her own with her children, then without her children and with a soldier who deserted her, and whose child she carried at her death. Her suicide note, addressed to her sister, Eliza, and Shelley, is written by one who has arrived at the opposite of Shelley's defiant unconventionality, and who viewed suicide as the only option: "I could never be anything but a source of vexation and misery to you all.... Too wretched to exert myself, lowered in the opinion of everyone, why should I drag on a miserable existence?" Much of the note concerns her wish that her and Shelley's children, or at least the youngest of the two, should now go to their aunt rather than their father. The appeal to Shelley is made upon grounds of reason and guilt:
    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 & if you had never left me I might have lived, but as it is I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of....
Unswayed, Shelley applied for custody of their two children, and to make his case more presentable, in his lawyer's eyes anyway, he and Mary Godwin married. But when asked by the court about his marital habits and beliefs, Shelley denounced the institution of marriage, and in a precedent-setting decision, custody was denied. The biographers of Shelley and Mary Shelley cite much evidence to support the view that both felt themselves haunted by their feelings of responsibility for Harriet's fate -- though the list of suicides, premature deaths, abandoned children and fractured relationships in their circle is so long that such hauntings must have arrived from all directions.

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