These pages are devoted to the memory of Harriet
Shelley (born Harriet Westbrook), first wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the mother of his
An intelligent, beautiful young woman, Harriet was
happily married to Shelley for three years. To her Shelley dedicated
his first great poem, Queen Mab.
Then Shelley began to behave erratically and, when Harriet was pregnant
with their second child, he deserted her, travelling to the Continent
with two teenaged girls, Mary Godwin and Jane (later Clair) Clairmont.
Two and a half years later, Harriet's body was found in the Serpentine
lake in London.
For nearly two centuries Harriet Shelley has been
the victim of vicious slanders. Even before Harriet's death in 1816, at
the age of 21, William Godwin had begun to spread rumors that she had
been unfaithful. (As the father of Mary Godwin, Shelley's mistress and
later his second wife, Godwin was hardly neutral.) Later in the
century, Mary Shelley and her son's wife, Jane, Lady Shelley, revived
the slander campaign against Harriet — striving to rescue Mary's
reputation by sacrificing Harriet's. Mary and her daughter-in-law
suppressed and bowdlerized Shelley's writings, destroyed pages from
diaries, and manufactured lies to the effect that Harriet came from
“a low background” and had been responsible for the breakup
of the marriage. Beginning with Edward Dowden, biographers have
succumbed to, and embellished upon, the fabrications of Mary and Lady Shelley.
Harriet Shelley deserves to be remembered as she
was: a good and lovely woman. To this end, the material below:
• Mark Twain's most brilliant critical essay: “In Defence of Harriet Shelley”. Here the author of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn,
powerfully and movingly defends the reputation of Harriet Shelley. With
iron logic he assails the lies and malice of Harriet's detractors, and,
with verbal pyrotechnics of his own, he ridicules the hypocritical and
affected prose of Edward Dowden, Shelley's first full-length
biographer. Although Twain usually hit the bull's-eye, he made a few,
non-consequential mistakes, which in this edition are corrected through
footnotes. To read his essay click here.
• To read Charles Neider's comments on Twain's essay, from his Introduction to The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, click here.
• “Harriet Shelley: Wife of the Poet”
by John Lauritsen. This essay by myself addresses three contentious
issues: 1) the reasons for Shelley's desertion, 2) Harriet versus Mary
in terms of social background, and 3) Harriet's death. To read it click here.
• Thomas Love Peacock was a good friend of both Percy Bysshe and Harriet Shelley. In his Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley he vividly describes Harriet, and eloquently defends her character. To read excerpts from the Memoirs click here.
• Thomas Jefferson Hogg
— Shelley's friend at Oxford and for the rest of his life —
knew Harriet well. To read his descriptions of her, taken from The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1858), click here.
• John Cordy Jeaffreson's book, The Real Shelley: New Views of the Poet's Life
(London 1885), greatly upset Lady Shelley and her leading
accomplice, Richard Garnett. Most unforgivably, Jeaffreson told the
truth, thus undermining the Shelley Legend, which they were still in
the process of fabricating. Jeaffreson was overly harsh on Shelley, but
favorably disposed towards Harriet. To read his vivid summary of her
virtues, and a sharp rejection of Lady Shelley's innuendoes against her, click here.
• Percy Bysshe Shelley expressed his deep grief over the death of Harriet in a poem beginning, “The cold earth slept below”, written at the end of December 1816. To read the poem, with comments by Harriet Shelley's biographer, Louise Boas, click here.
• Thomas Love Peacock describes Harriet Shelley as a good
letter writer, yet few of her letters survive. Obviously, these were
among the things related to Harriet that were destroyed by
Lady Shelley. The few letters that do survive, written when she
quite young, show a command of English prose, empathy with her
correspondents, and a lively imagination. To read Letters of Harriet Shelley click here.
• For an Annotated Bibliography with excerpts, “Works Pertaining to Harriet Shelley”, click here.
Of related interest: Male Love Among the English Romantics
Home Page of John Lauritsen