Works Pertaining to Harriet Shelley
An Annotated Bibliography
by John Lauritsen
James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography, Vol. I: Youth's Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816, 2004. Vol. II: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822, 2005.
Although Bieri's biography has new information, it contains many mistakes, poor
generalizations, and gross speculations. Much of it reads like cribs from
Bieri's background is in clinical psychology, and
from time to time he indulges in crass psychologizing, giving the impression that
Shelley and his wife and friends were all in need of psychotherapy. An
example of Bieri's psychobabble: “Harriet's underlying
depressiveness was combined with obsessive-compulsive behavior that
perhaps had a schizoid quality.”
Bieri's ignorance of facts and social-stratification
theory are shown in his statement: “Timothy was irate. Not only
had his son not confided in him about his plans, this was a
mésalliance. A tavern-keeper's daughter was not an appropriate
wife for a Shelley who was to inherit a baronetcy.” (For a
rebuttal of this statement, see my essay, “Harriet Shelley: Wife of the Poet”.)
Edmund Blunden, Shelley: A Life Story, 1946.
The best short biography of Shelley. Blunden brings
a poet's understanding to Shelley's life and poetry. He is sympathetic
to Harriet Shelley:
perhaps who look into Shelley's life would not wish to solve the
problem of Harriet and her final tribulations.... I did not set out to
write a life of Harriet Shelley but of an English poet. Yet all that
has been imparted concerning Harriet awakens an intense admiration for
her and a desire, which does not diminish our love of Shelley, to
honour her memory....
Blunden places blame for the breakup of Shelley's first marriage squarely on William Godwin:
believe that their [Shelley's & Harriet's] main difference is
summed in the name Godwin, whose extraction of large sums from Shelley
with constantly painful effects on Shelley's life and circumstances
might make any wife miserable and draw well-meant protests from her....
Like Mark Twain, Blunden traces the anti-Harriet slanders back to the Godwins:
notion that after all Godwin was her greatest enemy would have deepened
had she foreseen how he would treat her memory. In January, 1817, he
“had evidence” that she was unfaithful to Shelley; he
worked out a date; in May he had “unquestionable authority”
and sent the story round.... What was Shelley's opinion? ... Nothing
written by Shelley about his first marriage hints at this; the few
direct confidences of his from the year 1814 ascribe his leaving
Harriet to other causes altogether; and his record of his intimate life
before and during his courtship of Mary, written in 1815 to Hogg, says
nothing of Harriet's being in the least inclined to love any one else.
Louise Schutz Boas, Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years, 1962.
The only biography of Harriet Shelley, well researched and written.
Kenneth Neill Cameron (editor), Shelley and his Circle: 1773-1822, Volume II, 1961.
Cameron's chapter, “The Last Days of Harriet
Shelley”, contains valuable information on the social standing of
the Westbrooks and the death of Harriet Shelley. This information is
analyzed in my essay, “Harriet Shelley: Wife of the Poet”.
To read it click here.
Dowden, Edward, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols., 1886.
The first full-scale Shelley biography. Dowden's
hypocrisy and affectations are fairly and forcefully denounced by Mark
Train in his essay, “In Defense of Harriet Shelley”.
R.S. Garnett (editor), Letters about Shelley: interchanged by three friends — Edward Dowden, Richard Garnett and Wm. Michael Rossetti, 1917.
The editor of this book, R.S Garnett, was the eldest
son of Richard Garnett, the confederate of Jane, Lady Shelley (hereafter Lady Shelley). The
book's bias against Harriet is shown in such things as the Index, where
Shelley's second wife is listed as “Shelley, Mary”, but the
poet's first wife, the mother of his only lawful and living
descendants, is listed by her maiden name: “Westbrook,
In these letters Richard Garnett plays Iago to
Edward Dowden, planting anti-Harriet slanders in his head, claiming
that Harriet was a coarse person from a low background, and insinuating
that if Dowden wanted to stay in the good graces of Sir Percy and
Lady Shelley, he had better play along. In her biography of
Shelley, Louise Boas comments on these letters:
she [Lady Shelley] burned papers and letters concerned with the
separation from Harriet, Dowden knew. He fought with his conscience but
gradually yielded to Lady Shelley's coadjutor, Richard Garnett. The
letters between these two gentlemen trying to be gentlemanly in their
denigration of Harriet make an amusing study in self-justification,
Victorian smugness, and determined prejudice.
Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1858.
Written by Shelley's closest friend, this brilliant
if quirky biography is essential reading — in its entirety, not
just the snippets appropriated by biographers. Hogg's loving and
sometimes humorous descriptions of Percy Bysshe and Harriet Shelley are
unforgettable. For Hogg on Harriet Shelley click here.
Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit, 1975.
Despite shortcomings, this is the best of the full-scale Shelley biographies.
John Cordy Jeaffreson, The Real Shelley: New Views of the Poet's Life, 2 vols., 1885.
A brilliant attack on the Shelley Legend: the lies
and slanders fabricated by William Godwin, Mary Shelley,
Lady Shelley, and their accomplices. Jeaffreson is overly harsh on
but sympathetic to Harriet. To read his eloquent tribute to her click here.
Ernest J. Lovell, Jr; Captain Medwin: Friend of Byron and Shelley; 1962.
An excellent biography of Thomas Medwin, a cousin
and life-long friend of Shelley's. Medwin was Shelley's first
biographer and a fine classical scholar. Lovell rises to the defence of
a man who has been treated unfairly, even viciously, by biographers.
Mary Shelley resented Medwin because he and Shelley would go off to
study Arabic or work on translations together, or in her presence would
discuss topics beyond her understanding. She later spread the false and
absurd rumor that Medwin had tried to blackmail her.
Denis Florence Mac-Carthy, Shelley's Early Life, From Original Sources, with curious incidents, letters, and writings, now first published or collected, 1873.
An odd book, which obsessively attacks Thomas
Jefferson Hogg. However, Mac-Carthy is sympathetic to Harriet, quoting
her letters at length. See Harriet's Letters.
H.J. Massingham, The Friend of Shelley: A Memoir of Edward John Trelawny, 1930.
A very readable biography of a man who wrote two
masterpieces of English Romanticism: his quasi-autobiographical novel,
Adventures of a Younger Son (1831), and his Recollections of Shelley
and Byron (1858). Massingham shows that Trelawny's criticisms of Mary
Shelley, made in his Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878),
were fair and reasonable.
Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1847; New, expanded edition edited by H. Buxton Forman, 1913.
The first biography of Shelley, written by a cousin
and life-long friend. Medwin made mistakes, but he succeeds in bringing
Shelley to life. Some of Shelley's works would never have seen the
light of day, had it not been for Medwin.
Thomas Love Peacock, Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1858-1862.
As with Hogg, this is essential reading in its
entirety, not just the snippets excerpted by biographers. Peacock gives
a loving description, and a rousing defence, of Harriet Shelley. For
Peacock on Harriet Shelley click here.
Walter Edwin Peck, Shelley: His Life and Work. Volume I: 1792-1817. Volume II: 1817-1822, 1927.
In general, a good book. Peck discusses Shelley's
poetry sympathetically and at length. However, he is sometimes taken in
by the Shelley Legend fabricated by Mary and Lady Shelley —
for example, he uncritically accepts their “misalliance”
In commenting on Harriet's letter to Catherine
Nugent (which blames Mary Godwin for Shelley's desertion), Peck makes
the point that Shelley himself had told Harriet the damaging story:
Undoubtedly this version of those stolen meetings is a less favorable
one than that usually found in Lives of the poet whom we are now
studying; but from these biographies it has been ruled out, perhaps
because it includes the testimony of Shelley against the woman with
whom he spent eight long years of his life; testimony communicated to
the woman to whom at the time of writing he was bound by the bonds of
lawful wedlock and by their three years' life together.
Peck defends Harriet, with quotes from Trelawny and
Peacock, and indirectly criticizes Lady Shelley. He writes:
“It has been necessary to spend so much time in analyzing
Shelley's relations with Harriet, because grave injustice has been done
by one chronicler after another to the memory of Shelley's first
wife.” Peck swallows the line that Mary's intellectual
superiority was the reason for Shelley's desertion (although Harriet
was a better educated woman and also, from a comparison of their
letters, a better writer). He concedes that Harriet was warmer and more
Peck is highly critical of William Godwin, and shows
that his demands on Shelley amounted to extortion. He includes as an
appendix, Francis Place's “Account of William Godwin and
Shelley”, which includes the following:
respected his own purposes, Godwin was one of the most heartless, the
most callous of men. He was perfectly regardless of the mischief he
might bring upon anyone and quite as regardless of the feelings of
others. When his own ends could be best and most promptly answered by
inflicting unhappiness on them, these matters annoyed him so little
that I have sometimes doubted, whether they did not even afford him
satisfaction, when they fell upon those who had not readily conformed
to his wishes.
Winifred Scott, Jefferson Hogg: Shelley's Biographer, London 1951.
A fine biography of Shelley's oldest and most
faithful friend. Like other close friends of Shelley, Hogg has been
treated unfairly by the standard biographers, those led down the garden
path by Mary and Lady Shelley.
Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley, London 2000.
A few mistakes, but the best of the Mary Shelley
biographies. Seymour shows that Mary was prone to dishonesty, and does
not hesitate to call her a “hack writer”.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Esdaile Notebook: A Volume of Early Poems, Kenneth Neill Cameron, Editor, Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr., Foreword. New York 1964.
The Esdaile Notebook
contains the only major body of unpublished poetry by Shelley (as of
1964). It was in the hands of Shelley's descendants until 1962, when it
was acquired by the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library.
viii [Foreword by Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr.] All my contacts
with the Worrall family have been most stimulating and friendly, one
particularly happy result being the acquisition by The Carl H.
Pforzheimer Library, from these direct descendants of the poet, of the
three letters written by the nine-year-old son of the poet in 1823-4 to
his older sister Ianthe. There also has been acquired directly from the
family such memorabilia as Shelley's baby shirt, christening robe,
silver whistle and rattle with a ring handle (clearly indicating that
even the infancy of one Percy Bysshe Shelley was not immune to the
excruciating need for solace while teething). All of these items were
presumably given by Shelley's mother to Harriet on the birth of Ianthe.
More intimately related to the background of this volume was the
acquisition — also from the Worrall family — of the
beautiful, gem-studded ring which Harriet received from the youthful
poet. [An important point here is that Shelley's mother did
accept Harriet, probably visited her, and would have welcomed her at
Field Place if Shelley himself had been less intransigent politically.
10 [Introduction by Neill Cameron] The decisive year in Shelley's life was 1811, the year in
which he was expelled from Oxford (in March) and in which he eloped
with Harriet Westbrook (in August) and was driven from the ranks of
upper-class society to be turned into a confirmed and persecuted rebel.[Comment:
Cameron has been taken in by the Mary Shelley/Lady Shelley
falsehoods. If Shelley “was driven from the ranks of
upper-class society”, it was not from having married Harriet,
whose background was only slightly below his own. For a further
discussion of Harriet's social standing, see my essay, “Harriet Shelley: Wife of the Poet” — JL]
p. 85 Shelley's poem, “To Harriet”:
Nor when some years have added judgment's store
To all thy woman sweetness, all the fire
Which throbs in thine enthusiast heart, nor then
Shall holy friendship (for what other name
May love like ours assume?) not even then
Shall custom so corrupt, or the cold forms
Of this desolate world so harden us
As when we think of the dear love that binds
Our souls in soft communion....
Robert Metcalf Smith, The Shelley Legend, 1945.
Rather rough, but essential for its thesis, that
Mary Shelley and her daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, fabricated a
myth: “the fraudulent and mistaken efforts to turn the romantic,
pagan Shelley, as Hogg, Peacock, and Trelawny knew him in the flesh,
into a Victorian angel suitable for enshrinement among the gods of
respectability and convention.” Smith demonstrates that the
defamation of Harriet Shelley derives from forged letters and slanders
spread by William Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Lady Shelley.
William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: A biography of a family, 1989.
St. Clair describes the massive destruction of
manuscripts, letters, etc. — especially everything pertaining to
Harriet Shelley — carried out by Lady Shelley and her
accomplice, Richard Garnett. Presumably, given Lady Shelley's loyalties,
any materials favorable to Harriet, or unfavorable to Mary, went into
Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, 1989.
Against heavy competition, this may be the worst of
the Mary Shelley biographies. Like an over-zealous and unprincipled
defence lawyer, Sunstein not only defends Mary at every turn, but
attacks everyone who ever crossed her path, especially including
Shelley's good friends, Trelawny, Medwin and Hogg.
Sunstein's treatment of Harriet Shelley is
particularly objectionable; not only does she swallow the slanders
spread by William Godwin, Mary and Lady Shelley — hook, line and sinker —
but she embellishes on them. Nothing in this shoddy book should be
believed without verification. Sunstein just makes things up as she
goes along, failing to distinguish between facts and her own silly
Edward John Trelawny, Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, 1878.
Writing in his mid-eighties, Trelawny comes to the defence of Harriet Shelley:
I was assured by the evidence of the few friends who
knew both Shelley and his wife — Hookham, who kept the great
library in Bond Street, Jefferson Hogg, Peacock, and one of the Godwins
— that Harriet was perfectly innocent of all offense.
Newman Ivey White, Shelley, Two volumes, 1940.
Despite numerous errors of fact and lapses in
judgment, this is still highly regarded. White stands up for Harriet in
a number of places: for example, he refutes the notion that she was
unintelligent. He explicitly argues against Dowden, who claimed that
Harriet “assumed an attitude of hard alienation towards her
husband” and separated from him of her own accord. However, he
accepts at face value Peacock's statement that Mary was intellectually
more suited to Shelley than Harriet, and that this was the main reason
for the breakup and “elopement”.
White quotes all of Harriet's alleged
“suicide” letter, but seems unaware of the problems
regarding its authenticity. He uncritically accepts a forged Shelley
letter (“[Harriet] descended the steps of prostitution...”)
as genuine, but argues against the substance of it.
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