Letters of Harriet Shelley

From: Louise Schutz Boas, Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years, Oxford University Press, London 1962.

                Thomas Hookham:
                35 Cuffe Street, Stephens Green, Dublin
                                March 12 [1812]

My dear Sir,
    We arrived here last Tuesday after a most tedious passage of forty hours, during the whole of which time we were dreadfully ill. I'm afraid no diet will prevent us from the common lot of suffering when obliged to take a sea voyage.
    Mr. S. promised you a recital of the horrible events that caused us to leave Wales. I have undertaken the task, as I wish to spare him, in the present nervous state of his health, every thing that can recall to his mind the horrors of that night, which I will relate.
    On Friday night, the 26th of February, we retired to Bed between ten and eleven o'clock. We had been in bed about half an hour, when Mr. S. heard a noise proceeding from one of the parlours. He immediately went downstairs with two pistols, which he had loaded that night, expecting to have occasion for them. He went into the billiard room, where he heard footsteps retreating. He followed into an other little room, which was called an office. He there saw a man in the act of quitting the room through a glass window which opens into the shrubbery. The man fired at Mr. S., which he avoided. Bysshe then fired, but it flashed in the pan. The man then knocked Bysshe down, and they struggled on the ground. Bysshe then fired his second pistol, which he thought wounded him in the shoulder, as he uttered a shriek and got up, when he said these words: By God, I will be revenged! I will murder your wife. I will ravish your sister. By God, I will be revenged. He then fled — as we hoped for the night. Our servants were not gone to bed, but were just going, when this horrible affair happened. This was about eleven o'clock. We all assembled in the parlour, where we remained for two hours. Mr. S. then advised us to retire, thinking it impossible he would make a second attack. We left Bysshe and our man-servant, who had only arrived that day, and who knew nothing of the house, to sit up. I had been in bed three hours when I heard a pistol go off. I immediately ran down the stairs, when I perceived that Bysshe's flannel gown had been shot through, and the window curtain. Bysshe had sent Daniel to see what hour it was, when he heard a noise at the window. He went there, and a man thrust his arm through the glass and fired at him. Thank Heaven! the ball went through his gown and he remained unhurt. Mr. S. happened to stand sideways; had he stood fronting, the ball must have killed him. Bysshe fired his pistol, but it would not go off. He then aimed a blow at him with an old sword which we found in the house. The assassin attempted to get the sword from him, and just as he was pulling it away Dan rushed into the room, when he made his escape.
    This was at four in the morning. It had been a most dreadful night, the wind was as loud as thunder, and the rain descended in torrents. Nothing has been heard of him; and we have every reason to believe it was no stranger, as there is a man of the name of Leeson, who the next morning that it happened went and told the shopkeepers of Tremadoc that it was a tale of Mr. Shelley's to impose upon them, that he might leave the country without paying his bills. This they believed, and none of them attempted to do anything towards his discovery.
    We left Tanyrallt on Saturday, and staid till everything was ready for our leaving the place, at the Sol General of the county's house, who lived seven miles from us. This Mr. Leeson had been heard to say that he was determined to drive us out of the country. He once happened to get hold of a little pamphlet which Mr. S. had printed in Dublin; this he sent up to Government. In fact he was forever saying something against us, and that because we were determined not to admit him to our house, because we had heard his character and from many acts of his we found that he was malignant and cruel to the greatest degree.
    The pleasure we experienced at reading your letter you may conceive, at the time when every one seemed to be plotting against us ... pardon me if I wound your feelings by dwelling on this subject. Your conduct has made a deep impression on our minds, which no length of time can erase. Would that all mankind were like thee.
    Mr. Shelley and my sister unite with me in kind regards; whilst I remain,
                                Yours truly,
                                    H. SHELLEY.


From: Denis Florence Mac-Carthy, Shelley's Early Life, From Original Sources, with curious incidents, letters, and writings, now first published or collected, John Camden Hotten, London 1873.

    Harriet Shelley to Eliza Hitchener.
                    Dublin, March 18th [1812.]

    My dear Portia,—— .... As Percy has sent you such a large Box so full of inflammable matter, I think I may be allowed to send a little but not [of] such a nature as his. I sent you two letters in a newspaper, which I hope you received safe from the intrusion of Post masters. I sent, one of the Pamphlets to my Father in a newspaper, which was opened and charged, but which was very trifling when compared to what you and Godwin paid.
    “I believe I have mentioned a new acquaintance of ours, a Mrs. Nugent, who is sitting in the room now and talking to Percy about Virtue. You see how little I stand upon ceremony. I have seen her but twice before, and I find her a very agreeable, sensible woman. She has felt most severely the miseries of her country in which she has been a very active member. She visited all the Prisons in the time of the Rebellion to exhort the people to have courage and hope. She says it was a most dreadful task; but it was her duty, and she would not shrink from the performance of it. This excellent woman, with all her notions of Philanthropy and justice, is obliged to work for her subsistence — to work in a shop which is a furrier's; there she is every day confined to her needle. Is it not a thousand pities that such a woman should be so dependent upon others? She has visited us this evening for about three hours, and is now returned home. The evening is the only time she can get out in the week; but Sunday is her own, and then we are to see her. She told Percy that her country was her only love, when he asked her if she was married. She called herself Mrs. I suppose on account of her age, as she looks rather old for a Miss.     She has never been out of her own country, and has no wish to leave it.
    “This is St. Patrick's night, and the Irish always get very tipsy on such a night as this. The Horse Guards are pacing the streets and will be so all the night, so fearful are they of disturbances, the poor people being very much that way inclined, as Provisions are very scarce in the southern counties. Poor Irish People, how much I feel for them. Do you know, such is their ignorance that when there is a drawing-room held they go from some distance to see the people who keep them starving to get their luxuries; they will crowd round the state carriages in great glee to see those within who have stripped them, of their rights, and who wantonly revel in a profusion of ill-gotten luxury whilst so many of those harmless people are wanting Bread for their wives and children. What a spectacle!  People talk of the fiery spirit of these distressed creatures, but that spirit is very much broken and ground down by the oppressors of this poor country. I may with truth say there are more Beggars in this city than any other in the world. They are so poor they have hardly a rag to cover their naked limbs, and such is their passion for drink that when you relieve them one day you see them in the same deplorable situation the next. Poor creatures, they live more on whiskey than anything, for meat is so dear they cannot afford to purchase any. If they had the means I do not know that they would, whiskey being so much cheaper and to their palates so much more desirable. Yet how often do we hear people say that Poverty is no evil. I think if they had experienced it they would soon alter their tone. To my idea it is the worst of all evils, as the miseries that flow from it are certainly very great; the many crimes we hear of daily are the consequences of Poverty, and that, to a very great degree; I think, the Laws are extremely unjust — they condemn a Person to Death for stealing 13 shillings and 4 pence.
    “Disperse the Declarations. Percy says the farmers are very fond of having something posted upon their walls.
    “Percy has sent you all his Pamphlets with the Declaration of Rights, which you will disperse to advantage. He has not many of his first Address, having taken great pains to circulate them through this city.
    “All thoughts of an Association are given up as impracticable. We shall leave this noisy town on the 7th of April, unless the Habeas Corpus Act should be suspended, and then we shall be obliged to leave here as soon as possible.    Adieu.”

Mac-Carthy comments: “The chief interest of poor Harriet's letter lies in the additional evidence which it gives of her intelligence, good nature; and innocence....”


From Boas, op. cit:

[Boas] They continued northwards, and came once more to Edinburgh. On the 20th of October [1813] Harriet expressed her joy in being there:

My dear Mrs. Nugent
    My last Letter was written from the Lakes of Cumberland where we intended to stay till next spring but not finding any House that would suit us we came on to this far famed City. A little more than two years has passed since I made my first visit here to be united to Mr. Shelley; to me they have been the happiest and the longest years of my life. The rapid succession of events since that time make the two years appear unusually long. I think the regular method of measuring Time is by the number of different ideas which a rapid succession of events naturally give rise to. When I look back to the time before I was married I seem to feel I have lived a long time; tho' my age is but eighteen yet I feel as if I was much older.
    Why are you so silent, my dear Friend? I earnestly hope you are not ill; I am afraid it is nearly a month since I heard from you. I know well you would write oftener if you could. What is your employment on a Sunday? I think on those days you might snatch a few minutes to gratify my wishes. Do not direct your letter to me at Mrs. Calvert's but to the Post Office in this City. We think of remaining here all this Winter. Tho' by no means fond of cities yet I wished to come here, for when we went to the Lakes we found such a set of human beings living there that it took off all our desire of remaining among the mountains. This City is, I think, much the best. The people here are not so intolerant as they are in London. Literature stands on a higher footing here than any where else. My darling Babe is quite well & very much improved. Pray let me hear from you to tell me if I can do any thing for you. Mr. Shelley joins me and Eliza in kind regards to you whilst I remain
Your affectionate friend
H. S.
Do not tell anyone where we are.

[Boas] As with today's air-letters, all was crowded in the single sheet. It is a revealing letter, showing that all was well within the family.


From Boas, op. cit.:

[Boas] A month after Shelley's departure for the continent with Mary, Harriet was bravely trying to piece together her life, retain her interest in the world, and keep in touch with friends. She uttered no strictures against her husband and did not mention Mary:

MY DEAR MRS. NUGENT [26 August 1814]

    I am afraid you will think I am not sincere when I tell you what pleasure the sight of your hand writing caused me. I think as you do with the greatest horror on the present state of things, giving the Slave Trade to France for seven years; can anything be more horrible. Peace has been dearly purchased at this price. I am dreadfully afraid America will never hold out against the numbers sent to invade her. How senseless all these rejoicings are; deluded beings they little know the many injustices that are to ensue. I expect France will soon have another Revolution. The present King is not at all fitted to govern such a Nation. Mr Shelley is in France; you will be surprised to find I am not with him but times are altered, my dear friend, & tho' I will not tell you what has passed still do not think that you cloud my mind with your sorrows. Every age has its cares; God knows I have mine. Dear Ianthe is quite well, she is fourteen months old, & has six teeth. What I should have done without this dear Babe & my Sister I know not. This world is a Scene of heavy trials to us all. I little expected ever to go thro' what I have but time heals the deepest wounds & for the sake of that sweet Infant I hope to live many years. Write to me often my dear friend, you know not what pleasure your letters give me. I wish you lived in England that I might be near you. Tell me how you are in health. Do not despond tho' I see nothing to hope for when all that was virtuous becomes vicious & depraved. So it is. Nothing is certain in this world; I suppose there is an other where those that have suffered keenly here will be happy. Tell me what you think of this. My Sister is with me. I wish you knew her as well as I do. She is worthy of your love. Adieu dear friend. May you still be happy is the first wish of your ever faithful friend
Ianthe is well & very engaging.

[Boas] The cause of her sorrow is not definitely stated beyond the fact that she is not with her husband in France. Three months later she unburdened her heart, giving her version of Shelley's defection; as Harriet was not given to exaggerations of fact or to fiction-writing, her relation of the development of love between Shelley and Mary must have been built upon Shelley's account to her. In revealing to Hogg and to Harriet that Mary had been the first to declare love, Shelley was excusing himself, as he had in his accounts of Harriet to Hogg and Miss Hitchener. His letters were echoing his Gothic novels. Some of the phrasing in Harriet's is so unlike her usual style as to make the attribution to Shelley's narration fairly safe:

My dear Mrs. Nugent
    Your fears are verified. Mr. Shelley has become profligate & sensual, owing entirely to Godwin's Political Justice. The very great evil that book has done is not to be told. The false doctrines there contained have poisoned many a young & virtuous mind. Mr. Shelley is living with Godwin's two daughters — one by Mary Wollstonecraft, the other the daughter of his present wife, called Clairmont. I told you some time back Mr. S. was to give Godwin £3000. It was in effecting the accomplishment of this scheme that he was obliged to be at Godwin's house, & Mary was determined to seduce him. She is to blame. She heated his imagination by talking of her mother & going to her grave with him every day till at last she told him she was dying in love for him, accompanied with the most violent gestures & vehement expostulations. He thought of me & my sufferings & begged her to get the better of a passion degrading to him as herself. She then told him she would die — he had rejected her & what appeared to her as the sublimest virtue was to him a crime. Why could we not all live together? I as his Sister, she as his wife? He had the folly to believe this possible, & sent for me, then residing at Bath. You may suppose how I felt at the disclosure. I was laid up for a fortnight after. I could do nothing for myself. He begged me to live. The doctors gave me over. They said 'twas impossible. I saw his despair, the agony of my beloved sister; & owing to the great strength of my constitution I lived; & here I am, my dear friend, waiting to bring an other infant into this woful world. Next month I shall be confined. He will not be near me, no, he cares not for me now. He never asks after me or sends me word how he is going on. In short, the man I once loved is dead, this is a vampire, his character is blasted for ever. Nothing can save him now. Oh! if you knew what I have Suffered your heart would drip blood for my miseries. When may I expect to see you? Do tell me, my dear friend, & write soon. Eliza is at Southampton with my darling babe; London does not agree with her. Will you enquire for a family of the name of Colthurst in Dublin? There is one Son & daughter growing up living with the mother. I want the direction as I know them very well. Adieu my dear friend may you be happy is the best wish of her who sincerely loves you

                            H. SHELLEY

Comment by John Lauritsen: In every way Harriet Shelley's few surviving letters, written when she was still quite young, are superior to any letters written by Mary Godwin/Shelley in her entire lifetime. Harriet's letters display a greater command of English prose, a greater empathy with her correspondents, a livelier imagination, a better sense of rhythm, and keener insights. On the basis of this comparison, we should conclude that Harriet was not only the better educated woman, which indeed she was, but also the more intelligent.

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