Thomas Love Peacock on Harriet Shelley

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866).
Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley
From the Halliford edition of the works of Thomas Love Peacock edited by H.F.B. Brett-Smith & C.E. Jones.
London and New York 1934.

    Following are excerpts from Peacock's Memoirs, which pertain to Shelley's wife, Harriet:

    To the circumstances of Shelley's first marriage I find no evidence but in my own recollection of what he told me respecting it. He often spoke to me of it; and with all allowance for the degree in which his imagination coloured events, I see no improbability in the narration.
    Harriet Westbrook, he said, was a schoolfellow of one of his sisters; and when, after his expulsion from Oxford, he was in London, without money, his father having refused him all assistance, this sister had requested her fair schoolfellow to be the medium of conveying to him such small sums as she and her sisters could afford to send, and other little presents which they thought would be acceptable. Under these circumstances the ministry of the young and beautiful girl presented itself like that of a guardian angel, and there was a charm about their intercourse which he readily persuaded himself could not be exhausted in the duration of life. The result was that in August, 1811, they eloped to Scotland, and were married in Edinburgh. [Peacock's note: Not at Gretna Green, as stated by Captain Medwin.] Their journey had absorbed their stock of money. They took a lodging, and Shelley immediately told the landlord who they were, what they had come for, and the exhaustion of their resources, and asked him if he would take them in, and advance them money to get married and to carry them on till they could get a remittance. This the man agreed to do, on condition that Shelley would treat him and his friends to a supper in honour of the occasion. It was arranged accordingly; but the man was more obtrusive and officious than Shelley was disposed to tolerate. The marriage was concluded, and in the evening Shelley and his bride were alone together, when the man tapped at their door. Shelley opened it, and the landlord said to him — “It is customary here at weddings for the guests to come in, in the middle of the night, and wash the bride with whisky.” “I immediately,” said Shelley, “caught up my brace of pistols, and pointing them both at him, said to him, — ‘I have had enough of your impertinence; if you give me any more of it I will blow your brains out;’ on which he ran or rather tumbled down stairs, and I bolted the doors.”
    The custom of washing the bride with whisky is more likely to have been so made known to him than to have been imagined by him.
    Leaving Edinburgh, the young couple led for some time a wandering life. At the lakes they were kindly received by the Duke of Norfolk, and by others through his influence. They then went to Ireland, landed at Cork, visited the lakes of Killarney, and stayed some time in Dublin, where Shelley became a warm repealer and emancipator. They then went to the Isle of Man, then to Nant Gwillt [Peacock's notes here are irrelevant and omitted] in Radnorshire, then to Lynmouth near Barnstaple, [note omitted] then came for a short time to London; then went to reside in a furnished house belonging to Mr. Madocks at Tanyrallt, [Peacock's note: Tan-yr-allt — Under the precipice] near Tremadoc, in Caernarvonshire. Their residence at this place was made chiefly remarkable by an imaginary attack on his life, which was followed by their immediately leaving Wales.
    Mr. Hogg inserts several letters relative to this romance of a night: the following extract from one of Harriet Shelley's, dated from Dublin, March 12th, 1813, will give a sufficient idea of it:

        Mr. Shelley 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, everything that can recall to his mind the horrors of that night, which I will relate.
        On the night of the 26th 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 down stairs with two pistols which he had loaded that night, expecting to have occasion for them. He went into the billiard-room, when he heard footsteps retreating; he followed into another little room, which was called an office. He there saw a man in the act of quitting the room through a glass window which opened 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, and 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 was impossible he would make a second attack. We left Bysshe and our manservant — 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 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 ... who, the next morning, went and told the shopkeepers 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 Sunday.

Mr. Hogg subjoins:—

        Persons acquainted with the localities and with the circumstances, and who had carefully investigated the matter, were unanimous in the opinion that no such attack was ever made.


    I saw Shelley for the first time in 1812, just before he went to Tanyrallt. I saw him again once or twice before I went to North Wales in 1813. On my return he was residing at Bracknell, and invited me to visit him there. This I did, and found him with his wife Harriet, her sister Eliza, and his newly-born daughter Ianthe.

Mr. Hogg says:

        This accession to his family did not appear to afford him any gratification, or to create an interest. He never spoke of this child to me, and to this hour I never set eyes on her.

    Mr. Hogg is mistaken about Shelley's feelings as to his first child. He was extremely fond of it, and would walk up and down a room with it in his arms for a long time together, singing to it a monotonous melody of his own making, which ran on the repetition of a word of his own making. His song was “Yáhmani, Yáhmani, Yáhmani, Yáhmani.” It did not please me, but, what was more important, it pleased the child, and lulled it when it was fretful. Shelley was extremely fond of his children. He was pre-eminently an affectionate father. But to this first-born there were accompaniments which did not please him. the child had a wet-nurse whom he did not like, and was much looked after by his wife's sister, whom he intensely disliked. I have often thought that if Harriet had nursed her own child, and if this sister had not lived with them, the link of their married love would not have been so readily broken. But of this hereafter, when we come to speak of the separation.
    At Bracknell, Shelley was surrounded by a numerous society, all in a great measure of his own opinions in relation to religion and politics, and the larger portion of them in relation to vegetable diet. But they wore their rue with a difference. Every one of them adopting some of the articles of the faith of their general church, had each nevertheless some predominant crotchet of his or her own, which left a number of open questions for earnest and not always temperate discussion. I was sometimes irreverent enough to laugh at the fervour with which opinions utterly unconducive to any practical result were battled for as matters of the highest importance to the well-being of mankind; Harriet Shelley was always ready to laugh with me, and we thereby both lost caste with some of the more hotheaded of the party.


                    PART II

            Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd
            The Truth against the World

Mr. Hogg's third and fourth volumes not having appeared, and the materials with which Sir Percy and Lady Shelley had supplied him having been resumed by them, and so much of them as it was thought desirable to publish having been edited by Lady Shelley,* with a connecting thread of narrative, I shall assume that I am now in possession of all the external information likely to be available towards the completion of my memoir; and I shall proceed to complete it accordingly, subject to the contingent addition of a postscript, if any subsequent publication should render it necessary.

    *[Peacock's note: Shelley Memorials. From Authentic Sources. Edited by Lady Shelley. London: smith and Elder. 1859.]

    Lady Shelley says in her preface:

        We saw the book (Mr. Hogg's) for the first time when it was given to the world. It was impossible to imagine beforehand that from such materials a book could have been produced which has astonished and shocked those who have the greatest right to form an opinion on the character of Shelley; and it was with the most painful feelings of dismay that we perused what we could only look upon as a fantastic caricature, going forth to the public with my apparent sanction, — for it was dedicated to myself.
        Our feelings of duty to the memory of Shelley left us no other alternative than to withdraw the materials which we had originally entrusted to his early friend, and which we could not but consider had been strangely misused; and to take upon ourselves the task of laying them before the public, connected only by as slight a thread of narrative as would suffice to make them intelligible to the reader.

    I am very sorry, in the outset of this notice, to be under the necessity of dissenting from Lady Shelley respecting the facts of the separation of Shelley and Harriet.
    Captain Medwin represented this separation to have taken place by mutual consent. Mr. Leigh Hunt and Mr. Middleton adopted this statement; and in every notice I have seen of it in print it has been received as an established truth.
    Lady Shelley says—

        Towards the close of 1813 estrangements, which for some time had been slowly growing between Mr. and Mrs. Shelley, came to a crisis. Separation ensued, and Mrs. Shelley returned to her father's house. Here she gave birth to her second child — a son, who died in 1826.
        The occurrences of this painful epoch in Shelley's life, and of the causes which led to them, I am spared from relating.    In Mary Shelley's own words — “This is not the time to relate the truth; and I should reject any colouring of the truth. No account of these events has ever been given at all approaching reality in their details, either as regards himself or others; nor shall I further allude to them than to remark that the errors of action committed by a man as noble and generous as Shelley, may, as far as he only is concerned, be fearlessly avowed by those who loved him, in the firm conviction that, were they judged impartially, his character would stand in fairer and brighter light than that of any contemporary.”
        Of those remaining who were intimate with Shelley at this time, each has given us a different version of this sad event, coloured by his own views or personal feelings. Evidently Shelley confided to none of these friends. We, who bear his name, and are of his family, have in our possession papers written by his own hand, which in after years may make the story of his life complete; and which few now living, except Shelley's own children, have ever perused.
        One mistake, which has gone forth to the world, we feel ourselves called upon positively to contradict.
        Harriet's death has sometimes been ascribed to Shelley. This is entirely false. There was no immediate connexion whatever between her tragic end and any conduct on the part of her husband. It is true, however, that it was a permanent source of the deepest sorrow to him; for never during all his after-life did the dark shade depart which had fallen on his gentle and sensitive nature from the self-sought grave of the companion of his early youth.

    This passage ends the sixth chapter. The seventh begins thus—
        To the family of Godwin, Shelley had, from the period of his self-introduction at Keswick, been an object of interest; and the acquaintanceship which had sprung up between them during the poet's occasional visits to London had grown into a cordial friendship. It was in the society and sympathy of the Godwins that Shelley sought and found some relief in his present sorrow. He was still extremely young. His anguish, his isolation, his difference from other men, his gifts of genius and eloquent enthusiasm, made a deep impression on Godwin's daughter Mary, now a girl of sixteen, who had been accustomed to hear Shelley spoken of as something rare and strange. To her, as they met one eventful day in St. Pancras' churchyard, by her mother's grave, Bysshe, in burning words, poured forth the tale of his wild past — how he had suffered, how he had been misled; and how, if supported by her love, he hoped in future years to enrol his name with the wise and good who had done battle for their fellow-men, and been true through all adverse storms to the cause of humanity.
        Unhesitatingly she placed her hand in his, and linked her fortune with his own; and most truthfully, as the remaining portion of these Memorials will prove, was the pledge of both redeemed.

    I ascribe it to inexperience of authorship, that the sequence of words does not, in these passages, coincide with the sequence of facts: for in the order of words, the present sorrow would appear to be the death of Harriet. This however occurred two years and a half after the separation, and the union of his fate with Mary Godwin was simultaneous with it. Respecting this separation, whatever degree of confidence Shelley may have placed in his several friends, there are some facts which speak for themselves and admit of no misunderstanding.
    The Scotch marriage had taken place in August, 1811. In a letter which he wrote to a female friend sixteen months later (Dec. 10, 1812), he had said—

    How is Harriet a fine lady? You indirectly accuse her in your letter of this offence — to me the most unpardonable of all. The ease and simplicity of her habits, the unassuming plainness of her address, the uncalculated connexion of her thought and speech, have ever formed in my eyes her greatest charms: and none of these are compatible with fashionable life, or the attempted assumption of its vulgar and noisy éclat. You have a prejudice to contend with in making me a convert to this last opinion of yours, which, so long as I have a living and daily witness to its futility before me, I fear will be insurmountable. — Memorials, p. 44.

    Thus there had been no estrangement to the end of 1812. My own memory sufficiently attests that there was none in 1813.


    Shelley returned to London shortly before Christmas, then took a furnished house for two or three months at Windsor, visiting London occasionally. In March, 1814, he married Harriet a second time, according to the following certificate :

                MARRIAGES IN MARCH, 1814.

    164. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Harriet Shelley (formerly Harriet Westbrook, Spinster, a Minor), both of this Parish, were remarried in this Church by Licence (the parties having been already married to each other according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of Scotland), in order to obviate all doubts that have arisen, or shall or may arise, touching or concerning the validity of the aforesaid Marriage (by and with the consent of John Westbrook, the natural and lawful father of the said Minor), this Twenty-fourth day of March, in the Year 1814.
    By me,

    This Marriage was    solemnized between us [PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, HARRIET SHELLEY, formerly Harriet Westbrook.] In the presence of [JOHN WESTBROOK, JOHN STANLEY.]

        The above is a true extract from the Register Book of Marriages belonging to the Parish of Saint George, Hanover-square; extracted thence this eleventh day of April, 1859. — By me,
            H. WEIGHTMAN, Curate.

    It is, therefore, not correct to say that “estrangements which had been slowly growing came to a crisis towards the close of 1813.” The date of the above certificate is conclusive on the point. The second marriage could not have taken place under such circumstances. Divorce would have been better for both parties, and the dissolution of the first marriage could have been easily obtained in Scotland.
    There was no estrangement, no shadow of a thought of separation, till Shelley became acquainted, not long after the second marriage, with the lady who was subsequently his second wife.
    The separation did not take place by mutual consent. I cannot think that Shelley ever so represented it. He never did so to me: and the account which Harriet herself gave me of the entire proceeding was decidedly contradictory of any such supposition.
    He might well have said, after first seeing Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, “Ut vidi! ut perii!” Nothing that I ever read in tale or history could present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible, uncontrollable passion, than that under which I found him labouring when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him in London. Between his old feelings towards Harriet, from whom he was not then separated, and his new passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind “suffering, like a little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection.” His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said: “I never part from this.” [A Peacock note here omitted.]    He added: “I am always repeating to myself your lines from Sophocles:

        Man's happiest lot is not to be:
            And when we tread life's thorny steep,
        Most blest are they, who earliest free
            Descend to death's eternal sleep.”

Again, he said more calmly: “Every one who knows me must know that the partner of my life should be one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy. Harriet is a noble animal, but she can do neither.” I said, “It always appeared to me that you were very fond of Harriet.” Without affirming or denying this, he answered: “But you did not know how I hated her sister.”
    The term “noble animal” he applied to his wife, in conversation with another friend now living, intimating that the nobleness which he thus ascribed to her would induce her to acquiesce in the inevitable transfer of his affections to their new shrine. She did not so acquiesce, and he cut the Gordian knot of the difficulty by leaving England with Miss Godwin on the 28th of July, 1814.
    Shortly after this I received a letter from Harriet, wishing to see me. I called on her at her father's house in Chapel-street, Grosvenor-square. She then gave me her own account of the transaction, which, as I have said, decidedly contradicted the supposition of anything like separation by mutual consent.
    She at the same time gave me a description, by no means flattering, of Shelley's new love, whom I had not then seen. I said, “If you have described her correctly, what could he see in her?”  “Nothing,” she said, “but that her name was Mary, and not only Mary, but Mary Wollstonecraft.”
    The lady had nevertheless great personal and intellectual attractions, though it is not to be wondered at that Harriet could not see them.
    I feel it due to the memory of Harriet to state my most decided conviction that her conduct as a wife was as pure, as true, as absolutely faultless, as that of any who for such conduct are held most in honour.
    Mr. Hogg says: “Shelley told me his friend Robert Southey once said to him, ‘A man ought to be able to live with any woman. You see that I can, and so ought you. It comes to pretty much the same thing, I apprehend. There is no great choice or difference.’” (Hogg: vol. i, p. 423). Any woman, I suspect, must have been said with some qualification. But such an one as either of them had first chosen, Southey saw no reason to change.
    Shelley gave me some account of an interview he had had with Southey. It was after his return from his first visit to Switzerland, in the autumn of 1814. I forget whether it was in town or country; but it was in Southey's study, in which was suspended a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft. Whether Southey had been in love with this lady, is more than I know. That he had devotedly admired her is clear from his Epistle to Amos Cottle, prefixed to the latter's Icelandic Poetry (1797) ; in which, after describing the scenery of Norway, he says :

                        Scenes like these
    Have almost lived before me, when I gazed
    Upon their fair resemblance traced by him,
    Who sung the banished man of Ardebeil;
    Or to the eye of Fancy held by her,
    Who among women left no equal mind
    When from this world she passed; and I could weep
    To think that she is to the grave gone down!

where a note names Mary Wollstonecraft, the allusion being to her Letters from Norway.
    Shelley had previously known Southey, and wished to renew or continue friendly relations; but Southey was repulsive. He pointed to the picture, and expressed his bitter regret that the daughter of that angelic woman should have been so misled. It was most probably on this occasion that he made the remark cited by Mr. Hogg: his admiration of Mary Wollstonecraft may have given force to the observation: and as he had known Harriet, he might have thought that, in his view of the matter, she was all that a husband could wish for.
    Few are now living who remember Harriet Shelley. [1]  I remember her well, and will describe her to the best of my recollection. She had a good figure, light, active, and graceful. Her features were regular and well proportioned. Her hair was light brown, and dressed with taste and simplicity. In her dress she was truly simplex munditiis [elegant simplicity]. Her complexion was beautifully transparent; the tint of the blush rose shining through the lily. The tone of her voice was pleasant; her speech the essence of frankness and cordiality; her spirits always cheerful; her laugh spontaneous, hearty, and joyous. She was well educated. She read agreeably and intelligently. She wrote only letters, but she wrote them well. [2] Her manners were good; and her whole aspect and demeanour such manifest emanations of pure and truthful nature, that to be once in her company was to know her thoroughly. She was fond of her husband, and accommodated herself in every way to his tastes. If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived in retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she enjoyed the change of scene.
    That Shelley's second wife was intellectually better suited to him than his first, no one who knew them both will deny; and that a man, who lived so totally out of the ordinary world and in a world of ideas, needed such an ever-present sympathy more than the general run of men, must also be admitted; but Southey, who did not want an intellectual wife, and was contented with his own, may well have thought that Shelley had equal reason to seek no change. [3]


    In December, 1816, Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine river, not, as Captain Medwin says, in a pond at the bottom of her father's garden at Bath. Her father had not then left his house in Chapel-street, and to that house his daughter's body was carried.


    Some of Shelley's friends have spoken and written of Harriet as if to vindicate him it were necessary to disparage her. They might, I think, be content to rest the explanation of his conduct on the ground on which he rested it himself — that he had found in another the intellectual qualities which constituted his ideality of the partner of his life. But Harriet's untimely fate occasioned him deep agony of mind, which he felt the more because for a long time he kept the feeling to himself. I became acquainted with it in a somewhat singular manner.
    I was walking with him one evening in Bisham Wood, and we had been talking, in the usual way, of our ordinary subjects, when he suddenly fell into a gloomy reverie. I tried to rouse him out of it, and made some remarks which I thought might make him laugh at his own abstraction. Suddenly he said to me, still with the same gloomy expression: “There is one thing to which I have decidedly made up my mind. I will take a great glass of ale every night.” I said, laughingly, “A very good resolution, as the result of a melancholy musing.” “Yes,” he said; “but you do not know why I take it. I shall do it to deaden my feelings: for I see that those who drink ale have none.” The next day he said to me: “You must have thought me very unreasonable yesterday evening?” I said, “I did, certainly.” “Then,” he said, “I will tell you what I would not tell any one else. I was thinking of Harriet.” I told him, “I had no idea of such a thing: it was so long since he had named her. I had thought he was under the influence of some baseless morbid feeling; but if ever I should see him again in such a state of mind, I would not attempt to disturb it.”


[Peacock's SUPPLEMENTARY NOTICE to the Memoirs]
    Harriet suffered enough in her life to deserve that her memory should be respected. I have always said to all whom it might concern, that I would defend her, to the best of my ability, against all misrepresentations. Such are not necessary to Shelley's vindication. That is best permitted to rest, as I have already observed, on the grounds on which it was placed by himself.

                                                    #  #  #

NOTES by John Lauritsen

1. When Peacock wrote this he was about 77 years of age; Harriet Shelley had died about 46 years earlier.

2. 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. To read her letters click here.

3. Peacock's assertion,
Shelley's second wife was intellectually better suited to him than his first”, is open to question. Mary's alleged intellectual superiority is almost entirely based on the false attribution to her of the authorship of Frankenstein, a masterpiece of English literature and the most famous work of English Romanticism. In my book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007) I show that the prose Mary wrote entirely on her own — without help from husband, father, or anyone else — is flaccid, sentimental, verbose, affected, awkward, and sometimes ungrammatical. She was utterly incapable of writing Frankenstein, which on every page bears the signature of Shelley: his ideas, his passion, his mastery of English prose. To visit my Frankenstein pages click here.
    In my essay,
Harriet Shelley: Wife of the Poet, I discuss various theories as to why Shelley deserted Harriet, including the belief that Mary was better suited to him intellectually. To read it click here.

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