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Mary W. Shelley

Title:     Mary W. Shelley
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Shelley, beloved! the year has a new name from any thou knowest. When Spring arrives, leaves that you never saw will shadow the ground, and flowers you never beheld will star it, and the grass will be of another growth. Thy name is added to the list which makes the earth bold in her age, and proud of what has been. Time, with slow, but unwearied feet, guides her to the goal that thou hast reached; and I, her unhappy child, am advanced still nearer the hour when my earthly dress shall repose near thine, beneath the tomb of Cestius.

---Journal of Mary Shelley

When Emerson borrowed from Wordsworth that fine phrase about plain living and high thinking, no one was more astonished than he that Whitman and Thoreau should take him at his word. He was decidedly curious about their experiment. But he kept a safe distance between himself and the shirt-sleeved Walt; and as for Henry Thoreau--bless me! Emerson regarded him only as a fine savage, and told him so. Of course, Emerson loved solitude, but it was the solitude of a library or an orchard, and not the solitude of plain or wilderness. Emerson looked upon Beautiful Truth as an honored guest. He adored her, but it was with the adoration of the intellect. He never got her tag in jolly chase of comradery; nor did he converse with her, soft and low, when only the moon peeked out from behind the silvery clouds, and the nightingale listened. He never laid himself open to damages. And when he threw a bit of a bomb into Harvard Divinity School it was the shrewdest bid for fame that ever preacher made.

I said "shrewd"--that's the word.

Emerson had the instincts of Connecticut--that peculiar development of men who have eked out existence on a rocky soil, banking their houses against grim Winter or grimmer savage foes. With this Yankee shrewdness went a subtle and sweeping imagination, and a fine appreciation of the excellent things that men have said and done. But he was never so foolish as to imitate the heroic--he, simply admired it from afar. He advised others to work their poetry up into life, but he did not do so himself. He never cast the bantling on the rocks, nor caused him to be suckled with the she-wolf's teat. He admired "abolition" from a distance. When he went away from home it was always with a return ticket. He has summed up Friendship in an essay as no other man ever has, and yet there was a self-protective aloofness in his friendship that made icicles gather, as George William Curtis has explained.

In no relation of his life was there a complete abandon. His "Essay on Self-Reliance" is beef, iron and wine, and "Works and Days" is a tonic for tired men; and yet I know that, in spite of all his pretty talk about living near Nature's heart, he never ventured into the woods outside of hallooing distance from the house. He could neither ride a horse, shoot, nor sail a boat--and being well aware of it, never tried. All his farming was done by proxy; and when he writes to Carlyle late in life, explaining how he is worth forty thousand dollars, well secured by first mortgages, he makes clear one-half of his ambition.

And yet, I call him master, and will match my admiration for him 'gainst that of any other, six nights and days together. But I summon him here only to contrast his character with that of another--another who, like himself, was twice married.

In his "Essay on Love" Emerson reveals just an average sophomore insight; and in his work I do not find a mention or a trace of influence exercised by either of the two women he wedded, nor by any other woman. Shelley was what he was through the influence of the two women he married.

Shelley wrecked the life of one of these women. She found surcease of sorrow in death; and when her body was found in the Serpentine he had a premonition that the hungry waves were waiting for him, too. But before her death and through her death, she pressed home to him the bitterest sorrow that man can ever know: the combined knowledge that he has mortally injured a human soul and the sense of helplessness to minister to its needs. Harriet Westbrook said to Shelley, drink ye all of it. And could he speak now he would say that the bitterness of the potion was a formative influence as potent as that of the gentle ministrations of Mary Wollstonecraft, who broke over his head the precious vase of her heart's love and wiped his feet with the hairs of her head.

In the poetic sweetness, gentleness, lovableness and beauty of their natures, Emerson and Shelley were very similar. In a like environment they would have done the same things. A pioneer ancestry with its struggle for material existence would have given Shelley caution; and a noble patronymic, fostered by the State, lax in its discipline, would have made Emerson toss discretion to the winds.

Emerson and Shelley were both apostles of the good, the true and the beautiful. One of them rests at Sleepy Hollow, his grave marked by a great rough-hewn boulder, while overhead the winds sigh a requiem through the pines. The ashes of the other were laid beneath the moss-grown wall of the Eternal City, and the creeping vines and flowers, as if jealous of the white, carven marble, snuggle close over the spot with their leaves and petals.

Yet both of these men achieved immortality, for their thoughts live again in the thoughts of the race, and their hopes and their aspirations mingle and are one with the men and women of earth who think and feel and dream.

* * * * *

It was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who awoke in Shelley such a burst of song that men yet listen to its cadence. It was she who gave his soul wings: her gentle spirit blending with his made music that has enriched the world. Without her he was fast beating out his life against the bars of unkind condition, but together they worked and sang. All his lines were recited to her, all were weighed in the critical balances of her woman's judgment. She it was who first wrote it out, and then gave it back. Together they revised; and after he had passed on, she it was who collected the scattered leaves, added the final word, and gave us the book we call "Shelley's Poems." Perhaps we might call all poetry the child of parents, but with Shelley's poems this is literally true. Mary Shelley delighted in the name Wollstonecraft. It was her mother's name; and was not Mary Wollstonecraft the foremost intellectual woman of her day--a woman of purpose, forceful yet gentle, appreciative, kind?

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Seventeen Hundred Fifty-nine; and tiring of the dull monotony of a country town went up to London when yet a child and fought the world alone. By her own efforts she grew learned; she had all science, all philosophy, all history at her fingers' ends. She became able to speak several languages, and by her pen an income was secured that was not only sufficient for herself, but ministered to the needs of an aged father and mother and sisters as well.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote one great book (which is all any one can write): "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." It sums up all that has since been written on the subject. Like an essay by Herbert Spencer, it views the matter from every side, anticipates every objection--exhausts the subject. The literary style of Mary Wollstonecraft's book is Johnsonese, but its thought forms the base of all that has come after. It is the great-great-grandmother of all woman's clubs and these thousand efforts that women are now putting forth along economic, artistic and social lines. But we have nearly lost sight of Mary Wollstonecraft. Can you name me, please, your father's grandmother? Aye, I thought not; then tell me the name of the man who is now Treasurer of the United States!

And so you see we do not know much about other people, after all. But Mary Wollstonecraft pushed the question of woman's freedom to its farthest limit; I told you that she exhausted the subject. She prophesied a day when woman would have economic freedom--that is, be allowed to work at any craft or trade for which her genius fitted her and receive a proper recompense. Woman would also have social freedom: the right to come and go alone--the privilege of walking upon the street without the company of a man--the right to study and observe. Next, woman would have political freedom: the right to record her choice in matters of lawmaking. And last, she would yet have sex freedom: the right to bestow her love without prying police and blundering law interfering in the delicate relations of married life.

To make herself understood. Mary Wollstonecraft explained that society was tainted with the thought that sex was unclean; but she held high the ideal that this would yet pass away, and that the idea of holding one's mate by statute law would become abhorrent to all good men and women. She declared that the assumption that law could join a man and a woman in holy wedlock was preposterous, and that the caging of one person by another for a lifetime was essentially barbaric. Only the love that is free and spontaneous and that holds its own by the purity, the sweetness, the tenderness and the gentleness of its life is divine. And further, she declared it her belief that when a man had found his true mate such a union would be for life--it could not be otherwise. And the man holding his mate by the excellence that was in him, instead of by the aid of the law, would be placed, loverlike, on his good behavior, and be a stronger and manlier being. Such a union, freed from the petty, spying and tyrannical restraints of present usage, must come ere the race could far advance.

Mary Wollstonecraft's book created a sensation. It was widely read and hotly denounced. A few upheld it: among these was William Godwin. But the air was so full of taunt and threat that Miss Wollstonecraft thought best to leave England for a time. She journeyed to Paris, and there wrote and translated for certain English publishers. In Paris she met Gilbert Imlay, an American, seemingly of very much the same temperament as herself. She was thirty-six, he was somewhat younger. They began housekeeping on the ideal basis. In a year a daughter was born to them. When this baby was three months old, Imlay disappeared, leaving Mary penniless and friendless.

It was a terrible blow to this trusting and gentle woman. But after a good cry or two, philosophy came to her rescue and she decided that to be deserted by a man who did not love her was really not so bad as to be tied to him for life. She earned a little money and in a short time started back for England with her babe and scanty luggage--sorrowful, yet brave and unsubdued. She might have left her babe behind, but she scorned the thought. She would be honest and conceal nothing. Right must win.

Now, I am told that an unmarried woman with a babe at her breast is not received in England into the best society. The tale of Mary's misfortune had preceded her, and literary London laughed a hoarse, guttural guffaw, and society tittered to think how this woman who had written so smartly had tried some of her own medicine and found it bitter. Publishers no longer wanted her work, old friends failed to recognize her, and one man to whom she applied for work brought a rebuke upon his head, that lasted him for years.

Godwin, philosopher, idealist, enthusiast and reformer, who made it his rule to seek out those in trouble, found her and told a needless lie by declaring he had been commissioned by a certain nameless publisher to get her to write certain articles about this and that. Then he emptied his pockets of all the small change he had, as an advance payment, and he hadn't very much, and started out to find the publisher who would buy the prospective "hot stuff." Fortunately he succeeded.

After a few weeks, Mr. Godwin, bachelor, aged forty, found himself very much in love with Mary Wollstonecraft and her baby. Her absolute purity of purpose, her frankness, honesty and high ideals surpassed anything he had ever dreamed of finding incarnated in woman. He became her sincere lover; and she, the discarded, the forsaken, reciprocated; for it seems that the tendrils of affection, ruthlessly uprooted, cling to the first object that presents itself.

And so they were married; yes, these two who had so generously repudiated the marriage-tie were married March Twenty-ninth, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, at Old Saint Pancras Church, for they had come to the sane conclusion that to affront society was not wise.

On August Thirtieth, in the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, was born to them a daughter. Then the mother died--died did brave Mary Wollstonecraft, and left behind a girl baby one week old. And it was this baby, grown to womanhood, who became Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

* * * * *

William Godwin wrote one great book: "Political Justice." It is a work so high and noble in its outlook that only a Utopia could ever realize its ideals. When men are everywhere willing to give to other men all the rights they demand for themselves, and co-operation takes the place of competition, then will Godwin's philosophy be not too great and good for daily food. Among the many who read his book and thought they saw in it the portent of a diviner day was one Percy Bysshe Shelley.

And so it came to pass that about the year Eighteen Hundred Thirteen, this Percy Bysshe Shelley called on Godwin, who was living in a rusty, musty tenement in Somerstown. The young man was twenty: tall and slender, with as handsome a face as was ever given to mortal. The face was pale as marble: the features almost feminine in their delicacy: thin lips, straight nose, good teeth, abundant, curling hair, and eyes so dreamy and sorrowful that women on the street would often turn and follow the "angel soul garbed in human form."

This man Shelley was sick at heart, bereft, perplexed, in sore straits, and to whom should he turn for advice in this time of undoing but to Godwin, the philosopher! Besides, Godwin had been the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the splendid precepts of these two had nourished into being all the latent excellence of the youth. Yes, he would go to Godwin, the Plato of England!

And so he went to Godwin.

Now, this young man Shelley was of noble blood. His grandfather was Sir Bysshe Shelley, Bart., and worth near three hundred thousand pounds, all of which would some day come to our pale-faced youth. But the youth was a republican--he believed in the brotherhood of man. He longed to benefit his fellows, to lift them out of the bondage of fear, and sin, and ignorance. After reading Hume, and Godwin, and Wollstonecraft, he had decided that Christianity as defined by the Church of England was a failure: it was only an organized fetish, kept in place by the State, and devoid of all that thrills to noble thinking and noble doing.

And so young Shelley at Oxford had written a pamphlet to this end, explaining the matter to the world.

A copy being sent to the headmaster of the school, young Shelley was hustled off the premises in short order, and a note was sent to his father requesting that the lad be well flogged and kept several goodly leagues from Oxford.

Shelley the elder was furious that his son should so disgrace the family name, and demanded he should write another pamphlet supporting the Church of England and recanting all the heresy he had uttered. Young Percy replied that conscience would not admit of his doing this. The father said conscience be blanked: and further used almost the same words that were used by Professor Jowett some years later to a certain skeptical youth.

Professor Jowett sent for the youth and said, "Young man, I am told that you say you can not find God. Is this true?"

"Yes, sir," said the youth.

"Well, you will please find Him before eight o'clock tonight or get out of this college."

Shelley was not allowed to return home, and moreover his financial allowance was cut off entirely.

And so he wandered up to London and chewed the cud of bitter fancy, resolved to starve before he would abate one jot or tittle of what he thought was truth. And he might have starved had not his sisters sent him scanty sums of money from time to time. The messenger who carried the money to him was a young girl by the name of Harriet Westbrook, round and smooth and pink and sixteen. Percy was nineteen. Harriet was the daughter of an innkeeper and did not get along very well at home. She told Percy about it, and of course she knew his troubles, and so they talked about it over the gate, and mutually condoled with each other.

Soon after this Harriet had a fresh quarrel with her folks; and with the tears yet on her pretty lashes ran straight to Shelley's lodging and throwing herself into his arms proposed that they cease to fight unkind Fate, and run away together and be happy ever afterward.

And so they ran away.

Shelley's father instanced this as another proof of depravity and said, "Let 'em go!" The couple went to Scotland. In a few months they came back from Scotland, because no one can really be happy away from home. Besides they were out of money--and neither one had ever earned any money--and as the Westbrooks were willing to forgive, even if the Shelleys were not, they came back. But the Westbrooks were only willing to forgive in consideration of Percy and Harriet being properly married by a clergyman of the Church of England. Now, Shelley had not wavered in his Godwin-Wollstonecraft theories, but he was chivalrous and Harriet was tearful, and so he gracefully waived all private considerations and they were duly married. It was a quiet wedding.

In a short time a baby was born.

Harriet was amiable, being healthy and having very moderate sensibilities. She had no opinion on any subject, and in no degree sympathized with Shelley's wild aspirations. She thought a title would be nice, and urged that her husband make peace by renouncing his "infidelity." Literature was silly business anyway, and folks should do as other folks did. If they didn't, lawks-a-daisy! there was trouble!!

And so, with income cut off, banished from home, from school, out of employment, with a wife who had no sympathy with him--who could not understand him--whose pitiful weakness stung him and wrung him, he thought of Godwin, the philosopher: for at the last philosophy is the cure for all our ills.

Godwin was glad to see Shelley--Godwin was glad to see any one. Godwin was fifty-five, bald, had a Socratic forehead, was smooth-cheeked, shabby and genteel. Yes, Godwin was the author of "Political Justice"--but that was written quite a while before, twenty years!

One of the girls was sent out for a quart of half-and-half, and the pale visitor cast his eyes around this family room, which served for dining-room, library and parlor. Godwin had married again--Shelley had heard that, but he was a bit shocked to find that the great man who was once mate to Mary Wollstonecraft had married a shrew. The sound of her high-pitched voice convinced the visitor at once that she was a very commonplace person.

There were three girls and a boy in the room, busy at sewing or reading. None of them was introduced, but the air of the place was Bohemian, and the conversation soon became general. All talked except one of the girls: she sat reading, and several times when the young man glanced over her way she was looking at him. Shelley stayed an hour, spending a very pleasant time, but as he had no opportunity of stating his case to the philosopher he made an engagement to call again.

As he groped his way downstairs and walked homewards he mused. The widow Clairmont, whom Godwin had married, was a worldling, that was sure; her daughter Jane was good-looking and clever, but both she and Charles, the boy, were the children of their mother--he had picked them out intuitively. The little young woman with brown eyes and merry ways was Fanny Godwin, the first child of Mary Wollstonecraft and adopted daughter of Godwin. The tall slender girl who was so very quiet was the daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

"Ye gods, what a pedigree!" said Shelley.

The young man called again, and after explaining his situation was advised to go back home and make peace with his wife and father at any cost of personal intellectual qualms. Philosophy was all right; but life was one thing and philosophy another. Live with Harriet as he had vowed to do--love was a good deal glamour, anyway; write poetry, of course, if he felt like it, but keep it to himself. The world was not to be moved by enthusiastic youth. Godwin had tried it--he had been an enthusiastic youth himself, and that was why he now lived in Somerstown instead of Piccadilly. Move in the line of least resistance.

Shelley went away shocked and stunned. Going by Old Saint Pancras Church he turned back to step in a moment and recover his scattered senses. He walked through the cool, dim, old building, out into the churchyard, where toppling moss-covered gray slabs marked the resting-places of the sleeping dead. All seemed so cool and quiet and calm there! The dead are at rest: they have no vexatious problems.

A few people were moving about, carelessly reading the inscriptions. The young man unconsciously followed their example; he passed slowly along one of the walks, scanning the stones. His eye fell upon the word "Wollstonecraft," marked on a plain little slate slab. He paused and, leaning over removed his hat and read, and then glancing just beyond, saw seated on the grass--the tall girl. She held a book in her hands, but she was looking at him very soberly. Their eyes met, and they smiled just a little. The young man sat down on the turf on the other side of the grave from the girl, and they talked of the woman by whose dust they watched: and the young man found that the tall girl was an Ancestor-Worshiper and a mystic, and moreover had a flight of soul that held him in awe. Besides, in form and feature, she was rarely beautiful. She was quiet, but she could talk.

The next day, as Percy Shelley strolled through the churchyard of Old Saint Pancras, the tall girl was there again with her book, in the same place.

* * * * *

When Shelley made that first call at the Godwins he was twenty. The three girls he met were fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, respectively. Mary being the youngest in years, but the most mature, she would have easily passed for the oldest. Now, all three of these girls were dazzled by the beauty and grace and intellect of the strange, pale-faced visitor.

He came to the house again and again during the next few months. All the girls loved him violently, for that's the way girls under eighteen often love. Mr. Godwin soon discovered the fact that all his girls loved Shelley. They lost appetite, and were alternately in chills of fear and fevers of ecstacy. Mr. Godwin, being a kind man and a good, took occasion to explain to them that Mr. Shelley was a married man, and although it was true he did not live on good terms with his wife, yet she was his lawful wife, and marriage was a sacred obligation: of course, pure philosophy or poetic justice took a different view, but in society the marriage-tie must not be held lightly. In short, Shelley was married and that was all there was about it.

Shelley still continued to call, coming via Saint Pancras Church. In a few months, Mary confided to Jane that she and Shelley were about to elope, and Jane must make peace and explain matters after they were gone.

Jane cried and declared she would go, too--she would go or die: she would go as servant, scullion--anything, but go she would. Shelley was consulted, and to prevent tragedy consented to Jane going as maid to Mary, his well-beloved.

So the trinity eloped. It being Shelley's second elopement, he took the matter a little more coolly than did the girls, who had never eloped before. Having reached Dover, and while waiting at a hotel for the boat, the landlord suddenly appeared and breathlessly explained to Shelley, "A fat woman has just arrived and swears that you have run away with her girls!"

It was Mrs. Godwin.

The party got out by the back way and hired a small boat to take them to Calais. They embarked in a storm, and after beating about all night, came in sight of France the next morning as the sun arose.

Godwin was very much grieved and shocked to think that Shelley had broken in upon established order and done this thing. But Shelley had read Godwin's book and simply taken the philosopher at his word: "The impulses of the human heart are just and right; they are greater than law, and must be respected."

The runaways seemed to have had a jolly time in France as long as their money lasted. They bought a mule to carry their luggage, and walked. Jane's feet blistered, however, and they seated her upon the luggage upon the mule, and as the author of "Queen Mab" led the patient beast, Mary with a switch followed behind. After some days Shelley sprained his ankle, and then it was his turn to ride while Mary led the mule and Jane trudged after.

Thus they journeyed for six weeks, writing poetry, discussing philosophy; loving, wild, free and careless, until they came to Switzerland. One morning they counted their money and found they had just enough to take them to England.

Arriving in London the Godwins were not inclined to take them back, and society in general looked upon them with complete disfavor.

Shelley's father was now fully convinced of his son's depravity, but doled out enough money to prevent actual starvation. Shelley began to perceive that any man who sets himself against the established order--the order that the world has been thousands of years in building up--will be ground into the dust. The old world may be wrong, but it can not be righted in a day, and so long as a man chooses to live in society he must conform, in the main, to society usages. These old ways that have done good service all the years can not be replaced by the instantaneous process. If changed at all they must change as man changes, and man must change first. It is man that must be reformed, not custom.

Shelley and Mary Godwin were mates if ever such existed. In a year Mary had developed from a child into splendid womanhood--a beautiful, superior, earnest woman. By her own efforts, of course aided by Shelley (for they were partners in everything), she became versed in the classics and delved deeply into the literature of a time long past. Unlike her mother, Mary Shelley could do no great work alone. The sensitiveness and the delicacy of her nature precluded that self-reliant egoism which can create. She wrote one book, "Frankenstein," which in point of prophetic and allegorical suggestion stamps the work as classic: but it was written under the immediate spell of Shelley's presence. Shelley also could not work alone, and without her the world's disfavor must have whipped him into insanity and death.

As it was they sought peace in love and Italy, living near Lord Byron in great intimacy, and befriended by him in many ways.

But peace was not for Shelley. Calamity was at the door. He could never forget how he had lifted Harriet Westbrook into a position for which she was not fitted and then left her to flounder alone. And when word came that Harriet had drowned herself, his cup of woe was full. Shortly before this, Fanny Godwin had gone away with great deliberation, leaving an empty laudanum-bottle to tell the tale.

On December Thirtieth, Eighteen Hundred Sixteen, Shelley and Mary Godwin were married at Saint Mildred's Church, London. Both had now fully concluded with Godwin that man owes a duty to the unborn and to society, and that to place one's self in opposition to custom is at least very bad policy. But although Shelley had made society tardy amends, society would not forgive; and in a long legal fight to obtain possession of his children, Ianthe and Charles, of whom Harriet was the mother, the Court of Chancery decided against Shelley, on the grounds that he was "an unfit person, being an atheist and a republican."

About this time was born little Allegra, "the Dawn," child of Lord Byron and Jane Clairmont. Then afterwards came bickerings with Byron and threats of a duel and all that.

Finally there was a struggle between Byron and Miss Clairmont for the child: but death solved the issue and the beautiful little girl passed beyond the reach of either.

And so we find Shelley's heart wrung by the sorrows of others and by his own; and when Mary and he laid away in death their bright boy William and their baby girl Clara, the Fates seemed to have done their worst. But man seems to have a certain capacity for pain, and beyond this even God can not go.

Shelley struggled on and with Mary's help continued to write.

Another babe was born and the world grew brighter. They were now on the shores of the Mediterranean with a little group of enthusiasts who thought and felt as they did. For the first time they realized that, after all, they were a part of the world, and linked to the human race--not set off alone, despised, forsaken.

Then to join their little community were coming Leigh Hunt and his wife--Leigh Hunt, who had lain in prison for the right of free thought and free speech. What a joy to greet and welcome such a man to their home!

And so Shelley, blithe and joyous, sailed away to meet his friend. But Shelley never came back to his wife and baby boy. A few days after, the waves cast his body up on the beach, and you know the rest--how the faithful Trelawney and Byron made the funeral-pyre and reduced the body to ashes.

Mary was twenty-six years old then. She continued to live--to live only in the memory of her Shelley and with the firm thought in her mind that they would be united again. She seemed to exist but to care for her boy, and to do as best she could the work that Shelley had left undone.

The boy grew into a fine youth, and was as devoted to his mother as she was to him. The title of the estate with all its vast wealth descended to him, and together she lived out her days, tenderly cared for to the last, dying in her son's arms, aged fifty-four.

She has told us that the first sixteen years of her life were spent in waiting for her Shelley, eight years she lived with him in divinest companionship, and twenty-eight years she waited and worked to prepare herself to rejoin him.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Mary W. Shelley