A Honeymooon and a Tragedy
They left England shortly afterwards, accompanied by Mary's young step-sister, a wild and untractable girl, who, as the price of helping them with their arrangements, demanded that she should be taken from an uncongenial home. No action of Shelley's was like that of ordinary men, but among the most remarkable incidents of his career was this starting off on a trip which, in the circumstances, could not be officially a honeymoon, with a lady not his wife, and another lady who, for the same reason, could not be his sister-in-law! He went without making any arrangements as to money, and the trio had a remarkable journey, during part of which they camped out in forests.
Meanwhile, Harriett was long in a state of uncertainty at home. One feels very sorry for her, but by all accounts her behaviour was not very sincere, as the various records of it do not tally. She was, at any rate, if not admirable, very human, for she had seen Mary Godwin, and gave a description of her at this time which was far from flattering. She said of her rival, "She is. to blame; she was determined to secure him," and goes on, poor Harriett, to say, "She heated his imagination by talking of her mother." This sounds an innocent occupation, but to the deserted wife it appeared nothing short of villainy.
But the rash and miserable marriage' which had dragged on through misunderstanding for two or three years, was to culminate in tragedy. Harriett went back with her children to her father. Shelley treated her well so far as he could in the matter of money; but her temperament was ill-balanced, and her life for the next two years was very irregular. At the end of that time, in a fit of morbid melancholy, she fulfilled the threat she had so often made, and threw herself into the Serpentine.
The manner of her death was a horrible shock to Shelley. He had borne patiently the execrations showered on him for his supposed ill-conduct in leaving his wife. He believed she had been unfaithful to him, and he knew that she seemed completely indifferent. But her terrible end planted a sting in his mind which always rankled, and immediately after it came the fresh blow of being refused the custody of his children by his first marriage, on the ground of his not being a fit person to have charge of them.
He at once married Mary, and for a time the only trouble of the young couple was that they were not alone. Never did a man suffer more from sisters-in-law than Shelley. A stern woman had watched over his first bride with all the faithfulness and intractability of a bulldog set to guard a baby; the same wild and unmanageable young elf who had insisted on taking part in his elopement now took up her residence with him and Mary. There was never any end to the surprises afforded by this young lady. First she changed her name from Jane to Clara, and then she acquired a habit of having nocturnal terrors, and as Shelley could not resist discussing these till they were both terrified, poor tired Mary would be awakened at some awful hour of the morning by two ghastly shriekers, who ought to have been put to bed and told that a birch-rod was the next bogey they were likely to meet.
It is on record in Mary's handwriting that once, when Shelley was looking for a new house, his wife declared that the only things she asked of life were a good garden and no Clare. (By this time Clara was Clare.)
Shelley's health was frail, and a change to Italy was made before long. Financial troubles were dispersed by a slight relenting on the part of Shelley's father, and Mr. Godwin and his second wife were now quite reconciled to the match, and apparently equally reconciled to the absence of Jane.
In Pisa the poet settled down for some time, in close neighbourhood to Byron and many other English friends, for at that time it was the fashion in England for thoughtful people to make a cult of Italy.
" Frankenstein "
Mary was now busy with literary work on her own behalf. Had she not married. Shelley, she would have made her mark as a woman of fine intellect; but as it was, becoming his companion at the age of seventeen, she was overshadowed by his greatness, for which she had such admiration that she was quite content to be self-effacing. In Pisa she wrote "Frankenstein," that gruesome but powerful story of a man who discovers the secret of life and creates a being of monstrous size and properties. clare must have had a serious attack of horrors when she read "Frankenstein."
In addition there were housekeeping cares for Mrs. Shelley to attend to, for although the poet said he loved solitude, he only meant that he frequently liked to be alone; but when these moods were not on him no man liked more the company of congenial friends.
In Pisa the Shelleys first met Trelawney, whose "Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author" give, perhaps, the best impressions that are to be had of the two great poets. Trelawney was a very great admirer of Shelley's wife, and during her widowhood would gladly have made her Mrs. Trelawney. The first edition of his book presents her in a very charming light, but twenty-seven years later he brought out a second version, in which his tone regarding her is spiteful and sarcastic. He accuses her of jealousy, ill-management, moping, and even goes so far as to say "she irritated and vexed him, but the tragical end of his first wife was ever present to his mind, and he was prepared to endure the utmost malice of fortune." This was an ungallant way of avenging a lady's "No."
The general testimony is that Mrs. Shelley was a woman of great parts, and if she did not find life all roses, it must be remembered that to be married to a genius who has much of the sprite in his composition is no easy task for any woman. For instance, when they were living in a lonely house on the shores of the Bay of Spezzia an incident occurred which would turn grey the hair of any ordinary hostess. A visitor was expected from Genoa, and a visitor meant hard work in the commissariat. Trelawney's comment is: The absurd womankind proceeded to their business indoors." One wonders what caustic comment on " literary ladies' cupboards ' he would have passed if they had not so proceeded. However, the dinner was prepared and served with more precision than was usual, and all sat down except
Shelley, who was absent. Conversation, strangely enough, was on the question of the nude is art Suddenly an cxclamation , and a crashing of glass interrupted conversation, and the poet was seen gliding noiselessly round the two sides of the towards his bedroom, very wet, and in primitive costume.
While out bathing a breeze had upset his skiff with all his clothes in it, and not knowing that the dinner-hour had been altered, he had expected to find the room vacant. Through it he must pass to his bedroom to get dry clothes, and he was endeavouring, under the shelter of a plump Italian maid, to slip through when one of the ladies caught sight of him. Finding that his appearance caused some astonishment, he stepped to the side of the shocked lady, and, drawing himself up with the air of a boy wrongfully accused, entered on an explanation of the occurrence, and then, " without noticing anyone else, he glided from out of the puddle he had made on the floor into his dormitory."
The Tribute to a Poet's Wife
Yes, Mrs. Shelley had many social difficulties with which to contend, but the woman who is rash enough to marry a genius must expect to meet with such obstacles. Shelley, therefore, was fortunate in finding a woman who paid but little heed to lift small but necessary conventions. No other kind of woman could have understood or tolerated him. Mrs. Shelley, therefore, although she failed in many minor matters, was undoubtedly the ideal wife for her brilliant, wayward husband. She took the keenest interest in his work, and appreciated his greatness to the full. Her editions of his collected works showed the great care with which she entered into his thoughts and feelings. Trelawney accuses her of jealousy but it seems remarkable that the wife of a man who was constantly writing passionate verses to other women should not have had this charge levelled at her by any but the one man who bore her a grudge. The poet's admiration for Mrs. Williams, who lived in the house with them, must have been a trial to Mrs. Shelley, but the two women remained friends until long after Shelley's death, when Mrs. Williams proved herself unworthy.
Of Mrs. Shelley's books only one is remarkable, and that is "Frankenstein." She was a woman who gave freely of her mental energy and her sympathy to the man for whom she had sacrificed ever thing. When he died she was heart-broken, and found her consolation in bringing up her son to as full an appreciation of his lather as her own. It seems certain that, though she might have been a more famous woman if she had not married Shelley, he would never have been such a great man if he had not met her. She inspired his genius, and to it sacrificed her own What greater tribute can be paid to any wife? And Mrs. Shelley deserves a tribute, for hers was a husband whom but few wives could have managed so well.