A Grave-side Wcoing
It was still a quiet and peaceful spot, leafy and fresh, when, one day in 1814, two people stood beside one of the graves and faced the most poignant situation of their lives. One was a man, a slender, boyish-looking creature, with the air, as many people have told us, of a spirit rather than of a man, with wild, fair locks, and eyes in which burned the spirit of a transcendent genius. At twenty-two Percy Bysshe Shelley was an extraordinary figure, hailed by some as a poet and a thinker of the first rank, execrated by others as an atheist and a miscreant, and throughout it all bearing undimmed the flame of his conscious power and never-dying zeal for the good of mankind.
The other person was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the high-souled woman of many sorrows by whose grave they stood. The poet spoke passionately, his reserve broken down at last, and the girl listened with all the sympathy which her friendship with him, now merged into something more than friendship, inspired in her at the recital of ,his troubles. He told her of his early marriage to the pretty schoolmate of his sister, and for the first time he spoke fully of the circumstances which led to it. Harriett Westbrook had many charms, and at sixteen, when he first saw her, she was not only beautiful, "the tint of the rose shining through lily in her cheeks," but was also invested with a romantic glamour. Shelley had been expelled from college for atheism, and his infuriated father, an English country gentleman of the most rigidly orthodox type. had cut off supplies. In these circumstances his sisters, then at school, with whom he had always been popular, sent him money, and their chosen messenger was their schoolmate Harriett. Accompanied by a stern elder sister of thirty, who could be gracious when she liked, she would go to the bare room, entering it like a personification but with the attributes of autumn, for with her she brought plenty.
The Story of a Former Marriage
Shelley was fully alive to the romantic nature of her errand, and this predisposed him to find in her qualities of mind which she certainly did not possess. In any case, he became interested in her, and was of remorse when her intimacy with him caused her schoolfellows to shrink from her. But his interest was not overpowering and when she wrote to him complaining of the tyranny of her father and sister, although he came post-haste to help her, he was genuinely startled when she offered to fly with him!
Only one course was open to him, and he took it. He hired a post-chaise, and they were married in Edinburgh before anyone could stop them - he a penniless young man of nineteen, outcast and of untamed spirit, and she a pretty, but only fairly intelligent, child of sixteen. A friend who joined them very shortly after their wedding has described the young bride's mania for reading aloud, a trait of character which seems very soon to have wearied the two men beyond endurance. But this friend's picture of her must be taken with a grain of salt, inasmuch as he himself fell deeply in love with her, and in his turn implored her to fly with him.
Before long her sister joined the household, a sister who seems to have been more of a mother than a sister to her, and whose presence with the young couple did nothing to brighten the uncertain chances of such a hasty union. Nevertheless, for a while things went well. Harriett checked her inordinate desire to read aloud at all times and seasons - even during post-chaise journeys! - and Shelley's feeling for her grew tenderer and deeper.
It seems almost certain, however, that things had gone wrong with them before he met Mary Godwin, for when, two ears after the Scotch marriage, they were remarried in London, Shelley having thought the first marriage might be irregular, the act seems to have been dictated more by a of duty than by a lo\ Harriett changed, too, and it appears Shelley supposed he had good reason for the gravest jealousy before they separated.
He once said that " she could neither feel poetry nor understand philosoph
In fact, what mind she had was moreimita-than original; and if she caught up his phrases in the early days of their marriage, she forgot them later on. grew more and more interested in hat shops, and allowed herself to maintain a cold and indifferent demeanour tow aids the husband she could not understand.
Things went from bad to worse, and Shelley was miserable. At this time he was intimate with William Godwin, the philosopher, on whose works he had nourished the love of liberty which was ever the salient feature of his mind. It was natural that of Godwin's family he should choose as a friend Mary, the daughter of a fine thinker and worker - Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman," had voiced the first statement of a question which has since come into prominence.
He found her a thoughtful and high-spirited girl, of firm character, and no mean pretensions to beauty, with serene, grey eyes looking out from beneath shining golden hair, and a broad and intellectual brow. A friend has described her as having a well-shaped golden head, nearly always a little bent, and marble shoulders and arms, set off by the plain black velvet dress of the period. She had exquisitely formed white hands, with rosy palms, and very flexible, tapering fingers. The mother she could not remember filled a sacred place in her life, and Shelley's enthusiasm for that mother's work played no mean part in drawing the two together.
Finally, they met one day by Mrs. Godwin's willow-shaded grave, and there Shelley poured out the story of his miserable life, told Mary that he loved her, and asked her to throw in her lot with his. Neither Mary nor William Godwin had taught their child any reverence for marriage as an institution, and she, drawn to Shelley by every impulse of mind and heart, and angered by the lack of understanding of the weak wife who was for ever threatening suicide or else imploring Shelley to love her - a very trying combination even to the most ordinary man - promised to be his life-long comrade.