DEFENCE OF HARRIET SHELLEY
DEFENCE OF HARRIET SHELLEY
I have committed sins of course; but I have not committed enough of them
to entitle me to the punishment of reduction to the bread and water of
ordinary literature during six years when I might have been living on the
fat diet spread for the righteous in Professor Dowden's Life of Shelley
if I had been justly dealt with.
During these six years I have been living a life of peaceful ignorance.
I was not aware that Shelley's first wife was unfaithful to him and that
that was why he deserted her and wiped the stain from his sensitive honor
by entering into soiled relations with Godwin's young daughter. This was
all new to me when I heard it lately and was told that the proofs of it
were in this book and that this book's verdict is accepted in the girls'
colleges of America and its view taught in their literary classes.
In each of these six years multitudes of young people in our country have
arrived at the Shelley-reading age. Are these six multitudes
unacquainted with this life of Shelley? Perhaps they are; indeed one
may feel pretty sure that the great bulk of them are. To these then I
address myself in the hope that some account of this romantic historical
fable and the fabulist's manner of constructing and adorning it may
First as to its literary style. Our negroes in America have several
ways of entertaining themselves which are not found among the whites
anywhere. Among these inventions of theirs is one which is particularly
popular with them. It is a competition in elegant deportment. They hire
a hall and bank the spectators' seats in rising tiers along the two
sides leaving all the middle stretch of the floor free. A cake is
provided as a prize for the winner in the competition and a bench of
experts in deportment is appointed to award it. Sometimes there are as
many as fifty contestants male and female and five hundred spectators.
One at a time the contestants enter clothed regardless of expense in
what each considers the perfection of style and taste and walk down the
vacant central space and back again with that multitude of critical eyes
on them. All that the competitor knows of fine airs and graces he throws
into his carriage all that he knows of seductive expression he throws
into his countenance. He may use all the helps he can devise: watch-
chain to twirl with his fingers cane to do graceful things with snowy
handkerchief to flourish and get artful effects out of shiny new
stovepipe hat to assist in his courtly bows; and the colored lady may
have a fan to work up her effects with and smile over and blush behind
and she may add other helps according to her judgment. When the review
by individual detail is over a grand review of all the contestants in
procession follows with all the airs and graces and all the bowings and
smirkings on exhibition at once and this enables the bench of experts to
make the necessary comparisons and arrive at a verdict. The successful
competitor gets the prize which I have before mentioned and an abundance
of applause and envy along with it. The negroes have a name for this
grave deportment-tournament; a name taken from the prize contended for.
They call it a Cakewalk.
This Shelley biography is a literary cake-walk. The ordinary forms of
speech are absent from it. All the pages all the paragraphs walk by
sedately elegantly not to say mincingly in their Sunday-best shiny
and sleek perfumed and with boutonnieres in their button-holes; it is
rare to find even a chance sentence that has forgotten to dress. If the
book wishes to tell us that Mary Godwin child of sixteen had known
afflictions the fact saunters forth in this nobby outfit: "Mary was
herself not unlearned in the lore of pain"--meaning by that that she had
not always traveled on asphalt; or as some authorities would frame it
that she had "been there herself" a form which while preferable to the
book's form is still not to be recommended. If the book wishes to tell
us that Harriet Shelley hired a wet-nurse that commonplace fact gets
turned into a dancing-master who does his professional bow before us in
pumps and knee-breeches with his fiddle under one arm and his crush-hat
under the other thus: "The beauty of Harriet's motherly relation to her
babe was marred in Shelley's eyes by the introduction into his house of a
hireling nurse to whom was delegated the mother's tenderest office."
This is perhaps the strangest book that has seen the light since
Frankenstein. Indeed it is a Frankenstein itself; a Frankenstein with
the original infirmity supplemented by a new one; a Frankenstein with the
reasoning faculty wanting. Yet it believes it can reason and is always
trying. It is not content to leave a mountain of fact standing in the
clear sunshine where the simplest reader can perceive its form its
details and its relation to the rest of the landscape but thinks it
must help him examine it and understand it; so its drifting mind settles
upon it with that intent but always with one and the same result: there
is a change of temperature and the mountain is hid in a fog. Every time
it sets up a premise and starts to reason from it there is a surprise in
store for the reader. It is strangely nearsighted cross-eyed and
purblind. Sometimes when a mastodon walks across the field of its vision
it takes it for a rat; at other times it does not see it at all.
The materials of this biographical fable are facts rumors and poetry.
They are connected together and harmonized by the help of suggestion
conjecture innuendo perversion and semi-suppression.
The fable has a distinct object in view but this object is not
acknowledged in set words. Percy Bysshe Shelley has done something which
in the case of other men is called a grave crime; it must be shown that
in his case it is not that because he does not think as other men do
about these things.
Ought not that to be enough if the fabulist is serious? Having proved
that a crime is not a crime was it worth while to go on and fasten the
responsibility of a crime which was not a crime upon somebody else? What
is the use of hunting down and holding to bitter account people who are
responsible for other people's innocent acts?
Still the fabulist thinks it a good idea to do that. In his view
Shelley's first wife Harriet free of all offense as far as we have
historical facts for guidance must be held unforgivably responsible for
her husband's innocent act in deserting her and taking up with another
Any one will suspect that this task has its difficulties. Any one will
divine that nice work is necessary here cautious work wily work and
that there is entertainment to be had in watching the magician do it.
There is indeed entertainment in watching him. He arranges his facts
his rumors and his poems on his table in full view of the house and
shows you that everything is there--no deception everything fair and
above board. And this is apparently true yet there is a defect for
some of his best stock is hid in an appendix-basket behind the door and