Monday, March 19, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XI: The Desecration of Harriet Shelley

When Percy ran off to the Continent with Mary and Claire, he left behind a pregnant wife and a daughter who was not yet one year old. Though he lived the next two years as though he were married to Mary, even going so far as to present her as Mrs. Shelley in Geneva, the fact is he never divorced Harriet and only made a formal separation when she forced the issue by siccing lawyers on him. At first she had access to Percy's bank accounts, but they eventually reached an arrangement wherein Percy provided her with an allowance.

Percy's attitude towards her was arrogant and cold. He denied--indeed, he was seemingly blind to the fact--that he'd done anything wrong.
I am united to another; you are no longer my wife. Perhaps I have done you injury, but surely most innocently & unintentionally in having commenced any connection with you. --That injury whatever be its amount was not to be avoided. If ever in any degree there was sympathy in our feelings & opinions wherefore deprive ourselves in future of the satisfaction which may result, by this contemptible cavil--these unworthy bickerings.
In this same letter he declared that he would not even visit her for the birth of their child.

The influence of Godwin's philosophy is clear. Percy did not accept the concept of a committed relationship, nor the idea that a relationship should be accompanied by any responsibility. Expecting him to provide any emotional support for the mother of his children was an unjust imposition upon his freedom. If he were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a Men's Rights Advocate and an active Pick-up Artist.

Preferring not to live as a single mother, Harriet had moved back with her father soon after Percy abandoned her, and she remained with him for the next two years. But in September 1816, around the time rumors out of Geneva would've been making their way through London, Harriet moved out and took an apartment under the assumed name of Mrs. Smith.

She did this for much the same reason Claire's mother had adopted the name "Clairmont" -- at this point Harriet was pregnant with her third child. She likely moved out of her father's place to keep the pregnancy hidden, and she spent most of the next two months holed up by herself in her apartment. She would've wanted to present herself as a married woman to her landlady and neighbors, but she couldn't very well go by "Mrs. Shelley" with all the wild stories going around, so she adopted that hoariest of all aliases, Mrs. Smith.

Then in November she left her apartment and never returned. Her family was alarmed by her disappearance and had local waterways dragged for bodies, but nothing turned up until a month later when her body was found floating in the Serpentine River. Though the inquest declared her simply "drowned," she almost certainly had killed herself.

What happened to her in the intervening month? Percy, in the most despicable moment in a life full of despicable moments, suggested that Harriet had taken up prostitution. Claire reported a rumor that she'd moved into a mews--a stable that had been renovated into an apartment. Neither of those seem likely. The other possibility is that she'd drowned herself in November by weighting her body down, and only floated to the surface after a month. Her body doesn't seem to have been terribly decomposed, the coroner having no trouble identifying her, but in a year of extreme cold, decay may've been slow.

Harriet's suicide put Percy and Mary in a difficult situation. Although it did mean that they were no longer engaged in adultery, rumors that they'd driven a woman to suicide would've been even worse. So they launched a campaign to smear Harriet's reputation. The Godwins put out a rumor that Harriet had been having an affair with an officer in the British Army, but he'd been abruptly transferred to India and couldn't very well take another man's wife along. Abandoned and pregnant, Harriet had thrown herself in the river.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that such a man ever existed. More likely, the child belonged to Percy. After his grandfather's death in 1815, Percy needed to jump through a number of legal hoops to secure his share of the inheritance, and some of those required the presentation of his children at various legal proceedings. Contacting Harriet directly was more expedient than going through intermediaries, so on several occasions he visited her at her father's house. Claire, who accompanied him on some of these trips, reported that Percy and Harriet got along amicably and even hugged goodbye.

Once Claire left for her seaside getaway, and with Mary pregnant with William, Percy may have returned to Harriet as a sexual outlet. It's notable that his last meeting with Harriet occurred a few days before he set out for Geneva, which would align quite well with her pregnancy becoming visible in September.

In the aftermath of Harriet's suicide, Percy decided he wanted custody of their children. While he may have, for once in his life, felt a duty to someone other than himself, it must be noted that Charles and Ianthe were entitled to some share of their grandfather's wealth. But Harriet's father, not without justification, wanted Percy nowhere near those children, and he filed suit to stop him from taking custody.

To bolster their case, Mary and Percy decided to throw their principles to the wind and get married. It did no good, though. Percy's antics were known to all London by now, and his public avowals of atheism and political radicalism didn't help his case. But while Percy's chances of getting custody were non-existent, he decided to wage a scorched earth campaign against Harriet's family, attacking them for low character and economic inferiority. But it's notable that in all this Percy never formally accused Harriet of unfaithfulness, another point against the rumors the Godwins spread about her.

In any event, the outcome of all this was that the court took the children away from both Percy and Harriet's family and sent them to live with foster parents. Charles died, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Frankenstein, at the age of eleven after being struck by lightning. Ianthe, however, lived to the respectable age of sixty-two. Because of the sexist nature of British inheritance laws, she never became a baronetess, but she did marry into the wealthy Esdaile family. Out of all of Percy's children, she was the only one to not only reach adulthood, but to have children of her own. Her half-siblings through Mary all died before the age of three, except for Percy Florence, the youngest, who lived to be seventy but sired no progeny.

Their father met a tragic end in a boating accident off the coast of Italy in 1822. After that Mary moved back to England with her son, where she lived on an allowance from Sir Timothy. Timothy had one stipulation, though -- she could neither write a biography of Percy, nor help in the writing of one. She got around this somewhat by providing anonymous notes for Percy's collected works, and through the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, but by and large she respected Sir Timothy's wish, even after he died.

A few of Percy's friends published memoirs, most notably Hogg and Edward Trelawny, but any biographer who wanted access to the Shelley family records, including Percy's letters, had to go through Percy Florence and his wife, both of whom were devoted to sanitizing Percy's life in order to make themselves appear more respectable. Harriet was a particular target for them, and they weren't above outright lying, such as claiming that Percy and Harriet had agreed to a separation before he'd run off with Mary.

The most egregious biography to emerge from this arrangement was Edward Dowden's The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a work so mendacious that Mark Twain felt compelled to write a lengthy essay highlighting the ways in which Dowden twisted facts to dump upon Harriet. The whole essay is worth reading, being one of Twain's most incisive and vicious polemics, but it's worth highlighting a passage to give an idea of how unscrupulous the Shelleys and their agents were towards Harriet. Twain points to a passage in which Dowden portrays Harriet as a grasping, materialistic woman for asking Percy to buy them a carriage they can't afford. He then notes:
Shelley's happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, first, because Harriet had persuaded him to set up a carriage. I cannot discover that any evidence is offered that she asked him to set up a carriage. Still, if she did, was it a heavy offense? Was it unique? Other young wives had committed it before, others have committed it since. Shelley had dearly loved her in those London days; possibly he set up the carriage gladly to please her; affectionate young husbands do such things. When Shelley ran away with another girl, by-and-by, this girl persuaded him to pour the price of many carriages and many horses down the bottomless well of her father's debts, but this impartial judge finds no fault with that. Once she appeals to Shelley to raise money—necessarily by borrowing, there was no other way—to pay her father's debts with at a time when Shelley was in danger of being arrested and imprisoned for his own debts; yet the good judge finds no fault with her even for this.

First and last, Shelley emptied into that rapacious mendicant's lap a sum which cost him—for he borrowed it at ruinous rates—from eighty to one hundred thousand dollars. But it was Mary Godwin's papa, the supplications were often sent through Mary, the good judge is Mary's strenuous friend, so Mary gets no censures. On the Continent Mary rode in her private carriage, built, as Shelley boasts, “by one of the best makers in Bond Street,” yet the good judge makes not even a passing comment on this iniquity. Let us throw out Count No. 1 against Harriet Shelley as being far-fetched, and frivolous.
Twain goes on in this vein for quite a while, pointing out numerous instances in which Dowden trashes Harriet for behaving exactly as you'd expect a woman to behave towards a lying, cheating husband. And all done with the approval of the Shelley family, who wanted their own reputation to be spotless -- a process which Mary and her father had started when they first circulated rumors about Harriet's unfaithfulness.

This then is the context in which Frankenstein must be considered -- for although Mary started the book in June 1816, she didn't complete it until a year later, meaning that all the events I've described, except the later smears against Harriet, had come to pass before Mary finished writing. And as we'll see next time, these events are woven into the story.

NEXT TIME: Assembling the Monster -- Frankenstein as Autobiography

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