On Thursday, December 12, 1816, a short but intriguing report was carried on page two of The London Times. It read:
“On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad”.
Five days earlier, on the evening of Saturday, December 7, 1816, the day that was almost certainly her last, Harriet Shelley, aged twenty-one, wrote a rambling letter filled with self-recrimination. Sometime later, she walked the short distance to Hyde Park and entered the icy waters of the Serpentine. At the time of her death, Harriet had lived apart from her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley – father to their two young children – for more than two years, and the child she carried was almost certainly not his.
During the inquest that was held the following day in the nearby Fox Alehouse, Harriet’s identity and the grim details of her lonely death were obscured, although coroner, John Gell did attempt to close off speculation that she might have been murdered by releasing a statement confirming: ‘The said Harriet Smith had no marks of violence appearing on her body, but how or by what means she became dead, no evidence thereof does appear to the jurors’. An inconclusive verdict of, ‘Found dead in the Serpentine River’ was returned and no mention was made of her obvious pregnancy. She was buried as ‘Harriett Smith’.
Almost six years earlier, on the bitterly cold January day when she first met eighteen-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harriet Westbrook had been a strikingly pretty, fifteen-year-old pupil at Mrs. Fenning’s boarding school in Clapham; he was brother to two of her schoolmates, Mary and Hellen. Although the fiery young poet unsettled her with his radical notions of atheism, it was to him she turned, after just six months of friendship, when her father was insisting that she remain on at school even though, at sixteen, she would be older than any other girl there.
Although Shelley was keen to help Harriet, he had absolutely no intention of proposing marriage, and assured his good friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, ‘if I know anything about love, I am NOT in love’. His rash suggestion that they elope to Edinburgh was prompted by a letter from Harriet containing a credible threat of suicide; later, he confided in his friend Elizabeth Hitchiner that, ‘suicide was with her a favourite theme’. After they were married under Scots Law on August 29, 1811, Harriet and Shelley spent three chaotic years criss-crossing England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in pursuit of his ill-fated notions of social revolution and communal utopia. As their disapproving families had cut off all funds, they struggled to stay out of reach of their creditors.
On 23 June, 1813, Harriet gave birth to a daughter, Eliza Ianthe, known always by her middle name. Parenthood brought fresh anxieties, and their chaotic finances, compounded by Harriet’s reluctance to breastfeed, fuelled fierce arguments. By Christmas, they were spending long periods of time apart. Ironically, it was during this turbulent period that the couple remarried under English law in an attempt to regularise the legality of their relationship. They must have maintained some degree of cordiality, as Harriet became pregnant with their second child that same month. Nevertheless, the marriage was effectively over, and Shelley told Hogg that he, ‘felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion’.
The final blow was delivered when Shelley became besotted with sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. He fled abroad with her, and implored his wife to support this new relationship. He even invited her to join them in Switzerland. Harriet was distraught. She returned to her father’s house and gave birth to baby Charles. For two years, she led a life of quiet desperation, pestered for money by her errant husband and deprived of her infant children, who were sent to the countryside for their health. By spring, 1816, although she engaged little with society, Harriet was pregnant for a third time. The names of several candidates have emerged over the years, but the identity of the father has never been established.
In the decades that followed her death, Harriet Shelley was viciously slandered by supporters of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and strenuous attempts were made to erase all trace of her from Shelley’s life. The notion that Shelley had been tricked into marriage gained currency among those who regarded her as an unequal partner for him. Yet her supporters defended her staunchly, and perhaps the most vehement, though least likely of these was Mark Twain in his persuasive essay, In Defense of Harriet Shelley.
By mining the archives, we can uncover a clear sense of Harriet’s character, and her significance. She was beautiful, clever, witty and kind; fluent in French and competent in Latin; fascinated by history and au fait with current affairs. Yet as a woman of her time, she was afforded no outlet for these accomplishments. There are many recorded instances of her laughing with her husband and teasing him playfully. Yet she was prone to debilitating bouts of depression and, in her blackest moods, contemplated suicide.
The stability that Harriet offered Shelley during their short marriage allowed him to push the boundaries and develop the strong political sensibilities that characterise his work. Although life with him was chaotic, she was unwavering in her support: she accompanied him to Ireland to preach revolution; facilitated his attempts to establish a utopian commune; cared for him when he seemed utterly demented; and bore him children, one of whom would continue his line. The novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock, who was a good friend to both, described how Harriet, ‘accommodated herself in every way to his tastes. If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived in retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she enjoyed the change of scene.’
Harriet inspired Shelley’s early poems and haunted his later work. He dedicated his masterful, Queen Mab to her, writing: ‘Thou wert the inspiration of my song’. He was haunted by the part he played in her dreadful, lonely death, and confessed to Byron, ‘I know not how I have survived’. His friend and fellow writer Leigh Hunt believed that it: ‘tore his being to pieces’. Perhaps the best testament to Harriet’s lasting influence is the fact that Shelley countered enquiries about the frequent low moods that blighted the remainder of his short life with the words, ‘I was thinking of Harriet’.
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has appeared in publications including, The Irish Times,The Sunday Times, History Ireland and The Guardian, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with ‘A Want of Honour’, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.