Shelley's letter to Mary on Harriet
Percy Bysshe Shelley
In this section:
- Shelley and Oxford
- Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
- The Young Shelley
- Shelley and Mary
- Copy of the portrait of Shelley as a boy
- Portrait of Mary Shelley
- Early letter from Shelley to Godwin
- Shelley's and Mary's elopement journal
- Shelley and Mary, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour
- Journal of Mary Shelley's step-sister, Claire Clairmont
- Copy of a letter from Shelley to his first wife, Harriet
- Mary's earliest surviving letter to Shelley
- Letter to Shelley and Mary from Mary's Step-sister Fanny Imlay
- Letter from Godwin to Shelley following Fanny Imlay's suicide
- Shelley's jottings and doodlings
- Harriet Shelley's suicide letter
- Harriet Shelley’s engagement ring
- Harriet Shelley’s scarf holder
- Mary's journal entry on Harriet Shelley's suicide
- Shelley's letter to Mary on Harriet
- Copy of the best-known portrait of Shelley
- Mary's letter to friends on her son's final illness
- Godwin's draft letter to Mary after her son's death
- Portrait of Lord Byron
- Letter from Claire Clairmont to Byron on their daughter Allegra
- Letter from Byron to Shelley on his daughter Allegra
- Letter from Allegra to her father Lord Byron
- Letter from Shelley to Mary denying scandalous rumours
- Shelley's Notebooks
- Shelley’s Last Days
- Mary Shelley in England
- William Godwin & Mary Shelley
- Mary Shelley, Editor
- The Poet's Son & Daughter-in-Law
- The Shelley Sanctum
Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
London, 11 Jan 1817
Harriet Shelley’s death was followed by bitter recriminations. Writing to Mary the day after hearing the news, Shelley blamed ‘this dark dreadful death’ on ‘the detestable Westbrooks', and especially 'the beastly viper her sister', Eliza. A few weeks later, the Westbrooks petitioned the Chancery Court to prevent Shelley from gaining custody of his and Harriet's young children, Ianthe and Charles.
In this letter to Mary, written the day after the petition was made, Shelley outlines the legal situation as he understood it. A number of accusations had been levelled at him: he was an avowed atheist; he was an associate of Godwin, author of the infamous Political Justice; he had deserted his wife and 'unlawfully cohabited' with Mary. Considering his defence, Shelley refers to 'Harriets story', and uncritically repeats a baseless rumour he had heard from Godwin: that Harriet 'was unfaithful to me four months before I left England with you'.
This letter was one of the documents Lady Shelley drew upon in her efforts to exonerate Shelley and Mary from the breakdown of Shelley's marriage to Harriet. She insisted that the marriage had failed well before Shelley and Mary eloped to the Continent. The letter itself appears to have been among a box of papers that Shelley and Mary left in England when they departed for Italy in 1818. The papers fell into the hands of the forger 'Major Byron', and many of them, including this letter, were later recovered by Mary Shelley. Lady Shelley also possessed fragments of what could have been Major Byron forgeries, but muddled the real and the fake when she marked this, the real letter, 'Forgery'.
London, Jan 11. 1816 [for 1817]
My dear love
I will relate to you all that I have learned & all that has happened first.
I saw Longdill early this morning & have spent the whole day at his chambers. From him I learned that after receiving notice from Desse of Chancery proceedings he had made himself acquainted with the law of the point. The only manner in which I could get at the children in the common course of law, is by Habeas Corpus, & that supposes a delay of some weeks. You will see that the whole thing must be decided in Chancery before that time, & that if I could succeed at common law my situation would be still the same with respect to Chancery, & that
my possession would in no manner ameliorate but rather the contrary my situation. Their process is the most insidiously malignant that can be conceived. They have filed a bill, to say that I published Queen Mab, that I avow myself to be an atheist & a republican; with some other imputations of an infamous nature. This by Chancery law I must deny or admit upon oath, & then it seems that it rests in the mere discretion of the Chancelor to decide whether those are fit grounds for refusing me my children. They cannot have them at any rate; my father or my nearest relations are the persons whom the Chancellor will entrust with them if they must be denied to me. It is therefore sheer revenge. If I admit myself or if Chancery decides that I ought not to have the children because I am an infidel; then the Ws will make that decision a basis for a criminal information or common libel attack. – But there is hopes by watchful resistance that the whole of this detestable conspiracy will be overthrown – For, if the Chancellor should decide not to hear their cause; & if our answer on oath is so convincing as to effect this, they are defeated.
They do no tell Harriets story: I mean the circumstances of her death, in these allegations against me. – They evidently feel that it make against themselves. They attack you & Godwin, by stating that I became acquainted with you whilst living with Harriet, & that Godwin is the author of Political Justice & other impious & seditious writings.
I learn just now from Godwin that he has evidence that Harriet was unfaithful to me four months before I left England with you. If we can succeed in establishing this our connection will receive an additional sanction, & plea be overborne.
On the 19th the Chancellor begins to sit & it must be decided instantly – from the nature of the case. I know not when, or whether at all before that day I can return to Bath. How painful in these difficult & in one sense tremendous circumstances it is to me to be deprived of the counsel of your judgement & the consolation of your dearest presence. I must remain in London. – I must attend to every, the minutest stage of the answer which is to be drawn up on my side. – My story is what I have to tell. My evidence & my witnesses must be collected in the short space of five days. Besides, I must be present. How much depends on this! Almost all besides that inviolable happiness which whilst you & your affection remains to me can never pass away is suspended perhaps on the issue of this trial. – Yet cheer up my own beloved Mary. I have firm friends here. I am not, as might have happened once, to be oppressed & crushed in secrecy & solitude. Depend too, on the utmost foresight & caution to be used on my part. I am to attend a consultation of counsel early on Monday morning.
– How is sweetest babe? How do his fair blue eyes look today? Kiss him tenderly for me.
How is poor Clare? Give my love to her. I[f as]ked read her or tell her the su[bjec]t of this letter. I hope that her spirits are not much annoyed in her present situation. – She will see that in a manner so serious as that in which I am engaged I cannot return. –
Now my own darling Pecksie, don’t fancy I’m disquieted so as to be unwell. Dont think I have any of those misgivings & perturbations which vitally affect the heart. I am, it is true earnest & active, but as far as relates to all highest hopes & you my only treasure, quite happy. So adieu – You shall hear by the mail tomorrow night if possible –
Your own affectionate
I've lost the list – send it again & I'll send by the coach – Don't be disappointed if I send not by the mail – may be, I can't. The Hunts send their love.
Mary Shelley; ? (1818) Robert Madocks; ? John Wright, bookseller; (1844) ‘Major Byron’; (purchase, ?1846) Mary Shelley; (bequest, 1851) Sir Percy and Lady Shelley; (bequest, 1889) Lady Shelley; (gift, 1893) Bodleian.
Shelley Letters, i, no. 380; Shelley’s Guitar, no. 63.