Twain on Harriet Shelley

(Content warning for mention of suicide.)

The Complete Essays of Mark Twain includes a long 1894 piece titled “In Defense of Harriet Shelley.” Twain had just encountered Edward Dowden’s book The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley; in addition to objecting to Dowden’s florid writing style, Twain objected very strongly to Dowden’s insinuation that Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Shelley, had been unfaithful. (In this entry, I’ll mostly call everyone by given names for ease of phrasing.)

The gist of the history, as I understand it, is that a couple of years into Percy and Harriet’s marriage, Percy met and fell for a young married woman named Cornelia Turner. Percy more or less abandoned Harriet for a while, living with Cornelia’s family for a month. He eventually came back to Harriet (possibly after having been sent away by Cornelia’s family), but then met and fell for yet another young woman, Mary Godwin. He ran off with Mary (and got her pregnant), leaving behind a pregnant Harriet. A couple years later, Harriet killed herself; Percy then married Mary.

Dowden’s version of the motivations behind this story is that Percy went to Cornelia and Mary for comfort because he was so distraught by Harriet doing things like hiring a wet-nurse, and it was only natural that one like Percy who had been treated so cruelly by one like Harriet should end up accidentally falling for other women.

Twain’s version (I’m heavily paraphrasing and oversimplifying) is that Percy made a habit of wandering off and falling for other women (“To the end of his days he liked to be in love with two women at once” —p. 147 of this book), and that it was only natural that Harriet would be unhappy about that.

There were a couple of things that I found especially interesting about Twain’s essay:

  • Twain notes a couple of times that we have lots of letters and poems and such written by Percy and various other people involved in these events, but almost nothing written by Harriet. “[Harriet] is always silent—we are never allowed to hear from her.” (p. 131.) And, later in the essay: “all letters to her or about her, with almost every scrap of her own writing, had been diligently mislaid, leaving her case destitute of a voice…” (p. 154) That reminded me of the bit from Hamilton about Eliza removing herself from the narrative. In both contexts, I find it a compelling and sad image—we don’t know what the women in question thought, because what they wrote is gone. (Eliza’s case is different from Harriet’s, in that Eliza destroyed that material herself; but from a later reader’s point of view, the resulting absence of information is similar.)
  • Twain gets entertainingly snarky about Percy a couple of times. For example: at one point, he quotes Dowden as writing (in the context of Percy and Mary getting together) “The desire to assuage the suffering of one whose happiness has grown precious to us may become a hunger of the spirit[…]” Twain responds to that by agreeing that that must be what happened between Percy and Mary: “He told her about the wet-nurse, she told him about political justice; he told her about the deadly sister-in-law, she told him about her mother; he told her about the bonnet-shop, she murmured back about the rights of woman; then he assuaged her, then she assuaged him; then he assuaged her some more, next she assuaged him some more; then they both assuaged one another simultaneously; and so they went on by the hour assuaging and assuaging and assuaging, until at last what was the result? They were in love.” (p. 150)
  • Another example: Twain mentions Percy’s love poems, but notes that they are “good for this day and train only,” like a train ticket—that is, “We are able to believe that [the poems] spoke the truth for that one day, but we know by experience that they could not be depended on to speak it the next.” (p. 151)
  • As I mentioned in my previous post, I just learned about William Godwin, who was Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband and Mary Shelley’s father. It was a little surprising to me in this essay to see Twain talk quite a bit about William, and about Mary Shelley, but to refer to William’s wife only briefly and only as “Mrs. Godwin,” and to say some uncomplimentary things about her. Eventually I looked up the situation and learned that Mary Wollstonecraft had died shortly giving birth to Mary, and that Twain’s references to “Mrs. Godwin” referred to Godwin’s second wife, Mary Jane Godwin (who Wikipedia notes was “the only female publisher of substance in the London literary world of the early 1800s”). …Anyway, Twain was apparently not a fan of William Godwin: “Godwin was not without self-appreciation; indeed, it may be conjectured that from his point of view the last syllable of his name was surplusage.” (p. 148)

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