When I was doing my reading and research on Mary Shelley, I did veer off the Shelley Turnpike now and then—as these pages well certify—to explore some local by-ways. The story of poor Harriet Westbrook is among the most wrenching of all.
While Bysshe Shelley, 18, was at Oxford University, he met Harriet, 15, who attended a school in Clapham with Shelley’s sister Hellen. The young man dazzled the bright and attractive Harriet, daughter of the owner of a popular coffee shop. Bysshe was handsome, brilliant, wildly articulate, an Oxford student!—and had even published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne (both in 1810). His enthusiasm about life—and the life of the mind—was, well, viral.
And Harriet caught the virus.
In about three months things changed--drastically. Oxford expelled Shelley (and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg) for their publication The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley had turned 19 and was sort of hanging out, avoiding his (justifiably) irate father, and visiting his sister at school—and, of course, Harriet, who soon became the cynosure of his attention.
By August, Bysshe had convinced Harriet, now sixteen, to run away with him to be married in Scotland (where marriage laws were less restrictive). She agreed, and on August 29, 1811, off they flew (sort of—by carriage) to Edinburgh, where they married. Her father was not all that disturbed: Bysshe was the son of Sir Timothy; he would eventually be Sir Percy Bysshe Shelley. Not a bad arrangement, class-wise.
But Sir Timothy was not pleased. When he learned the news, he cut off Bysshe’s allowance—£200 a year—and wrote a harsh note to Hogg’s father: God knows what can be the end of all this disobedience. He and his son would remain estranged—an estrangement that outlived Bysshe and transferred most bitterly to Mary Shelley. And ended only with his own death at 90, only seven years before Mary died. He did, however, eventually (and grudgingly) contribute funds both to his son and, later, to Mary.
But Harriet Westbrook Shelley must have realized very, very early in their marriage that she had been pulled into the vortex of a cyclone. She had no idea how dark her life would become—and how short it would be.