Entering the debate about Bysshe Shelley's behavior ... Mark Twain!
Janet Todd, a scholar sensitive to the explosive climate in the Godwin household, is not easy on William Godwin during this period. Mary’s father, she wrote, “made things worse by imposing his own attitudes on the household.” I guess. And, we must remember, 1814 was not a time when women—daughters, wives—dared confront men too directly, for men, well, ruled. Women were barely a step away from property, despite the philosophies of remarkable women like Mary Wollstonecraft, who, if she could have returned from her grave for a view of the Godwin household at this time, would have no doubt shaken her weary head in disbelief and had some harsh words for her one-time husband, who’d so quickly altered, if not entirely abandoned, his radical philosophy when someone in his own household actually employed it in her life.
Meanwhile, Todd will not let our attention drift away from the women whose lives the various men were tormenting with their behavior. Mary Jane Godwin—as unpleasant a person as she may have been—had to watch helplessly as Bysshe Shelley seduced her daughter (there’s no other locution for it, really) away from the family.
And Harriet Shelley, Bysshe’s lawful wife. Not quite nineteen years old when the elopement occurred. Mother of a one-year-old daughter, Ianthe. Pregnant with a son, Charles (who would be born on November 30, only two months after her wayward husband returned from his six-week frolic in Europe with two other teenage girls). Bysshe had actually invited Harriet to join his little harem-in-progress. She declined.
Mark Twain, by the way, was one of the few writers I read early in my research who blasted Bysshe for his cavalier behavior—and who took Harriet’s side, and fiercely so. In his three-part essay “In Defense of Harriet Shelley” (1894—serialized the three installments in The North American Review), Twain was responding to the 1886 publication of Edward Dowden’s The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Shelley, wrote Twain, “has done something which in the case of other men is called a grave crime …,” a crime that Dowden (in Twain’s view), well, whitewashed.
In his one-volume version of his Shelley biography (1896), Dowden had written, “Yet evidence exists which makes one hesitate before asserting that Harriet had not, at least through indiscretions, if not through graver error, given occasion for her husband’s belief that she was untrue to him.”
Twain was outraged by this sort of thing. Here’s some of what he wrote about Harriet:
“Her very defenselessness should have been her protection. The fact that 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, while every pen-stroke which could help her husband’s side had been as diligently preserved, should have excused her from being brought to trial [metaphorically]. Her witnesses have all disappeared, yet we see her summoned in her grave-clothes to plead for the life of her character, without the help of an advocate, before a disqualified judge and a packed jury.”
I was affected in another way, working on Twain’s defense of Harriet. I found his essay in volume twenty-two of The Writings of Mark Twain, a twenty-five-volume set that I’d inherited from my grandfather Osborn. And that’s a story, too …