So … in 1894, Mark Twain, enraged about the mistreatment of Harriet Shelley by a Bysshe Shelley biographer, rose—fiercely—to her defense. In some ways, Twain was past the prime of his career (Huck Finn had appeared about ten years earlier), but his bitterness about the “damned human race” would only increase as he aged. Human ignorance terrified Twain, and he wrote about it over and over—from his earliest books onward. He knew that our ignorance—in some cases our willing, even eager, ignorance—could (and probably would) doom our democracy. In 1905 he would write an essay called “On the Damned Human Race.” In it, he sardonically compares us to the “lower” animals … and finds us wanting.
Throughout these recent pages I have sometimes referred to “poor Harriet.” So perhaps it’s time to write a little about her final days, which must have been hellish. Remember, in August 1811, he’d swept the young Harriet Westbrook, who just a few weeks earlier had turned 16, away from her family, had taken her to Scotland, where marriage laws were more relaxed.
Then he yanked her around—Ireland, Wales—“educating” her along the way, trying to craft her into both a wife and a Shelleyian disciple, risking her life (the shooting in Wales), and, soon, drawing other women into his alluring orbit.
In the summer of 1814—he’d not been married to Harriet for three years—Bysshe ran off with two more teenage girls, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont, returned six weeks later in disgrace to London, where he visited the Westbrooks (Harriet had returned to her family) and tried to persuade her to join his little commune. She declined.
Oh, and at the time, Harriet was already the mother of a daughter, little Ianthe (born in June 1813), and was pregnant with Charles, born about two and a half months after her wayward husband returned from his dash to the continent with Mary and Claire.
Does it take much to imagine Harriet’s despair? She was not yet twenty, and her life was ruined. With her shattered reputation, no other man would rescue her. Her family members were scandalized. Having her in the house was an embarrassment.
By September 1814, she’d moved out of her family home, had found, with their help, an apartment, had begun going by the name of “Mrs. Smith.” Money was not a problem: Bysshe had promised her an allowance; her parents helped, too. But her depression was deep. And would only deepen.
And a couple of months later she left the place. And vanished.
A month after her departure—on December 10, 1814—her body was found floating in a river.