Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this letter six days after his first wife, Harriet, was ‘found drowned’ in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter is addressed to Mary Godwin, who became his second wife. Godwin – who is best known for writing Frankenstein (1818) – was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical political philosophers who advocated women’s rights and denounced marriage. In his writing Shelley too called for female empowerment, but this letter concerning his first wife’s suicide is often used as evidence of his ill-treatment of women.
What were the circumstances of Harriet Shelley’s suicide?
Shelley left Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin in July 1814. Only copies survive of the letters he wrote to Harriet after their parting, but they show Shelley to have been increasingly cruel towards her: ‘I despair of any generosity or virtue on your part’, he told her when she failed to express admiration for his new lover Mary. He also continued to demand money from Harriet to pay his debts and support Mary and her half-sister, Claire Clairmont.
In September 1816 Harriet left her father’s house and took lodgings in Chelsea under the name of Harriet Smith. Shelley’s letter reveals that he believed her to have ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there is no evidence which can corroborate these statements. On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter wishing Shelley ‘that happiness which you have deprived me of’. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. At the inquest into her death, Harriet’s landlady testified that she had appeared to be pregnant.
‘…every one does me full justice…’
Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to absolve himself from blame:
Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill – every one does me full justice; – bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...
However, Thomas Love Peacock reported that Harriet’s death brought about a ‘deep and abiding sorrow’ in his friend Shelley. These growing feelings of guilt and remorse can be detected in Shelley’s late work, Epipsychidion (1821).
Is the letter a fake?
In the latter half of the 19th century, efforts to exonerate Shelley were countered by attempts to prove Harriet’s fidelity. This resulted in distortion of the truth and an abundance of Shelley forgeries. Over the last 150 years a number of people have suspected this letter of being a forgery. Critics are now of the opinion that it is genuine, although the signature may not be real.
When Lady Jane Shelley (the poet’s daughter-in-law) was made aware of the letter in 1867 she assumed it was a fake. What she failed to realise was that it had actually come from her own collection. The letter was reposted in 1859 – it bears postmarks with this date – although it is not known how this happened. We can, however, be fairly confident that the letter is the one that librarian and author Richard Garnett had studied in Lady Shelley’s collection before 1859, as he noted the position of the tear in the paper.