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BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

On This Day in 1816: 10th December and the tragic death of Harriet Shelley

We welcome Francesca Blanch Serrat to the BARS blog for the second time; Francesca is a pre-doctoral student and has written the following post on Harriet Shelley. She recently graduated in English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her areas of research include minor women writers of the eighteenth century and British and French Romanticism. She is on Twitter.

We are always looking for new contributors. If you’d like to write something on literary/historical events in 1817, please contact anna.mercer@york.ac.uk. We also welcome proposals from those who wish to write about 1817 more generally, and not about a specific date. We hope you are enjoying this series!

The Life and Death of Harriet Westbrook Shelley

On this day, December 10th, two hundred years ago, the body of Harriet Shelley, née Westbrook, was recovered from the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It was a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital, John Levesley (Shepherd, 2013) who saw the corpse floating in the lake and alerted the authorities. After the inquest, it was discovered that the remains belonged to a Harriet Smith (she had taken lodgings under that surname), who had disappeared a month before. She was pregnant when she took her life. The following is an account of the circumstances that led Harriet, the first wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to her suicide.

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of "Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger"

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger”

After a few weeks in Edinburgh, the newlyweds spent their first three years as husband and wife travelling: initially they moved to York, and then to Keswick, where Shelley began writing to William Godwin. After a while the Shelleys travelled to Ireland – Percy had noble revolutionary intentions that were not so well received by the Irish (Gilmour, 2002) – and on their return they established themselves in Wales before moving shortly to North Devon and back. In 1812, they went to London, where they finally met Godwin and his family, with the exception of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), who was in Scotland.

After that, Percy and Harriet moved to Wales, and then returned to London, where Harriet gave birth to a girl, Ianthe. By 1814, Harriet, Ianthe and Eliza (Harriet’s sister) were finally established in Windsor while Percy wandered, visiting London and meeting with friends, including Godwin and, finally, Mary. Even though Percy and Harriet married again under English law around this period, his visits became less frequent, until he eventually stopped seeing his – now once more pregnant – wife.

Harriet's husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

Harriet’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

During these months of estrangement, Percy began a relationship with Mary Godwin, who was to become his wife and companion. Their relationship flourished in the following months, despite Godwin’s disapproval and Harriet’s desperation. Finally, Percy eloped with Mary and her stepsister Jane (later Claire Clairmont) to the continent. It attests to his lack of maturity and irresponsible idealism that Percy wrote to Harriet from Switzerland, inviting her to join him and his lover in Europe, and to bring money with her (Hay 2011:32). At this request, she was beside herself. Even if Harriet was not economically strained (she received £200 from her father, and £100 from Shelley), she must have been emotionally traumatised as an abandoned pregnant mother.

Harriet returned to her father’s house with Ianthe and Eliza, and gave birth her second child, Charles. The Westbrooks took care of the situation as best as they could: they sent Ianthe and Charles to the countryside, which one might think could have added to their mother’s torment. Eventually, Harriet left her father’s house and took lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. It is possible that this decision was motivated by her pregnancy, but we cannot know whether she was trying to conceal it from her family, or if it had been her family’s idea, to shield her from further gossip.

On December 12, 1816, this notice appeared in The London Times:

   “On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine river and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad.”

Harriet's suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Harriet’s suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Later, Harriet’s last letter, addressed to her sister, was found. It read as follows:

“To you my dear Sister I leave all my things as they more properly belong to you than any one & you will preserve them for Ianthe . Hog bless you both My dearest & much belod Sister

Sat. Eve.

When you read this letr. I shall be [no] more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. […] God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe [Percy, her husband]. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate   Harriet S–––” [i]

Harriet’s death, subject to a great deal of speculation ever since, is, if anything, an example of the situation in which married women found themselves in eighteenth-century England, tied to the decisions and whims of their husbands, for better or for worse. Percy’s irresponsibility lead Harriet to a situation of social vulnerability he seemed not to fully understand.

 

Bibliography

Harriet Shelley’s Suicide Letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Gilmour, Ian. The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron an Other Tangled Lives. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Shepherd, Lynn. “‘This fatal catastrophe’: The sad life and strange death of Harriet Shelley”  [consulted 22/11/16].