'This Fatal Catastrophe': The Sad Life and Strange Death of Harriet Shelley

19/08/2013 22:43 BST | Updated 19/10/2013 10:12 BST

Early in the morning of 10th December1816 a man called John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital, was making his way to Kensington across Hyde Park when he saw something floating in the waters of the Serpentine. It was the body of a young woman. It looked, he later told the inquest, as if she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the Fox and Bull inn on Knightsbridge, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of 'found dead'.

A sad tale, you might think, but hardly a remarkable one. Only that is exactly what it was. Because there are four further facts about this story which make it not just remarkable, but one of the most enduring mysteries of 19th-century literary history.

First, the young woman in question had been missing for nearly a month, having left her last-known lodgings on November 9th; second, she had taken those lodgings under a name - Harriet Smith - which was not her own; third, she was discovered in an advanced state of pregnancy, despite the fact that she had been estranged from her husband for over two years; and last, and most explosively, the husband in question was not only the eldest son of a baronet, but the noted radical, atheist and poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley himself was not in London at the time, having recently returned from spending the summer in Geneva, in the company of Lord Byron, Byron's mistress Claire Clairmont, and Claire's step-sister, who also happened to be the woman for whom Shelley had deserted his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Mary was by then already working on the early drafts of the book that would become Frankenstein.

Shelley and the two young women had taken rooms in Bath on their return, and it was there that he received a letter from his friend Thomas Hookham, telling him of Harriet's death. Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Shelley's wife's name - real or otherwise - and ended with the words, "a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe", in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.

Indeed the whole thing was hushed up so extraordinarily efficiently that I for one was left wondering whether some person or persons unknown had intervened. And in due course this same intriguing fact became one of the driving ideas behind my own novel about the Shelleys, A Treacherous Likeness (published now as A Fatal Likeness in the US).

Elopement and abandonment

Shelley had married Harriet Westbrook five years before, when he was 19 and she still at school. She was a friend of Shelley's younger sisters, and he met her soon after being sent down from Oxford in early 1811. The evidence is murky (as it so often is with Shelley), but he seems to have suffered some sort of nervous collapse that summer, and yet by August 26th he and Harriet had eloped and were on their way to Scotland to be married.

At 16, his new bride was pretty, vivacious and sweet-natured - as Shelley's friend Thomas Love Peacock put it, "She had a good figure, light, active and graceful... The tone of her voice was pleasant; her speech the essence of frankness and cordiality... to be once in her company was to know her thoroughly." It's easy to see why the dashing, intelligent and hot-headed young poet might have appealed to her, and she would have been too inexperienced to see through that glittering surface to discern the unpredictable and violent-tempered young man he often was. But why Shelley should have been induced to elope with such a nice but undeniably naïve girl is still something of a mystery, and all the more so when you consider the vehemence of his ideological opposition to the very idea of marriage.

Whatever his reasons - and scarcely two months later he was already laying the blame for the entire enterprise at Harriet's door - by early 1814 the marriage was in trouble. The philosopher William Godwin had long been one of Shelley's heroes, and Shelley had begun an acquaintance with him by letter in 1812, but it was only two years later that the poet first met Godwin's 16-year-old daughter, Mary. Within weeks he had eloped for the second time, and with a second teenaged girl.

Harriet was by now the mother of a daughter little more than a year old and pregnant with another child. Abandoned and betrayed, she was forced to return to her father's house and suffer all the ignominy and social stigma that her husband might carelessly disdain, but she had no choice but to endure. Neither maid nor married, widow nor wife.

Suicide - or something more sinister?

We know little of Harriet's life for the next two years. Her son Charles was born in November 1814, and she remained at the Westbrook house in Chapel Street. Then suddenly, in September 1816, she was gone, leaving her children behind. It emerged later that she went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady she was married and her husband abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though her main reason for telling this story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this any longer that forced her to flee her parents' house in the first place. Even now, we do not know who was the father of that baby, though some biographers have suggested that Shelley himself may have been responsible, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived.

After her death, rumours circulated that she had in fact taken a lover, perhaps a 'Major Ryan', perhaps a Captain in the Indian Army, or even that she had "descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith". That last allegation comes from a letter by Shelley, which was seized upon many years after his death by Lady Shelley, his formidable daughter-in-law (who of course never met him). She took it upon herself to wage a relentless campaign to rehabilitate Shelley's sullied reputation for the benefit of the Victorian public, and a good part of this consisted in exonerating Shelley's behaviour towards his first wife at Harriet's expense.

The Godwins do not emerge with much credit in this sorry affair either. William Godwin was instrumental in passing on a - frankly ludicrous - rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he left her, and as time went on the blackening of Harriet's name extended to her allegedly 'low' social standing, her lack of intelligence (at least in comparison to the über-intellectual Mary Godwin), and even to the possibility that she had a drink problem, which was founded solely, as far as one can tell, on the fact that she had a rosy complexion and her father kept a tavern.

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet's death). It sounds far-fetched, but there is one small fact that appears to support it, and which cannot otherwise be easily explained: Godwin notes Harriet's death in his diary on 9th November, but no-one knew she was dead until several weeks later, when her body was found.

But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life, as the inquest concluded. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand. It is heart-breaking to read, the depths of her despair visible not just in her words but in the document itself, in the disjointed lines, the poor spelling, and the broken grammar:

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. .. My dear Bysshe ... if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of... so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S---

You can see a facsimile of Harriet's suicide letter on the Shelley's Ghost exhibition website.