Just taking an interval from my Jane Austen postings to share some thoughts about Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley appears in my novel A Different Kind of Woman, and his part of the story is also excerpted and expanded in my novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady. My Shelley story has to do with his time in Italy, but this series will discuss another mysterious episode in his life--the "ghost" assailant in Tremadog, North Wales.
But on two occasions when his behaviour was called into question, Shelley fell silent and turned to someone else to speak for him. One occasion, which I’ve already written about, was when his former nursemaid accused him of having sex with his sister-in-law Claire (probably true), of trying to obtain an abortion for her (possibly true), and abandoning the resulting infant in a foundling home (untrue). On that occasion, he turned to his wife Mary Godwin Shelley to defend him, which she did, in a passionate letter.
Now I want to turn back to his first wife, the tragic Harriet (also spelled Harriett) Westbrook Shelley, and the circumstances which led her to take up her pen to defend her husband. It had to do with his precipitate departure from an isolated Welsh coastal town called Tremadog (then spelled as Tremadoc).
There was nothing unusual about rapid departures for the Shelley household. Chronically restless, Shelley never stayed anywhere for long, even though he often, when arriving somewhere, declared that it was the perfect spot.
By the fall of 1812, Harriet and Shelley, though only 17 and 20 years old respectively, had been married for a year and a half. In that brief period they had moved from Edinburgh to York, to the Lake District, to Dublin and Devonshire, with stops in-between in London.
Shelley was estranged from his father, who despaired of his son’s radical beliefs, and the young couple lived on monies Shelley borrowed against his majority (that is, money lenders lent him money at high rates because he would one day inherit the family fortune and his grandfather’s baronetcy). In those days, almost every profession was considered a degradation for a well-born oldest son. And after all, Shelley was a poet with every fibre of his being; he could hardly be anything else.
In October of 1812, Shelley threw his support behind an effort to build an embankment across the bay at Tremadog in Wales. The venture was being undertaken by an optimistic entrepreneur named William Madocks (1773–1828). The work had already been completed once but had been washed away in a storm and the ambitious project was about to founder for lack of monies. With characteristic fervour, Shelley “publicly pledge[d] to spend the last shilling of [his] fortune and devote the last breath of [his] life” to help this land reclamation effort. He personally pledged to donate £500 and promised to find other subscribers.
Shelley, Harriet, and her older sister Eliza moved to Tremadog and took a lovely, spacious, villa called Tan-yr-Allt perched on the hillside overlooking the town and the bay below. Though their finances were precarious and they had left a trail of debts behind them, the Shelleys hired at least three maidservants and lived in the style to which they were accustomed, that is to say, far beyond their means. They were initially enchanted with their new home. Shelley tried to raise interest and capital for the embankment scheme while also working on his first magnum opus, Queen Mab, an allegorical poem that laid out Shelley's political and social views, which he'd mostly imbibed from the book Political Justice by William Godwin. He also made some quick trips to London, where he met with Godwin and first met his young daughter Mary.
But by January, Shelley regretted his promise of financial sponsorship. He had not succeeded in attracting other investors, as he had so confidently promised Madocks. Originally he thought the men behind the project were visionaries who would stimulate agriculture and trade for the impoverished Welsh people, but by winter he and Harriet reviled the giant earthworks as a blight on the beautiful scenery of the bay. He also felt the labourers on the project were being underpaid and maltreated. Tensions were growing between Shelley and some of the townsfolk, particularly as he had unpaid bills with various merchants.
In late February of 1813, the Shelleys abruptly left Tremadog after a mysterious, dangerous, episode that occurred in the dead of night, and they never returned.
Why did Shelley flee Tremadog? The explanation came, not from Shelley, but from Harriet, who wrote a long letter to their friends about it because she “wish[ed] to spare [her husband], in the present nervous state of his health, every thing that can recall to his mind the horrors of that night...” The entire letter is here. And let's take a moment to note that Harriet was 17 and pregnant and tasked with writing this letter while her husband flopped about on the chaise lounge complaining about his nerves and his digestion.
The night in question was Friday, February 26th, 1813. Shelley made a point of loading his two pistols before he retired for the night, because he anticipated some kind of confrontation with the locals. What, exactly, was Shelley anticipating? His actions imply he thought someone might come to the house. But that particular night was very stormy: “the wind was as loud as thunder, and the rain descended in torrents.” One would have to be extremely motivated indeed, to walk up to Tan yr Walt in such miserable February weather to have a few unpleasant words with Shelley late at night. You'd be soaked and chilled through, and this in an age before Gore-Tex jackets and central heating to warm you up once you got inside.
Around eleven o’clock, Harriet writes, Shelley heard an intruder in the house (over the noise of the thunderously loud wind) and he “went into the billiard room, where he heard footsteps retreating. He followed into another little room… there [he] saw a man in the act of quitting the room through a [large] glass window which opens into the shrubbery.” The unknown man fired a pistol at Shelley, but missed.
Shelley returned fire but his pistol flashed in the pan (that is, the gunpowder ignited but did not explode down the chamber and expel the bullet.) “The man then knocked Shelley down,” continued Harriet, and “they struggled on the ground,” until Shelley managed to fire his second pistol, which he believed hit his assailant’s shoulder.
By the term "ground," we must assume that Shelley had followed the intruder outside, otherwise Harriet would have written "the floor," but at least two biographers have assumed the struggle took place inside the house. Inside or out, the combatants must have met in the dark. It was a moonless night and there was no such thing as electric porch lights or street lamps. At any rate, Shelley believed he had hit his target because the man shrieked and then exclaimed: “’By God, I will be revenged! I will murder your wife. I will ravish your sister. By God, I will be revenged.’”* He then fled.
We can be sure that once the household was all gathered together, Shelley told them about the assault and the threat of revenge. I surmise that Shelley also announced they would pack up and leave the next day to escape the danger. The stranger’s revenge, after all, was not directed toward Shelley but toward his precious womenfolk.
But things didn't go as Shelley expected..... to be continued.
Shelley's home in Tremadog, Tan-yr-Allt, is now a boutique hotel. The town of Tremadog is a picturesque planned community and he surrounding sheer cliffs are popular with rock climbers. The embankment, or cob, was finally built. William Madocks' dream was fulfilled but he was financially ruined.
As this website notes, "Shelley antagonised local residents by criticising their production of sheep for consumption [he was a vegetarian], and by running up debts with local merchants. He departed hastily after an alleged attempt on his life by a nocturnal intruder at Tan y yr Allt without paying his rent or contributing to the fund set up to support Madocks."
Harriet's story is told by Louise Schutz Boas in her book Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years (1962). Mark Twain also wrote sympathetically about her.
*When the assailant threatened to ravish Shelley's "sister," referring to Eliza Westbrook, we should remember it was a common practise to call in-laws by the term "brother" or "sister," not "sister-in-law." The assailant knew that Shelley had a wife and knew that Eliza would be called his sister, even though she was his sister-in-law.
 Harriett Shelley to Mrs. Nugent, October 1812 and January 16, 1813.