In my previous post, I began an examination of the curious attack allegedly made on the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in late February 1813 in Tremadog, North Wales. Shelley claimed that a stranger came to his house late at night and fired a pistol at him, then escaped, wounded, into the night. The descriptions referred to below of that night come from a letter written by Shelley's young wife Harriet some days after the event. This post picks up the narrative from after the first attack.
Healy (also known as Daniel Healey or Dan Hill) had arrived in Tremadog that very day, after serving six months in prison for posting anonymous handbills in North Devon. It was against the law to post or sell printed material that didn't state the identity of the publisher. But what really bothered the authorities was the critical-- and to their minds, seditious--content of the handbills. Healy had posted the handbills on Shelley’s behalf and at his behest. The authorities had been watching Shelley but couldn’t prove that he authored the handbills, so Shelley was not charged. Healy could have stayed out of prison if he had paid a fine of 200 pounds. Shelley didn't have that kind of money, so Healy went to prison.
There is no indication that, at this point, Healy resented the fact that he'd spent six months in prison--no doubt in dire conditions--for something Shelley had written. The faithful Irishman made the journey to Wales in miserable weather, and now, after a tiring trip, he was sitting up in the small hours of the morning with his employer, guarding the safety and virtue of the women of the household from the parting threat made by the assailant to murder Shelley's wife and rape his sister-in-law. It is hard to see Healy's behaviour as anything but devoted, and in fact Harriet later described him as being “greatly attached” to them.
At some time before four a.m., according to Harriet’s account, Shelley “sent Daniel to see what hour it was,” which left Shelley all alone in one of the downstairs rooms.
We don’t know where Healy went to check the time. Was there a clock in another room? Did Shelley leave his pocket watch somewhere? In her letter describing the events of that night, Harriet had mentioned that Healy didn't know his way around the large house, but she didn't explain why this was an issue. Was this significant when it came to looking for the grandfather clock or the mantelpiece clock by the light of the single candle he probably carried? The consequence is, we don't know how long he was away from Shelley. In Shelley: The Pursuit, Richard Holmes says it was "a few seconds" but does not explain how he came to that conclusion. Holmes argues that Healy was not out of the room long enough for Shelley to stage a fake second attack, therefore the attack which followed must have been real. He does not explain why a fake attack would take more time than a real attack.
We are left with the coincidence that (a) the two attacks happened the evening of Healy's arrival and (b) the second attack occurred after Healy stepped out of the room.
The mysterious assailant fired his pistol at Shelley through one of the large windows. In fact, according to Harriet, Shelley "heard a noise at the window. He went there, and a man thrust his arm through the glass and fired at him." Well, that does explain why there was shattered glass on the floor, as opposed to a bullet hole in the glass.
Though Shelley must have been close to the window, the assailant missed him for the second time that evening. Shelley fired back, but again, his gun misfired. So this time there was only the one gunshot to be heard, as opposed to the earlier encounter, when two gunshots were fired.
Whether or not Harriet had heard anything during the first fracas, this time we know she heard the shot because she reacted courageously. Pregnant, 17 years old and under the conviction that she herself had been targeted for assassination, Harriet “immediately ran down the stairs” to her husband’s side when she heard the gunshot. By the time she got there, she found Shelley standing near the window in his flannel nightdress with a sword in his hand.
Harriet saw with her own eyes a bullet hole in Shelley’s flannel nightdress, a hole in the window curtain, and the broken window. There was also a bullet mark in the wainscoting. (Shelley scholars have wrangled over the location of the bullet mark and the consequent direction or origin of the shot. I will not go over the minutiae of it. Suffice it to say, a bullet had struck the wainscoting.)
Harriet’s testimony about the second encounter with the mysterious assailant is not clear on whether their servant Dan Healy saw anything more than Shelley energetically swinging a sword around in the hole in the broken window: “The assassin attempted to get the sword from [Shelley], and just as he was pulling it away Dan rushed into the room, when [the assailant] made his escape.”
Did Healy see a stranger’s arm through the window, grabbing at Shelley’s hand or Shelley’s sword, or did he see Shelley pulling a sword back through the window as though he was involved in a tug of war with someone standing on the other side? Different biographers have interpreted Harriet's description differently.
The bottom line is, when it comes to sightings of the assailant, Shelley is the only witness on record.
There is a final bit of physical evidence but it is not dispositive. Somebody, at some point, “trampled and rolled on,” the lawn outside the villa, as was evident the next morning, but the only footprints that were found were next to the house, not leading away from it.
The Shelleys and Eliza Westbrook decamped from Tremadog the next day. Dan Healy left with them but it seems their three Welsh maid-servants were discharged, paid or not.
So, did the bizarre assaults really happen as Harriet described? Many Shelley biographers and historians have sifted and analyzed the known facts but have come up with different conclusions.
(1) It might all be true or substantially true. Someone might have tried to frighten or even kill the poet that night.
(2) Shelley may have embellished an actual event, so that some things were true and some, like the melodramatic vows of revenge, were not. Shelley biographer Richard Holmes theorizes that someone was trying to harm the radical poet by breaking into his house to find some incriminating anti-government material. But if so, why did the intruder fire his pistol and risk a charge of murder instead of just fleeing in the darkness when Shelley challenged him? Why did he, or someone else, return for another futile encounter? And did he have to do it on a night when rain was coming down in torrents? Did they imagine that the wind and the rain would serve as a cover for the sounds of their burglary?
A related possibility is that the attacks were not intended to be so violent as they became; in other words, they were a prank that got out of hand. William Madocks, the founder of the village of Tremadog, thought that “hoaxters” had played a “contemptible trick” on Shelley “on account of his liberal principles.” Maybe somebody hired a thug to go frighten Shelley and he panicked when he saw Shelley come into the room with a pistol in each hand. Though how anyone saw anything is a bit of a mystery. Was the assailant carrying a lantern and a pistol? Was Shelley holding a candle as well as two pistols? I might mention at this point that candles were expensive, much more expensive than electric light is today, and only the very rich could afford to use them lavishly. I don't think you'd leave unattended candles burning in the billiard room after you had gone up to bed.
In this respect, some researchers have pointed to (2a) Dan Healy as the secret culprit. The attacks happened, as we've said, the very night he returned after six months in prison. Maybe it was Healy, blundering through the billiard room and, presumably, disguising his Irish accent as he threatened the poet's wife and sister-in-law. As mentioned, Harriet said Healy rushed into the room just as Shelley was struggling with the assailant over the control of the sword. If Healy was the first intruder and if he saw a second intruder, this second man would have to be explained. But Harriet never speaks of there being two different assailants, and she gets her facts from Shelley.
Whether or not the assailant had an identifiable accent, during that first encounter he spoke to Shelley in English, not Welsh, otherwise Shelley wouldn’t have understood what he said. So he could hardly have been an uneducated local man. Richard Holmes notes that the local papers advertised rewards for the apprehension of house-breakers which suggests that there was indeed a problem with roving criminals. But Shelley didn't think the man who assaulted him was a burglar. "I have just escaped an atrocious assassination," he wrote in an hysterical note to his publisher, and he intimated that he believed he was still in danger: "you will perhaps hear of me no more."
Another possibility is that (3) Shelley imagined some of what occurred. Suppose Healy wasn't doing anything sinister, but when the footsteps of a man were heard walking through the billiard room, (in a household of five females plus Shelley), Shelley mistook him for an intruder in the dark, and fired first, later persuading himself that he had been fired upon. Shelley’s closest friends acknowledged that he could persuade himself to believe in things that weren’t true and his biographers provide many examples of this. For example, at one point he became absolutely convinced that he had elephantiasis and was obsessed with examining other people's limbs to see if they were coming down with the disease as well. When he ordered a custom coach from a London carriage maker for over 500 pounds, he believed he could and would pay for it. Even when he took the coach with him to Europe, he still intended to pay for it, so he is not to be conflated with some shabby con artist. The coach maker was still asking to be paid out of Shelley's estate twenty-two years after he died.
Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock thought the poet hallucinated the Tremadog incident, including the struggle on the lawn and the threats of revenge. Peacock was interested enough in the question to travel to North Wales himself to examine the house and question the locals. But one does not hallucinate bullet-holes and broken glass.
The final possibility is that (4) Shelley consciously fabricated the whole thing. This was suspected from the outset, as soon as the attacks were reported the next day. The locals, including some influential backers of the land reclamation project, accused Shelley of faking the attacks as an excuse to leave without paying his bills, to say nothing of his £500 pledge toward the embankment project. He who had presented himself as the saviour of the Tremadog embankment was, they jeered, an ineffectual poseur who had staged the 19th-century equivalent of a hate crime hoax. Harriet said this was why nobody would help find the assailant or turn him in: "none of them attempted to do anything towards his discovery."
Shelley doubted his own abilities as a dramatist, and the events in Tremadog, considered as drama, are certainly overwrought. It was a dark and stormy night. Evil is foreshadowed when Shelley announces to his wife that he has loaded his pistols. Sure enough, there is a sinister noise which the hero investigates. The intruder, instead of fleeing, turns and fires on Shelley. Shelley’s pistol flashes in the pan, he pursues the assailant outside, he is knocked to the ground, but instead of kicking the prostrate poet, or battering him into submission with the butt of his pistol, the assailant gives up his superior position; he throws himself on top of Shelley and they struggle on the ground until Shelley manages to fire his second pistol.
After Shelley hits his attacker at close range, the villain shrieks, leaps to his feet, clutching his bleeding shoulder, vows to murder and rape two innocent women, twirls his moustache (one must presume) and escapes. Though wounded and bleeding with a big old lead bullet in his shoulder, he returns several hours later, like the bad guy at the end of a thriller movie, breaks a window to alert Shelley to his presence, fires one pistol, but misses. He struggles over a sword, and flees again into the night.
In the midnight hours after the first assault, when Shelley, his wife, his sister-in-law, and their servants were sitting together in the parlour in their pajamas, a circumstance which must, to some degree, psychologically eliminate the distinction between master and servant, Shelley was surprised when people asked him questions he couldn't answer. Questions like, “why didn’t we hear the pistol shots?” Or "why is your nightdress clean and why is your hair dry if you were struggling outside in the mud?" Or, if the struggle with the assailant was inside the house, despite Harriet's use of the word "ground" instead of "floor," then surely there would be a trail of blood from the shoulder wound, particularly if the intruder didn't run away until after he'd uttered his malediction. (For the record, I can't say definitely that no-one heard the shots, or that Shelley's nightdress wasn't dirty and wet. We can only say Harriet doesn't mention these corroborative details. Or, did Shelley have any scrapes or bruises as a result of the desperate struggle? Consider that in later years, Shelley blamed a lingering pain in his side to the injury he sustained when the assailant's knee pressed down on him. Yet there is no mention of bruises arising or torn ligaments in Harriet's letter, and you would think Harriet would mention any piece of corroborative evidence since their version of events had been called into question.)
Did sister-in-law Eliza, the most pragmatic member of the family, suggest that they search for evidence in the morning—such as muddy footprints in the billiard room and a bullet in the wall? Because of course, the matter should be reported to the authorities, apart from the question of whether they should pack and move immediately.
Was Shelley taken aback to discover that his word alone was not enough? .... to be continued