This is the third post in a series about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his dubious version of an assault that supposedly occurred in February 1818 in the town of Tremadog (formerly Tremadoc) in North Wales. For the first post, click here. Shelley's biographer Richard Holmes believes that an assault did occur. I don't, and here I explain why I don't believe Shelley.
The morning after the mysterious attacks, the Shelleys fled to a nearby government official, the solicitor-general, who put them up until Shelley's publisher sent them some money to book passage to Ireland. (That's how broke Shelley was). Shelley was nearly prostrated with nerves. He and Harriet learned of the slanders from Tremadog accusing Shelley of fleeing to avoid his debts and renege on his promises of financial support for the embankment project. Although it was true that Shelley was leaving unpaid debts behind him, including his rent, the Shelleys were highly offended that their veracity was called into question concerning the attacks.
As we have seen, it was Harriet who responded to the slur that Shelley had faked the attacks, writing a letter to Shelley’s publisher and to his other close friends, giving Shelley's version of events on his behalf. In her letter, Harriet also named the man Shelley blamed for instigating the attack, the chief labour contractor for the embankment project, Robert Leeson. William Madocks, booster of the Tremadog embankment project, had initially welcomed Shelley's involvement as a well-connected and well-spoken son of a baronet and member of parliament. But as Shelley made himself known to the small community of gentry in the area, they realized how radical his political views were. Leeson thought Shelley would bring discredit to the embankment project. Leeson was a High Tory; during Shelley’s brief stay in Tremadog, political and personal animosity had arisen between them. Harriet boasted that Leeson was refused entry into their house on account of his support for the politicians that Shelley despised. Leeson reciprocated the disdain, and in fact sent a copy of Shelley's printed speech about Irish emancipation to the authorities, to alert them to his radical views (they already knew).
Would Leeson have hired English-speaking thugs to go up to the house and fire off their pistols at Shelley? He definitely wanted to drive Shelley out of Tremadog, but what would have been the best way of doing it, supposing that Leeson was a man of more than moderate intelligence, which he was?
It makes no sense
I think the entire episode as described by Harriet is melodramatic and improbable.
It is the hypothetical assailant’s point of view I’m trying to understand here. You pick a miserably wet, moonless night to go up to Shelley’s house on the hill. You enter, with or without taking your shoes off, and, as per the theory of Richard Holmes, Shelley's biographer, you search around in the pitch darkness for samples of Shelley's radical writings to be used to prove that he is a seditious traitor.
You hear approaching footsteps, or perhaps you hear Shelley's voice calling out, "who's there?" You head for the window. Shelley appears. Instead of legging it, you turn back and fire a shot at Shelley, escalating your crime from housebreaking to attempted murder.
Did Shelley's assailant wear a mask like these 18th century housebreakers? Notice that they are in their stocking feet. One of the burglars carries a candle, otherwise they wouldn't be able to see anything, and he's ready to point that pistol if the sleeper wakes up. But this means his hands are occupied. The other man's hands are free so it makes sense for burglars to work in pairs.
You escape into the darkness. So now you are aware that Shelley has pistols. Why would you return in the dark of night to try a second attack? Do you intend to murder him, after he's had a chance to describe you to everyone in the household? You give up your element of surprise by punching a hole in the window with your pistol or your fist, perhaps because you're unaware that lead bullets fired at close range can pass through glass. You fire at Shelley, and miss. You run away again when Shelley thrusts a sword through the window at you.
Was all of this necessary? Couldn't the Shelleys have been intimidated into leaving Tremadog with an anonymous threatening letter or two, or maybe a sheep's head thrown on the porch for good measure? At least, wouldn't you start with something like that and then escalate if need be?
Let's go back to that interval between the first assault which happened at 11:00 pm and the later assault which happened around 4:00 am. Let's suppose that the conversation in the Shelley household came around to the necessity of gathering evidence to present to the local magistrate of the near-deadly assault on Shelley. This catches Shelley off-guard, as he anticipated that everyone would just go pack up their things and get ready to leave town by first light once he told them about the assault. He is used to having his wife believe anything he tells her, but at least one other member of the household, we might surmise, is showing skepticism or wants to investigate and bring the assailant to justice.
Dawn is six hours away and soon the entire household will be assiduously searching inside and out for physical clues in the morning light. If he had lied about the first incident, Shelley would have been in a real quandary at that point. For the first fabricated incident, he claimed that the assailant shot at him and missed while inside the house, and therefore, his listeners reasoned, that bullet must have lodged somewhere. As his biographer Richard Holmes acknowledges, nobody ever claimed to find a bullet in the billiard room or in the smaller room called "the office." Shelley was therefore compelled to improvise a second act in his drama to amplify the supposed danger and he needed to manufacture some physical evidence.
Shelley sent all the women to bed, but the loyal Dan Healy insists on staying up to help guard the house, and since he intends to guard Mr. Shelley, he sticks by Mr. Shelley like glue. For three hours, Shelley is chatting with Dan but he's feverishly thinking about how he's doing to stage a second attack with Dan right at his elbow. Finally he thinks of an excuse to send Dan out of the room, and not just to the adjoining room but to do something that will require him to go to the other side of the large villa. As soon as Dan's footsteps fade away, Shelley sprints to a window at one corner of the room. He grabs the window curtain and the skirt of his nightdress, holds them up, and fires his pistol through them, perhaps angled in such a way as to hit the wainscoting on the adjoining wall. When Dan Healy comes running back, alerted by the gunshot, he sees Shelley bashing his sword around a jagged opening in the window. Shelley explains that he was fighting off the intruder. As soon as Harriet arrives, he shows her the physical evidence and says that had he been standing broadside at the window instead of sideways, he surely would have been killed.
Now Shelley has demonstrated that the household is under attack by determined enemies who won't give up, and he has produced some physical evidence. It was enough to silence any doubts in his household, but not in the wider world.
I conclude that Shelley staged the entire episode as an excuse to leave Tremadog to get out of his fervent promise to support the embankment project until his last breath, and also because he literally had no way to pay his rent, his servants, or his food and fuel bills--this in a time when creditors could arrest a debtor and send him to jail. Escaping his debts was a lifelong habit with Shelley, and apparently required no justification. But whenever he broke a solemn promise, such as breaking his marriage vows to Harriet, he always managed to persuade himself that it was because he was following a higher principle. In the case of Tremadog, he had impulsively involved himself in the project, then concluded that Madocks didn't deserve his support after all, and Leeson, who was in charge of contracting the labour, was an absolute brute. Therefore, it would have been unprincipled to keep to the commitments he'd made to support the project, no matter how publicly and how fervently he'd made them. And why should he pay rent or pay tradesmen's bills to a community that had betrayed him and turned against him, that refused to find and punish the assassin in their midst? And if they hadn't, literally, sent an assassin to kill him, if he had been compelled to manufacture the assassin, he was doing no more than symbolically illustrating the reality of his estrangement from the town leaders and their hostility to him.
In the case of ending his first marriage, which fell apart two years later, Shelley was following the higher principle of honesty when he left Harriet, then pregnant with their second child. He had fallen out of love with her, and fallen in love with 16-year-old Mary Godwin, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and his mentor and idol, William Godwin. He explained to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg that by fulfilling himself with Mary, he was: "deeply persuaded that thus ennobled, [I shall] become... a more useful lover of mankind, a more ardent asserter of truth & virtue." Thus, Mankind would benefit from Shelley's adultery with teenage Mary Godwin. It followed that the obverse case was, if Shelley didn't commit adultery with teenage Mary Godwin, Mankind would pay the price.
Rationalizing your actions is one thing, and Shelley was a master at finding reasons why the self-serving thing he wanted to do was actually a highly principled action. But did Shelley, the apostle of truth and virtue, tell outright lies? His friend Thomas Love Peacock thinks he did. Peacock related an episode which occurred when he visited the poet at his temporary home in Bishopsgate in the early summer of 1816. By this time, Shelley was married to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
Mary told Peacock that Shelley had just received a visit from a friend from Tremadog, Madock's trusted overseer John Williams, who had come all the way from Wales to personally warn the poet that his father Timothy Shelley was plotting to “entrap him and lock him up,” that is, have him declared insane and confine him. Once again, Shelley faced a crisis, for which the only thing to do was run and hide, even if it meant leaving behind unpaid bills for furniture, dishes, and the statues he'd ordered to decorate the library with.
Peacock was unconvinced, and said so. Mary left the room, and soon after, Shelley entered, hat in hand, as though just returning from a walk, and he affirmed that indeed, he had just come back from a long walk with his benefactor Williams. Peacock saw that the hat in Shelley’s hand was not Shelley’s hat, but his own hat, which he had left in the front hall upon entering the house. Peacock told Shelley to put the hat on, and it fell over his eyes, being much too large for Shelley’s notably small head. Shelley, nonplussed, said that he had carried the hat in his hand for the entire walk and so he hadn't noticed that he'd picked up the wrong hat from the front hall.
Shelley then insisted that Williams was staying at a hotel in London and offered to walk there with Peacock to prove he was telling the truth. Peacock agreed and they set off, but Shelley abandoned the walk half-way there.
“Then,” said Shelley, “I will not show it to you.”
Mary professed to believe Shelley, Peacock could not.
A quote from Shelley biographer Richard Holmes is apropos here: "Shelley could be very unscrupulous in adjusting the truth when the need arose. What is most disturbing is that it is difficult to tell how far Shelley really realized — or admitted to himself — what he was doing."
Another fact to note is that Shelley had a habit of being suddenly and violently attacked by strangers just prior to removing from one place to another. In January 1811, a year before the events in Tremadog, Shelley and Harriet were living in a cottage in Keswick, near the poet Robert Southey. Shelley claims to have answered the door and been instantly knocked down by a stranger, who disappeared when the landlord, who lived nearby, responded to the commotion. Shelley and Harriet left Keswick for Ireland early the next month. When Shelley was in Italy in May of 1819 and going to the post office to get his letters, he claimed that a tall English officer, upon hearing his name, exclaimed, "What! Are you that damned atheist Shelley?" and knocked him to the ground. Biographer James Bieri adds that Shelley initially said his attacker in the post office was none other than his nemesis from Tremadog, Robert Leeson, and therefore they had to move immediately. Another early biographer, William Michael Rosetti, comments: "This is another of the singular stories told by Shelley, and discredited by most of his hearers or biographers."
No assailant was ever caught. The local officials investigated the crime (remember that in those days there was no such thing as a police force, especially in a small Welsh village, and the local magistrates were the local gentry, often serving in voluntary positions). According to John Cordy Jeaffreson, they concluded that Shelley made the whole thing up and the bullet mark on the wainscot could not have been made by someone firing from outside the window into the house. (Again, others have quibbled over this, but...) Richard Holmes surmises that the authorities in Tremadog thought the best thing for all concerned was to hush up the scandal. Capital always flees from uncertainty, and they wanted the project to go ahead. Despite his private protestations to his friends, Shelley also had good reason for burying the whole thing. But months later, he told Mary Godwin's sister Claire that he was worried about walking the streets of London, for fear Robert Leeson would come up and stab him with a knife.
As Holmes notes, Shelley was personally and impulsively generous but: "one has the impression that he owed rather more than he gave away." Before leaving England for Italy, Shelley did make half-hearted attempts to pay off his Tremadog and other debts. It appears that whatever funds were set aside for paying them was not sufficient. One of his Tremadog creditors wrote that Shelley lied about the extent of the debts he'd left behind in Wales: "he is actually guilty of abundant falsities... did you ever hear of a more ungrateful fellow!"
When we ask whether both of these attacks were faked, the circumstantial evidence points away from implicating Healy as the antagonist or a hoaxer, and towards the possibility that he was either a confederate or a dupe of Shelley's. I am leaning towards dupe.
Shelley appears to have been considerate enough to Dan Healy insofar as while Dan was in prison for following Shelley's instructions, Shelley did not decamp from Tremadog, leaving no forwarding address, which was his usual method of avoiding his creditors. Had Shelley done so in this case, Healy would have been left stranded without a job, without a character reference, and probably with no money. So the day after Healy’s return was the earliest possible date that Shelley could have left Tremadog and still done the decent thing by Healy, and that is when he in fact left.
There's a saying that the gratitude of princes can't be relied upon and the adage must apply to poetic geniuses as well. The Shelleys discharged Healy sometime later. Harriet wrote to an Irish friend, Catherine Nugent, (who had heard through a mutual friend that Healy was complaining about the Shelleys) that Healy was “ungrateful and insolent.” Harriet did not explain why Healy had cause to be grateful to the Shelleys rather than the other way around, considering he was the one who'd spent six months in jail for the poet, and considering they owed him ten pounds' wages. Ten pounds probably represented at least half a year's salary. Can we imagine that Shelley had promised Healy, just as he had promised his other creditors, that his debts would be discharged soon? That he really intended to make good on those promises until circumstances made it impossible? Then, during their travels in Ireland or else back in London, Healy was discharged and accused of "unprincipled" conduct.
Clearly Harriet’s aim was to discredit anything the now-angry servant said about the Shelleys. Sadly, Healy disappears from history, so we’ll never know what he thought or knew. A Longbourn-style novel featuring Healy as the protagonist might be interesting.
My case against Shelley is based on circumstantial evidence and psychological analysis, but I think my theory fits the known facts. I'm not trying to "cancel" Shelley, just surmising about a fascinating incident in the life of a fascinating man.
The final piece of psychological evidence that strikes me as significant is the thing I started with: if Shelley is such a great writer, a compulsive writer, why didn't he write his own version of the Tremadog incident? My answer is: if Shelley had written his own defense, he would have had to commit his falsehoods to paper under his own name. Harriet, on the other hand, could speak earnestly and with all sincerity on his behalf, because she had been duped into trusting him. As Richard Holmes acknowledges, whatever or whoever else we don't believe in this affair, we can believe that Harriet wasn't a liar. And that is why Shelley chose her to be his spokesman. And he pulled the same stunt with his second wife a few years later.
The story about the hat can be found in the Delphi Complete Works of Thomas Love Peacock. Richard Holmes discounts the accuracy of this detailed anecdote and suggests that Peacock’s memory was failing him when he wrote it. Shelley biographer James Bieri notes the similarities to the Tremadog situation.
"By God, I will be revenged. I will murder your wife. I will ravish your sister." Author Louise Schutz Boas thinks this reported threat is so ridiculous that it must be real: "had Shelley invented it he would have made it more plausible... the preposterousness of the utterance validates it."
Another fascinating aspect of this fascinating family story is that Shelley had been convinced of the falsity and tyranny of marriage, and the honesty and virtue of Free Love from none other than his new father-in-law, William Godwin. John Cordy Jeaffreson, an early and very skeptical biographer of Shelley, points out that Godwin had brought out his first edition of Political Justice when "Shelley was playing with his corals," ie, playing with his teething-ring, but, he had recanted his extreme Free Love views when he realized that his idealized version of humanity had nothing to do with how people felt and behaved in real life. Godwin was horrified when his daughter ran off with Shelley.
Although I don't agree with all of Richard Holmes's conclusions about Shelley, his book, Shelley: the Pursuit, is the definitive modern biography of the poet.
My novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady, is an exploration of another one of Shelley's singular stories. He claimed that a beautiful, wealthy, high-born Englishwoman left her husband and followed him through Europe, hoping to become his mate. For more of my blog posts about Shelley, click "Shelley" in the category list on the right-hand side of page.