Death of the First Mrs. Shelley December 1816

In the Matter of “Harriet Smith” – Harriet Westbrook Shelley – Murder or Suicide?

Mark Twain, the illustrious American humorist, novelist, essayist, travel journalist and general cantankerous expresser of contrary opinion, was so outraged at the historical treatment of the first Mrs. Percy Shelley that he felt compelled to write a lengthy correction of the opinion makers of his day “In Defense of Harriet Shelley”. Apparently a book had surfaced at the time that supported what was being taught in literature classes.

Ianthe Shelley

Ianthe Shelley

Twain wroteDuring these six years I have been living a life of peaceful ignorance. I was not aware that Shelley’s first wife was unfaithful to him, and that that was why he deserted her and wiped the stain from his sensitive honor by entering into soiled relations with Godwin’s young daughter. This was all new to me when I heard it lately, and was told that the proofs of it were in this book, and that this book’s verdict is accepted in the girls’ colleges of America and its view taught in their literary classes.”

Harriet Westbrook Shelley is both one of the more tragic figures in the Mary Shelley story, in which there are so many, and perhaps the most troubling. The verdict of which Twain complained was engendered from the apparent need of the turn-of-the-century’s elevation of the literary stature of Percy Bysshe Shelley to paragon, that an effort was made to excuse his treatment of his first wife. Which while rife with the passions and mistakes of youth is a story that may need some excuse.

The tragic end of Harriet’s story comes to us in a death notice of The London Times on December 12, 1816 which read: “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”.

The report was coy at best. The notice came from the paper of Thomas Hookham, Shelley’s sometime publisher. Her husband was not “abroad” but in Bath, living off and on with Mary Godwin, who would become the second Mrs. Shelley shortly following this notice. In fact the suicide death of Harriet Shelley freed Percy from the moral restrictions he had been under since first eloping with Mary in 1814 for their Six Weeks Tour and the next two and a half years of living as unwed lovers.

Hyde Park Serpentine 1816

Hyde Park Serpentine 1816

In fact, Shelley might be called a “Serial Eloper”. Harriet Westbrook was fifteen years old when Shelley met her as a friend of his, Helen, a classmate at a girl’s school in Clapham. Charmed by the 19 year old Shelley, Harriet began a pen pal correspondence with him, eventually writing Shelley letters threatening to kill herself because of her unhappiness at school and at home. Shelley had just been expelled from Oxford for publishing his treatise of “The Necessity of Atheism”, written with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. This caused the first rift with his father, Sir Timothy Shelley and he had just been forced to end a romance with his cousin Harriet Grove. Not allowed to see his mother and sisters, and convinced that he did not have long to live, he decided to come to the aid of the passionate young Harriet Westbrook.


In 1811, when Harriet was sixteen (the same age of Mary Godwin when he later eloped with her) she and Percy eloped to Scotland. The relationship had been privately rather encouraged by her family, but treated with shock by his, his father believing the daughter of an inn keeper (Mr. Westbrook operated a coffee house) was beneath his station. The couple bore a daughter, Ianthe, in June of 1813, and in March of 1814 the two were remarried in London when Harriet became pregnant with their second child, Charles, to formalize the union and offer legitimate protection to their children, though Charles wouldn’t be born until November of 1814, well after Shelley had eloped with Mary Godwin.

Harriet Westbrook was intelligent and pretty, and by accounts, attempted to be worthy companion who supported his artistic pursuits, but without the real gifts of intellectual curiosity to match his interests. And Harriet had invited her older sister Eliza, single at 28 years old, to live with them. It was Eliza who seemed to be the burr which festered, whether by intent, or a matter of personality. Eliza did not view Percy Shelley’s philosophies of free love and atheistic intellectual utopias with any warmness and Percy’s original laudable motives in rescuing Harriet turned to a loveless union, at least on his part, with a plan to live a life of separate maintenance.

Percy was subject to his own mercurial passions and had come to Mary at Skinner Street in June of 1814 with a gun, and threatened to kill himself if he could not be with Mary. He claimed he had learned that Harriet had been unfaithful. It is unclear whether this was true, but the pregnancy was advancing, and whether he suspected the child was not his is a matter of conjecture. Shelley’s friend Hogg had been attracted to Harriet, but she not to him apparently, though a series of correspondence between the Shelley and Hogg argued the point.

Percy Shelley supported Harriet and his two children throughout his relationship with Mary Godwin, a significant factor in his want of money from being cut off from his income by his father Sir Timothy Shelley, beyond a small maintenance agree for Harriet. The estate would provide her with £200 a year and Percy was to provide £100 on his own. The struggle to support Harriet and two children, Mary and her now pregnant step-sister, Claire, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, was a rather herculean dance of debt dodging and credit borrowings that filled Shelley’s state of mind through November of 1816. All the while searching for a permanent house in which to live with Mary.

Two tragedies would befall within six weeks in late 1816. Mary’s older half-sister Fanny Godwin would commit suicide in Wales in October, and the news of Harriet’s end in the Serpentine would come in early December. Her body was found in the lake at the heart of Hyde Park on Sunday, December 8 of 1816. She had written a rambling letter filled with self-blame, but unspecific as to its object. At the inquest, her identity was only given as “Harriet Smith”, with no public acknowledgement of her relationship to her noble husband. The Coroner, John Gell, issued the formal statement, apparently taking pains to stop any circling suggestions of a murder:

“The said Harriet Smith had no marks of violence appearing on her body, but how or by what means she became dead, no evidence thereof does appear to the jurors”. The inquest simply returned a verdict of, “Found dead in the Serpentine River”. No mention was made at the inquest of her pregnancy, but later news reports offered the salacious evidence that she had been abandoned by a lover.

Sometime in the late summer of 1816, Harriet left living with her father and had taken lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, in an effort to shield her family from her pregnancy. After having written the farewell addressed to her father, her sister, and her husband, Percy, she apparently walked the distance from her lodgings to Hyde Park and threw herself in the Serpentine River. She was twenty-one years old. But is that simple explanation the whole story.

Over the years, there have been various conspiratorial suggestions of foul play in Harriet’s death. Her unresolved marriage to Shelley was an impediment to the legitimacy of the relationship between Mary Godwin and Percy. In fact, with her death the Shelley’s married within three weeks, on December 30, 1816. The Godwins were reconciled with their daughter whom that had shunned for two and half years, and the money from the death of Percy’s Grandfather could now flow. Poor Harriet, was now out of the way, but a salaciously tantalizing prospect to add to the scandals of this Gothic couple.

There were plenty of suspects to go around who could have been brought to the bar. Speculative suspicions had fallen on William Godwin and upon Percy Shelley, who both had monetary motives to prefer her out of the picture. Jefferson Hogg had long been zealously infatuated with Harriet, but rebuffed by her over and again. And certainly, the mysterious, but unnamed paramour and father of her present condition cannot be ruled out – if he existed at all, as some suggested it was Shelley who had rekindled a relationship, but this if not very likely. And Shelley himself suggested it was the elder sister Eliza who was the villain of the story. A later report by a Shelley friend told of Harriet’s going at last in despair to the house of a family relation in London, only to have the door slammed in her face, from where she there fled to fling herself in the Serpentine. As in modern investigations, the question might be asked, who was the last to see Harriet Westbrook Shelley alive? These make for tantalizing speculations, but in the 200 years since, no evidence, other than the stuff of recriminatory letters of friends and foes, has surfaced too prove anything other than the sad and tragic suicide of a pregnant young woman abandoned by both husband and lover.

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