As a rule, it is the man, and not the woman, who makes the false step; because it is the man who elects to marry when he is still very young. If he choose some ill-fitting, commonplace, and unresponsive nature to match his own, it is he who is bound in the course of time to learn his great mistake. When the splendid eagle shall have got his growth, and shall begin to soar up into the vault of heaven, the poor little barn-yard fowl that he once believed to be his equal seems very far away in everything. He discovers that she is quite unable to follow him in his towering flights.
The story of Percy Bysshe Shelley is a singular one. The circumstances of his early marriage were strange. The breaking of his marriage-bond was also strange. Shelley himself was an extraordinary creature. He was blamed a great deal in his lifetime for what he did, and since then some have echoed the reproach. Yet it would seem as if, at the very beginning of his life, he was put into a false position against his will. Because of this he was misunderstood until the end of his brief and brilliant and erratic career.
In 1792 the French Revolution burst into flame, the mob of Paris stormed the Tuileries, the King of France was cast into a dungeon to await his execution, and the wild sons of anarchy flung their gauntlet of defiance into the face of Europe. In this tremendous year was born young Shelley; and perhaps his nature represented the spirit of the time.
Certainly, neither from his father nor from his mother did he derive that perpetual unrest and that frantic fondness for revolt which blazed out in the poet when he was still a boy. His father, Mr. Timothy Shelley, was a very usual, thick-headed, unromantic English squire. His mother—a woman of much beauty, but of no exceptional traits—was the daughter of another squire, and at the time of her marriage was simply one of ten thousand fresh-faced, pleasant-spoken English country girls. If we look for a strain of the romantic in Shelley’s ancestry, we shall have to find it in the person of his grandfather, who was a very remarkable and powerful character.
This person, Bysshe Shelley by name, had in his youth been associated with some mystery. He was not born in England, but in America—and in those days the name “America” meant almost anything indefinite and peculiar. However this might be, Bysshe Shelley, though a scion of a good old English family, had wandered in strange lands, and it was whispered that he had seen strange sights and done strange things. According to one legend, he had been married in America, though no one knew whether his wife was white or black, or how he had got rid of her.
He might have remained in America all his life, had not a small inheritance fallen to his share. This brought him back to England, and he soon found that England was in reality the place to make his fortune. He was a man of magnificent physique. His rovings had given him ease and grace, and the power which comes from a wide experience of life. He could be extremely pleasing when he chose; and he soon won his way into the good graces of a rich heiress, whom he married.