Shelley took to laudanum. Harriet dropped her abstruse studies, which she had taken up to please her husband, but which could only puzzle her small brain. She soon developed some of the unpleasant traits of the class to which she belonged. In this her sister Eliza—a hard and grasping middle-aged woman—had her share. She set Harriet against her husband, and made life less endurable for both. She was so much older than the pair that she came in and ruled their household like a typical stepmother.
A child was born, and Shelley very generously went through a second form of marriage, so as to comply with the English law; but by this time there was little hope of righting things again. Shelley was much offended because Harriet would not nurse the child. He believed her hard because she saw without emotion an operation performed upon the infant.
Finally, when Shelley at last came into a considerable sum of money, Harriet and Eliza made no pretense of caring for anything except the spending of it in “bonnet-shops” and on carriages and display. In time—that is to say, in three years after their marriage—Harriet left her husband and went to London and to Bath, prompted by her elder sister.
This proved to be the end of an unfortunate marriage. Word was brought to Shelley that his wife was no longer faithful to him. He, on his side, had carried on a semi-sentimental platonic correspondence with a schoolmistress, one Miss Hitchener. But until now his life had been one great mistake—a life of restlessness, of unsatisfied longing, of a desire that had no name. Then came the perhaps inevitable meeting with the one whom he should have met before.
Shelley had taken a great interest in William Godwin, the writer and radical philosopher. Godwin’s household was a strange one. There was Fanny Imlay, a child born out of wedlock, the offspring of Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant, and of Mary Wollstonecraft, whom Godwin had subsequently married. There was also a singularly striking girl who then styled herself Mary Jane Clairmont, and who was afterward known as Claire Clairmont, she and her brother being the early children of Godwin’s second wife.
One day in 1814, Shelley called on Godwin, and found there a beautiful young girl in her seventeenth year, “with shapely golden head, a face very pale and pure, a great forehead, earnest hazel eyes, and an expression at once of sensibility and firmness about her delicately curved lips.” This was Mary Godwin—one who had inherited her mother’s power of mind and likewise her grace and sweetness.
From the very moment of their meeting Shelley and this girl were fated to be joined together, and both of them were well aware of it. Each felt the other’s presence exert a magnetic thrill. Each listened eagerly to what the other said. Each thought of nothing, and each cared for nothing, in the other’s absence. It was a great compelling elemental force which drove the two together and bound them fast. Beside this marvelous experience, how pale and pitiful and paltry seemed the affectations of Harriet Westbrook!