Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I'm slowly rereading Richard Holmes's biography of Shelley and have reached the hard-to-face point at which Shelley leaves his wife Harriet for 16-year-old Mary Godwin. This is such an ugly episode, and his self-justifications are impossible to stomach. The following is from a letter he wrote to Harriet after he had deserted her, saddled her with a stack of unpayable bills, and then tried not only to borrow money from her but also to convince her to join his new household as "a sister."

I was an idiot to expect greatness or generosity from you, that when an occasion of the sublimest virtue occurred, you would fail to play a part of mean and despicable selfishness. The pure & liberal principles of which you used to boast that you were a disciple, served only for display. In your heart it seems you were always enslaved to the vilest superstitions, or ready to accept their support for your own narrow & worldly views. You are plainly lost to me forever. I foresee no probability of change.

Harriet's side of the correspondence has been lost. A few months later she drowned herself.

It is a truism that great artists are not necessarily great human beings, and art doesn't excuse or erase cruelty or indifference. Nonetheless, the art does exist and is glorious; and like nature's (or God's) beauty, cruelty, and indifference, it is simple/complicated/impossible to explain.

But poor Harriet.

1 comment:

Carol Willette Bachofner said...

reminds me of what Hemmingway tried to pull on Hadley when he was cheating on her with her best friend. Sometimes men just turn my stomach, no matter how "creative" they are.