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Shelley's First Love: The Love Story of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Harriet Grove.

Desmond Hawkins. Kyle Cathie. 14.99 [pounds].

In a delightful and meticulously documented book Desmond Hawkins has unfolded the true story of the poet Shelley's love for his younger cousin, Harriet Grove, during his last half at Eton and first term at Oxford. She was 16 and he 17. Although several times mentioned in occasional letters by friends and relations, the course of their romantic involvement has never before been accurately detailed in any of the Shelley biographies. Dr. Hawkins has made discoveries which correct some important misapprehensions, originally set down by Peacock and Hogg and carried by subsequent writers without question, even to the present day by so reputable a biographer as Richard Holmes. Hogg's close friendship with Shelley lent credence to letters which, on close examination, turn out to have been forged by Hogg, long after the poet was dead. This and other obstacles have prevented the truth about the love affair, which occurred whilst Shelley was establishing himself as a writer and a radical philosopher, from emerging.

Dr. Hawkins's present possession of Shelley's diary for 1910, in the end pocket of which he has found a lock of dark hair in a paper packet inscribed on the outside |H.G.' and inside the black impression of a seal, began his pursuit of the leads provided by Harriet's own diary and letters in three related families, the Shelleys, the Groves and the Pilfolds, all land owners in Dorset, Wiltshire and Sussex. His familiarity with the terrain and his expertise in Hardy and other Wessex literature allowed him to present a spirited account of Regency social life amongst these large families of hospitable aunts, uncles and cousins, visiting by barouche at distances of forty miles or more for stays of several days. The young men had freedom of movement while the girls had to await an entourage and be suitably chaperoned on all journeys: this meant that Harriet had constantly to be still and hope to be taken to see |Bysshe' as the family called him. One critical question the author asks is why, then, did Shelley not himself make the trek to see her? Thoughts of her certainly influenced his early poems and she was sent copies of all publications.

Harriet's earliest surviving diary is that for 1809, that of her sister Charlotte for 1811. Shelley's only earlier poetic reference to the attachment is contained in the poem called |To St. Irvyne', sub-titled |Feb 28th 1805' (probably later revised in content) and inscribed to |H. Grove'. Shelley's younger sister had, indeed, referred to Harriet as |his early love'. Other comments by relatives mention his strong devotion and indicate general approval of something like a modern |understanding'. Her diary, whilst giving away very little, provides external confirmation of references in Shelley's notebook of the dates and times of books posted and visits made, with a record of his instructions to the printer that packets should be sent to Harriet. She received these with joy. The letters themselves are usually from Elizabeth Shelley who seems to have become the go-between for passing on messages. Another small mystery perhaps? Then, too, Harriet is naturally reticent and seems to have been responsible for the many deletions found in her diary. Only a few sentences remain about her great desire to see her |dear, dear Bysshe' and the facts of the Groves's visits to the Shelleys at Field Place, their country house, and at Lincoln's Inn where Charles Groves pursued a legal career. At both places their |betrothal' is accepted as a fact. Much information on walks and parties is also available from Charles's letters. Comparison of these and the diaries indicate, says Dr. Hawkins, that Harriet |stayed with the relationship through Shelley's novice stage as a poet and radical thinker until the pace became too hot for her'. Or, in fact, until he eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook?

Three rifts in the lute caused their estrangement, however, already documented. Harriet was frightened by Shelley's increasingly vehement denunciation of Christianity and his insistence on a radical belief, derived from Locke's philosophy of human nature, of the sufficiency of man's intelligence without divine interference to produce a necessary moral code. Her fear was shared by her parents and Shelley's sadly embittered father, who forbade him the house. Evidently what had appeared to be an ideal match between two like families was now unsuitable. A third factor was the grievous offence caused to Charlotte, Harriet's sister, when Elizabeth Shelley, collaborating with her brother in a volume of poems entitled Victor and Cazire, contributed a letter in verse imputing to Charlotte matrimonial designs on a neighbouring squire.

Their estrangement was abrupt and no recorded discussion of the break remains. But Desmond Hawkins believes that Shelley's feelings had been more deeply engaged than has been realised. It is expressed in a later poem, |Melody to a Scene of Former Times', where Harriet's censure and rejection has clearly brought about enduring distress. Strangely, there is no surviving account by Harriet of her own regrets, the only clue being the deletions in her diary, if indeed she made them as seems likely. She married William Helyar a matter of weeks later. We still have, however, the telling record of the four poems Shelley had written |To Harriet'.

Even so, a new life opened up for Shelley at Oxford, especially in his disastrous friendship with James Hogg who encouraged the wildness of his Gothic fantasies; who later fixed up some aspects of their correspondence to support his own fantasies. But most relevant to the ending of the love story is Shelley's transfer to a second Harriet. He eloped to Edinburgh with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, after snatching her from her father's house. This book contains much information about their later life when, already banned from Field Place, Shelley led an almost nomadic existence, taking cottages in England, Wales and Ireland, each abandoned when his attempts to proselytize the natives provoked their hostility and fear. Constantly pursued by creditors as well as Christians, he continually sought a Utopia where like souls (especially young women) might live under the doctrines of |Philanthropy and Freedom', despite the outraged |Aristocrats and Christians'. Poor Harriet the second finally committed suicide. Only when he married Mary Godwin did he acquire a stable home life as well as a deeply caring guardian of his poetry and plays. (Through her, we know the exact circumstances of his tragic death by drowning, at the age of 29.)

Desmond Hawkins throws new light on Shelley's youth. He nowhere loses sight of the glory of Shelley's poetry. His book will be a source of pleasure and enlightenment as well as a contribution to Shelley studies, especially in this bicentenary year of his birth.
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Author:Hawkins, Desmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Conversations.
Next Article:The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent.

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