Authors: Veronica Bennett
kill their creators. I had dreamt that I had murdered my own mother. If a woman could be destroyed by a child, why could not a man create a being that ultimately destroyed
My heart bursting, I returned to the drawing-room. I sat down once more at the writing-desk and drew a piece of paper towards me. Then, in a fever, I seized a pen and began to write.
rief, and the betrayal I could not forgive, made me lash out at the person I should have cherished. “
are the instrument of our poor children’s deaths!” I declared.
My power to cause Shelley pain was great. And, suffering as I was from my own pain, I did not shrink from using that power. “If you were strong, a man who knows what is right and what is wrong, they would be living still!”
His face was like a mask. Bloodless, stiff, without expression. But I was unmoved. This time he could not calm me with laudanum.
had not made me bring Clara to Padua, to cover your deception of George, she would yet be alive! If only
had not insisted we come to Rome, where the disease which killed William flourishes, he would yet be alive!”
Shelley did not move, but his cheeks suddenly reddened and his eyes shone with tears. I saw this, but I did not stop.
“Two children from the same family do not die within a year of each other unless there is adult selfishness, or neglect, or corruption,” I told him. “Ianthe and Charles, Harriet’s children, remain with their grandparents, perfectly well. But
children are dead because
have murdered them!”
He leapt out of his chair and, reaching into the pocket of his breeches, produced his penknife.
“Kill me, then, Mary!” he demanded. In his face there was a madness which, in all his moments of madness, I had never beheld. “Kill me now! If your hatred and your will are strong enough, take this knife and kill me!”
I sat down trembling. “My will
strong,” I told him. “But having been the cause of my mother’s death I have no desire to be the cause of anyone else’s.”
kill me, with or without this knife,” he said testily, putting it back in his pocket. “You will starve me of your love, until I die.”
Before me stood the man for whom I had abandoned my girlhood, my family and my reputation. But the task of rebuilding our happiness seemed as daunting as scaling the icy wall of a mountain.
And it was as an icy wall that Shelley appeared. He and I could not share our grief; he had withdrawn his love because he considered my response to our children’s deaths cold. But my coldness was born of despair. No one would comfort me – not even my father, who begged me repeatedly to leave Shelley and come back to England, and certainly not Claire, whose only child yet lived.
She did not know this loss, greater than any other. Only Shelley knew it, but he refused to mourn with me. He folded up his feelings as he might a poem scrawled on a piece of paper, and hid them away. Neither I nor anyone else could touch them. So we suffered alone, apart and in silence.
Meanwhile, reckless, idle, deceitful Claire at last secured a post as a governess.
“A delightful family,” she announced. “Two adorable little girls, and a house full of servants, overlooking the bay at Livorno.”
“Delightful,” I echoed.
I was relieved that she was leaving, though I might have wished her farther away from Pisa, where we had now returned, than Livorno. For years I had had good reason to despise her, though I had tolerated her presence for the sake of the affection we had known in girlhood. But her part in poor Clara’s death had torn a hole in our sisterly companionship larger than either of us could mend.
“Will you escort me there, Shelley?” she asked sweetly. “Please?”
“Of course,” he agreed. “But I must come straight back. Mary’s confinement is near.”
I watched them exchange the kind of glance I had seen so often. How I longed to tell Claire the truth: that if Shelley had made love to her under our own roof, even in our own bed, I would have tolerated this in exchange for my daughter’s life. But the way she had conspired with him to save her own face, despite the danger to her little namesake Clara, had hardened my heart against her for ever.
“Must you go at all, my dear Claire?” Shelley asked. “After all, with the new baby…”
“Yes, she must,” I declared.
Since William’s death my tolerance of Shelley’s desire for both my sister and myself, his beloved two-headed goddess, had evaporated. Fearing the fury in my voice, he gave in.
“Yes, I suppose she must. It is for the best.”
After Claire’s departure, the distance between Shelley and me widened even further. I could not forgive him for his betrayal and the suspicions that tormented me still. Had he promised to continue his affair with Claire in return for her taking the governess post? Did he burn her correspondence? How often would he insist on going to Livorno?
Shelley was even less forgiving than I. He did not forgive me for accusing him of our children’s murder. He did not forgive me for insisting that we rid ourselves of Claire. And he did not forgive me for being the person he loved better than Harriet.
“Why did you agree to elope with me?” he asked one evening, gazing at my misshapen body as I lay on the sofa, trying in vain to sleep. “Why did you not send me back to Harriet?”
No answer was possible. I was silent.
“If you had not been so attractive, and willing, Harriet would never have drowned herself. And even if she had, it is your insistence upon staying with me that has made the judge refuse me custody of Ianthe and Charles,” he said.
I could not allow him to heap on my head the guilt that should have been on his. I had to speak.
“I suppose you have conveniently forgotten the presence of another man’s child inside Harriet’s corpse?” I demanded. “Why is it
morals, not hers – or indeed yours – which are now called to account?”
“You are cruel,” he complained. “You will kill me yet.”
“And I am supposed to feel sorry for you?”
When Shelley slept, or was out of the house, I wept. Secretly, I prayed. I placed my faith in the knowledge that the light of the sun in the east, which begins as a pinpoint on the horizon and grows into a brilliant arc before the eyes of the transfixed observer, conquers darkness not once, but daily, for eternity.
come back, as gradually as that eternal dawning. My second son was born.
William had borne my father’s name; our new son bore my husband’s. Shelley’s first name was Percy, a kingly name from the pages of English history, which his family had bestowed on its members for generations. He had always disliked it and never used it, but he granted my wish.
“I care not what his name is,” he said, stroking the baby’s face. “I only care that he lives to pass it on to his own children.”
“God grant that,” I murmured.
“It is not the will of God that determines such things,” he said.
As has often been observed, the toiling creative mind is driven hardest when suffering is at its height. During those terrible months, both Shelley and I retreated from the world, depending on our writing to calm us. My manuscript was contained in a leather letter-case – a gift from Papa long ago – which I could close up and pretend held only letters if anyone should approach. Shelley knew that I was writing a story, and he said he would be interested to read the result. But he no longer attempted to give me advice on its writing; he knew how jealously I guarded it.
Poems, and fragments of poems, lay around the house on torn pieces of paper, or untidy notebooks, or were scribbled on the back of letters, or lists, or on the flyleaves of books. I collected them together, taking over Claire’s former employment of making fair copies and insisting that Shelley prepare the manuscripts for publication. I would not allow his casual approach to the business of publishing bar his path to poetic immortality. It lay within his grasp, as George and I well knew. As for my leather-bound manuscript, in its hiding-place under my gowns in a trunk … its future was less certain.
The first year of Percy’s life wore on. He was a winter baby, though this caused me little anxiety, as the months of cold, damp weather that endanger babies in England are not among Italy’s hazards. Winter brought falling leaves, and cool breezes. The sun on the hillsides made long, blue shadows. And my son celebrated his first birthday in good health.
Gradually, Shelley’s mood changed. The first thing I had ever admired him for – his reckless disregard for any attempt to stop him doing what he wanted – returned. He became restless.
“Mary, I am determined to get George down to the coast with us next summer,” he declared. “I am wild to sail again, as we did in Geneva.”
I looked up from my reading. “Is George an experienced enough sailor? There is a great difference between Lake Geneva and the open sea.”
“Of course he is!” Then, after some thought, “Or he has an experienced boy, at least.”
I smiled. “And does he have a boat?”
“He is having one built as we speak,” he said eagerly, crouching beside my chair with some of the boyish enthusiasm I had thought I would never see again. “A splendid vessel, to be called the
I touched his cheek. Fleetingly, some of our past intimacy returned. Shelley seized my hand.
“Mary, I can bear this living death no longer. You and I must live again. We were drowning, but we will resurface.”
hen I suggested that Shelley seek the company of our new neighbours, I thought that entering the lives of strangers would distract him from his reckless desire to be a sailor. But I could not have been more mistaken.
“An English couple have taken that white villa you always say looks like a wedding cake, not half a mile from here,” I announced one spring day, without looking up from my writing. “Milly has met their maidservant, who told her they have a little boy and another child expected. They are called Williams. You might introduce yourself to them, if you have nothing better to do.”
Shelley approved. “Why, let us call on them tomorrow!”
But there was no need. They called on us, greeting us warmly as soon as Milly showed them into the hall.
“What a happy circumstance,” said Jane Williams, smiling brilliantly as she entered the salon, “that your son is so near ours in age!”
“Indeed,” agreed Shelley. He turned to her husband. “Shall we walk in the garden, while the ladies converse? I prefer air and exercise over salon talk, and perhaps you do too.”
Edward Williams bowed, and allowed himself to be led outside. I knew what Shelley was doing. He wanted to find out the couple’s background before we disclosed ours, and he was well aware that women alone can achieve this far quicker than in mixed company.
“I understand your husband is a poet,” began Jane Williams when they had gone. “His fame goes before him in Pisa, I must tell you!”
“He is indeed,” I told her proudly. “And what is your husband’s profession?”
To my surprise, she blushed, and hid her face behind her fan. “Edward is not my husband,” she admitted. “The gossip that pursues us in England has driven us to settle here, in good time for the birth of our new baby.”
So she knew my background already, then. If she had not, she would not have disclosed such intimate facts about her own at our first meeting. She and Edward knew that we, too, had run away from scandal.
My heart warmed towards her. “Has Edward a wife living?” I asked.
“No.” She closed the fan. Her composure was returning, but the lids of her large eyes remained lowered. “But I am not free. I married in haste at sixteen. My husband was … unsatisfactory, so when I met Edward…”
“I understand,” I said, with feeling.
“He was as you see him now: handsome, full of life. I ran away with him. I took his name and live with him as his wife. I will never go back.”
I extended my hand. “Jane… May I call you Jane?”
She nodded, extending her own hand. I noticed how small it was, smaller even than Claire’s. Our fingertips touched.
“The similarities in our circumstances are striking,” I observed. “I wonder whether Shelley has found things in common with Mr Williams?”
“Oh! Call him Edward, please. And I doubt it,” she added, giggling. “Edward is a seafarer.”
My heart quickened. “Is that so?”
“He was a captain in the navy, although, disappointingly, he never served under Admiral Nelson himself. His passion is the sea.” Her smile widened. “I cannot imagine a poet and a sailor will find much to speak of.”
“Do not believe it!” I told her. “Shelley shares the same passion. He will be overjoyed to meet someone who actually knows how to sail.”
“Oh, Edward does not know how to sail!” exclaimed Jane. “He leaves it to his boy!”
As the spring wore on, Edward and Jane Williams became our constant companions. I respected Jane for her calm beauty, and her intelligence. And her story had touched my heart; she, like me, had been cast adrift as a result of falling in love. Attending at her confinement, I admired her baby girl and enjoyed the company of these new friends.
I knew I had to lift up my head and live again. I had not yet celebrated my twenty-third birthday, and Italy was not the place for sadness or jealousy.
It remained, however, the place for death.
“Alas!” cried Shelley one morning, his eyes scanning a letter that arrived from a literary friend in London. “Mary, we shall never have the pleasure of John Keats’s company after all. He is dead!”
I put down my own letter, from Claire. Though Shelley’s acquaintance with Keats was small, and my own had been conducted entirely through the young man’s poetry, I could not but be moved. “How?” I asked bleakly.
“‘Of consumption,’” read Shelley, “‘in Rome.’ He is buried in the same cemetery as our dear William.”