Samuel Clemens in a top hatMark Twain

"In Defense of Harriet Shelley"



(A just tirade against the unprincipled biographer or journalist).

All text except quotations is copyright 1999 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone.
Thanks to Encyclopedia Britannica for the portrait of Dowden below.
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CONTENTS:Twain writing in bed

Summary and Reflection

Tidbits of Significance

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Summary and Reflection

Generally my opinion is that life is too short to read literary criticism unless you get paid for it. However, when the literary critic is himself an exceptional author, and when the criticism is applicable to more in life than just the work in question, I might make exception. This is one of the noblest and most entertaining pieces of literary criticism I have read. Twain (Samuel Clemens), with whose essays I am sometimes annoyed for superficiality and irreverence, has certainly left these traits behind in this one, among others. Here he castigates the rhetorical flourishes which substitute for argument in a certain Edward Dowden's Life of Shelley. In this biography, which is still in print today, an attempt is made to excuse the poet Shelley's abandonment of his wife Harriet, with accusations that she was unfaithful to him. Here Twain meets the biographer on his own turf, by providing convincing evidence to exonerate Harriet Shelley from infidelity to her husband Percy, and by ruling out the possibility that Shelley abandoned her for this reason. Even more persuasive, perhaps, is the way Twain infuses his case with the immense wit and rhetorical skill which is his trademark. Thus Twain's criticism of someone else's biography, an enterprise which one might justly expect to be less than scintillating reading, is instead an enjoyable classic. I was thoroughly engaged by Twain's logic and his moral objection to the slander of a dead woman. In reading this, one cannot help but be mindful of the shameless depths of gossip and rumor-mongering to which those engaged in biography and journalism are so often ready to stoop.


If I may add a footnote to Twain's essay, a more concise life of Shelley by the same author Twain criticizes can be found as the introduction to an edition of Shelley's Poetical Works. Written by Dowden after he read Twain's critique of his book (to which he feebly responds in a note), this work is obviously less accusatory towards Harriet, which tells me that he too saw the force of Twain's argument. Moreover, something which I find hilarious and I hope will be remembered through literary history, is that Dowden even tried to rectify his melodramatic rhetoric (something Twain riotously ridicules), but only in the particular places where Twain had poked fun at him! So we still have ridiculous sentences in Dowden's rewrite like, "With his desire at once to translate his ideas into action for the service of the world, Shelley looked abroad for a battlefield where he might combat on behalf of freedom". Twain hadn't picked on that one, so Dowden let it stand. However, the following sentence was one that Twain did poke fun at: "The beauty of Harriet's motherly relation to her babe was marred in Shelley's eyes by the introduction into his house of a hireling nurse to whom was delegated the mother's tenderest office." So, in this later introduction it has been dutifully abbreviated to "Harriet insisted on hiring a wet-nurse."...!


But Dowden's melodrama is not the main issue here, but a humorous tangent. The real problem is that in Dowden we have a biographer who gets so carried away with admiration for his subject that he attempts dishonestly to disguise the poet's faults, even at the expense of the reputation of innocents. Twain justly unleashes a fierce tirade on this use of slander for one's own literary purposes. In truth (we are distant enough from him now to be able to say this without too many ill feelings, I suspect), Shelley was a philanderer, who loved to be in love with more than one woman at a time, and had little respect for those whom he loved. I do not see any serious attempt to disguise this fact in his own letters or in his friends' statements about him. His love poetry was truly "good only for that day and train", as Twain says, and I think we see this attitude of Shelley's prominent throughout his life. It is appropriate that he was such a good friend of Byron (and at times they, shall we say, shared a taste for particular women). In fact, somewhere around here is where I disagree with Twain-- I don't think he goes far enough. Given the loose habits of the nevertheless supremely gifted poet (I can almost see a more sober but less successful author of the time-- perhaps Peacock?-- moaning like the Hollywood version of Salieri (of Amadeus) at the genius of his friend the divinely gifted debauchee), I find it hard to believe that Twain maintains that other than his abandonment of Harriet, Shelley's life was "honorable". I don't know where Twain finds the honor in Shelley's life, although there is arguably plenty of it in his poetry. His entire existence seems to have been full of these kinds of incidents, and others equally revelatory of his hedonism and Godwinian (referring to Earl Godwin, a hero of his) abandonment of all self-discipline.


By the way, in defense of Percy for a moment, I think the issue of his crusading atheism must be left aside when discussing the state of his virtue. Twain would probably laud this aspect of his personality, and one might consider it honorable to be a outspoken iconoclast in an age when atheists were often "in the closet". However, I would not go so far as to say that there is any honor in sticking out like a sore thumb in and of itself. Any honor would have to proceed from the quality of the beliefs for which one stands, rather than just standing for something per se. If theism is false, iconoclasm should be considered courageous and honorable. If theism is true, however, the courage displayed in rejecting it is misplaced and thus greatly compromised by the vice of defending a falsity. So to call Shelley either honorable or dishonorable for his outspoken distaste for Christianity begs the ultimate question. And there’s certainly no argument that can settle the case either way, so we might as well leave it aside when assessing Shelley’s integrity.


The most significant sense I take away from this essay is Twain's impressive skill at presenting the case of Shelley's abandonment of his wife in its true circumstances, his just use of poetry and historical events to elucidate the probable truth, and his Father Brownian or Sherlock Holmesian ability to find telling clues about Shelley’s attitudes and actions. One could read this essay just for the rhetorical skill or the satisfaction of berating such an irresponsible writer as Dowden; but the content itself is worth even more attention and admiration.


To top of Twain's "Defense of Harriet Shelley"



Tidbits of Significance

"All the pages, all the paragraphs, walk by sedately, elegantly, not to say mincingly, in their Sunday-best, shiny and sleek, perfumed, and with boutonnières in their buttonholes; it is rare to find even a chance sentence that has forgotten to dress."



"Percy Bysshe Shelley has done something which in the case of other men is called a grave crime; it must be shown that in his case it is not that, because he does not think as other men do about these things."



"His [Dowden's] insidious literature is like blue water; you know what it is that makes it blue, but you cannot produce and verify any detail of the cloud of microscopic dust in it that does it. Your adversary can dip up a glassful and show you that it is pure white and you cannot deny it; and he can dip the lake dry, glass by glass, and show that every glassful is white, and prove it to any one's eye-- and yet that lake was blue and you can swear it. This book is blue-- with slander in solution."



"He told her [Mary Godwin] about the wet-nurse, she told him about political justice; he told her about the deadly sister-in-law, she told him about her mother; he told her about the bonnet-shop, she murmured back about the rights of woman; then he assuaged her, then she assuaged him; then he assuaged her some more, next she assuaged him some more; then they both assuaged one another simultaneously; and so they went on by the hour assuaging and assuaging and assuaging, until at last what was the result? They were in love. It will happen so every time."



 To top of Twain's "Defense of Harriet Shelley"



Edward Dowden, biographer of ShelleyRead this when... are fed up with journalistic and biographical abuses of people; or you are tired of boring literary criticism and are curious if there is any other kind; or you are interested in Shelley's eventful life.


 To top of Twain's "Defense of Harriet Shelley"  



If you like this, you'd also like...

(for the crusader against libel and other literary irresponsibility:)

-Mark Twain, "License of the Press" (1873).

-George Eliot, "Authorship", in Leaves from a Note-Book (pub. 1883).

-C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947).


(for the sleuth for the opinions great literary figures have of each other:)

-Longinus on the Sublime (1st cent. A.D.).

-Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1781).

-Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (1865).

-T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (1932).


  To top of Twain's "Defense of Harriet Shelley"



 Find Twain's essays at

(Please click on the book:)


 To top of Twain's "Defense of Harriet Shelley"