Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

The Shelleys and their circle have inspired hundreds of books, plays and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences, where the biographers can offer us only speculation. My third novel, The Frankenstein Monster, is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect and explain those silences.

Turning  fact into fiction is a labour of love for any novelist, but one that comes with its own challenges, whether technical, literary,  or indeed, moral.  This is the second of two posts in which I discuss this question in relation to two particular episodes in 1816 – the death in October of Mary Godwin’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and less than three months later, the discovery of the body of Harriet Shelley, the wife he had abandoned for Mary Godwin more than two years earlier. 

Harriet Shelley: The facts
On 15th December 1816, Shelley received a letter in Bath from his old friend and publisher, Thomas Hookham. The Shelley party was  still coming to terms with the sudden death of Fanny Imlay, but another tragedy was about to overwhelm them.  The body of Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had been found floating in the Serpentine. It appeared that she, too, had killed herself.

Harriet had been living at her father John Westbrook’s house in Chapel Street, Mayfair, ever since Shelley abandoned her, pregnant, in the summer of 1814. But Shelley now learned that she has suddenly left that house in September 1816, leaving her two children behind. She went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady her name was ‘Harriet Smith’, that she was married, and that her husband was abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though the main purpose of such a cover story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this from her family any longer that had forced her to flee. And then, on November 9th, she disappeared a second time, and we still don’t know where she spent the weeks before December 10th, when her body was discovered in the Serpentine by one John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital.

He told the authorities that he thought she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the nearby Fox and Bull inn, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of ‘found dead’.

Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Harriet’s name – real or otherwise – and ended with the words, “a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe”, in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.

Even now, we do not know who was the father of Harriet’s baby, though some biographers have suggested Shelley himself, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived. More likely candidates include a certain ‘Major Ryan’, perhaps stationed at the Knightsbridge barracks; sixty years later Claire Clairmont claimed it had been ‘a Captain in the Indian or Wellington Army, I forget which’, who had gone abroad. At the time, Mary’s father William Godwin passed on a frankly scurrilous rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he abandoned her, and Godwin may also have been the source behind a claim Shelley himself later made that Harriet had “descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith”. In the same letter Shelley wrote that “beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret”. Not his finest hour.

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet’s death). But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand.

One thing we do know, unquestionably, is that the whole thing was hushed up. Hushed up so effectively, in fact, that one cannot but conclude that it was done deliberately, and by someone with the skills and connections to do so. And here I turn, again, from fact to fiction.

Harriet Shelley: The fiction
The account of Harriet’s death in the novel is part of a long flash-back narrated by Charles Maddox senior, a former Bow Street Runner turned expensive private investigator. Having been employed by Godwin to track Shelley’s movements (because Godwin feared losing an important source of loans ), Maddox is one of the first to realise that Harriet has disappeared, and he has both the men and the means to discover where she went:


In the week that followed Miss Imlay’s death I received, almost daily, supplications from Godwin to augment the account I had sent him from Swansea with whatever further information I had now at my disposal; supplications I steadfastly refused to gratify with even the briefest of replies. I cared not for his feelings, judging he possessed very few; I did care, and very much, about Mrs Shelley, where she might be, and what circumstances had driven her to such a reckless course of action. I feared the worst, and those fears were brought to a greater and more painful intensity when my assistant Fraser brought me word that the Westbrooks had hired a young man, one William Alder by name, to drag the ponds in the area of Hyde-park nearest the house. My distress on hearing of this was extreme, but Fraser soon established that nothing had been found. It was some time before I was to receive further news, and I attempted to engross my mind with other pressing cases recently neglected, until, one morning in November I was woken by Fraser pounding on my door an hour before breakfast and calling to me, hot-faced and out of breath, that Miss Eliza Westbrook had dressed the children herself before the rest of the household was awake, and taken them to an address near Hans-place, Brompton.

Less than half an hour later the coachman set us down outside the lodging-house, where I made myself known to the lady proprietor of the establishment and asked if I might go up to Mrs Shelley’s rooms.

‘Mrs Shelley, sir?’ she said, looking – or feigning – ignorance. ‘We have no lady by that name here.’

‘A lady of below middle height,’ intervened Fraser. ‘Rather plump than trim as far as her figure goes. Quite a beauty once, I should say.’

‘Ah,’ said the landlady, with a look I could not at once decipher, ‘you must mean Mrs Smith. Do you bring word from her husband? She is hoping to see him every day.’

‘I am, as you so cleverly surmised, a fr―’ But my tongue stumbled against the word, and I could not utter it. ‘A business connection of her husband’s. It has but recently come to my knowledge that his wife has been reduced to the painful circumstances in which she now finds herself, and I wish to do all in my power to assist her.’

That last, in any event, was the absolute truth.

‘Well,’ sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat. ‘You can begin by assisting me with the money. A month’s rent she owes me, and that’s a fact.’

I smiled in what I hoped was a gracious manner, and proceeded to take my pocket-book from my coat and count out the coins, one by one. Her acquiescence, if not her confidence, thus purchased, she informed me that the young lady’s room was ‘at the top – the last you get to,’ and left me to find my own way up.

When I reached the last landing I knocked sharply and heard a few moments later the sound of a bolt drawing back and a light but weary female voice saying, ‘If it’s about the rent’ – as the door swung open. ‘Oh,’ she said then, drawing back and frowning, ‘I took you for Mrs Thomas.’

I had wondered at Fraser’s remark that Mrs Shelley must ‘once’ have been a beauty, for I could not believe she was much more than twenty, but now I understood his observation. The woman who stood before me looked at least a dozen years more, with none of the freshness and bloom of youth the calendar surely owed her. Her brown hair was lank, her eyes lustreless, and if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.

‘Who are you?’ she said, holding the door close, and pulling her shawl about her. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is, indeed, about the rent, or at least in one respect,’ I replied, as I proceeded to inform her that I had just had the honour to assist her with that particular obligation.

The smile that greeted this information was enough to show me how lovely she must once have been. It illuminated her whole face, lifting the lines from her eyes, and setting the ghost of a flush on her thin cheeks.

‘Do you come from Shelley?’ she said, with a gasp. ‘Is he well – does he want to see the children?’

How I cursed the man then, in my soul; to have abandoned this young woman so callously, depriving her of the protection she had every right to expect, and leaving her suspended in a pitiable state that was neither marriage nor widowhood. ‘I regret,’ I began, ‘that I have no commission from him. But what I may do for you, you may rely upon.’

And then, as the shawl slipped a moment from her grasp, I saw. I saw her secret, and I knew what it was that had driven her from her father’s house.

‘You are with child?’ I asked gently.

She flashed me a look then, though whether of anger, fear, or shame, I could not tell. ‘Please go now. I do not wish you to be here when my sister returns.’

‘But surely there is more I can to do assist you – does your husband even know of your condition?’

‘No!’ she cried, her eyes wild. ‘And he must not be told of it! Never!’

‘But he must discharge his duty!’ I exclaimed, my mind in fury. ‘Not merely towards your existing children, but towards this one. To have behaved so despicably – to have continued to exercise all the rights of a husband while presenting himself in that character to another woman – another woman who has already borne him two children―’

‘You do not understand,’ she wept. ‘He is not to blame – I have not seen him – not since – not since long before―’

At that point the door flew open and a woman strode into the room. From a distance she might well have been deemed handsome, with her abundant black hair and pale complexion, but standing as I was, within a few feet of her, I could see that her skin was seamed with the smallpox and of a dead white, and her hair, of which she was evidently very proud, coarse and wiry.

‘Who are you, sir?’ she demanded. ‘My sister is not nearly well enough to receive casual visitors.’

‘Please, Eliza,’ whispered Mrs Shelley, going at once to her side. ‘Mr Maddox was offering to help me. Perhaps he might be able, if he knew―’

‘I can give you all the assistance you need,’ replied Miss Westbrook, firmly, leading her resolutely to the bed. ‘You need no one but me, Harriet,’ she said, as she settled her gently against the pillows. ‘You have never needed anyone but me, and now that that villain has gone, we may be together once more, and for ever.’

Miss Westbrook then marched swiftly to the door and held it open. There was no mistaking the gesture, just as there was no mistaking the look that flickered across Mrs Shelley’s face as I stepped briefly towards her and made my bow. ‘You know where you may find me, Mrs Shelley,’ I said gravely, contriving to leave a fold of banknotes on the table by the bed. ‘I am at your service, and will remain so.’

‘Mr Maddox?’ said Miss Westbrook as I drew level with her in the doorway. ‘Do not call again. We need no interference from strangers. However seemingly benevolent.’



Some readers will no doubt recognise the description of Harriet’s sister Eliza Westbrook, which I have borrowed from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s memoir of Shelley, published long after his death. This is just one among many examples of how I used contemporary texts and observations to bring my characters to life (in the extract below, Harriet’s heart-breaking last letter is a transcription of her actual words). William Alder is another historical figure, whom I discovered in the fourth volume of Kenneth Neill Cameron’s series, Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. The section on ‘The Last Days of Harriet Shelley’ collects together all the known information about Harriet’s death, including an account of the inquest held by the coroner, John Gell, at the Fox and Bull, on 11th December.

William Alder apparently knew Harriet from working for her father, and went with her when she took a second-floor room in Hans Place in September, in the house of a Mrs Jane Thomas. In the novel, Maddox and Fraser question Adler after Harriet’s second disappearance –none too gently, either – and he becomes thereafter Maddox’s informant, with instructions to contact him if he sees Harriet again:


November had passed and December commenced before I received any word of her. I was at dinner in Downing-street, whence I had been invited to offer my advice as to the apprehension of the miscreants responsible for the late disturbances in Spa-fields, when the waiter slipped me a message in Fraser’s hand: Alder has seen her – Chapel-street. I made my excuses immediately and hurried down to the waiting carriage. The night was dark and the fog so heavy we could not move at any pace through the crowded streets, and I half despaired of arriving in time, but the carriage eventually drew to a halt a few yards from the Westbrook residence, and Alder stepped forward to open the door.

‘Saw ’er by chance, guv. I were in two minds whether to try to talk to ’er but thought it best to send for you instead.’
I glanced at him; there was still the ghost of a bruise along his jaw and I could well understand that he wished to run no risk of further intimacy with George Fraser.
‘She’s been ’ere ’alf an hour and more. Just walkin’ up and down. Cryin’ I think she is, and talkin’ to ’erself. Once or twice I saw ’er approach the door but then seem to think better of it.’
‘And you have not informed Miss Westbrook, or anyone else in the house?’
He shook his head. ‘No, guv. I judged as I’d leave that to you.’

I nodded, and turned to look down the street. A little distance ahead of me, I could see a figure walking away from me slowly in the mist; even at that distance I knew from her gait that it was a woman, and one much advanced in pregnancy. I could, as I intimated to Alder, have gone quietly to the door and summoned Miss Westbrook, but I did not see a way of doing so without alerting the whole household, and I judged likewise that had Mrs Shelley wished to see her sister she had had ample time already to do so. By that judgement I stand, but I cannot acquit myself of not perceiving the degree of alarm my own appearance would engender. I knew she feared Godwin, but I did not comprehend the full extent of that fear, or the terror she might conceive at the merest glimpse of a man she believed to be hounding her at his behest. I should have deduced this, but I did not; I should have sent Alder in my place, knowing that she had deemed him her friend, but to my everlasting regret, I did not.

Ordering Alder instead to remain by the carriage, I started down the pavement towards her. The fog thickened suddenly and I hastened my step, but the heavy air so absorbed all sound that I was almost upon her before she heard my approach. She turned then and I saw her face – a face at once stricken with panic.
‘You – you,’ she stammered, clutching her shawl tighter about her.
‘Do not distress yourself,’ I said. ‘I wish only to assist you.’
‘You said that before,’ she whispered, taking a pace backwards, ‘and then I discovered you are working for him – for them.’
‘I work for no one, I give you my word.’
‘I do not believe you – why else would you―’
‘Because I have had dealings with your husband in the past, and I know the cruelty – the wanton, careless cruelty – of which he is capable.’
‘No, no – you misjudge him – it is her – if it were not for her he might return to me – we might be happy again.’
I stepped forward then and gripped her hand. ‘Do not think it – do not wish it. The last time I saw your husband it was in the same inn where a young woman had destroyed herself – destroyed herself out of love of him, a love he allowed, even encouraged, but had no more thought of returning than he does of returning to you.’

I spoke it out of a desire to free her – I spoke it because my greatest fear was that he might indeed seek to return to her, and I wished her to have the strength to refuse him. I knew my intentions to be honourable, but I did not allow sufficiently for the effect such words must have had upon a woman – upon a spirit so distraught, a heart so sorely wounded. I had accused him – and justly ‒ of cruelty, but I stand accused in my own mind of no less a crime.

‘No, no,’ she cried again, wrenching her fingers from my grasp. ‘It is all a lie, all a wicked, wicked lie.’

And she turned from me and ran, stumbling, blinded by the tears that were streaming from her eyes. I hesitated a moment – a cursed moment – then set off after her, calling her name, but we were hard by the entrance to Hyde-park, and by the time I reached it she had disappeared into the darkness. I remained there for some moments more, then spent more precious minutes retracing my steps to the carriage, where I ordered Alder, somewhat breathlessly, to muster as many men as we had and conduct a search of both the park and the streets around.

They found nothing – then. I was still awake at three the following morning when Fraser returned to say there was no sight or trace of her. My relief at these words was profound, but all too short-lived. This was Saturday; it was Tuesday morning that I received the note from Alder that destroyed all my hopes.

He begged my presence without delay at the sign of the Fox and Bull in Knights-bridge. They had brought a woman’s remains to the inn, he said, through the old gate leading into the park whence all those found drowned were always conveyed. He said no more, but I knew; knew he would not have summoned me so unless he was certain beyond all possibility of doubt.

And so it was for the second time in as many months I stood before the body of a young woman ruined by love of that man, confronting the piteous waste of a death that could have been prevented – a death, in this case, that I seemed only to have hastened. I blamed Shelley – blamed him bitterly ‒ but I knew I merited my own share of censure.

The water had been cruel. Her body was bloated, the rank cloth clinging to the swollen form of her dead child, and her sweet face mottled with the taint of rottenness. These are not, I know, the words of a practitioner of my art, but my feelings were not the feelings of a professional man. Indeed, had one of my subordinates displayed such a weakness in the face of death I should have cashiered him at once and without reprieve. And knowing that, I strove to regain command of my passions and assess the corpse not as a man who had known her, but with the dispassionate and appraising eye of the detective, scrutinizing the cadaver for signs of violence, and seeking to determine how long it had been immersed. But grim indeed was that examination. I could see no obvious wound, and I was forced to conclude, with infinite sorrow, that she had indeed ended her own existence.

I had protected one young woman from public scandal and ignominy; I now faced the same distasteful task once more. It was harder, in the gossip of the metropolis, to achieve my end, but I knew the coroner, John Gell, and the editor of The Times was in my debt. I likewise persuaded Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow-street, to allow me free rein, though not without profound misgivings, knowing he trusted me, and I had never before abused that trust. I then instructed William Alder to take up residence at the Fox and Bull, so as to be on hand to give witness at the inquest, and ensure that Mrs Thomas’ servant gave the name of the deceased as Harriet Smith, and provided only such further evidence as was strictly necessary. The jury sat barely a quarter of an hour before returning, as I had ensured, a verdict of ‘Found Dead in the Serpentine River’. The body I then caused to be taken to the Paddington cemetery and buried there under her assumed alias.

A second pauper’s grave, a second desolate and windswept interment, the only persons present the minister, myself and Miss Westbrook, her face heavily veiled, scarce able to support herself in the wretchedness of her grief.

‘We will have our revenge, my love,’ she whispered hoarsely, falling to her knees in the mud as the body was lowered into the grave. ‘Papa will institute a process in Chancery for custody of the children, and expose that man to the world as a profligate and an atheist. All who know him will abhor and shun him for the murderer he is.’
‘I must, I fear, bear some responsibility myself,’ I began, assisting her to her feet as the sexton turned the first soil upon the pit. ‘I am very much afraid that our last meeting only served to distress your sister further, and that had I acted differently – ’
But she was already shaking her head. ‘If you are to blame, then so am I. I was away from the house on Saturday and did not receive this until I returned.’

She put her hand into her reticule and drew from it a letter. ‘She must have left it at the door and waited in the street, hoping – expecting – that I would come out to her. And I did not. I can hardly bear to think what must have passed through her mind. She must have thought I no longer loved her – that I did not care -’
I had no great regard for Miss Westbrook, but I did pity her then. I pressed her hand. ‘She would not have believed so.’
She shook her head once more and put her handkerchief to her eyes as she watched me read her sister’s last words. A letter she copied for me later, at my request, and sent to me at Buckingham-street. A letter that tore my heart; a letter no man could peruse without seeing ‒ in the tears that stained it, in the very orthography – the most afflicting proof of the depths of her despair.

Sat. Eve.
When you read this letr. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S–––


Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted a reference here to a meeting between Shelley and Maddox at Swansea, after Fanny’s death, and to other – clearly disastrous – earlier dealings between the two. In devising a fictional narrative that might make sense of all the ‘known unknowns’ of the Shelleys’ history, I involved the elder Charles Maddox not only in the suicides of 1816, but much earlier in their lives, and his first encounter with the poet is in late 1814, after his elopement with Mary Godwin. And it is Mary, in fact, who is the first member of the Godwin family to hire Maddox’s services. But what she commissions Maddox to do, and what fateful consequences that task then had, you will have to read the novel to discover….


This post also appears on the Wordsworth Grasmere blog

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