Review of Denis Florence MacCarthy’s Shelley’s Early Life

[Unsigned] Review of Denis Florence MacCarthy’s Shelley’s Early Life, from Original SourcesAthenaeum (9 November 1872): 592-93.

[NOTE: This was Blind’s debut publication in the the Athenaeum, and it demonstrates her critical acuity and acerbic wit. Norman MacColl, who took over as sole editor of the Athenaeum in 1871, recruited reviewers for their expertise and their willingness to criticize rather than simply promote books. MacColl also appointed many women as reviewers, who in addition to Blind included Augusta Webster, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Rosamund Marriott Watson, Vernon Lee, and A. Mary F. Robinson. In her inaugural review Blind is highly critical of MacCarthy’s biography of Shelley’s early life, which she argues promises far more than it delivers and bases dubious claims on flimsy evidence.]

If Mr. MacCarthy, in compiling his work, had borne in mind the advantages of brevity, he would have laid his readers under an additional obligation for that part of his information which is of intrinsic value. It is, in fact, curious that he should lay himself open to the very accusation which he so frequently brings (and not without reason) against Mr. Jefferson Hogg. Unfortunately, it cannot be equally laid to his charge that his book is “irresistibly amusing,” a statement of Mr. Rossetti’s, with which he repeatedly finds fault. However, instead of taking Mr. MacCarthy to task, we shall be better employed in briefly pointing out such facts as he is able, after much diligent research apparently, to make public for the first time.

The most startling, on a cursory glance, of Mr. MacCarthy’s assertions is that Shelley had not only produced a far greater amount of poetry than Mr. Hogg leads one to infer during his stay at the University and the two following years, but that he had published a distinct volume of verse, the first solely composted by him,–a fact which Mr. MacCarthy, after the lapse of sixty years, has been fortunate enough to discover. Such a statement is, of course, calculated to rouse a Shelleyite to eager anticipations of the good things in store for him. But, alas! After the keenest pursuit of Mr. MacCarthy in his perpetual doubling and turning, and after constantly being thrown off the scent, it is with but meagre spoils that we must, in the end, perforce rest satisfied. His strangely disjointed manner of telling his story may, however much appearances are to the contrary, be the very acme of literary skill. But we prefer to state, in as few words as possible, the discovery of Mr. MacCarthy, and the facts connected with this hitherto unsuspected poem.

Mr. Finnerty, an Irish patriot, and a contributor to the Statesman, then edited by Leigh Hunt, was, in February, 1811, committed to gaol on a charge of libel. He was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment, and to find security for his good behavior during five years. This signal act of oppression was repeatedly held up to public indignation by Leigh Hunt. It not only caused a considerable amount of public excitement in the larger towns, but even, it would appear, in so anti-Radiical a spot as the University of Oxford. This is shown by the Oxford Herald announcing that it had opened a subscription on behalf of Mr. Finnerty; and in the next number, which appeared on March 2, 1811, P.B. Shelley figures on the list as subscribing the sum of one guinea. On the 9th of the month the same paper has this curious advertisement:–

“Literature.—Just published, price Two Shillings, A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things.

And famine at her bidding wasted wide
The wretched land, till in the public way,
Promiscuous where the dead and dying lay,
Dogs fed on human bones in the open light of day.

Curse of Kehema [sic].[1]

By a Gentleman of the University of Oxford, for assisting to maintain in prison Mr. Peter Finnerty, imprisoned for a libel. London: Sold by B. Crosby & Co., and all other Booksellers.—1811.”

     Now Mr. MacCarthy, in the course of his evidently painstaking researches, discovered in the Dublin Weekly Messenger of March 7th, 1812, a favourable notice of the first public appearance of “Pierce Byshe Shelly,” at a meeting held, in the interest of Catholic Emancipation, in Fishamble Street Theatre. The notice concludes with the following words:–

Mr. Shelly, commiserating the sufferings of our distinguished countryman, Mr. Finnerty, . . . wrote a very beautiful poem the profits of which, we understand, from undoubted authority, Mr. Shelly remitted to Mr. Finnerty; we have heard they amounted to nearly an hundred pounds.

The fact of Shelley having sent the paper containing this notice to no less a person than William Godwin lends the statement a certain authority. But, on the other hand, his never alluding, even in the most indirect manner, to a poem such as the “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,’ almost gives to the whole business their air of a mystification. Mr. MacCarthy points out, and the suggestion is not unreasonable, that Mr. Finnerty, being a contributor to the Dublin Weekly Messenger, would, had the statement been incorrect, in all probability have contradicted it. But he has not been able to discover any such contradiction. He infers, therefore, that the money must have been sent, ergo, the poem written and sold. But is it not just possible that Shelley may have hit upon such an expedient as a delicate method of remitting funds to the injured patriot?

There is no doubt of the poem having been advertised in various papers; among others, in the Times. But is it likely that, of all Shelley’s productions, this single unknown one should have produced such profitable results? The absurdity of the statement may be shown by a very simple calculation. The published price, as appears from the advertisement, was two shillings. If we suppose the profit on the sale to have amounted to one-half, a most extravagant hypothesis, a profit of £100. would have required a sale of 2,000 copies. Imagine the probability of such a sale for a work of this nature, or the possibility of the whole 2,000 copies having vanished from the earth beyond the utmost diligence of Mr. MacCarthy to recover them. That the money, therefore, if it ever found its way to Mr. Finnerty’s pocket, came out of Shelley’s, there can be little doubt. But what of the poem itself? Is the conjecture admissible that this essay was wrought into ‘Queen Mab’? The ‘Existing State of Things’ is certainly in that production contrasted with a possible one in the future. Stripped of the ideal portions and in a shorter compass, it may very well have been published under such a title, and Shelley’s silence, and that of his friends, would, in such a case, be accounted for.

Some interesting details are supplied by Mr. MacCarthy regarding Shelley’s residence in Dublin in the beginning of the year 1812; and we are thus enabled to form a more vivid picture of his incessant political activity while there. Two pamphlets, ‘An Address to the Irish People,’ and ‘Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists,’ were printed and copiously circulated. It shows practical knowledge of human nature that he sent a large supply to no less than sixty public-houses. They are now, although not hitherto inaccessible to students, for the first time regularly published. Their style much resembles that of the ‘Declaration of Rights’ discovered and printed by Mr. Rossetti; indeed, the latter appears to be an abstract of their contents. Forcible in expression, they are remarkable, as all Shelley’s writings, for the passionate glow of their humanity.

Mr. MacCarthy’s most noteworthy contribution, however, to Shelleyan biography consists of a number of extracts from hitherto unpublished letters. The greater number of these were written during the poet’s stay in Dublin, and addressed by him to Miss Hitchener, more familiarly known as the Brown Demon. This lady, whose father, originally a smuggler, and then a publican, had formerly borne the name of Yorke, was a schoolmistress at Hurstpierpoint, in Sussex. She had recommended herself to Shelley as being a “Republican, and Deist.” So great at this time and at a safe distance was Shelley’s admiration of her principles, that he repeatedly writes, “Resign your school, all, everything, and devote yourself to us and the Irish cause.”

An interesting glimpse occurs in one of the letters:–

I send a man out every day to distribute copoies (of the two pamphlets), with instructions where and how to give them. His account corresponds with the multitude of people who possess them. I stand at the balcony of our window, and watch till I see a man who looks likely. I throw a book at him, &c.

And in a postscript by Harriet, we are informed—

I am sure you would laugh were you to see us give the pamphlets. We throw them out of window, and give them to men that we pass in the streets. For myself, I am ready to die of laughter when it is done, and Percy looks so grave. Yesterday he put one into a woman’s hood of a cloak.

The most original suggestion in the present work is one which relates to the mysterious affair at Tanyrallt. It is advanced as a possible clue to the enigmatic attempt at assassination. In order, however, to understand Mr. MacCarthy’s reasoning, we must enter into a few biographical details. Shelley, his wife and sister-in-law, settled, not long after their departure from Ireland, at Lynmouth, in North Devon. They took with them Daniel Hill, the man who had so vigorously distributed pamphlets in Dublin. He was here engaged in a similar task, that of disseminating and posting Shelley’s ‘Declaration of Rights.’ In the act of doing so he was, however, apprehended, convicted, and committed to gaol. Mr. Rossetti, in a highly-interesting paper, published by him in the Fortnightly Review for January 1871, ingeniously conjectured that owing to this the man was likely to bear Shelley a grudge, and on his liberation, which took place about the end of February, proceeded to Tanyrallt in order to revenge himself upon his master. But this, from various reasons, is quite unlikely. We are able to confirm the view Mr. MacCarthy takes of this matter, for it has been our good fortune to meet with a relative of Mrs. Hooper (with whom the Shelleys lodged at Lynmouth), who perfectly remembers both Shelley and Daniel Hill, or Healy, as she called him. Her impression of the latter is that he was a kind, warm-hearted Irishman, extremely fond of his master, and willing “to go through fire and water” for him.

Now, from the State Papers we learn that the man, so far from straying his master, on the contrary, declared that he had received Shelley’s bills from a stranger, who, together with instructions to distribute them, had given [593] him five shillings. This we also learnt from our informant, as well as the hitherto, we believe, unknown fact, that Shelley paid 15 shillings per week to maintain the prisoner, whom he regarded as being still in his service. Even a very slight allusion in one of Shelley’s Dublin letters further strengthens the impression that kindly relations subsisted between the two. It seems that the good Dan, in order to heighten the sensation which Shelley had created among his countrymen, gave out that his master was only fifteen, thereby making him still more of a prodigy than he was. Is it not just possible that the editor of the Weekly Messenger may have drawn his information as to those “hundred pounds” from the same source? At any rate, Mr. Hogg’s description of the savage Irishman seems to be entirely drawn from his own imagination, and Mr. Rossetti’s ingenious inference consequent thereon, as to Hill’s probable connexion with the Tanyrallt affair, falls of necessity to the ground.

But Mr. MacCarthy is ready to bring forward a new hypothesis, and one which, whatever other merit it may or may not have, he can claims as solely his own. His premises are as follows:–Miss Hitchener, after repeated solicitations, threw up her school, joined the Shelleys at Lynmouth, and thence accompanied them to Tanyrallt. She proved, however, a less pleasing acquisition than had been anticipated; in fact, she became so odious to Shelley, that he, as well as the ladies, eagerly wished to rid himself of her. This was effected during the brief London sojourn in November, 1812. But so happy a consummation could not be arrived at without making her some compensation for the lost school. Writing to Hogg on the 3rd of December, Shelley says:–

The Brown Demon must receive her stipend. . . . . She was deprived, by our misjudging haste, of a situation where she was going on smoothly; and now she says that her reputation is gone, her health ruined, her peace of mind destroyed by my barbarity.

Now Mr. MacCarthy’s point is this. On the 11th of February three months’ stipend was probably due to Miss Hitchener; between this date and the 26th, there was just time for repeated demands, threats, &c.; these threats were, according to Harriet, not only directed against Shelley, but herself and her sister also. Why should not, therefore, Mr. MacCarthy suggests, a plot have been hatched by the revengeful Miss HItchener, brooding over her wrongs?—wrongs which were doubtless “discussed” around the paternal bar at Hurstpierpoint, and in consequence of which an agent may have been despatched to Tanyrallt to request, nay, extort the stipend? This is the conclusion Mr. MacCarthy thinks may not unreasonably be drawn from the facts stated above; and with culminating final surprise he concludes his work.

The strongest support, as it appears to us, of Mr. MacCarthy’s hypothesis is the consideration that Miss Hitchener, as a Brown Demon, may naturally be supposed to have been in the habit of doing demoniacal things. For the benefit, however, of those who may be disposed to attach undue important to his suggestion, or to the grievances which Miss Hitchener may have considered herself to have suffered at the hands of Shelley, we may mention that she survived, to exhibit herself some years afterwards in the useful but unromantic character of the authoress of a book of geographical conundrums in verse, for the benefit of her pupils. We believe, in a word, that she was just as likely to set the Thames on fire as Tanyrallt.























[1] Blind’s doubts about the existence, and Shelley’s authorship, of a Poetical Essay: On the Existing State of Things was shared by her contemporaries. But in 2006, a copy now held by the Bodleian came to light, and can be read online. As Blind indicates, this work was advertised and intended to support  Peter Finnerty; Finnerty was an Irish journalist who had been imprisoned for libel after he accused the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, of attempting to silence him and of abusing Irish prisoners.