Percy Bysshe Shelley. A Monograph by H. S. Salt. Swan. Sonnenshein, Lowry & Co., Paternoster Square, 1888
Thinking that the world needed a “sketch of the chief scenes of Shelley’s life,” from the point of view of a sympathetic instead of hostile or indifferent observer,” Mr. Salt has undertaken the work and called it a Monograph. It is a readable little book and like all its author’s writings contains little that striking, and nothing at all that is dull. Having said that we don’t know that there is much more to say. We regret Mr. Salt has fallen into the usual error of Shelley’s worshippers that of trying to palliate his desertion of his first wife. Surely, surely, it is better to recognise spots on the sun and to admit frankly that this act, from whatever point of view regarded, was indefensible. In leaving his wife without her consent Shelley deliberately shuffled out of responsibilities and duties which should have been borne and performed at whatever cost to himself. Once admit that a solemn contrast may be broken at the wish of only one of the contracting parties and goodbye to all stability of human relations—society becomes a chaos. The worst of attempting to justify a wrong is that the pleader is nearly always driven to do further injury to the person wronged. Mr. Salt’s plea for his hero is a case in point. In whitewashing Shelley he has most unwarrantably bespattered with dirt the memory of his unfortunate wife. For instance, he makes a great point of Shelley’s doubts of Harriet’s fidelity, but not a shadow of anything like evidence is adduced to justify those doubts. Again, he says, “let us not be so hypocritical as to affect to believe that the conduct of Harriet after the separation has no bearing on the vexed question as to her conduct before it.” Let us not be so dishonest and cowardly, say we, as to suggest that because a weak woman, deserted by her husband and deprived of the moral support and protection on which she had every right to count, and which there is not a tittle of evidence to show she had done anything to forfeit, forms another connection and falls into bad habits, that, therefore, she had been guilty of infidelity before she was abandoned. The suggestion is monstrous; as is also Mr. Salt’s statement that she could “count on the protection of her husband” at the very time when he was living abroad with another woman! It is the author’s fault if the critic has to give undue prominence to this incident of Shelley’s life. If the monographer had been content to state it and keep silent, the reviewer could have done the same, but it is the clear duty of every honest man to protest against the new doctrines of the right to shirk deliberately undertaken responsibilities directly they become irksome and unpleasant. We do not yield, even to Mr. Salt, in admiration for Shelley’s genius and in thankfulness for his life’s-work, but neither admiration or gratitude can blind us to what, to put it plainly, was a crime. The book contains a really beautiful portrait of the poet; it is printed in large clear type: is neatly and prettily bound; and it should find a place in every library where a shelf is devoted to Shelley and things Shelleyan. Not the least valuable pages are those of the appendix in which Mr. Salt has reprinted some articles of his which have appeared during the last twelve months in the Vegetarian Annual, The Academy, Progress and this Magazine.