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Political Justice, Part 6 to the Life & Works of
Percy Bysshe Shelley

One of the works in which the supporters of the populist movement of the 19th century grounded themselves was that written by William Godwin, Political Justice. The work was published in 1793. It was considered to be a major piece of sedition. It was an attack on the established institutions of the aristocracy, such as property and religion. Political Justice, however, was not to light any political fires in England. Just as Political Justice appeared, so too did the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars: war does not allow much scope to a nation to perfect its ideas of liberty. It was only after the war, after 1815, that the populist movement again begin to take hold.

It will be no surprise, given the course of his life thereafter, to learn that Shelley read Political Justice. Indeed, during his school days he became a Godwinian. Godwin, in his philosophy, followed along in the footsteps of Rousseau and the nostalgia for the simple and the primitive. Godwin could foresee for mankind a perfect equality and happiness; he believed in the perfectibility of man; he believed that it would be impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly, and that therefore, man ultimately could live in harmony without law and institutions. Such institutions as government, law, property and marriage -- were restraints upon liberty and obstacles to progress.

Shelley was to have a personal connection to Godwin; but, before we come to that, as necessary background, we make a note on Godwin's family. In 1796, Godwin was to meet Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). (Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1792, wrote "the first great feminist manifesto," Vindication of the Rights of Women.20) Finding that they had conceived a child together, Godwin, though no believer in the institution, took a practical route and wed Wollstonecraft during March of 1797. On August 30th, 1797, Mary was born; and, within two weeks of that, presumably of complications due to childbirth, Wollstonecraft was dead. Godwin was left with two small children on his hands, the infant Mary and Fanny Imlay (born 1794, a child which Mary Wollstonecraft had by Gilbert Imlay). In 1801, Godwin married a second time. His second wife was Mary Jane Clairmont who came to the marriage with two children, Charles and Jane (b.1798). Godwin and Clairmont went on to have one child together, William (b.1803).21

As we have already written, Shelley, when but a school boy, took a deep interest in Godwin's writing. A number of years passed, when, not even sure that his hero was alive, Shelley dispatched a letter to Godwin in January of 1812. Godwin got a reply off within days inquiring about his young admirer's background. Shelley was delighted that he had made this connection to Godwin and wrote a second letter. In this second letter, Shelley let slip that he was heir to an estate that, in time, would provide £6000 a year.22 This last little piece of information was of considerable interest to Godwin. Godwin was always hard up for cash and was ready to put the touch on anyone who he thought could make a small "loan" to him.23 It was plain that Godwin would be most delighted if Shelley could come up to London, Godwin would greet this rich young poet with open arms.

In the summer of 1813, Shelley saw to the private publication of Queen Mab. He continued his vagabond ways going from place to place to live, even though there was now a young child with whom to contend. (In June of 1813, Harriet gave birth to her first born, a girl, Eliza Ianthe.) During the months from July to October they stayed at Bracknell in Berkshire just west of London. In the fall of the year they determined to go to the Lake District; but, not finding suitable accommodations, went further north to Edinburgh. In December they (Shelley, Harriet and Eliza Ianthe) moved yet once again and by the end of 1813 they were living near Windsor. It might be interesting to speculate what transpired between Shelley, his bride, the bride's sister (the meddlesome Eliza) and the families (the Westbrooks and the Shelleys) during the winter of 1813/14. During this time the relationship between Shelley and his family turned around for the better. He and his father actually had a friendly meeting in London while the lawyers worked out a deal in respect to his inheritance.24 Apparently, one of the matters that put the families out of joint was the Scottish marriage. To put it right, and as part of a larger bargain which is suspected was struck between Shelley and the families, the couple were married once again on March 20th, 1814, in St. George's church, at London, Hanover. Part of the deal, too, it seems, was that the couple was finally to get rid of Harriet's sister, Eliza, for whom Shelley had no like, at all, and who had been chaperoning the couple since first Shelley met Harriet.25 Everything seem to be falling in place. Shelley and Harriet, it appeared, were headed for leading a normal life in harmony with their respective families. Enter Mary Godwin.



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