On March 14, 1812, Harriet Shelley and her husband Percy write to their friend Catherine Nugent of Dublin. For more on Catherine Nugent, see here. The letter is particularly revealing about Harriet's life before she met Percy. She also discloses that the Shelleys have just "adopted the Pythagorean system" or have become vegetarians.
17 Grafton Street,
Saturday March 14, 18 12.
Why does my dear friend continually mislead herself, and thus apply to my judgment, which is so inferior to her own? 'Tis true you have mixed more in the world than myself. My knowledge has been very confined on account of my youth, and the situation in which I was placed. My intercourse with mankind has therefore been much less than you may imagine. When I lived with my father, I was not likely to gain much knowledge, as our circle of acquaintance was very limited, he not thinking it proper that we should mix much with society. In short, we very seldom visited those places of fashionable resort and amusement which, from our age, might have been expected.
Twas but seldom I visited my home, school having witnessed the greater part of my life. But do not think from this that I was ignorant of what was passing in the great world: books and a newspaper were sufficient to inform me of these. Though then a silent spectator, yet did I know that all was not as it ought to be. I looked with a fearful eye upon the vices of the great ; and thought to myself 'twas better even to be a beggar, or to be obliged to gain my bread with my needle, than to be an inhabitant of those great houses, when misery and famine howl around. I will tell you my faults, knowing what I have to expect from your friendship. Remember my youth: and, if any excuse can be made, let that suffice. In London, you know, there are military, as well as anywhere else. When quite a child, I admired these red-coats.
This grew up with me; and I thought the military the best as well as the most fascinating men in the world, — though at the same time I used to declare never to marry one. This was not so much on account of their vices as from the idea of their being killed. I thought, if I married any one, it should be a clergyman. Strange idea this, was it not ? But being brought up in the Christian religion, 'twas this first gave rise to it. You may conceive with what horror I first heard that Percy was an atheist; at least, so it was given out at Clapham. At first I did not comprehend the meaning of the word: therefore, when it was explained, I was truly petrified. I wondered how he could live a moment, professing such principles, and solemnly declared that he should never change mine. I little thought of the rectitude of these principles; and, when I wrote to him, I used to try to shake them, — making sure he was in the wrong, and that myself was right Yet I would listen to none of his arguments, so afraid I was that he should shake my belief. At the same time I believed in eternal punishment, and was dreadfully afraid of his supreme Majesty the Devil: I thought I should see him if I listened to his arguments. I often dreamed of him, and felt such terror when I heard his name mentioned! This was the effect of a bad education, and living with Methodists. Now, however, this is entirely done away with, and my soul is no longer shackled with such idle fears.
You cannot suppose, my dear friend, that I suspect you of jealousy: 'twould be entertaining an idea wholly unworthy of you. Jealousy is a passion known only to the illiberal and selfish part of mankind, who have been corrupted and spoilt by the world: but this forms no part of you, — tis utterly impossible. As to that feeling which prompted you to write about gaining your own subsistence, I do not know by what name to define it. It could not be pride: at least, if it were, I must call it a virtuous pride that you would not be dependent upon another for subsistence when you had the means of being independent. This would be all very well, to persons that you did not love : but to us, who (I may say with truth) possess so much of your love, it is entirely ill-founded. You have given up this wild scheme, I make no doubt : indeed, your letter avows as much. To continue to think so now would be unworthy of the warmth of that friendship you have solemnly sworn to keep inviolate. Such a valuable friendship as ours ought not to be intruded on by such worldly cares: it is too sublime and too sure. Therefore I pray thee take no thought what ye shall eat, and what ye shall wear.
Our living is different to those worldlings, and you may or not adopt it as you think fit. You do not know that we have forsworn meat, and adopted the Pythagorean system. About a fortnight has elapsed since the change, and we do not find ourselves any the worse for it. What do you think of it ? Many say it is a very bad plan: but, as facts go before arguments, we shall see whether the general opinion is true or false. We are delighted with it, and think it the best thing in the world. As yet there is but little change of vegetables; but the time of year is coming on when there will be no deficiency.
Have you heard anything of this Habeas Corpus Act being suspended ? I have been very much alarmed at the intelligence, though I hope it is ill founded. If it is not, where we shall be is not known; as, from Percy's having made himself so busy in the cause of the poor country, he has raised himself many enemies who would take advantage of such a time, and instantly execute their vengeance upon him. That this may not be the case I hardly dare to hope. What can be their reason for so doing is best known to themselves. That many innocent victims will suffer is a foreboding that my heart trembles at ; yet so it will be, I am most fearful, and how is this to be remedied? God knows, and not me: but more of this when I hear how it is decided. I do not like the name you have taken : but mind, only the name. You are fully worthy of it; but, being a name so much out of the common way, it excites so much curiosity in the mind of the hearer. This is my only reason for not liking it. I had thought it would have been one more common,
and more pleasing to the ear. I must now bid my beloved sister adieu.
Do not write under the seal.
[Percy Shelley writes the next part of the letter]
You will hear from me soon: part of me has written to you. I do not like Lord Fingal, or any of the Catholic aristocracy. Their intolerance can be equalled by nothing but the hardy wickedness and falsehood of the Prince.
My speech was misinterpreted. I spoke for more than an hour. The hisses with which they greeted me when I spoke of religion^ though in terms of respect, were mixed with applause when I avowed my mission. The newspapers have only noted that which did not excite disapprobation. As to an Association, my hopes daily grow fainter on that subject, as my perceptions of its necessity gain strength. I shall soon, however, have the command of a newspaper with Mr. Lawless, of whom I shall tell you more. This will be a powerful engine of amelioration. Mr. L., though he regards my ultimate hopes as visionary, is willing to acquiesce in my means. He is a republican.
Adieu. Believe that we are yours.
We will live with you at Hurst. What think you of a journey to Italy in the autumn? I hope, my beloved friend, that you have conquered that nervous headache which you mention. Do not think too much; do not feel too keenly. Blunt neither sensation nor reflection by anything but occupation. For you, this occupation ought sometimes to be trivial.
My dear friend, adieu.