Emerging Writer Member Profile
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications. She worked as a senior executive in the market information sector in Ireland and the UK and researches primetime television programmes for RTE including ‘What have the Brits ever done for us’ and IFTA-winning 'Bullyproof'. In 2012 she graduated with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society from UCD and realised that uncovering women’s hidden history was her true passion. She lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.
Percy Bysshe Shelley professed strong anti-matrimonial beliefs all his life and regarded ‘hateful, detestable’ marriage as the ‘most despotic, most unrequired fetter’. Yet within five months of writing these words he had persuaded sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook to elope with him to Scotland so that they could marry without parental approval. Although it was not her suggestion, Harriet did trigger Shelley’s proposal by sending him a frantic letter on 1 August, 1811, the day she turned sixteen. Her father was insisting that she return to Mrs. Fenning’s school in Clapham for a further six months and Harriet, who was older than any other girl there and had fallen out badly with teaching staff and students, implored her friend to help her avoid the place she regarded as her ‘prison-house’. This entreaty was the latest in a series of increasingly desperate missals to reach Shelley while he was staying with his cousin Thomas Grove at the latter’s magnificent ten-thousand-acre estate in Cwm Elan in Wales. So alarmed was he by contents of this particular letter that he set out for London immediately with the intention of mollifying John Westbrook and helping Harriet to find a solution to her distress.
Arriving at 23 Chapel Street, the home that Harriet shared with her parents, John and Ann Westbrook, and her sister Eliza, Shelley was shocked by the deterioration in his young friend’s appearance. When he had last seen her, Harriet had been a strikingly pretty girl with lustrous hair and a rosy complexion but her anxiety at the prospect of returning to school and the ‘misery of living where she could love no one’ had taken its toll. Shelley, no stranger to parental disapproval, suggested that she adopt an approach of resistance but Harriet was adamant that any attempt to end this ‘persecution’ at the hands of her father would prove ‘useless’. She declared herself to be ‘wretched’ on account of her family’s ‘irrational conduct’ and berated herself for her own ‘total uselessness’. At this point Shelley believed that his intervention was necessary to save her life. Several months later, in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Hitchener, he suggested that Harriet’s letter contained a credible threat to kill herself if she was forced to return to school, adding, ‘Suicide was with her a favourite theme’. A radical solution was called for, one that would remove Harriet from her father’s control before the start of her new school term.
Although Shelley felt affection for Harriet he was certainly not in love with her. Weeks earlier he had written to his good friend, Thomas Hogg, assuring him, ‘if I know anything about love, I am NOT in love’.
I am working on a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. My agent is Andrew Lownie of the highly respected Andrew Lownie Literary Agency and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/authors/eleanor-fitzsimons/books/a-want-of-honour-the-short-life-and-tragic-death-of-harriet-shelley
At fifteen Harriet Westbrook, the strikingly pretty and unworldly daughter of an exceptionally wealthy man, could look forward to making an advantageous marriage and enjoying a comfortable if conventional life. Instead she had the misfortune to encounter Percy Bysshe Shelley. Within months the controversial and precociously talented young poet, who regarded marriage as a ‘most despotic, most unrequired fetter’, had persuaded Harriet to elope with him to Scotland. Although theirs was a chaotic marriage, Harriet embraced her impoverished, itinerant existence with unfailing good humour. Her loyalty to her husband never wavered as he took up one hopeless cause after another and invited other women to share their home in pursuit of his madcap ambition to establish a utopian commune built on free love. Ultimately he betrayed her cruelly and his followers portrayed her as money grabbing, immoral and his intellectual inferior. The failure of her marriage was devastating for Harriet but worse times were to follow.
Meticulously researched and using rarely examined source documents to relate key events from Harriet’s unique perspective this book describes the extraordinary, disordered life of a sweet-natured but deeply troubled young woman and examines the considerable influence that Harriet had on her celebrated husband’s work, both in life and in death.
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