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1811: Shelley courts smuggler's daughter

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Friar's Oak, Hassocks interior

Bertram Dobell publishes for the first time an Interesting collection of letters from Shelley to Elizabeth Hitchiner. These letters present us with the prologue to the drama of Shelley’s life. They show us what the poet was in hls youth. Professor Dowden has made some use of the material In his ‘Life of Shelley’. It tells a strange story, a peculiar episode is the poet's search for the ideal. The acquaintance with Miss Hitchiner began in 1811.

Shelley was staying with his uncle at Cuckfield [at Marshalls, High Street] and the lady was a schoolmistress in a neighbouring town. Her father, formerly a smuggler, had become the keeper of a public house*. When she met Shelley she was 29, very thin, and somewhat tall; and and seems to have been a woman of more than average ability. Shelley was not yet 19, entirely a boy in knowledge of the world. He protests at the beginning of the correspondence that reason is to be his guiding star! A curious mistake that was for a poet who beyond all others was to live in a world of imagination.

It is hardly necessary to say that these letters have nothing in common with modern correspondence. They remind one rather of the once fashionable epistolary novels. Shelley treated Miss Hitchiner as his goddess for twelve months. He wrote a great deal in that time. The lady came to live with the Shelleys (he was married), and remained for five months. Then he was disillusioned, and she left.

At 40 she was still unmarried, and had published a poem. Subsequently she married an officer in the Austrian service. Before leaving England she left these letters with a solicitor and never reclaimed them. They were transcribed in 1896 by Mr Wise, who privately printed thirty copies of them in 1900 [?]. This is the basis of the present edition, which is thus a book of considerable literary interest. (Sydney Book Club.)

The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Apr 1908, Page 4

Note: * Elizabeth Hitchener from Friar's Oak, Hassocks

Read more about Shelley in Cuckfield in one of our other articles 'Cuckfield featured in and launched Shelley's career: New York Public Library'

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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