Though the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was Sussex born and bred, he never wrote a word about the county.
It is said that this was because he didn’t see eye to eye with his father, Whig MP Sir Timothy Shelley, on many issues and was pleased to keep out of his way. Their relationship was further estranged when Shelley, aged 19, eloped to Scotland with a 16-year-old girl, Harriet Westbrook.
Shelley’s childhood home was Field Place, a large country house at Broadbridge Heath, where he was born on 4th August 1792. The house still stands today.
Shelley didn’t become really famous for poetry in the course of his lifetime. Public appreciation came later. He was something of a radical in his political views and we know he read the works of Thomas Paine and like him, Shelley was an atheist and disapproved of the monarchy.
When he was just 19 Shelley wrote a pamphlet with a title that could have come straight from the pen of Paine. “A Declaration of Rights” contained 31 propositions. An example being: “All have a right to an equal share in the benefits and burdens of government.” It was Shelley’s own take on the declarations that had launched the American and French Revolutions.
He devised a novel means of distribution for the manifesto, putting copies in bottles and launching them into the sea in Devon. Others he attached to hand-made hot air balloons, hoping the wind would waft them to Wales and Ireland. Shelley next travelled to Dublin and published another inflammatory pamphlet, “Address to the Irish People” in which he urged that the Union Act binding Ireland to England be repealed.
We don’t how the relationship came about but Shelley began corresponding with Elizabeth Hitchenor, a schoolteacher who lived in Hurstpierpoint, Sussex. She shared similar views to those of the poet. From Ireland in 1812 he sent her a package of his various leaflets with a request that she distribute them to Sussex farmers.
The schoolteacher, however, had been under surveillance by Government agents. A letter exists written by the Postmaster General of the day, Lord Chichester: “I return the pamphlet declaration. The writer is son of Mr. Shelley, member for the Rape of Bramber, and is by all accounts a most extraordinary man. I hear he has married a servant, or some person of very low birth; he has been in Ireland for some time and I heard of him speaking at the Catholic Convention. Miss Hitchenor, of Hurstpierpoint, keeps a school there, and is well spoken of.
“Her Father keeps a Publick House in the Neighbourhood. He was originally a Smuggler and changed his name from Yorke to Hitchenor before he took the Publick House. I shall have a watch put upon the daughter and discover whether there is any Connection between her and Shelley.”
Shelley formed an attachment for Miss Hitchenor describing her as the “sister of his soul”.
It seems that for a time they lived together in what has been claimed was a platonic relationship. Then suddenly his ardour cooled and the pair separated. Later he wrote of her with some rancour: “My astonishment at my fatuity, inconsistency and bad taste was never so great as after living for four months with her. What would hell be, were such a woman in heaven?”
In 1814 Shelley left his wife Harriet even though she was pregnant. She was found drowned in a lake in a London park in 1816. Shelley himself drowned in a sailing accident off the coast of Italy on 24th July 1822, just a month short of his 30th birthday. His body was cremated on a beach near Viareggio and the ashes were interred in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.
An English Tory newspaper, “The Courier” reported his death with some glee: “Shelley, the writer of infidel poetry, has been drowned, so now he knows whether there is a God or no.”