The Examiner Account of Shelley in Chancery
The Examiner for 2 Feb. 1817, appearing on the very day on which Mary wrote out the Declaration in Chancery, expresses concern that Sir Samuel Romilly should be retained by the wrong side in the 'agitation of subjects connected with the remotest doubt of universal 〈religious〉 toleration' but further notes that 'we understand that this part of the business in dispute is to be abandoned'. By suggesting a week earlier the implications of the case (which was not identified by name), the Examiner might have provided Romilly with sufficient argument to drop its more controversial aspects:
A cause is now privately pending before the Chancellor, which involves considerations of the greatest importance to all the most tolerant and best affections of humanity, public and private. It is of a novel description, and not only threatens to exhibit a most impolitic distinction between the Prince and the subject, but trenches already upon questions, which the progress of liberality and self-knowledge has been tacitly supposed to have swept aside, and the return of which would be bringing new and frightful obstacles in the way of the general harmony. But it remains to see, by the result, whether we shall be under the painful necessity of recurring to it.
We have given a short Report of the above case from the Morning Chronicle; As the Reporters were not admitted, that report must have been hearsay, and is consequently brief and perhaps not perfectly accurate. It relates however to a question, to which the following quotation from the account of the persecution of the Hugonots in France is not inappropriate:—
"Many Arrêts of the Council were issued, blow upon blow, to extirpate the remains of the proscribed religion. (The Protestant religion.) That which threatened to be the most fatal, was the order to tear their children from the pretended Reformés, to put them in the hands of the nearest Catholic relations,—an order against which Nature cried with so loud a voice, that it was not executed."— Voltaire's History of Louis XIV. Chapter Du Calvinisme.
The 'short report' is dated 24 Jan. and titled 'Westbrooke v. Shelley' in the legal section of the newspaper:
Sir S. Romilly moved for an order to prevent the defendant exercising any guardianship over his children, on the ground of his Deistical principles. It appeared the defendant had some time since written a book, called Queen Mab, which openly avowed the principles of Deism, and in such a case he could certainly not be considered a proper person for educating youth. The interests of society would obviously be endangered were persons of these principles permitted to instil them into their children. Interference in such a case was peremptorily called for, and he (Sir S.) had no doubt, from his Lordship's well known attention to the duties of parents, and his anxiety respecting every thing where morals were concerned, what his decision in this instance would be.
Sir A. Piggott 〈actually Basil Montagu〉, on the other hand, contended, that as his client had written this work merely for his own amusement, without the most distant idea of his children seeing it, it was extremely hard that he should be deprived of the exercise of his parental rights, as the work was a mere effusion of imagination.
His Lordship is to give judgment on a future day.
The Examiner's implied threat to bring the Regent's domestic affairs into a political relation with S's case, along with the further implications of a religious controversy, doubtless aided Lord Eldon in his decision to keep the proceedings private. The Chronicle's reportage could well have been a reminder to the Reformists of the potential ammunition someone accused of blasphemy and adultery could provide to conservative critics of the movement to which S was on the verge of publicly attaching himself with his Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote. Several reformers (including Sir Francis Burdett) had, and were to have, their political platforms undermined by newspaper and pamphlet attacks on their personal lives. S's use of the pen-name 'Hermit' for his political pamphlets of 1817 probably indicates an awareness of the damage he might do to the cause he supported if the 'criminal part of the business' (to Claire Clairmont, 30 Jan. 1817) was carried forward, as he clearly expected it to be. Much of the draft of the Declaration is concerned with generalizing his case on political rather than on strictly domestic grounds. Recognizing that he might have sought such an assessment of his case, the prosecution were shrewd to abandon their argument that S's religious opinions were a ground for depriving him of his children. S notes in ll. 25–6 that sexual immorality seems the key charge against him, though he immediately avoids the specifications of that charge by translating it into a political and historical context where it receives no further notice, except perhaps as the 'light and frivolous attachment' (ll. 67–8) which he denies by implication.
The 'institution of marriage', particularly as codified by the marriage law of 1753, had been under attack in and out of Parliament for decades. pg 312The Examiner's 1818 index lists several contemporary reactions against the religious sanctions required for a ceremony many thought should be secular in order to be comprehensively civil (see the ec on On Marriage).
A rather ambivalent sidelight on the Chancery affair is provided by the fact that the counsel for Westbrook, Sir Samuel Romilly, was just then advocating the repeal of the game laws, the subject of one of S's fragmentary polemics, while S's own counsel, Basil Montagu, was an ardent opponent of capital punishment, another subject of S's reformist writings. Lord Eldon (whose only reformist vote was for the abolition of trial by combat) was appropriately a staunch defender of the status quo on both subjects.