Shelley and Catherine Nugent: spirits of the age

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Volume 13

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a devoted and courageous advocate of Irish freedom, but this aspect of his life has long been downplayed or ignored. When he was alive, his poetry was rarely published and his prose ignored. He lived as an outcast from his family and his class.
Shelley despised the England he grew up in. The war with republican France seemed never-ending, and at home the government was intent on suppressing every form of opposition. After his expulsion from Oxford University in 1811 for publishing his pamphlet The necessity of atheism, he put together a collection of poems, Songs of liberty, and Ireland seemed the obvious place to have them published and to begin his career as a political activist.

An address to the Irish people

But if the poet was to speak for the masses, it was on condition that he not only shared their hopes for a better world but identified with their suffering as well. This was the inspiration for Shelley’s journey to Ireland, where he hoped to add his own ‘little stock of usefulness’ to the struggle for Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the Union. Shelley had prepared well; in the months before his departure he had immersed himself in Irish history. The resulting pamphlet, An address to the Irish people, is significant as a statement of his new political faith, and was intended to stir up the Irish masses to take action on their own behalf.
Shelley, with his wife Harriet and her sister Eliza, set off for Ireland on 3 February 1812 on a voyage of discovery and commitment that was to last until his tragic death in 1822. Shelley’s Irish expedition was part of a long tradition of cooperation between Irish freedom fighters, radical English Whig aristocrats and revolutionary intellectuals such as Godwin, Condorcet, Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. This influential network supported and sustained Shelley all his life, in locations as far apart as Dublin, London, Paris, Pisa and Rome.

Catherine Nugent

While in Dublin, Shelley became acquainted with Catherine Nugent, who was 40 years old at the time. What we know of her is almost entirely a consequence of her relationship with Shelley and, scant as this information is, she emerges as a woman of principle, vitality and integrity, worthy of a place in history in her own right.
Catherine Nugent was born in Dublin in 1771. We know almost nothing of her background, though the fact that she was educated would imply that she came from a middle-class family but for economic or political reasons was forced to work as a seamstress. As Harriet Shelley noted:

‘This excellent woman, with all her notions of philanthropy and justice, is obliged to work for her subsistence—to work in a shop which is a furrier’s; there she is every day confined to her needle. Is it not a thousand pities that such a woman should be so dependent upon others?’

A friend, Richard Webb, described her as ‘a wonderful woman—altho’ very plain, little and republican looking . . . Catherine Nugent has amazing spring and elasticity of mind, as if her mind made her forget that she had a weak body’. A letter of 1827 reveals her to be an educated and intelligent woman. She was outspoken, though prone to speak out of turn. She never married, declaring that ‘her country was her only love’, but styled herself Mrs Nugent, which was the usual form of address for middle-aged spinsters at that time.
Alfred Webb, the Dublin printer and bookseller, published the letters of Harriet Shelley to Catherine Nugent in The Nation in New York in 1889 and added some notes about her life. The Webbs became acquainted with Catherine through the Newmans, who owned a furrier’s shop at No. 101 Grafton Street, where Catherine worked as a seamstress. Though born a Catholic, she did not hold strictly by the creed or practice of her religion, an attribute that would not have gone unnoticed by the atheistic Shelley.

United Irishwoman

In the 1790s she was an active and valued member of the United Irishwomen and corresponded extensively with her fellow revolutionaries in the movement. Relatively little has been published dealing specifically with women and the revolution of 1798. Nancy Curtin describes the role of the United Irishwomen as ‘a kind of female auxiliary which attended to fund raising and providing amenities for imprisoned United Irishmen’. A contemporary, Mary McCracken, was more sceptical and believed that the United Irishwomen did nothing to emancipate women and were merely ‘tea-pot clubs’ where politics were not discussed. Catherine Nugent’s activities went beyond discussion; she was active in the rebellion, to such an extent that if she had been a man she certainly would have been executed. Harriet Shelley describes Catherine’s activities in the aftermath of the rebellion:

‘She visited all the prisons . . . to exhort the people to have courage and hope. She said it was a most dreadful task; but that it was her duty, and she would not shrink from the performance of it.’

She obtained a copy of Shelley’s pamphlet, An address to the Irish people, probably from his associate Dan Healy, and immediately sought out Shelley at his rooms in 7 Lower Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). He was not at home, but he returned the visit and thus began a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. Catherine Nugent was a great practical help to the Shelleys during the difficult month of March 1812, and on her account they moved to rooms at 17 Grafton Street, opposite the house where she lived. Unlike any of Shelley’s other acquaintances, she worked for a living. She sewed furs for the rich in the shop in Grafton Street.
Shelley had immense compassion for the sick, the undernourished and the downtrodden. But in Catherine Nugent he encountered for the first time a working woman not as a victim of society but as an individual who was fighting for what she believed to be her right. In one sense both Harriet and Shelley saw her as a ‘heroine’ and certainly as an equal, as he acknowledged in a letter to her in May 1812:

‘Had you the millions which the Prince will possess how would England not be benefited! Were he compelled to sit in Mr Newman’s shop and sew fur onto satin in what would she be injured?—that this remark is not meant for flattery you will believe.’
In March 1812 Catherine Nugent brought to Shelley’s attention a letter sent to a political associate, a Mr Reynolds. Redfern, an Irishman living in Lisbon as an exile, had been press-ganged into the Portuguese army with the connivance of the British authorities and appealed to Reynolds for help. With Catherine’s assistance Shelley set about publicising Redfern’s situation. He outlined his plans for a campaign to free Redfern:

‘You will soon see a copy of his letter, and soon hear of my or Sir Francis Burdett’s exertions in his favour. He shall be free; this nation shall awaken.’

He arranged for Redfern’s letter to be printed and mailed copies to prominent individuals, such as Sir Francis Burdett in the House of Commons in London, asking for their support. In May he reminded Catherine to ‘remember me to Reynolds, tell him I shall not be idle about Redfern and that as soon as I have done anything I will write to him’. We don’t know what happened to the unfortunate Redfern or whether Shelley, Burdett or Reynolds made any headway in the campaign to free him.

Harriet Shelley

Regrettably, none of Catherine’s letters to the Shelleys have survived, but the following extracts from Harriet’s letters give some indication of Catherine’s radicalism and political concerns. They also provide a fascinating insight into the character of Harriet Shelley, who was only seventeen at the time, and they indicate a political maturity for which she is seldom given credit. She saw through John Philpot Curran, a former radical who had made his peace with the British establishment, long before Shelley did:

‘What have you thought upon the murder of the Prime Minister? . . . It had been better if they had killed Lord Castlereagh. He really deserved it . . . Do you not think it nonsense for all the little towns and villages to send petitions to the Prince upon the occasion. I suppose Ireland has not done anything half so silly.
I too can hate Lord Castlereagh as much as any Irishwoman. How does my heart’s blood run cold at the idea of what he did in your unfortunate country. How is it that man is suffered to walk the streets in open daylight! Oh if I were to meet him I really think I could fly at him, and tear him to pieces . . . I cannot bear Curran; what use is he to your country? Was he active at the time of the Union? No! If he had been, though his life had been the sacrifice, Ireland would have been saved. I have no patience with Curran.
I saw with very great sorrow the ruin of so many of your valuable manufactories. I knew how many of your unfortunate countrymen suffered all the miseries of famine before, and now there must be many more. That the wounds of thy beloved country may soon be healed forever, is the first wish of an Englishwoman who only regrets her being born among those inhuman beings who have already caused so much misery wherever they turn their step.
What think you of Bonaparte? To most of the Irish he is a great favourite: I only wish we had peace. So long a war as this has been is indeed too dreadful to continue much longer.’

Catherine worked six days a week as a seamstress, but in the evening after work and on Sundays she would visit with the Shelleys to discuss the issues of the day. The Shelleys were recent converts to vegetarianism but on her account departed from their regime. Harriet’s invitation to dinner stated that ‘a murdered chicken has been prepared for your repast’. Her visits became a forum for political debate, and from her Shelley must have derived a more detailed and intimate appraisal of the situation in Ireland and the prospects for his proposals. Most likely it was Catherine who pointed out the limitations in the Address to the Irish people and inspired him to write a second pamphlet, Proposals for an association. Here he appealed to those United Irishmen who had survived the revolution of 1798 and were still active to come together to form a political association, using peaceful means to influence Irish politics in a more radical direction. Compared to the Address, the benefit of contact with the actual situation in Ireland is obvious. Shelley wrote it in his own natural style and it has little of the artificiality and condescension of his earlier work. After a favourable review in the Dublin Weekly Messenger, Shelley was invited to speak at a meeting of the Catholic Association in the Fishamble Street theatre with Daniel O’Connell. His proposals for an association met with little response; his impatience and inexperience worked against him, but those few months of political activity and discussion transformed Shelley’s life and work. He learned more in that time than many do in a lifetime.
After their departure from Ireland, the Shelleys maintained a close political and personal friendship with Catherine Nugent, and Harriet’s letters to Catherine are one of the main sources of information concerning Shelley’s life during the years 1812–14. Their friendship was such that in April 1812 they tried to persuade her to go with them to Wales, but she replied ‘that she had never been out of her country and had no wish to leave it’. They relied on Catherine for advice and support for Shelley’s political publications:
‘Percy has sent you a defence of D.I. Eaton. It must not be published; but you will give us your opinion of it. Percy intends to print some proposals for printing Pieces of Irish History, saying that everyone whether Irish or English ought to read them. We depend upon you for many subscribers, as being upon the spot where so many of your exalted and brave countrymen suffered martyrdom.’

Harriet’s last letter, written in 1815, a year before her death, shows both the closeness of their friendship and her despair after her separation from Shelley:

‘What will you do my dear Catherine? Now those Newmans retire you will not like to go to another house of business. The few years you have to live may surely be passed more pleasantly. Do make up your mind at once to come and stay with me. I will do everything to make you happy. For myself happiness is fled. I have lived for others. At nineteen I could descend a willing victim to the tomb . . . Your letters make me more happy. Tell me about Ireland. You know I love the green Isle and all its natives.’

Harriet’s story has long been neglected, but in the letters to Catherine Nugent we get a glimpse of a life crowded with incident and excitement. She shared in Shelley’s efforts for the independence of Ireland and the repeal of repressive laws, and campaigned with him to free imprisoned booksellers and publishers. Shelley left Harriet not because of any defect in her character but because he had fallen hopelessly in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Harriet never recovered from this and in 1816 in a fit of depression drowned herself in the Serpentine Lake in London. Catherine Nugent never forgave Shelley for deserting Harriet and in later life ‘could scarcely bear to think, much less speak of him’.

Catherine’s continued political activity

Catherine continued her political activity, though she had no time for the compromise politics of Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association. In the 1820s she set up a small discussion group, which met in her rooms in Grafton Street. Her reputation was such that in 1826 she was invited to meet with William Allen, the founder of the London Peace Society, on one of his many trips to Ireland. She was an intimate friend of Richard Webb (1805–72), a radical and humanitarian, and shared many of his political concerns. Webb was a member of the Religious Society of Friends and a significant aspect of his political activity was the connection he maintained with the American anti-slavery movement.
Catherine Nugent lived with the Newmans as a family friend and companion after their retirement in 1815, and in 1843 moved with them to 51 Baggot Street Lower. When Catherine died she was buried alongside the Newmans in St Anne’s Church, Dawson Street. The headstone reads: ‘Also of Catherine Nugent friend of the above who died 14/12/1847 aged 76 years’. The headstones were removed in the 1970s to make way for a playground and are now stored in the crypt. According to an article in The Nation magazine a silhouette of Catherine exists, as well as a death mask and daguerreotype, but their whereabouts today are unknown.

Catherine’s papers destroyed

After her death, the Newmans’ daughter, Mary, brought Catherine’s niece over from London as a companion. Miss Catherine Letitia Nugent was ‘a formal lady-like character’ who had little in common with the radicalism of her Aunt Catherine. She was embarrassed by Catherine’s past connections and destroyed her letters and papers relating to the United Irishmen. Luckily, she retained some of the correspondence with the Shelleys, but forbade publication. Alfred Webb surreptitiously copied the letters and after her death published them in New York. On the death of Miss Newman all her property went to Miss Nugent. Given his connections with the family, Alfred Webb believed he might inherit the house in Baggot Street from Miss Nugent, but his support for Parnell and the Irish Land League ended their friendship and his ambitions in that direction.
With Miss Nugent’s death in 1888 all traces of Catherine Nugent disappear. There are no poems to praise her, or even a proper recognition of her part in Shelley’s political education. Perhaps Mary Shelley tried to rectify this omission in her book, Frankenstein, when she named the character who encounters the ‘monster’, when he lands in Ireland, Daniel Nugent. In the absence of that, I am sure Catherine Nugent would have settled for these lines from The Revolt of Islam:

‘Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass’.

Paul O’Brien lives in Dublin and is a literary historian and critic.

Further reading:

D. Keogh and N. Furlong (eds), The women of 1798 (Dublin, 1998).

P. O’Brien, Shelley and revolutionary Ireland (London, 2002).

L. Schutz Boas, Harriet Shelley: five long years (London, 1962).

A. Webb, The autobiography of a Quaker nationalist, ed. M.-L. Legg (Cork, 1999).


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