by Nick Smith
“I have fifty days to live …”
So begins the ‘Hoggblog’ in my novel, Drowned Hogg Day, just published by Justin Roseland Books. My narrator/blogger, Alex Hogg, is convinced that he will drown on 30th December 2016 and he sets himself the task of chronicling the last fifty days of his life. Only gradually does he discover that his life is, in most crucial respects, a carbon copy of the life of a distant ancestor, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Yes, that’s right, the TJ Hogg who played a walk-on part in the Gothic drama of Shelley & co.
Looking back on those crazy, crazy days in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, many have fallen in love with feisty, black-eyed Claire Clairmont, mother of Byron’s “love-child”, Alba/Allegra. Claire was also (possibly) the on-off lover of the protean, Peter-Pannish Percy Bysshe Shelley, though half a century later she broke her lifelong silence and excoriated the whole Romantic free love enterprise. Others have a soft spot for William Polidori, who tended to all of Byron’s peccadillos and recast his master as an ur-Dracula, long before Bram Stoker told that tale. Or, then again, who could resist the gauche Ophelia-like Harriet Westbrook, who was such sad collateral damage under the tank wheels of Shelley’s triumph of life?
But for me the most fascinating fellow-traveller has always been Shelley’s old college friend, Jefferson Hogg. I even took him as my specialist subject on Mastermind. But who was he, and why does he deserve our more serious consideration?
Hogg was born, like Shelley, in 1792 (in Norton, 15 miles from Durham), the son of a Justice of the Peace. Just as the Shelley family’s wealth had been accumulated by the poet’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe, so the Hogg fortune was largely made by his grandfather, Thomas Hogg. Jefferson was another family name and we are asked to believe that T.J. Hogg was not named with the American President in mind at all.
Hogg was a few months ahead of Shelley at University College, Oxford, or ‘Univ’ as it was and is universally known.
Our Jefferson appears to have made no friends whatsoever prior to the young Etonian’s arrival and latched on to the squeaky-voiced fresher almost as soon as he turned up from Horsham in October 1810. If Hogg’s memoir, Shelley at Oxford, is to be believed, the two young men lived in each other’s pockets for two terms until they were both sent down on 25 March 1811. Certainly, Hogg seems to have parked himself in Shelley’s extensive rooms (the site of the current Junior Common Room) and aided and abetted the full range of PBS’s chemical and literary experiments in his brief Oxford career.
These were two well-read young men even before their undergraduate days and they seem to have radicalised each other, swapping the most dangerous books and ideas of the day while plotting the overthrow of the university and all other established institutions . But the university proved annoyingly tolerant, turning a blind eye to the numerous incendiary publications that Shelley insisted on having festooned across the bookstore windows along the High. His Essay on the Existing State of Things (recently rediscovered and now on show here ) sailed underneath the academic radar, but at last they struck gold with the misleadingly-titled Necessity of Atheism, a relatively mild pamphlet squarely in line with the established Enlightenment views of John Locke and David Hume. “Did you write this?” bellowed the college authorities. “You have no right to ask me?” replied Shelley, mock-pleading the Fifth Amendment. “Well, off you go then, Mr Shelley – that saves us debating the actual content of this document.”
It’s not clear how much of Necessity Hogg actually wrote, if any, but he was determined not to let his friend grab all the glory. Shelley’s inquisitors were busy packing up their gowns and quills after the brief show-trial when the Durham boy rapped on the door and insisted on facing precisely the same question and offering the same non-answer. We may imagine the deep sigh with which the Dean and the Master issued a fresh set of marching orders. The two martyrs paraded up and down the Front Quad before skulking off to the Big City. For Shelley, it may have been a shrewd career move but it didn’t do Hogg much good in his relatively conventional ascent up the ladder of the judiciary or in his later bid to become a professor in Roman Law at the brand new University of London. His youthful iconoclasm could never be quite forgotten.
If being ‘sent down’ was embarrassing, worse was to follow six months later when Hogg wangled an invite to Shelley’s honeymoon hidey-hole in Edinburgh. Shelley had eloped with a pretty schoolgirl called Harriet Westbrook and abandoned all his anti-marriage principles in order to have his wicked way with her . What she hadn’t bargained for was her husband’s determination to share his bride with like-minded souls within days of the wedding. Hogg had never even met Harriet but he liked what he saw when he did. Before long, Shelley had engineered the chance to leave the two of them to their own devices in York while he swanned off back to London. But Harriet was having none of it. Shelley must have heard the screams of horror even as far away as Horsham.
Hogg spent the rest of his life trying to draw a discreet veil over that ill-judged incident but it was by no means an isolated event. Hogg’s sex-life seems to have consisted largely of attempts to inveigle himself into bed with Shelley’s paramours, while his old friend would have liked nothing more than to spy on his old friend in flagrante from a convenient wardrobe.
But it never happened, as far as we know, for the simple reason that Shelley’s women were having none of it. Like Harriet before her, Mary Godwin (the future second Mrs Shelley) had no intention of welcoming the clod-hopping Northern lawyer into her bed. But Mary was a good deal more wily about it than Harriet had been. Rather than screaming at the top of her voice, she applied a strategy of perpetual deferment, holding out the prospect that, after the morning sickness was over and the baby born, she might finally be ready to indulge Shelley’s bizarre juvenile fantasy. In truth, Hogg had neither the charms nor the looks of her poet-lover and Mary had no intention of validating Shelley’s dalliances with her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, by doing the same herself.
By now, any amateur psychologist would have come to the conclusion that the true object of Hogg’s desire was Shelley himself but that he willingly sublimated his true feelings by playing the courtly lover to Shelley’s female admirers . And in the end it was third time lucky. His belated conquest was Jane Williams, the muse of Shelley’s final lyrics (‘With a Guitar, to Jane’, ‘Lines written in the Bay of Lerici’, etc).
Jane never met Hogg in the poet’s lifetime. But after both Shelley and her common-law husband, Edward, drowned off the coast of Livorno, the impoverished ‘Mrs’ Williams was introduced to Hogg by Mary herself. True to past form, Jefferson, possibly still a virgin at the age of 30, was immediately infatuated by Shelley’s final paramour.
By now Hogg was well on the way to being the portly, balding, gout-ridden barrister that we see in the one image we have of him.
But Jane’s only marketable asset, apart from her undoubted beauty, was her connection to the notorious poet, and, in such straitened circumstances, what was a poor girl to do? Jane and Jefferson were to spend the rest of their lives together in a partnership of belated conventionality. Their marriage even survived the blackmail attempts of Jane’s first husband, John Edward Johnson, who claimed that his own marriage to Jane had never been dissolved. When the Hoggs refused to pay up, Johnson decided to spill the beans in a scurrilous magazine called The Satirist. But the editor, Barnard Gregory, mixed up the names, referring not to Thomas Jefferson Hogg but to James Hogg, MP for Beverley, who promptly launched a libel suit. Johnson disappeared back into the woodwork while Gregory went to gaol and Mr and Mrs Hogg were left in peace.
But was there ever something between Hogg and Harriet Westbrook? She may have kicked him out of the digs they shared in York but that little “misunderstanding” was forgotten in later years. After Shelley had abandoned Harriet (and their two children, Charles and Ianthe) and moved in with Mary and Claire, Hogg often became the willing intermediary between the poet and his inconvenient first wife. Richard Holmes catalogues a number of visits that Hogg made to Harriet and the children, but there may have been many more that we do not know about. Little of Hogg’s correspondence survives and he never wrote his own life-story.
When Harriet and her unborn baby were fished out of the Serpentine in December 1816, there was no obvious father – Shelley and his entourage had been dreaming up ghost stories at the Villa Diodati at the time of conception. There were rumours of a Captain Smith in the Indian or Wellington army but it now seems far more likely that Harriet had adopted the name ‘Smith’ as her way of preserving her anonymity in Bayswater, perhaps inspired by the Harriet Smith in Jane Austen’s latest best-seller, Emma, another girl encouraged to marry above her “station” with (temporarily) disastrous consequences.
Of all Shelley’s crimes, his claim that Harriet had descended into a life of promiscuity and even prostitution was perhaps the most heartless. Harriet was a good bourgeois middle-class girl. Promiscuity would have been anathema to her. And yet she was undeniably pregnant when she died. There is one obvious candidate: Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the one man with whom she had regular contact between 1814 and 1816. For the jobbing lawyer who divided his time between the Middle Temple and the Durham Assizes, the opportunity would surely have been too good to miss. Harriet was both beautiful and desperate and, of course, she was as close to Shelley as Hogg was ever likely to get.
Hogg had the family fortune at Norton behind him and a secure legal career ahead of him. Did Harriet welcome Hogg into her bed as a last desperate throw of the dice only to find that, once she was pregnant, he didn’t want to know any more? Or perhaps he was never told of Harriet’s pregnancy and, after her death, convinced himself that he would have done “the right thing” and supported her, had he known? It’s all guesswork. If Hogg ever consummated his passion for the girl he had so clumsily propositioned in York, it was not something he was prepared to share with posterity.
If Hogg’s life had been no more than a series of pratfalls and missed opportunities his value to history would have been minimal, but he did make one remarkable and underrated contribution to the literary history of this period: a novel called Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff.
First impressions are that it is a light and whimsical exercise in picaresque fiction with an implausible plot-line, paper-thin characters, and a certain mawkish sentimentality. It reached a handful of readers on first publication and there is just one surviving copy. The Folio Society exhumed it in 1952 and a few Shelley scholars have skim-read it since.
The eponymous Prince Alexy was based squarely on Shelley himself and the stories that Bysshe had told his gullible college friend. But Hogg was hardly unique in this respect – Thomas Love Peacock was to build a whole career out of fictionalising the over-heated drama of Shelley’s life. But Hogg’s novel did give him a certain entrée into the poet’s household. Hogg may have looked like a rather stodgy and earnest law student, but the fact he had published such a racy novel hinted at a much more interesting personality under the surface. In fact, Mary rarely referred to him by his true name – he was always Prince Alexy or Prince Prudent to her. For his part, Hogg did his best to play up to the image of a dashing Russian prince but it was an uphill struggle.
There is no doubt that the Memoirs created a strong impression on the 17-year-old Mary Godwin. Of the many literary influences on Frankenstein, Hogg’s novel is amongst the most important alongside Caleb Williams and Rousseau’s Emile. Hogg’s novel and Frankenstein both begin in St Petersburg, a city that neither of their authors would ever visit, and describe the adventures of a Shelleyan hero travelling across various exotic settings in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and, eventually, Britain. At the heart of both novels is the struggle between the hero and a kind of alter ego, to whom the protagonist is alternately attracted and repelled. In Alexy’s case, that doppelganger is the Eleutherarch, the charismatic leader of a university/cult that seeks to brainwash our hero. Their final deathly embrace is an obvious inspiration for Frankenstein’s conclusion.
There are also a number of stylistic and structural links. Hogg’s name did not appear on the original edition published by Hookham in 1813. The cover read as follows: MEMOIRS OF PRINCE ALEXY HAIMATOFF. TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL LATIN MSS. UNDER THE IMMEDIATE INSPECTION OF THE PRINCE BY JOHN BROWN, ESQ. Thus Hogg’s John Brown has much in common with Robert Walton, Mary Shelley’s imaginary explorer, who sets about transmitting Victor Frankenstein’s story. Of course, the veneer of historical scholarship is, in each case, whisper-thin, barely more than a literary jest, but it gave each author a literary alter ego, a symbiotic relationship that parallels the central plot of each novel.
Hogg wrote no more fiction but his licentious Memoirs of Prince Alexy were to play a surprisingly large role in the literary history of the period. Was his passion for Harriet Westbrook ever fulfilled? Perhaps one day we will know the truth of that.
Nick Smith studied English at University College, Oxford, completing a doctorate and training as a teacher. In 1989 he founded Oxford Open Learning (www.ool.co.uk) which is now the UK’s leading provider of distance learning courses for GCSE and A-level. As a writer, Nick is best known for his works on bridge, including Bridge Literature (Cadogan, 1993) and, with Julian Pottage, Bridge Behind Bars (Master Point Press, 2009). He was NPC of the England bridge team in 2016. He has also made a name as a regular on various TV quiz shows including Mastermind (where he answered questions on T.J. Hogg), Countdown, Only Connect and Eggheads. As a playwright, Nick was the winner of the Oxfordshire Drama Network Playwriting Competition of 2014 with Yusupov and Rasputin. Drowned Hogg Day is his first and last novel.
The novel is available from Amazon or it can be read in blog-form at http://tinyurl.com/jy4buhl