The book: In this first-ever biography of Harriet de Boinville, author Barbara de Boinville ’74 brings this dynamic woman’s story to life. First inspired to research the great-great-great-great grandmother of her husband for a college class, Barbara de Boinville uncovered the fascinating and inspiring woman who led an unconventional life during the 18th and 19th centuries. At The Center of The Circle (New Academia Publishing) explores Harriet de Boinville’s life, her relationships with leading writers of the Romantic era including Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the incredible life she lived as the wife of an aristocratic military officer during the French-English Wars. 

The author: Barbara de Boinville ’74 has worked as a book editor including as the senior editor in the Book Department at Congressional Quarterly. Her speciality is government and international affairs. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from Princeton and her master’s in English from George Mason University, with a concentration in teaching writing and literature. She’s an adjunct professor at George Mason University where she teaches a writing course.



I married Bryan Chastel de Boinville in 1979 and began to hear stories, true stories, about his illustrious great, great, great, great grandfather, the Frenchman Jean Baptiste, General Lafayette’s trusted aide who escorted Queen Marie Antoinette’s carriage from Versailles. I became interested in Jean Baptiste’s brave English wife Harriet in 2015, when I was a graduate student at George Mason University taking English Research Studies 701, a class that culminated in a research project based on primary sources. In the first class my professor, Kristin Samuelian, assigned a novel by William Godwin, Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), and my own adventure in literary history began.

Harriet de Boinville was a close friend of William Godwin, I learned from a memoir by Harriet’s grandson. Published in 1880, the memoir recounted Harriet’s birth in St. Kits in 1773, her marriage in 1793, and her daring attempts to cross the Channel during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In Godwin’s digitized diary, and in the rows of books about Shelley in George Mason’s Fenwick Library, I discovered Harriet’s main “calling card” to literary fame: Percy Bysshe Shelley, who idolized her in his writings. For example, “I could not help considering Mrs. B., when I knew her, as the most admirable specimen of human being I had ever seen,” he wrote. “Nothing earthly ever appeared to be more perfect than her character & manners.” Shelley became friends with her in 1813 and wrote about her until he died in 1822. This is the first biography of Harriet de Boinville’s life, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his death.

Many Percy Bysshe Shelley scholars, as I discovered roaming the Fenwick stacks, mention Harriet’s beauty in 1813, at the age of forty, and her daughter Cornelia’s beauty that year, at the age of eighteen. They mention the months Shelley spent living in her home outside London when he confided in Mrs. B, as he always called her, and fell in love with her daughter, an infatuation that nearly terminated their friendship. 

Working on the research project, I discovered that Harriet de Boinville was far more interesting than the skimpy portrait presented in P.B. Shelley scholarship. She influenced Frances Burney, the author of the bestselling novel Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), and Mary Shelley, the author of the Gothic classic Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and six other novels. Journals and letters reveal the contours of her close relationship with these pioneering women writers and the ways in which they counted on her.

A revolutionary woman in revolutionary times, Harriet de Boinville is fascinating not only because of the writers she befriended. She survived sea battles sailing 5,000 miles from Liverpool to St. Vincent in the Caribbean. She escaped detention at Dunkirk after being falsely arrested as a British spy. She weathered personal tragedy when her brother, her son, and her grandson were locked up in a madhouse in France.

As a player in the great drama that was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life, she appears not only in his lively and lengthy letters, but also in the letters of Claire Clairmont. Thanks to Claire—Mary’s half sister, Lord Byron’s lover, and Mrs. de Boinville’s neighbor in Paris—I was able to write in detail about the last twenty years of Harriet’s life. My hope is that readers of this biography will be inspired, as I was inspired, by her intelligence, kindness, and almost unbelievable courage in the face of adversity. Widowed young, when Jean Baptiste died during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, she persevered, raised a family, and welcomed in her homes in London and Paris, not only writers, but also artists, musicians, and Italian exiles. She was immensely popular as a host, a tribute to her appealing personality and freedom from class-based prejudices.

Sixteen when the French Revolution began, Harriet de Boinville became an ardent believer in the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Her progressive views were one reason why P.B. Shelley admired her so much. In Italy, three years before his death at the age of twenty-nine, he wrote about her to a friend:

It is improbable that I shall ever meet again this person whom I once so much esteemed & still admire. I wish however you would tell her that I have not forgotten her, or any of the amiable circle once assembled round her.

An amazing and unconventional woman, Harriet de Boinville attracted to her side a wide-array of fascinating and famous people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I hope this twenty-first century biography will help move her from the fringes of literary history to the center stage where she belongs. She really was “at the center of the circle.”

Excerpted from At The Center of The Circle by Barbara de Boinville Copyright © 2023 by New Academia Publishing. Reprinted by permission of the author.


“…fascinating history, but it’s also an adventure tale and a romance…” — Cory Flintoff, NPR former foreign correspondent

“Barbara de Boinville’s thoroughly-researched study is a fascinating reminder that Romanticism wasn’t just a club but a movement…Lives like Harriet de Boinville’s fill out the story of those formative times as nothing else can…” —  Fiona Sampson, Ph.D., author of Two-Way Mirror, a Washington Post Book of the Year