Hotel Register in Which Shelley Declared Himself to be an Atheist: FOUND

There is a supplementary post here. It contains additional information and a high resolution copy of the register.  The articles should be read together.


On 19 July 2016, the University of Cambridge made a startling and almost completely unheralded announcement.  They were in possession of a page from the register of a hotel in Chamonix: not just any page and not just any hotel. The hotel was the Hotel de Villes de Londres and the page in question was the one upon which Percy Bysshe Shelley had inscribed his famous declaration that he was an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat. Not a copy of it….THE page. No reproduction or copy of this page has ever, to my knowledge been made available to the public.  Evidence for what Shelley wrote was based almost exclusively on either eye witnesses, such as Southey and Byron, or mere hearsay.

I make the point in my article "Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat." What did Shelley Mean?" that Shelley’s declaration is exceedingly important to our understanding of his entire literary output. There I wrote,

“I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him.  They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.” 

Thus the discovery of this page is a rather momentous occasion; rather like finding a hitherto unknown, handwritten copy of the Gettysburgh Address.

My sources for this discovery are two-fold: an article in Cambridge News, dated 19 July 2016, and an undated blog post on the University of Cambridge website. Unfortunately, neither included a high resolution copy of the register.

But based on these sources here is what we know.  Cambridge News, quoting noted Shelley scholar, Professor Ross Wilson reports, “No-one knows by whom or why, but the leaf had been removed from the visitors' book by late summer 1825, three years after Shelley had drowned in the Bay of Spezia.” Cambridge News goes on to inform us that the page was "found pasted into Shelley's copy of his poem, “The Revolt of Islam”, which addresses revolutionary politics and the long history of the nineteenth century through an elaborate mythological narrative.”

There are obvious questions.  Who removed the page? When? How do we know it had disappeared in late summer of 1825? How did it find its way into Shelley’s own copy of the Revolt of Islam? Who had this copy? Where has it been and why is it only now this important artifact is noticed.  Has it be suppressed? overlooked? ignored? Tantalizing speculations are available to us.  Clearly the page which the University of Cambridge is in possession of has a provenance which requires a more fulsome exploration. It is to be found no where on line as of today. The most important question of all is this, until now has any scholar ever seen a copy of the register, or have they all been relying on hearsay? I believe we have to assume it is the latter case and that for the first time we are seeing the real thing. This will require everyone who has ever written anything about this incident to revise their opinions.

As I said, both sources included a low resolution image of the page which is difficult to read. I have reproduced it below. However, what we can see is fascinating.

A low resolution copy of the page taken from the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres in Chamonix.

On the left hand side of the page we see Shelley’s familiar signature – I don’t know why, but I felt quite emotional seeing this. Below it are the initials of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin: “MWG”.  Beside their names we have their country and city of origin: London, England.

Interestingly, Shelley’s signature has been underlined twice – but by whom? Well, our biographies do tell us something about this.  For generations, biographers, relying on a claim made by Byron, have believed that Byron, upon encountering Shelley's entry some weeks later, scribbled out Shelley’s name. He claims to have done this to protect his friend’s reputation (Ellis, 115; and Bieri 342-343). Biographers have universally taken Byron at his word, one remarking that, “he [Byron] must have felt that Shelley was too young to understand fully what a red rag to a bull of English public opinion the word “atheist” would be, and how quickly news of its offensive presence would be spread…” (Ellis, 115). Personally I find that assertion ridiculous.  For his part, Holmes concludes, "Byron...immediately felt obliged to cross it out as indelibly as possible for Shelley's own protection." (Holmes, 342-3) Again, ridiculous. The Byron I know was hardly solicitous of the reputations of others and relished controversy. Well, we now have evidence that Byron’s story may well have been false.

What we see when we look at the register is that quite apart from scribbling Shelley’s name out, someone (and who else but Byron) underlined it not once but twice.  Professor Wilson would seems to agree:

“Lord Byron, no stranger to scandal, claimed to have struck out one of Shelley’s inscriptions. There are grounds to think that this is Byronic hyperbole and that it was Byron who in fact underlined, rather than struck out, Shelley’s name in the hotel register”.

Now many motives may be ascribed to this if we are to assume that the underlining is Byron’s.  One could conclude, charitably, that Byron delighted in his friend’s provocational action and sought to draw attention to it. On the other hand it could have been a crude attempt to compound what he might have viewed as Shelley’s indiscretion.  We can’t forget that for all of his bluster, Byron was anything but an atheist or even deist.  Given that fact that he appears to have lied about his action, the latter conclusion seems the more likely. There is something of an irony bound up in this. If in fact Byron did this to attract unwelcome attention to Shelley’s provocative statements, he actually would have played right into Shelley’s hand – for Shelley would have most likely thanked Byron for helping to draw attention to his declaration.

Under the column heading, “destination”, Shelley writes “L’Enfer”; both for himself and for Mary. We might find this amusing – but it was anything but in those days. For more on this see my article Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat." What did Shelley Mean?

We then come to the heart of the matter, his famous declaration of atheism. Until I looked at the register, I, like everyone else, assumed that the only words he wrote were the Greek words for “atheist”, “democrat’ and “lover of humanity”.  The ordering of these words is different in almost every version.  Holmes for example use this formulation: "Democrat, Philanthropist, Atheist" (Holmes, 342); PMS Dawson uses this one: "I am a philanthropist, utter democrat, and an atheist." (Dawson, 54).  Until we can see a better copy of the Cambridge document, it is difficult to tell who is right. And I think it actually matters.

Bieri notes that Shelley’s entry occasioned caustic rejoinders from fellow travelers, including one who wrote in Greek that Shelley was a “fool”. I doubt Bieri ever saw the original register – based on what we have just learned from Cambridge; if he did, he does not say so. And his footnotes for this assertion point us to articles by Gavin de Beer (1958) and Timothy Webb (1984); neither of whom saw the original register either – everyone relying on contemporary third party reports – in law we call this “hearsay” evidence. Both of these article are unavailable online.

Not knowing Greek, I forwarded the Cambridge document to my friend Stathis Potamitis, a distinguished lawyer in Athens. Stathis reported:

“There is a passage in quotation marks which is a line from a Psalm (14:1) “o άφρων είπεν εν τη καρδία αυτού ουκ έστιν θεός”. This I recognized because it was used by St. Anselm in his ontological proof of the existence of God.  It means ‘the fool said in his heart there is no god’. There are three words (the third one is very long and may be more than one that are linked) that precede the quotation, but I can only make out one of them: “φιλάνθρωπος», which literally means he who loves humans, but is usually translated as charitable.” 

It is the quotation that interests me.  Bieri, relying on de Beer and Webb, jumped to the conclusion that these words were added by someone else and were an attack on Shelley.  No one that I am aware of has ever ascribed these words to Shelley himself. However, while I am not handwriting expert, my untutored eye tells me that whoever wrote the first three words included the quotation. I would welcome the thoughts of scholars who have spent more time with Shelley’s handwriting than I have. If this is true it adds an exciting dimension to this incident.

I can understand why people would jump to the conclusion that these were not Shelley’s words.  The opening lines of Psalm 14:1 have for centuries been used by Christians to assail atheists; the “fool” of the line is assumed to be the atheist.  However, this is a mistake. The second half of the first verse goes on to say, “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” Again, the assumption is often made that “they” refers to the atheist.  But Palm 14 2-3 goes on to make it clear that god looks down on all people as corrupt:

2 The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.

3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

The Hebrew word translated in the King James version as "fool" is nâbâl.  But this is an adjective that means "stupid and wicked". It comes from the root verb nâbêl, which means "to be foolish or morally wicked". Thus, I believe the connotation intended is less that the individual is a mere fool, and more that he has a defective moral character which is the result of his belief that god will not notice his bad behavior. The Psalm’s introductory note comments that ‘David describeth the corruption of a natural man. He convinceth the wicked by the light of their conscience. He glorieth in the salvation of God.”  The implication, then, is that all people are morally wicked and can only raise themselves up with the help of god. In a nutshell: “you are an idiot if you think you can do this by yourself.”

Shelley was an astute reader of scripture. He has also become justly famous for his ironic inversions in which he seizes on old myths and employs them to obtain a radically different moral result. Here I could easily see Shelley using this quotation to accuse his enemies of moral perfidy. In effect saying, “You think you are better than me, but you are all, according to your own god, morally wicked.”

Much of what I have written is, of course speculation. But my desire is to get the discussion started and focused on earthing the facts. When the University of Cambridge makes a better copy available and when they tell us more of the provenance of the page, we will be much further down the road.  Look for updates here.

One last note.  while Shelley's name is not crossed out, someone's is.  If you look below Shelley's name and Mary's initials, you will see that a name has been heavily over-scored.  Could this be Claire? If so, who crossed her name out, and why?


Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley; A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, (2008). Print. 

Dawson, P.M.S.  The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Print.

Ellis, David. Byron in Geneva, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press,( 2011) Print

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit Weidenfield. London: and Nicolson, 1974). Print.