Pecksie and the Elf. What's in a Pet Name?

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, like almost everyone else on the planet, had pet names for one another. She was "Pecksie" and he was "Elf".  PB's use of the name "pecksie" has actually attracted controversy. To find out why, I dug into the circumstances in which these names were used and the fascinating origin of "pecksie". Buckle up!


This is me with the Elf on my left and Pecksie on my right at the Bodmer Foundation in Geneva

This is me with the Elf on my left and Pecksie on my right at the Bodmer Foundation in Geneva

Many years ago, while reading Anne Mellor's biography of Mary Shelley, I encountered her opinion of Percy’s use of a pet name for Mary. The name was “pecksie”.  In Mellor’s opinion, this demonstrated “that he did not regard his wife altogether seriously as an author”.  Cue my head exploding.

The pet name had appeared twice in the margins of a manuscript copy of Frankenstein that PB and MW had been jointly working on.  Nora Crook, one of the foremost Shelley scholars alive today, supplies the details here:

“On the manuscript of Frankenstein are two comments by P. B. Shelley which have become infamous. Writing quickly, Mary Shelley had left off the first syllable of 'enigmatic' and ended up with 'igmmatic' (she was prone to double the letter 'm' while her husband had an ie/ei problem with words like 'viel' and 'thier'). Later she confused Roger Bacon with Francis Bacon. He scribbled 'o you pretty Pecksie' beside the first and 'no sweet Pecksie—twas friar Bacon the discoverer of gunpowder.'”

And so it came to pass that PB’s use of a pet name for his wife became “infamous”.

At this point I think we need to pause and give our heads a collective shake.  Are we really having this conversation?  Hopefully not.  Nora Crook had, I think, a similar reaction and produced a brilliant, accessible, and sensitive essay on PB and MW's relationship, using the pet names as a jumping off point. She begins:

“Whether, however, a young woman who at nineteen could read Tacitus in the original would have felt intimidated by this may be doubted, especially one who called her spouse her 'Sweet Elf'.  Between Pecksie and Elf, in terms of diminution, there is, prima facie, little to choose, any more than there is between the protagonists in the Valentine's Day newspaper advertisements where Snuggle Bum pledges love to Fluffkins. Intimate pet-names are almost invariably embarrassing to read. We do not know enough about the contexts in which these arose, whether they pleased or annoyed at the time, whether 'Pecksie' and 'Elf' were pleasant banterings or counters in underground hostilities. It would seem wise to suspend judgement and use them as evidence neither of an unproblematically equal relationship nor of one in which Mary Shelley was subordinated.”

I might also add here that the “young woman” in question was the daughter of no less a personage that Mary Wollstonecraft (the author of Vindication of the Rights of Women) and William Godwin (the author of Political Justice).  Intellectually, she was a match for PB. 

Even more interesting is the fact that, as Anna Mercer demonstrates, in the Shelley household, the term “pecksie” was applied by each partner to the other!  For example, in a letter from 1815, Mary asked Percy to return one of her possessions, if he fails to do so, Mary tells him fondly, "I shall think it un-Pecksie of you".

This suggests that “pecksie” might have been more than just a pet name and rather a term that represented a constellated set of attributes. We might therefore be interested in what exactly it means to be “pecksie”; what behaviours or patterns of conduct fall into the category of “pecksian”? I think I am now in the position to shed some light on this!

So, let’s look at the origin of the term "pecksie". We begin again with Nora Crook suggests that it is "the name of the industrious bird in Mrs. Sherwood's The History of the Robins".  Mary Martha Sherwood was an incredibly influential, best selling writer of children's literature in 18th and 19th century England.  She was also an inveterate christian evangelist and proselytizer – which makes her books unlikely source material for the atheistical PB Shelley.  But is Sherwood the source of the nickname? No.

In this, Crooks is unfortunately mistaken.  The author of The History of Robins is not Sherwood, it was in fact Sarah Trimmer as Judith Barbour has pointed out.

And the correct spelling of the little robin’s name is in fact “Pecksy” and not "pecksie".  Trimmer was in her own right an extremely famous children's author. Originally titled Fabulous Histories, Trimmers' book was continuously in print and a favourite of parents and children alike until after the First World War. After 1820, the book came to be known as The History of Robins or more simply, The Robins.

Born in 1741, Sarah Trimmer’s first book did not appear until 1780.  Fabulous Histories, the book which established her reputation, was published in 1786. Today she is perhaps most famous for her periodical that systematically categorized and reviewed children’s literature: The Guardian of Education.  The Hockcliffe Project is a remarkable cache of early children's literature which has recently been digitized.  According to the uncredited author of the introductory essay on Sarah Trimmer:

“Trimmer's purpose in her Fabulous Histories was to teach children to behave with Christian benevolence towards all animals. Most of the book is spent inveighing against children and adults who torment animals, and also those who fall into the 'contrary fault of immoderate tenderness to them'. Both were common themes in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century children's (and adult's) literature. So too was the more overarching purpose of teaching the reader his or her place in the grand hierarchy of the universe. The reader learns that humans are at the head of creation, with power over all other living beings. Though this gives them the right to kill other animals and plants for food and to protect themselves, they may not without reason kill or hurt any creature without transgressing against the 'divine principle of UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE'.”
Trimmer aimed to teach these lessons by presenting the reader with two families, one of humans and one of robins. Both families, individually and through their interaction, are a microcosm of society. The reader is meant vicariously to learn the proprieties of family life and of behaviour to other parts of God's creation through the education by their respective parents of the two human children, Harriet and Frederick, and the four robin nestlings, Robin, Dicky, Flapsy and Pecksy. The human family, the Bensons, is fairly typical of the usual inhabitants of moral tales. They are affluent and landed. There is a largely absent father, and a loving if somewhat stern and pontificating mother. And there is one obedient and thoughtful child, Harriet, and another, younger sibling, more imprudent and thoughtless, but good at heart and responsive to a painstaking education. Though the family of robins was constructed on similar lines, with doting but stern parents and a brood which ranged from the docile and considerate Pecksy to the rash and conceited Robin, is was surely their presence which secured the book's lasting popularity.

Which brings us to the question of what it might mean in the Shelley household to be “pecksian”.  I do not want to over play this hand, but if it is true that both PB and MW aspired to behave in a manner consistent with a set of "pecksian traits" and reproved one another when they failed to, it is worth while trying to understand what those traits were.  It could tell us a surprising amount about the two of them.

Nora Crook would have us believe such behavior would be characterized as “industriousness”.  However, having read a fair portion of Fabulous Histories, I think Pecksy’s personality is typified by a very different set of personality traits: she is obedient, amiable, self-effacing, considerate of others, self-sacrificing and a peacemaker.

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The four nestlings from Fabulous Histories: Dicky, Pecksy, Flapsy, and Robin.

The four nestlings from Fabulous Histories: Dicky, Pecksy, Flapsy, and Robin.

While the other three baby robins are continually in trouble, Pecksy distinguishes herself by her serene and sweet behavior. She is almost something of a “goody two shoes” who “wished to comply with every desire of her dear parents”.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this makes Pecksy somewhat unpopular with her siblings, who grow quite jealous of her and are often reproved for this by their mother. For example:

“A few days after a fresh disturbance took place, all the little robins except Pecksy, in turn committed some fault or other for which they were occasionally punished; but she was of so amiable a disposition that it was her constant study to act with propriety, and avoid giving offence; on which account she was justly treated by her parents with distinguished kindness. This excited the envy of the others, and they joined together to treat her ill, giving her the title of the “pet”, saying that they made no doubt their father and mother would reserve the nicest morsels for their darling.”

Somewhat later we find this exchange between Pecksy and her mother after an incident which led to her being tormented by her siblings:

“‘I have been unhappy my dear mother’, said she, ‘but not so much as you suppose; and I am ready to believe that my dear brothers and sister were not in earnest in the severe things they said of me -- perhaps they only meant to try my affection. I now entreat them to believe, that I would willingly resign the greatest pleasure in life, could I by that means increase their happiness; and so far from wishing for the nicest morsel, I would content myself with the humblest fare rather than any of them should be disappointed.’ This tender speech had its desired effect it recalled those sentiments of love which envy and jealousy had for a time banished; all the nestlings acknowledged their faults, their mother forgave them and a perfect reconciliation took place to the great joy of Pecksy, and indeed of all parties”.

Later, Pecksy brings her mother a spider to eat. Her mother approvingly remarks, “How happy would families be if everyone like you, my dear, Pecksy consulted the welfare of the rest instead of turning their whole attention to their own interest”.

The day eventually arrives when the nestlings must learn how to fly.  Several misadventures occur, notably to the headstrong Robin, but not to the observant Pecksy:

"Pecksy was fully prepared for her flight, for she had attentively observed the instruction given to the others and also their errors; she therefore kept the happy medium betwixt self-conceit and timidity indulging that moderated emulation which ought to possess every young heart; and resolving that neither her inferiors nor equals should soar above her she sprang from the ground and with a steadiness and agility wonderful for her first essay, followed her mother to the nest who instead of stopping to rest herself there flew to a neighbouring tree, that she might be at hand to assist Robin should he repent of his folly;…”

Readers familiar with the values both PB and MW came to cherish and extol in their poetry and prose will not be surprised, I think, to see in the character of the little robin called Pecsky an intimation of what was to come.  That they themselves strove to behave in a “pecksian” manner and reproved one another when they failed (“I shall think it un-Pecksie of you.”) also tells us something about the value system operating in their home.

And can we go so far as to say PB's closing lines to Prometheus Unbound are pecksian?

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
   To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
   Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
Prometheus Unbound, Act IV, ll 570-578

Too far??  Okay....maybe a wee bit! But you smiled...I know you did.

And there is another value system at operation here: the humane treatment of animals.  Trimmer's book was subtitled "The Instruction of Children Respecting Their Treatment of Animals".  While Trimmer was no vegetarian (she approved of the killing of animals as long as it was done "not without reason") she nonetheless sought to inculcate in children a benevolence toward animals.  Fabulous Histories is an excoriating morality tale in which those who torment animals are harshly punished. For me it is easy to trace a developmental arc for a sensitive child such as PB: from values such as these encountered in childhood, to the full blown vegetarianism of his adulthood.

To me, investigations like this are an eternal delight.  We start with an uncharitable aspersion cast at our poet by a critic – all because he used a pet name for his lover. We are led to a delightful essay by a leading Shelley scholar and from thence first to the wrong book, but then to the right one.  Along the way, we discover two largely forgotten giants of early children’s literature - Mary Sherwood and Sarah Trimmer. We finally arrive at a little robin – a nestling who embodied a set of character traits that came to be valued and extolled by two of the great writers of the 19th Century.  Not a bad excursion. Tell me that wasn't fun!! All aboard for the next one?