What if Shelley Didn’t Drown??!!
The Orphan Angel by Elinor Wylie
Decades ago, while a student, I recall hearing rumours about a novel based on the premise that Shelley had not drowned in that terrible storm of 1822, instead he was rescued by a passing schooner and taken to America where he lived out his life. Had he faked his own death? What a tantalizing concept! Alas, I was never able to track it down. I searched high and low. Even after graduation I would ocassionally make a hopeful inquiry, but no one had ever heard of this book. My efforts led to nothing. And at last I gave up (perhaps too soon - the internet might have made the task easier!) And then fate stepped in.
To cut to the chase, as they say, the novel in question turns out to have been The Orphan Angel by the brilliant American poet and novelist Elinor Wylie (1885 - 1926). How I came to unravel the mystery and discover this wonderful novel is a tale that crisscrosses generations, opens windows into the past and underlines the value of books and personal libraries (there is even a moral).
After my father died in 2007, I inherited many of his books. My goal had long been to build a special library to hold them all. This was for a specific reason. I believe that one's library is a reflection of one's mind. If you walk into someone's home - look for their library. A quick glance will tell you more about your host in a couple of minutes than you could glean in an hour of conversation. If there is no library, you can also draw conclusions. Books are also a fabulous talking point. Of course today, with so many people switching to digital readers, home libraries are increasingly rare. Many people also throw out their deceased parent's libraries. But you do so at your own peril. Libraries will tell even more about their owner if the owner was annotator or someone who underlines passages - if this is the case, you have hit the mother lode. Now you have not only a key to the general interests of the library owner, you have a chance to learn exactly what they thought about the books. You might think this to be a somewhat esoteric interest of mine - but just wait until your parents have died; wait until you feel the pang of loss; wait until questions you might like to ask them occur to you - questions that will now go unanswered forever. Then you might wish you had their library (and their letters and diaries, by the way). You parent's libraries hold a key to who they were and can be a great comfort.
Therefore, I felt that by keeping my father's books together, instead of melding them into my collection, I could create a representation of his personality. His books emerged from the shipping boxes in something of a disorderly mess. He had moved several times toward the end of his life, and with each "downsizing" there was less room for books, and so things became increasingly disorganized. In my youth his library was a thing of awe, meticulously organized by subject matter and author. Sorting and reorganizing them was quite laborious. It actually took months. And not just because of the sheer size of the library, not because of the complexity of sorting authors and subject matter. It took time because I quickly realized that the mind of more than one person was represented in the collection. Untangling these minds was not easy - having said that it was immensely satisfying.
At first the familiar "portrait" of my father emerged - his interests were well known to me. There was of course masses of Shelley (three full shelves worth - see below), though the collection was somewhat frozen in time - he seemed to have stopped acquiring new material around the end of the 40s. Having said that he had managed to acquire some beautiful first editions including The Revolt of Islam and Mary’s four volume 1838 Collected Works. He also had a lot of Keats but nothing from the rest of the Romantics. He had a vast collection of novels including collections of Arnold Bennett, Honore de Balzac, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens. I pulled out an extensive collection of books in French and Italian. Many novels by important (but perhaps less well known) writers of the last century. For example, Karen Blixen, Rumur Godden, Lord Dunsany, Andre Malraux, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Jean Larteguy and Guiseppi di Lapedusa. There was an extraordinary amount of poetry as well as scads of art history books. Biographies of all his favourite writers and thinkers abounded. Russian literature was of particular interest and he seemed to have everything by the greats. Quaintly, there were a dozen or so books of haiku - a form of poetry he adored - a fact I had altogether forgotten until I found these books. There was also a surprisingly robust collection of early 20th Century economics texts. Curiously, for a man who had fought in the Second World War, there was very little military history related to that period, though the so-called "Cold War" was heavily represented.
And then there were the classics - hundreds of books on Greece, Rome and what we now call the Middle East. Among them was perhaps one of his favourite books: Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad. There were no other versions nor were there any critical texts. My father was firmly of the opinion that Pope had produced the best translation and that there was therefore no point in reading any other. He became visibly upset late in life when he noticed I had approximately 12 different, heavily marked up translations. He considered this perverse and almost a repudiation of his own taste - my father always took things personally - including the translations one read. For example, I once gave him Fitzgerald's version of The Iliad, and it was returned unopened and unread. At one point, late in his life, we had also had a heated debate about Constance Garnett's translations of Dostoevsky. He was visiting us and was looking for something to read before bed. I made the mistake of offering him a copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Dostoevsky's Demons (Garnett translated the title as The Possessed). He came down the next morning absolutely incensed with the translation - the argument became heated and I actually walked away from it. Years later, as I thumbed through his collection of Garnett translations, this incident came back to me and the memory offered an opportunity to reconsider what had been going on in his mind. With the luxury of hindsight, I wondered if his reactions to my failure to adhere to his personal tastes were conditioned by a concern about his legacy - that his son was rejecting those things that he held dear. While this made some sense, it also struck me as desperately sad - instead of reveling in the satisfaction that I had taken up his interests and built on them, instead of contentedly seeing the seeds he had sown ripen and mature, instead of this he saw my evolution as a kind of repudiation. This is a path I hope I never go down. Which brings me to Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons.
As I sorted through his collection of Russian literature I chanced on a copy of Fathers and Sons. My father's habit was to record when (and often where) he read his books on the front title page. This is a habit of mine. Flicking to the title page I saw that my father’s copy of Turgenev's novel bore four different dates - dad had read it four times. Beside the final date (when he was 67) he wrote, "I have read this book four times, but not, I think, again." I pondered for some time what significance this book had in his life. Why was one of the few books he chose to read and re read at different stages of his life? He had a very difficult relationship with his father -- did it have something to do with that? He also had a very troubled, unhappy relationship with me. Were the repeated re-readings an effort on his part to unlock some answers? To find some solutions? I’ll never know.
But there was something else - this was not actually his book. It belonged to his mother, Edith Wills, and bore her signature as well in the front cover. This was my first clue to the presence of my grandmother lurking on the shelves of my father's library. Also, somewhat astonishingly, he had inserted his personal bookplate inside the cover. Clearly dad had a different approach to his antecedent's libraries. Instead of maintaining them as a distinct presence on his shelves, not only did he merge them, but he claimed them as his own with his book plates. This was the first of many such books I was to find in his library.
I began to seek out books belonging to Edith. She was difficult to find for a very significant reason: her taste in books appeared to have been adopted by my father (the Turgenev referred to above, for example). This made her books almost indistinguishable from his. The only way to be certain who was who was by looking inside for names or bookplates. However, that would have spoiled the fun. I made it a game to guess which books belonged originally to her. As more books emerged (and went to their own shelves), patterns emerged and the task became somewhat easier. Those books of hers which my father had at the end of his life were not many in number, but they bore a distinctive stamp - she has her own shelves now. And her personality shines out from them.
Our entire family, as I discovered, were avid annotators. I do it, my dad did it and his mother did it! This habit (controversial to some) can be incredibly useful to future generations - providing fascinating insights into our parent's personalities and clues about what they thought about different issues. It can also produce amusing results. As I plowed through the boxes, I chanced on a book of mine which I had loaned him many years before. I flicked through it (I had marked it up quite heavily) and discovered that in the front of the book (in red ink) he had written, "NOT MY MARKINGS!!!" God forbid someone might mistake my comments for his. In the case of Turgenev, I discovered not only his marginalia and underlining, but that of my grandmother. With considerable care I distinguished between each marking (using their initials) - and added my own!!
In another amusing instance, I was browsing through his library and pulled a slim volume from the Shelley shelves; one I had not looked at before. It was George Santayana’s short (lunatic) monograph on Shelley: Shelley: Or the Poetic Value of Revolutionary Principles. I flipped through it to see what if anything dad had written in the margins. I often get into mental arguments with his comments and sometimes I even jot my own thoughts down beside his. Anyway, half way through the essay, in one of the margins, were the words , “NOT A COMMUNIST” in a bold, firm, triumphant hand. I laughed right out loud.
Now, my father was a big time anti-communist; he spent most of his life fighting the cold war and then re-fighting it after it was over. One of his great fears was that Shelley was some sort of communist! He was well aware that socialists like Shaw and Salt had claimed Shelley for the left. I don’t know whether he knew what Marx said of Shelley, but if he did, it would have driven him crazy:
"The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism."
But there, for my father, in the calming words of the great George Santayana, was solace and respite: no, Shelley was NOT after all a communist. Phew.
There was another personality, however, that fairly jumped out at me: that of my maternal grandfather, James Annand. Jim, as he was known to his friends, was a man of the theatre, and salted in among my father's books were about two hundred volumes of plays and books about the theatre. He clearly loved Shaw most of all, but also less well known authors such as JM Barrie and Piniero. My father had founded the Royal Shakespeare Society in Canada and thus there were many volumes of Shakespeare. The interest in Shakespeare, however, came with a curious twist.
Also discovered a significant collection of books dating from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century which dwelt on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. A quick check revealed these also belonged to my grandfather - this was a subject of apparently great interest to him. Jim's collection also includes a complete, edition of the collected diaries of James Agate, the famously irascible theatre critic of the early 20th Century. The books (titled Ego) are beautifully bound in red leather by my grandfather himself. Evidence of the size of Agate's own ego appears in one of his more famous remarks: "I don't know very much, but what I do know I know better than anybody, and I don't want to argue about it. I know what I think about an actor or an actress and I am not interested in what anybody else thinks." By the way, if you take out the words "an actor or actress" and insert "Homer", and you have my father!
My mother appeared in the form of travel guides, cookbooks and an extensive collection of books that offered instruction in French, Italian, German and even Swahili! There were dozens and dozens of books filled with music - mute testament to her training as a vocalist at the Royal Conservatory of Music. To almost the end of her life my mother worked carefully and diligently on honing her foreign language skills. The travel books are a startling reminder of the vast distances she covered in the course of her life (much of that with my father) - a true world traveler who never let her crippling arthritis slow her down for a minute.
These people, represented by their books, now occupy a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling library of their own in my home. There is yet another reason for keeping your ancestors libraries. It isn't just to look at them, it is to read them. In this way you can share their passions, preserve their memory and open new horizons for yourself. Thus, every now and then I visit this library and pick something out to read. In this manner I discovered the magic of Lampedusa's Il Gatopardo, Larteguy's Les Centurions, Malraux's La Condition Humaine and L'Espoir, and Godden's Black Narcissus. Then came The Venetian Glass Nephew by Elinor Wylie.
It was a pretty random selection. I had never heard of her. Now, before I read a book by someone I know very little about, I usually do an online search on the author. And so I launched into a quick background check on Wylie and The Venetian Glass Nephew. Who was she? Why would my father have her books? The answer appeared almost immediately. In addition to her poetry, Wylie had written four critically acclaimed novels, fully three of which were connected in one way or another with Shelley. Her third volume of verse, Trivial Breath (1928), was in fact dedicated to Shelley. It was said she 'knew every small incident in Shelley's life...but without dryness of pretense. She knew them, not as one knows a lesson, but as one remembers a past. She would talk of them as casually as of a personal reminiscence." Despite her admiration for Shelley, she could "laugh at him with no diminution of love and make of him no less an immortal because he was sometimes preposterous." Such devotion was a subject of no small amusement among her admirers and derision among her critics. The Poetry Foundations entry, for example, refers to her fascination with Shelley as "idolatry".
What of the novels how do they relate to Shelley? Well, for starters, her second novel, The Venetian Glass Nephew is an intentional, allegorical update of Frankenstein. In the novel a childless Roman Catholic cardinal meets a Venetian glassblower who has the magical ability to endow his creations with life. The glassblower creates an exquisitely beautiful young man who enters the cardinal's life as his "nephew". When a beautiful young woman falls in love with the artificial nephew the consequences are tragic. Her fourth novel, Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard, shows us the decline of a fictitious late-Romantic poet (clearly based on Shelley) living into the onset of the Victorian age.
It is the third novel which interests us here. As I read through one of the articles about Wylie, I discovered that in The Orphan Angel, she tells a story based on the idea that Shelley was rescued from the Bay of Lerici. Rather than return to Italy, he sails under an assumed name (Shiloh) to America with the crew of the schooner that saved him.
When my research unearthed the existence of this novel, I had solved the decades long mystery which I mentioned at the outset of this article. By chance, and entirely thanks to my father's library, I had found the novel about Shelley in America. Thinking back in time it occurred to me that it must have been my father who brought this book to my attention. I searched his library vainly for the book itself - alas, it was not in evidence. So it was off to the used book market to secure and excellent first edition which I read with rapt attention.
Now, as for my own literary judgement on The Orphan Angel, I have to begin by pointing out that Wylie was very much of my father's school when it came to Shelley: she hewed to the sentimental, somewhat mawkish view of Shelley as an "ineffectual angel". I wrote about this here. When I first dipped in, I had high hopes that Wylie might have envisaged a more robust, vibrant political Shelley - but i was quickly disappointed. Wylie's prose is definitely from a different age, and it may not be to everyone's taste. The NY Times review ended by complimenting Wylie for her brilliant idea as well as its execution. However, the reviewer noted that "whether in a truly comparative sense it is a masterpiece, one cannot venture to say so soon." I will leave this judgement to you. For my part, I think there is yet another speculative novel to be written with a very different Shelley at the heart of it - the Shelley who lived and breathed revolution, the Shelley who wanted to change the world. Nonetheless, this for those who love Shelley, this falls somewhere on tyhe spectrum between “must” and “should probably” read - if only to partake of Wylie’s wonderful dream that he lived on.
You can read more about Elinor Wylie here and will find a rave review of The Orphan Angel in the New York Times of 1926 here (you will need to scroll forward to page 35). There is a very good biography which you can buy here. If you love the Shelleys, then you will find much joy in reading all Wylie's three Shelleyan novels. Just as rewarding would be a dip into the limpid pools of her poetry.
I guess the moral of this story relates to the power of literature and the complicated way it can condition and weave itself into our lives. But for my father I would most likely not have pursued a life long passion for Shelley, and but for his library I would never had found this book. If I may be allowed a pun, our books speak volumes about us.