‘Your sincere admirer’: the Shelleys’ Letters as Indicators of Collaboration in 1821

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INTRODUCTION

2018 was a bad year for the reputation of Percy Shelley (as opposed to the boom year of 2017 about which I wrote in Shelleyan Top Ten Moments - 2017). 2018 was the year we celebrated the bicentennial of Frankenstein. There were conferences, commemorative coins, plays, movies, articles, readings and even biographies. Most of them were truly amazing. For example, the extraordinary, world-wide Frankenreads event staged on Hallowe’en by the Keats-Shelley Association of America (I wrote about that in Frankenstein Is Coming To Your Neighbourhood ). It was truly a joy to see so many people coming together to discover celebrate Mary’s genius. It could also have been used as an opportunity to shine a light on Mary’s collaborator and husband, Percy Shelley. But that did not happen.

The history of Percy’s reception by the pubic has varied widely over the centuries and has been a subject of many a book. Almost unknown during his life, he came to be lionized by the Victorian public for almost all the wrong reasons - presented as a somewhat simpering, juvenile poet who was yet capable of feats of great lyrical accomplishment. This is a false image of Percy that has persisted to this day. Meanwhile the working class has their own version of Shelley - the fire-breathing radical known to Owens, Engels, Ghandi and Marx of whom the latter remarked, “[Shelley] would always have been in the vanguard of socialism”. I wrote about this phenomenon in My Father’s Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelleys. Then came TS Eliot and the New Critics in the early part of the 20th Century. Whether through malice or sheer carelessness these folks focused on the fake Shelley created by the Victorians and set out, consciously and deliberately, to destroy his reputation forever. And they very nearly succeeded. Shelley disappeared from sight for decades. The process of recovery only began in the 1950s and 60s thanks to scholars such as Milton Wilson (with whom I had the luck to later complete my masters at the University of Toronto), the great Kenneth Neill Cameron and Earl Wasserman. The recovery was for the most part limited to the academic setting.

After 2017, there was reason to hope that Percy would re-enter the mainstream with an assist from his now much more famous wife. Such hope was founded on the fact that Percy played a small but universally acknowledged role in the creation of Frankenstein. That we understand his role in the creation of the novel is thanks to the meticulous research of Charles Robinson whose book The Original Frankenstein (Penguin Random House) was published with the byline: “Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley”. Perhaps, I had hoped, by shining a light on this fact, we might be able to lead the public to a better understanding of his own profound contributions to our culture. Alas no, and in some cases the portrait that was created in 2018 of Percy departs so far from the truth as to be laughable - as in the case of Haifaa al Mansour’s lamentable teen-angst bio-pic Mary Shelley. I reviewed this movie in my post, The Truth Matters. Those who have had the misfortune of watching this movie may have noticed that I have taken one of the stills from the movie to use as the background to the title page of my post. This image which shows Mary and Percy actually in love with one another may be one of the only accurate details from the entire movie.

Anna Mercer, on the other hand, is an expert a relatively new field: understanding the extent of the collaborative literary relationship that existed between Percy and Mary from their initial meeting in 1814 through to Percy’s death in 1822, as well as considering Mary’s later work. Dr. Mercer is about to publish a book (with Routledge) that aims to identify the textual connections between the works of the two authors, considering the Shelleys’ relationship in terms of literary and stylistic ideas, as opposed to purely biographical studies. 

What follows will offer you an insight into her incisive and fascinating work. I can’t wait for the book.


‘Your sincere admirer’: the Shelleys’ Letters as Indicators of Collaboration in 1821 — by Dr. Anna Mercer

The Shelleys’ collaborative literary relationship never had a constant dynamic: as with the nature of any human relationship, it changed over time. In my research I aim to identify the shifts in the way in which the Shelleys worked together, a crucial standpoint being that collaboration involves challenge and disagreement as well as encouragement and support. The Shelleys’ collaborative peak was the work on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1816-1818 (to which Percy Shelley made corrections and alterations). Interest in the Shelleys’ relationship post-1818 suggests that they were not working as closely in the four years immediately preceding Percy’s death in 1822. Fascinating and insightful biographies of the couple, such as Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics, suggest that Mary worked alone on her novel Valperga (published in 1823), and Percy increasingly engaged in literary discussions with others. Evidence for this is in part based on the significance of Percy’s 1821 semi-autobiographical poem Epipsychidion, ‘an idealised history of my life and feelings’,[1] which not only contains a thinly-veiled criticism of Mary’s character, but is in many ways a love poem addressed to another woman, Emilia Viviani. Percy actively hid the poem from Mary. She did not fair copy the poem, and it arrived at the publishers in Percy’s own hand; this is unusual in that Mary was Percy’s ‘usual copyist’.[2] Daisy Hay writes of the Shelleys in 1821:

Shelley’s interest in Emilia slowly waned over the course of 1821 and dissipated by the time of her marriage to an Italian nobleman in September of that year. But the interlude widened the developing rift between Shelley and Mary, and made her more cautious in both her emotional and her intellectual engagement with him.[3]

However, despite this suggesting that the creative process of composition becomes something Percy hides from Mary, I want to suggest that the shift in collaboration is not so black-and-white as to reduce the Shelleys’ relationship to one simply of alienation in the later years of their marriage. One step towards doing this is to consider the Shelleys’ extant letters to each other in these later years. This blog focuses in particular on the letters of 1821 in order to support my suggestion.

Percy Shelley by Amelia Curran. National Portrait Gallery.

Percy Shelley by Amelia Curran. National Portrait Gallery.

Percy’s letters to Mary show a keen intellectual interest in the progress of written work, the potential growth of his own mind, and Mary’s development as a novelist. Entangled within this are demonstrations of remarkable intimacy and tenderness. It is the combination of intellect and genuine affection that marked the Shelleys’ relationship from their initial meeting and dramatic elopement in 1814. A letter from Percy to Mary in July 1821, shows this combination of love and intellectual musings:

 

My dearest love – […] I spent three hours this morning principally in the contemplation of the Niobe, & of a favourite Apollo; all worldly thoughts & cares seem to vanish from before the sublime emotions such spectacles create: and I am deeply impressed with the great difference of happiness enjoyed by those who live at a distance from these incarnations of all that the finest minds have conceived of beauty, & those who can resort to their company at pleasure. What should we think if we were forbidden to read the great writers who have left us their works. – And yet, to be forbidden to live at Florence or Rome is an evil of the same kind & scarcely of less magnitude. […] Kiss little Babe, and how is he – but I hope to see him fast asleep to-morrow night. – And pray dearest Mary, have some of your Novel prepared for me for my return.[4]

Percy’s ekphrastic descriptions of his reaction to the statues in the Uffizi Palace, Florence are divulged to Mary here in detail. Beyond expecting Mary to understand this response to such artwork, the consideration of the sculptures in Italy is meant to conjure up for his wife a sense of shared experience: they had been living in the country since 1818 and had been on travels together in Europe since the year that they met. In describing his pleasure of experiencing Italy, Percy conveys to Mary his satisfaction in their living there, crucially in relation to the intellectual stimulation it offers, and in turn more subtly by implying her presence there adds to this satisfaction. Percy shows affection for his young son (something he is often criticised for failing to do) and signs off the letter by reminding Mary of her own toil in literature: the anticipation of her novel, Valperga, implies Percy’s interaction with Mary on this work, too. Another letter from Percy to Mary dated August 10th 1821 explores Percy’s interest in Mary’s work:

How is my little darling? And how are you, & how do you get on with your book. Be severe in your corrections, & expect severity from me, your sincere admirer. – I flatter myself you have composed something unequalled in its kind, & that not content with the honours of your birth & your hereditary aristocracy, you will add still higher renown to your name.[5]

Percy is at once concerned with his wife’s progress in writing: ‘expect severity from me’ implies Percy will be critiquing the work. Yet he is also her ‘sincere admirer’ and sees her future legacy as something dependent on her own genius and not just because of her famous literary parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Shelley by R. Rothwell. National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Shelley by R. Rothwell. National Portrait Gallery.

Unfortunately there is only one extant letter from Mary Shelley to Percy Shelley written in 1821. However, also in 1821 Mary Shelley writes a postscript on Percy’s letter to Thomas Love Peacock on March 21st showing a shared intimacy in communication with others. Likewise, Percy completes Mary’s letter to Claire Clairmont a few days later in April.[6] The one letter from Mary to Percy we have from this particular year is less concerned with intellectual affairs but shows the Shelleys’ reliance on one another in a time of crisis. Following the discovery of the ‘Hoppner scandal’, in which the Shelleys were accused of various wrongdoings (the complex details of which I cannot explore fully here, but are well worth reading up on; this is an intriguing unsolved mystery in the Shelleys’ biography), Mary Shelley writes to her husband:

 

Shocked beyond all measure […] I wrote to you with far different feelings last night – beloved friend – our bark is indeed tempest tost but love me as you have ever done & God preserve my child to me and our enemies shall not be too much for us.[7]

This letter explicitly recalls a much earlier letter written by Mary in 1814 to Percy:

we will defy our enemies & our friends (for aught I see they are all as bad as one another) and we will not part again.[8]

This shows a united front and a defiance that prevails in the Shelleys’ relationship: Mary sees ‘enemies’ as something to be challenged by the Shelleys as a couple, in both 1814 and 1821.

The Grave of Percy Shelley, Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome.

The Grave of Percy Shelley, Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome.

However, there is evidence elsewhere that intellectual discussions remained a primary concern for Mary in 1821. Mary Shelley writes to Maria Gisborne in November: ‘Do you hear anything of Shelley’s Hellas?’ Hellas was completed by Percy in late October, and is one of the few works of Percy Shelley’s to be published in his lifetime (it was published in February 1822). Although, like Epipsychidion, the manuscript fair copy of Hellas wasn’t sent to the publishers in Mary’s hand,[9] the inclusion of Mary’s queries on the work in this letter show her awareness and possible involvement in the toil required in order to bring this poem to press. In this letter to Maria Gisborne from 1821 Mary also writes: ‘Ollier [the Shelleys’ publisher in England] treats us abominably – I should much like to know when he intends to answer S-’s last letter concerning my affair. I had wished it to come out by Christmas – now there is no hope.’[10] The Shelleys’ literary affairs – in Italy where composition occurs, and back in London where they attempt to publish – are as entangled as ever.

Perhaps most telling in Mary’s letter to Maria Gisborne is the wistful sentence: ‘If Greece be free, Shelley and I have vowed to go, perhaps to settle there, in one of those beautiful islands where earth, ocean, and sky form the Paradise’. Written in November 1821, how strongly this recalls Percy Shelley’s own letter to his wife on 16th August 1821 expressing the wish to relocate to a remote island paradise:

My greatest content would be utterly to desert all human society. I would retire with you & our child to a solitary island in the sea, would build a boat, & shut upon my retreat the floodgates of the world. – I would read no reviews & talk with no authors. – If I dared trust my imagination, it would tell me that there were two or three chosen companions beside yourself whom I should desire. – But to this I would not listen. – Where two or three are gathered together the devil is among them, and good far more than evil impulses – love far more than hatred – has been to me, except as you have been it’s object, the source of all sorts of mischief. So on this plan I would be alone & would devote either to oblivion or to future generations the overflowings of a mind which, timely withdrawn from the contagion, should be kept fit for no baser object.[11]

The Grave of Mary Shelley, The Parish Church of St Peter, Bournemouth.

The Grave of Mary Shelley, The Parish Church of St Peter, Bournemouth.


END NOTES

[1] P B Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley Vol. II ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964) 18 June 1822, p. 434.

[2] Newman Ivey White, Shelley Vol II (London: Secker and Warlburg, 1947), p. 255.

[3] Daisy Hay, Young Romantics (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 206.

[4] P B Shelley, Letters Vol II 31st July 1821, p. 313,

[5] P B Shelley, Letters Vol II 10th August 1821, p. 324.

[6] Mary W Shelley, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (3 vols) Vol I ed. by Betty T. Bennett (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980 repr. 1991), pp. 186-187.

[7] Mary W Shelley, Letters Vol I, p. 204.

[8] Mary W Shelley, Letters Vol I, p. 5.

[9] It was in the hand of Edward Williams.

[10] Mary W Shelley, Letters Vol I, p. 209.

[11] P B Shelley, Letters Vol II 15 August 1821, p. 339.

[12] Mary W Shelley, Letters Vol I, p. 210.

[13] Mary W Shelley, Letters Vol I, p. 450.


This article was originally published in Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840 on 8 June 2015. It was published under a Creative Commons licence pursuant to which “all content is available without charge to the user or his/her institution. You are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission from either the publisher or the author.”

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