Why the Shelley Conference? By Anna Mercer

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The Shelley Conference takes place in London at Institute for English Studies on the 15th and 16th of September. 

The keynote speakers are Prof. Nora Crook (Anglia Ruskin University), Prof Kelvin Everest (University of Liverpool) and Prof. Michael O’Neill (Durham University). The conference is open to everyone - which is just how Shelley would have liked it.  He would have also liked the fact that he and his wife are treated as co-equals and creative collaborators.  I myself am honoured to be part of the conference and will be speaking on what I call "Romantic Resistance" - Shelley's strategies for opposing political and religious tyrannies.  They are surprisingly applicable to our times!  Here is co-organizer Anna Mercer on how this amazing conference came to be:


Why the Shelley Conference? By Anna Mercer

 Anna Mercer

Anna Mercer

I was motivated to create ‘The Shelley Conference 2017’ because of my own frustration with the fact that there is no regular event, academic or otherwise, dedicated solely to the study of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works. Neither is there such an event for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The other Romantics enjoy fantastic annual symposiums where experts and lovers of great literature meet; for example I have been lucky enough to attend the Keats Conference in Hampstead and the Coleridge Conference in the South West (held in Bristol, or Somerset). These carefully planned gatherings of world-renowned speakers and literature enthusiasts include walks and other activities in the surroundings loved by Keats and Coleridge. They encourage postgraduate participation, and are jovial and create a sense of community. I know there is also a similar event for Wordsworth in Grasmere; why is there no such event for PBS or MWS?

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My research (on the collaborative literary relationship of PBS and MWS) led me to develop the idea of a conference that celebrated both authors. Contemporary criticism thankfully no longer wastes time belittling MWS as minor in comparison to PBS’s genius, or depicting PBS as a tyrannical, corrupt editor of her work. The birth of ‘The Shelley Conference’ was set to chime with this refreshing lack of conflict in contemporary study, something that I admit my work in particular seeks to broaden and develop, particularly through the use of manuscript evidence, in order to understand how the Shelleys worked in a reciprocal literary exchange.

The Shelleys in popular culture, however, remain separated and many misconceptions about their relationship persist in the public consciousness (see for example my review of ‘The Secret Life of Books: Frankenstein’ broadcast on BBC4). I have become increasingly aware that now such Shelley-related events are not limited to a small group of academics, and with social media and the help of other Shelley platforms (including this one!), the Shelleys can be identified for what they are actually are, and what they actually sought to represent: that is, two incredibly talented authors, who dedicated their lives to the study and writing of radical and innovative literature.

The Shelley of the conference title remains ambiguous. Furthermore, I have clearly stated that the conference is two days on the works of PBS and MWS. Our speakers will pay attention to biographical details in order to gauge how their shared lives (and also their shared travels) influence their texts, as opposed to the texts revealing truths about their lives. Can we remove the damaging opinion that the Shelleys’ relationship was something defined by scandal, infidelity, gossip, and anti-establishment teenage pursuits? They certainly would have wished we could do so. Let us return to their writings, and not the many, many biographical speculations created by scholars and other writers, some with good intentions, some without.

It is for this reason that I am delighted to announce the breadth of papers that we have at the conference. We have panels that address philosophy, translation, the reception of these authors, editing, the Shelleys in Italy, the Shelleys and science, radical Shelley (including Graham Henderson’s paper on ‘Romantic Resistance’), utopia and dystopia, and even the Shelleys’ diets. We have speakers from all over the world including Canada and mainland Europe, and we have postgraduates speaking at various stages in their career, as well as more established academics, and other writers: novelists, independent scholars, and poets. Some panels include papers on PBS and MWS side-by-side, others focus solely on one author, with the presumption that the Q&A discussion at the end of the presentations will be broad and energetic, reaching into different spheres of knowledge, and addressing the wider Shelley circle – for example Peacock, Hogg, Claire Clairmont, the Gisbornes, and Byron.

Also, excitingly it is now, in the first part of the 21st century, that the most detailed comprehensive editions of PBS’s works are in production (The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley ed. Donald Reiman, Neil Fraistat and Nora Crook is already well advanced, with Vol VII published soon, and The Poems of Shelley ed. Kelvin Everest, G. M. Matthews, Michael Rossington and Jack Donovan is nearing completion). Michael Rossington and Nora Crook will deliver short presentations on the progress of these editions in an optional session during the lunch break on Friday.

I would like to add that I am indebted to Kelvin Everest, an academic mentor to me since my undergraduate days. He was the pioneer of the first Shelley conferences in Gregynog, and his collection of essays that came from that time can be found here. I am honoured to say that he has been an invaluable advisor to me during this conference, and will also be delivering a keynote lecture, alongside the other plenary talks by Michael O’Neill and Nora Crook.

I also thank Michael Rossington, who similarly has delivered advice and guidance, and my coorganiser Harrie Neal (she speaks on Saturday, with a paper on ‘Mary Shelley’s post-capitalist ecology’).

See the detailed programme here.

Thank you to our sponsors – who, amongst other things, have made it possible for us to charge the reduced fee of £15 only for postgraduates and unwaged delegates:

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Thanks also to the support from our host institution, the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies (CECS) at the University of York, and our venue, the Institute for English Studies (IES) in London.

I sincerely hope that the Shelley Conference may occur again in years to come – watch this space.