Tempest in a Teapot! How Dare Mary and Percy Use Pet Names!!

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. In Mellor’s opinion, this demonstrated “that he did not regard his wife altogether seriously as an author.”  She then went on to opine upon Mary’s “deference to his superior mind” asserting that this was “intrinsic to the dynamics of their marriage, a marriage in which the husband played the dominant role”.  Cue my head exploding. Now we need some context.  The pet name appeared in the margins of the manuscript of Frankenstein and Nora Crook, one of the foremost Shelley scholars alive today, supplies to details:

“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 become “infamous”. Lovers of the world! Beware lest literary critics read your missives.  Now, it is also true that PB’s use of a pet name has its defenders.  No less a scholar that EB Murray described the use of the term as “endearing.” Then, there is the fact that Mary’s pet name for PB was………….. “elf”.

At this point I think we all need to pause and give our collective heads a shake.  Are we really having this conversation?  Or can we all take a deep breathe and think "deep blue ocean".  In effect that is what Nora Crooks asks us all to do in her brilliant, accessible, and sensitive essay on this subject. If you would like to gain an insight into the nature of PB’s relationship with MW, you need look no further.  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'.  [3] 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 Wolstonecraft (the author of “Vindication of the Rights of Women.”) and William Godwin (the author of Political Justice).  Intellectually she was PB’s match.

Now before we move on, it is worth pausing for a moment to look at the origin of the term "Pecksie".  Crooks tells us that it is "the name of the industrious bird in Mrs Sherwood's The History of the Robins."  Sherwood was an incredibly influential, best selling writer of children's literature in 19th-century England. She authored hundreds of books and magazine articles. I imagine that it was a rare child who would have grown up without having been steeped in her writings; including Shelley whose early childhood was very traditional.

But Crooks is unfortuanetl mistaken.  Sherwood wrote no such book.  The author of The History of Robins was in fact Sarah Trimmer who was in her own right an extremely famous children's author.  Originally titled "Fabulous Histories", Trimmers books was continuously in print and a favourite of parents and children alike until after the first world war. An the content of the book makes it a far more interesting source


What characterizes Crook’s intelligent and thoughtful essay is her humanity and her common sense.  So with no further adieu, I invite you to click on the link and immerse yourself in her wonderful, lucid prose.