Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

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by Michael Johnstone

 

A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his daughter to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s name on the gravestone, that Mary feels connected to her mother through her writing (in one scene holding A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and that silhouettes and a small portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft are prevalent in William Godwin’s bookshop and home. The film depicts Mary Shelley as a woman author of fierce independence and ambition, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of a man’s world of writing, learning, publishing, and entitlement (social and sexual). Frankenstein, the film proposes, was Mary’s stinging commentary on that world, where men are “monsters” and young women such as Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont are discounted. As Claire says through tears after copying the manuscript of Frankenstein, she identified with the creature’s struggles and expected many more would, and so Mary “must” publish the novel.

 

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Image: IFC Films

Al-Mansour’s film hits its emotional core once Mary drafts Frankenstein, presented in a series of images tracking Mary’s recognition of the destructive behaviour of men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, interspersed with images of handwritten words that form and dissolve as Mary’s voiceover relates parts of the creature’s account. Here, the images and voiceover link Mary and the creature, reinforcing the film’s premise that the novel is the culmination of a young woman’s life of abandonment and contending with prejudice owing to her sex. When Percy has read that first draft, he proclaims its genius, but then wishes the creature to be “perfect,” an “angel,” to show humanity hope — a suggestion Mary refuses, replying that their lives are a mess, that she is a mess, which is reality. Percy relents, admitting Mary’s way is better. Overall, the sequence is absorbing, as a speculation upon the novel’s genesis and as an idea of the creature expressing the experience of women, especially women artists. I am tempted to think of Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that women novelists were “an injured body” in the early nineteenth century ….

 

Regarding the context of the early nineteenth century, those very familiar with the period and either of the Shelleys in particular will notice the film’s creativity regarding chronology. When Mary and Percy first meet conflates different times: in Scotland, when she is sixteen and he twenty-one, they tell each other, which would be a year later than the proper year of 1812; Percy was visiting William Godwin in 1814, the year that saw him and Mary elope to France and Switzerland, but the film portrays all these events as taking place in the same year, mere months or weeks apart. The film’s own timeline produces additional historical anomalies. Claire Clairmont goes to a performance of Byron’s Werner, which he will not write until 1822. While the months during 1816 spent with Byron in Geneva was Mary and Percy’s second trip to Europe, the film makes it their first, and they are childless though their son William was born in January. (In fact, the film collapses their first three children into the birth and death of Clara, which actually came after Mary finished and then published Frankenstein, not before. It also skips over the months in Bath when the Shelleys returned to England, where Mary wrote much of Frankenstein and Claire gave birth to Allegra Byron in early 1817.) Moreover, Percy’s dialogue includes lines from his works, such as “the imagination is the instrument of moral good,” said in a church where he and Mary have their first kiss, though he composes A Defence of Poetry in 1821.

I mention these chronological glitches partly to warn those who might identify them and, perhaps, be pulled out of the film. On one hand, I am curious why Al-Mansour and the writer, Emma Jensen, made such choices. On the other hand, the film never definitively sets us in a specific year or month, which, upon reflection, allows it to fashion a sense of timelessness, or, rather, of not being strictly bound by time. We have impressions of Mary and Percy, which render them as both of their historical moment and relevant to our own. Mary’s struggles as a woman and author, therefore, continue across two hundred years, and her creature remains a voice for those denied the “compassionate touch” (as William Godwin says in the film) of the world.

However, the film as a whole feels anticlimactic. This feeling is highlighted by the scene of the nightmare that spurred Mary to write Frankenstein. It involves a mere several seconds of a haughty man touching a rod to the creature’s arm, the creature otherwise covered by a white sheet — not the harrowing, vivid “reverie” recounted by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel. Although the film finishes strongly, with Percy publicly acknowledging Mary’s authorship of Frankenstein at a gathering of men in William Godwin’s bookshop, it seems never quite to find the full, radical force of the “fire” in Mary’s “soul.” There are missed opportunities to delve further into the fraught months of the novel’s composition, when Mary faced scandal, upheaval, and loss.

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, and Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley

 

Still, the film is carried by a compelling performance from Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Tom Sturridge is magnetic as Lord Byron, and Bel Powley gives her Claire Clairmont engaging depth as a woman even more discounted than Mary. The cinematography is lush, bold, and attentive, particularly with interiors such as the bookshop, the lodgings in St. Pancras, and the villa in Geneva. In the end, we have a film that certainly reminds us Mary Shelley at eighteen and nineteen years old shaped modernity, though it perhaps leaves wanting a richer, more rigorous portrait of how she did so.

 

Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy. USA, May 2018; UK, July 2018.

Michael Johnstone teaches at the Department of English, University of Toronto. His Twitter ID is @mikejwrites  

 

 

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

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Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

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Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

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10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

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19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

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by Lynn Shepherd
The Shelleys and their circle have inspired hundreds of books, plays and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences, where the biographers can offer us only speculation. My third novel, A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US), was an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect and explain those silences.
Turning  fact into fiction is a labour of love for any novelist, but one that comes with its own challenges, whether technical, literary,  or indeed, moral.  This is the second of two posts in which I discuss this question in relation to two particular episodes in 1816 –  the death in October of Mary Godwin’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, and less than three months later, the discovery of the body of Harriet Shelley, the wife he had abandoned for Mary Godwin more than two years earlier. She is pictured on the right by @AmandaWhiteArt – no portrait of her was ever painted.

Harriet Shelley: The facts
On 15th December 1816, Shelley received a letter in Bath from his old friend and publisher, Thomas Hookham. The Shelley party was  still coming to terms with the sudden death of Fanny Imlay, but another tragedy was about to overwhelm them.  The body of Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had been found floating in the Serpentine. It appeared that she, too, had killed herself.
serpentine
Harriet had been living at her father John Westbrook’s house in Chapel Street, Mayfair, ever since Shelley abandoned her, pregnant, in the summer of 1814. But Shelley now learned that she has suddenly left that house in September 1816, leaving her two children behind. She went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady her name was ‘Harriet Smith’, that she was married, and that her husband was abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though the main purpose of such a cover story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this from her family any longer that had forced her to flee .
And then, on November 9th, she disappeared a second time, and we still don’t know where she spent the weeks before December 10th, when her body was discovered in the Serpentine by one John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital. He told the authorities that he thought she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the nearby Fox and Bull inn, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of ‘found dead’.
Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Harriet’s name – real or otherwise – and ended with the words, “a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe”, in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.
hs-times
Even now, we do not know who was the father of Harriet’s baby, though some biographers have suggested Shelley himself, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived. More likely candidates include a certain ‘Major Ryan’, perhaps stationed at the Knightsbridge barracks; sixty years later Claire Clairmont claimed it had been ‘a Captain in the Indian or Wellington Army, I forget which’, who had gone abroad. At the time, Mary’s father William Godwin passed on a frankly scurrilous rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he abandoned her, and Godwin may also have been the source behind a claim Shelley himself later made that Harriet had “descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith”. In the same letter Shelley wrote that “beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret”. Not his finest hour.
harriet-smith-shelley-st-marys-paddington

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet’s death). But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand.
One thing we do know, unquestionably, is that the whole thing was hushed up. Hushed up so effectively, in fact, that one cannot but conclude that it was done deliberately, and by someone with the skills and connections to do so. And here I turn, again, from fact to fiction.

Harriet Shelley: The fiction
The account of Harriet’s death in the novel is part of a long flash-back narrated by Charles Maddox senior, a former Bow Street Runner turned expensive private investigator. Having been employed by Godwin to track Shelley’s movements (because Godwin feared losing an important source of loans ), Maddox is one of the first to realise that Harriet has disappeared, and he has both the men and the means to discover where she went:

In the week that followed Miss Imlay’s death I received, almost daily, supplications from Godwin to augment the account I had sent him from Swansea with whatever further information I had now at my disposal; supplications I steadfastly refused to gratify with even the briefest of replies. I cared not for his feelings, judging he possessed very few; I did care, and very much, about Mrs Shelley, where she might be, and what circumstances had driven her to such a reckless course of action. I feared the worst, and those fears were brought to a greater and more painful intensity when my assistant Fraser brought me word that the Westbrooks had hired a young man, one William Alder by name, to drag the ponds in the area of Hyde-park nearest the house. My distress on hearing of this was extreme, but Fraser soon established that nothing had been found. It was some time before I was to receive further news, and I attempted to engross my mind with other pressing cases recently neglected, until, one morning in November I was woken by Fraser pounding on my door an hour before breakfast and calling to me, hot-faced and out of breath, that Miss Eliza Westbrook had dressed the children herself before the rest of the household was awake, and taken them to an address near Hans-place, Brompton.

Less than half an hour later the coachman set us down outside the lodging-house, where I made myself known to the lady proprietor of the establishment and asked if I might go up to Mrs Shelley’s rooms.

‘Mrs Shelley, sir?’ she said, looking – or feigning – ignorance. ‘We have no lady by that name here.’

‘A lady of below middle height,’ intervened Fraser. ‘Rather plump than trim as far as her figure goes. Quite a beauty once, I should say.’

‘Ah,’ said the landlady, with a look I could not at once decipher, ‘you must mean Mrs Smith. Do you bring word from her husband? She is hoping to see him every day.’

‘I am, as you so cleverly surmised, a fr―’ But my tongue stumbled against the word, and I could not utter it. ‘A business connection of her husband’s. It has but recently come to my knowledge that his wife has been reduced to the painful circumstances in which she now finds herself, and I wish to do all in my power to assist her.’

That last, in any event, was the absolute truth.

‘Well,’ sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat. ‘You can begin by assisting me with the money. A month’s rent she owes me, and that’s a fact.’

I smiled in what I hoped was a gracious manner, and proceeded to take my pocket-book from my coat and count out the coins, one by one. Her acquiescence, if not her confidence, thus purchased, she informed me that the young lady’s room was ‘at the top – the last you get to,’ and left me to find my own way up.

When I reached the last landing I knocked sharply and heard a few moments later the sound of a bolt drawing back and a light but weary female voice saying, ‘If it’s about the rent’ – as the door swung open. ‘Oh,’ she said then, drawing back and frowning, ‘I took you for Mrs Thomas.’

I had wondered at Fraser’s remark that Mrs Shelley must ‘once’ have been a beauty, for I could not believe she was much more than twenty, but now I understood his observation. The woman who stood before me looked at least a dozen years more, with none of the freshness and bloom of youth the calendar surely owed her. Her brown hair was lank, her eyes lustreless, and if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.

‘Who are you?’ she said, holding the door close, and pulling her shawl about her. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is, indeed, about the rent, or at least in one respect,’ I replied, as I proceeded to inform her that I had just had the honour to assist her with that particular obligation.

The smile that greeted this information was enough to show me how lovely she must once have been. It illuminated her whole face, lifting the lines from her eyes, and setting the ghost of a flush on her thin cheeks.

‘Do you come from Shelley?’ she said, with a gasp. ‘Is he well – does he want to see the children?’

How I cursed the man then, in my soul; to have abandoned this young woman so callously, depriving her of the protection she had every right to expect, and leaving her suspended in a pitiable state that was neither marriage nor widowhood. ‘I regret,’ I began, ‘that I have no commission from him. But what I may do for you, you may rely upon.’

And then, as the shawl slipped a moment from her grasp, I saw. I saw her secret, and I knew what it was that had driven her from her father’s house.

‘You are with child?’ I asked gently.

She flashed me a look then, though whether of anger, fear, or shame, I could not tell. ‘Please go now. I do not wish you to be here when my sister returns.’

‘But surely there is more I can to do assist you – does your husband even know of your condition?’

‘No!’ she cried, her eyes wild. ‘And he must not be told of it! Never!’

‘But he must discharge his duty!’ I exclaimed, my mind in fury. ‘Not merely towards your existing children, but towards this one. To have behaved so despicably – to have continued to exercise all the rights of a husband while presenting himself in that character to another woman – another woman who has already borne him two children―’

‘You do not understand,’ she wept. ‘He is not to blame – I have not seen him – not since – not since long before―’

At that point the door flew open and a woman strode into the room. From a distance she might well have been deemed handsome, with her abundant black hair and pale complexion, but standing as I was, within a few feet of her, I could see that her skin was seamed with the smallpox and of a dead white, and her hair, of which she was evidently very proud, coarse and wiry.

‘Who are you, sir?’ she demanded. ‘My sister is not nearly well enough to receive casual visitors.’

‘Please, Eliza,’ whispered Mrs Shelley, going at once to her side. ‘Mr Maddox was offering to help me. Perhaps he might be able, if he knew―’

‘I can give you all the assistance you need,’ replied Miss Westbrook, firmly, leading her resolutely to the bed. ‘You need no one but me, Harriet,’ she said, as she settled her gently against the pillows. ‘You have never needed anyone but me, and now that that villain has gone, we may be together once more, and for ever.’

Miss Westbrook then marched swiftly to the door and held it open. There was no mistaking the gesture, just as there was no mistaking the look that flickered across Mrs Shelley’s face as I stepped briefly towards her and made my bow. ‘You know where you may find me, Mrs Shelley,’ I said gravely, contriving to leave a fold of banknotes on the table by the bed. ‘I am at your service, and will remain so.’

‘Mr Maddox?’ said Miss Westbrook as I drew level with her in the doorway. ‘Do not call again. We need no interference from strangers. However seemingly benevolent.’

Some readers will no doubt recognise the description of Harriet’s sister Eliza Westbrook, which I have borrowed from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s memoir of Shelley, published long after his death. This is just one among many examples of how I used contemporary texts and observations to bring my characters to life (in the extract below, Harriet’s heart-breaking last letter is a transcription of her actual words). William Alder is another historical figure, whom I discovered in the fourth volume of Kenneth Neill Cameron’s series, Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. The section on ‘The Last Days of Harriet Shelley’ collects together all the known information about Harriet’s death, including an account of the inquest held by the coroner, John Gell, at the Fox and Bull, on 11th December.
fox-and-bull
William Alder apparently knew Harriet from working for her father, and went with her when she took a second-floor room in Hans Place in September, in the house of a Mrs Jane Thomas. In the novel, Maddox and Fraser question Adler after Harriet’s second disappearance –none too gently, either – and he becomes thereafter Maddox’s informant, with instructions to contact him if he sees Harriet again:

November had passed and December commenced before I received any word of her. I was at dinner in Downing-street, whence I had been invited to offer my advice as to the apprehension of the miscreants responsible for the late disturbances in Spa-fields, when the waiter slipped me a message in Fraser’s hand: Alder has seen her – Chapel-street. I made my excuses immediately and hurried down to the waiting carriage. The night was dark and the fog so heavy we could not move at any pace through the crowded streets, and I half despaired of arriving in time, but the carriage eventually drew to a halt a few yards from the Westbrook residence, and Alder stepped forward to open the door.

‘Saw ’er by chance, guv. I were in two minds whether to try to talk to ’er but thought it best to send for you instead.’
I glanced at him; there was still the ghost of a bruise along his jaw and I could well understand that he wished to run no risk of further intimacy with George Fraser.
‘She’s been ’ere ’alf an hour and more. Just walkin’ up and down. Cryin’ I think she is, and talkin’ to ’erself. Once or twice I saw ’er approach the door but then seem to think better of it.’
‘And you have not informed Miss Westbrook, or anyone else in the house?’
He shook his head. ‘No, guv. I judged as I’d leave that to you.’

I nodded, and turned to look down the street. A little distance ahead of me, I could see a figure walking away from me slowly in the mist; even at that distance I knew from her gait that it was a woman, and one much advanced in pregnancy. I could, as I intimated to Alder, have gone quietly to the door and summoned Miss Westbrook, but I did not see a way of doing so without alerting the whole household, and I judged likewise that had Mrs Shelley wished to see her sister she had had ample time already to do so. By that judgement I stand, but I cannot acquit myself of not perceiving the degree of alarm my own appearance would engender. I knew she feared Godwin, but I did not comprehend the full extent of that fear, or the terror she might conceive at the merest glimpse of a man she believed to be hounding her at his behest. I should have deduced this, but I did not; I should have sent Alder in my place, knowing that she had deemed him her friend, but to my everlasting regret, I did not.

Ordering Alder instead to remain by the carriage, I started down the pavement towards her. The fog thickened suddenly and I hastened my step, but the heavy air so absorbed all sound that I was almost upon her before she heard my approach. She turned then and I saw her face – a face at once stricken with panic.
‘You – you,’ she stammered, clutching her shawl tighter about her.
‘Do not distress yourself,’ I said. ‘I wish only to assist you.’
‘You said that before,’ she whispered, taking a pace backwards, ‘and then I discovered you are working for him – for them.’
‘I work for no one, I give you my word.’
‘I do not believe you – why else would you―’
‘Because I have had dealings with your husband in the past, and I know the cruelty – the wanton, careless cruelty – of which he is capable.’
‘No, no – you misjudge him – it is her – if it were not for her he might return to me – we might be happy again.’
I stepped forward then and gripped her hand. ‘Do not think it – do not wish it. The last time I saw your husband it was in the same inn where a young woman had destroyed herself – destroyed herself out of love of him, a love he allowed, even encouraged, but had no more thought of returning than he does of returning to you.’

I spoke it out of a desire to free her – I spoke it because my greatest fear was that he might indeed seek to return to her, and I wished her to have the strength to refuse him. I knew my intentions to be honourable, but I did not allow sufficiently for the effect such words must have had upon a woman – upon a spirit so distraught, a heart so sorely wounded. I had accused him – and justly ‒ of cruelty, but I stand accused in my own mind of no less a crime.

‘No, no,’ she cried again, wrenching her fingers from my grasp. ‘It is all a lie, all a wicked, wicked lie.’

And she turned from me and ran, stumbling, blinded by the tears that were streaming from her eyes. I hesitated a moment – a cursed moment – then set off after her, calling her name, but we were hard by the entrance to Hyde-park, and by the time I reached it she had disappeared into the darkness. I remained there for some moments more, then spent more precious minutes retracing my steps to the carriage, where I ordered Alder, somewhat breathlessly, to muster as many men as we had and conduct a search of both the park and the streets around.

They found nothing – then. I was still awake at three the following morning when Fraser returned to say there was no sight or trace of her. My relief at these words was profound, but all too short-lived. This was Saturday; it was Tuesday morning that I received the note from Alder that destroyed all my hopes.

He begged my presence without delay at the sign of the Fox and Bull in Knights-bridge. They had brought a woman’s remains to the inn, he said, through the old gate leading into the park whence all those found drowned were always conveyed. He said no more, but I knew; knew he would not have summoned me so unless he was certain beyond all possibility of doubt.

And so it was for the second time in as many months I stood before the body of a young woman ruined by love of that man, confronting the piteous waste of a death that could have been prevented – a death, in this case, that I seemed only to have hastened. I blamed Shelley – blamed him bitterly ‒ but I knew I merited my own share of censure.

The water had been cruel. Her body was bloated, the rank cloth clinging to the swollen form of her dead child, and her sweet face mottled with the taint of rottenness. These are not, I know, the words of a practitioner of my art, but my feelings were not the feelings of a professional man. Indeed, had one of my subordinates displayed such a weakness in the face of death I should have cashiered him at once and without reprieve. And knowing that, I strove to regain command of my passions and assess the corpse not as a man who had known her, but with the dispassionate and appraising eye of the detective, scrutinizing the cadaver for signs of violence, and seeking to determine how long it had been immersed. But grim indeed was that examination. I could see no obvious wound, and I was forced to conclude, with infinite sorrow, that she had indeed ended her own existence.

I had protected one young woman from public scandal and ignominy; I now faced the same distasteful task once more. It was harder, in the gossip of the metropolis, to achieve my end, but I knew the coroner, John Gell, and the editor of The Times was in my debt. I likewise persuaded Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow-street, to allow me free rein, though not without profound misgivings, knowing he trusted me, and I had never before abused that trust. I then instructed William Alder to take up residence at the Fox and Bull, so as to be on hand to give witness at the inquest, and ensure that Mrs Thomas’ servant gave the name of the deceased as Harriet Smith, and provided only such further evidence as was strictly necessary. The jury sat barely a quarter of an hour before returning, as I had ensured, a verdict of ‘Found Dead in the Serpentine River’. The body I then caused to be taken to the Paddington cemetery and buried there under her assumed alias.

A second pauper’s grave, a second desolate and windswept interment, the only persons present the minister, myself and Miss Westbrook, her face heavily veiled, scarce able to support herself in the wretchedness of her grief.

‘We will have our revenge, my love,’ she whispered hoarsely, falling to her knees in the mud as the body was lowered into the grave. ‘Papa will institute a process in Chancery for custody of the children, and expose that man to the world as a profligate and an atheist. All who know him will abhor and shun him for the murderer he is.’
‘I must, I fear, bear some responsibility myself,’ I began, assisting her to her feet as the sexton turned the first soil upon the pit. ‘I am very much afraid that our last meeting only served to distress your sister further, and that had I acted differently – ’
But she was already shaking her head. ‘If you are to blame, then so am I. I was away from the house on Saturday and did not receive this until I returned.’

She put her hand into her reticule and drew from it a letter. ‘She must have left it at the door and waited in the street, hoping – expecting – that I would come out to her. And I did not. I can hardly bear to think what must have passed through her mind. She must have thought I no longer loved her – that I did not care -’
I had no great regard for Miss Westbrook, but I did pity her then. I pressed her hand. ‘She would not have believed so.’
She shook her head once more and put her handkerchief to her eyes as she watched me read her sister’s last words. A letter she copied for me later, at my request, and sent to me at Buckingham-street. A letter that tore my heart; a letter no man could peruse without seeing ‒ in the tears that stained it, in the very orthography – the most afflicting proof of the depths of her despair.

Sat. Eve.
When you read this letr. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S–––

harriet-shelley

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted a reference here to a meeting between Shelley and Maddox at Swansea, after Fanny’s death, and to other – clearly disastrous – earlier dealings between the two. In devising a fictional narrative that might make sense of all the ‘known unknowns’ of the Shelleys’ history, I involved the elder Charles Maddox not only in the suicides of 1816, but much earlier in their lives, and his first encounter with the poet is in late 1814, after his elopement with Mary Godwin. And it is Mary, in fact, who is the first member of the Godwin family to hire Maddox’s services. But what she commissions Maddox to do, and what fateful consequences that task then had, you will have to read the novel to discover….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart. She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

Page 1

by Lynn Shepherd
I write literary mysteries. Taking the classic literature of the 19th century as the inspiration for new stories that inhabit the same world. I’ve worked with novels like Mansfield Park, Bleak House, and Dracula, and in my third book, I did the same with two of the century’s most remarkable literary figures: Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The lives of the Shelleys are incredibly rich material for a novelist. There’s so much we simply don’t know. From what Richard Holmes calls the “two great biographical mysteries” of the assassination attempt in Tremadoc in 1813 and the adoption and abandonment of baby Elena in 1819, to the relationship between Shelley and Claire Clairmont, and even the authorship of Frankenstein – all are to a greater or lesser extent unresolved, and all leave us with unanswered questions. Even the established facts sometimes stagger belief (so much so that one of my readers was convinced I’d made my whole novel up, when in fact less than a tenth of it is outright invention). To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we’re in the territory of both ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’ here, not least because so much of the evidence is either missing or deliberately destroyed, whether by the Shelleys themselves, or by that fearsome self-appointed rehabilitator, their daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley.
Faced with such pregnant silences (perhaps literally, in Claire’s case), fiction can be an extraordinarily fruitful vehicle for speculation. It allows you to fill those gaps, and explore possible explanations. Not just what might have happened, but – even more intriguingly – why.

And so we come to A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US) . The novel encompasses all the mysterious episodes I’ve referred to, and attempts to create a story that can make sense of them. It’s structured as two parallel narratives, one set in late 1850, just before Mary Shelley’s death, and one 30 years earlier, which includes that infamous interlude at the Villa Diodati in 1816.

This is the first of two posts in which I will look at how I turned fact into fiction in the case of the ‘Shelley suicides’ – the twin tragedies that confronted the Shelley party on their return from Geneva in late 1816. The first of these is the death of Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin’s half-sister (pictured above by @AmandaWhiteArt – as far as we know, no portrait of her was ever painted).

Fanny Imlay: The facts
Let’s start with a brief resumé. The Shelley party landed in Portsmouth on 8th September 1816, and took up residence at 5 Abbey Churchyard, Bath.
Abbeychurchyard

Shelley travelled regularly to London in the next few weeks, both on his own business and Byron’s (he had brought the manuscript of Childe Harold back with him for John Murray), but it was in most other respects a period of comparative calm in their turbulent and peripatetic lives. As Shelley wrote to Byron on 29th September:

We are all now at Bath, well and content. Claire is writing to you at this instant. Mary is reading over the fire; our cat and kitten are sleeping under the sofa; and little Willy is just gone to sleep. We are looking out for a house in some lone place; and one chief pleasure which we shall expect then, will be a visit from you.

That visit never happened, of course; Byron had ‘shaken the dust of England from his shoes’ for what proved to be the last time. The Shelley party’s domestic bliss was not to last long either. On 9th October a letter arrived from Mary Godwin’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, which suggested such a disturbed state of mind that Shelley travelled immediately to Bristol, where it had been posted, but failed to find her. It later emerged that Fanny had already travelled on to Swansea, where she checked into the Mackworth Arms inn, and later that same night, killed herself with an overdose of laudanum.

Mackworth Arms Swansea
She had with her a watch that had been Mary’s gift, and the stays she was wearing bore her mother’s initials. She left a note, but a strip of paper had been torn off the bottom, and thus when The Cambrian reported the news, Fanny was not identified by name. We can only conclude that someone who was actually there, at the inn, must have intervened to prevent Fanny’s identity being made public. Meanwhile her step-father, William Godwin, was doing all in his power to achieve the same end, albeit at a safe distance. He had started for Bristol after Fanny went missing on October 7th, but he turned back to London as soon as he got the news of her death, and explicitly forbade either Mary or Shelley from going to Swansea or attending the funeral.

My advice, & earnest prayer is, that you would avoid any thing that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea. Disturb not the silent dead. Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired… We are at this moment in doubt whether during the first shock we shall not say that she is gone to Ireland to her aunt, a thing that had been in contemplation. Do not take from us the power to exercise our own discretion… What I have most of all in horror is the public papers; & I thank you for your caution as it might act on this. We have so conducted ourselves that not one person in our house has the smallest apprehension of the truth.

Godwin’s desire for secrecy was almost pathological: the real cause of his step-daughter’s death was not divulged even to her family, and almost a year later, Fanny’s step-brother Charles still hadn’t been told she had died.

Why did Fanny Imlay kill herself? The documentary evidence offers no one simple cause. Part of the answer may have been physiological: she seems to have suffered from the same periods of depression that afflicted her mother, and which Mary also endured. And Fanny’s life at Skinner Street had never been easy. In a household where none of the five children had the same mother and father, she was the only one living with neither of her biological parents, and in that intensely competitive environment she clearly cut a rather sad figure. Godwin went on the record saying that his own daughter Mary was “considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before”, and Mary herself obviously agreed – in a painful letter sent to Geneva that summer Fanny wrote that she knew she was the “laughing stock” of Mary and Shelley, and the butt of their “satire”. There is some evidence that Fanny may have nursed an unrequited attachment to Shelley, (all three girls at Skinner Street had been in love with him, according to Godwin). Shelley’s poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ certainly suggests a deep personal remorse. In the weeks before she died, Fanny had also made the distressing discovery that she herself was illegitimate (something everyone else in the family must have known long before). Moreover, she had been disappointed in a long-held ambition to take up a teaching position at her mother’s sisters’ school in Dublin. Emotional fulfilment, social acceptance, personal independence: it must have seemed like they had all been denied her.

Godwin, Mary and Shelley
Fanny Imlay: The fiction
In A Treacherous Likeness, the account of Fanny’s death is narrated by the elder Charles Maddox, a former Bow Street Runner who has set up a lucrative private practice finding missing persons, and solving crimes. This, of course, is long before the establishment of an official police force in England. In the novel, Maddox is hired by William Godwin to investigate Shelley on his return from Switzerland. Godwin’s always fragile finances are by now reliant on handouts from Shelley, and there are rumours that Shelley intends to abandon Mary Godwin and return to his lawful wife, which would inevitably cut off all further funds. Hence the Godwins’ concern:

As I made my way to Skinner-street that morning I was anticipating, with some degree of apprehension I confess, an introduction to a distinguished philosopher, a fine thinker, an exacting intelligence. What I encountered in his stead was a short, balding, solid little man, with a long, thin nose, and a very disagreeable wife. And even had I not my own sources of information as to the perilous state of the gentleman’s finances, I should have seen at once that the bookshop of which he had become the proprietor was a failing concern: ill managed, ill situated, and the shelves half empty.

 Godwin's bookshop

I wondered at first, and for a moment, that any man of business could employ such a timid and self-effacing assistant behind his counter, only to find that the young woman in question was none other than the elder daughter of Mr Godwin’s first wife, a Miss Fanny Imlay. A modest, gentle, well-meaning creature, to judge of first impressions, though it was evident, from words Godwin let drop later, and – may I say – in the young woman’s presence, that he adjudged Miss Imlay considerably inferior in capacity to his own daughter by that same lady. That he considered the latter to be singularly bold and active of mind, and almost invincible in everything she undertook, while the former, though sober and observing, was too much given to indolence; that he thought his own daughter very pretty, while Fanny could at best be termed ‘not unprepossessing’. I glanced more than once at the aforementioned young woman during this exposition, and it was evident to me that she was only too accustomed to hearing her own talents thus denigrated in comparison with her younger sister’s. I say this, not only in condemnation, however well deserved, but in anticipation of what is to come, for I believe such behaviour on Godwin’s part – such arrant thoughtlessness – played its own part in the tragedy that was so soon to unfold. For my own part, and from such limited observations as I was able to make, I considered the young lady to be virtuous, gentle and kind; qualities, in my opinion, to be both admired and fostered in woman, even if they were neither valued nor encouraged by her celebrated mother, with her infamous concern only for the rights and freedoms of her sex. That Miss Fanny resembled that lady as little in looks as she did in temperament I could see for myself, by reference to a very fine portrait of Mrs Wollstonecraft Godwin which hung over the fireplace. Such a fine portrait, and so centrally displayed, that any subsequent wife might have found it irksome; that the second Mrs Godwin did so, and profoundly, was obvious to me at once, as was the fact that her husband seemed not in the slightest aware of it.

 

The said Mrs Godwin busied herself, firstly, in providing refreshment, or rather in instructing Miss Imlay to do so; she then took a seat beside her husband, and proposed to lay before me the facts of the case. I was, I admit, disconcerted. I have, on occasion, encountered women of insight and intelligence in the course of my profession – women able to follow the principles of logic and observation that I have always expounded – but I did not expect to find one in Mrs Godwin. Appearances were decidedly against her, but I gradually divined that her coarse features, prominent bosom and rather extraordinary green-tinted spectacles concealed a mind of considerable cunning, even if she could boast neither education nor understanding, in the strict meaning of those terms.

 

I asked then, if either Mr or Mrs Godwin had spoken in person to Shelley as to his plans in relation to his wife. A look passed between them at this, and Mrs Godwin answered, somewhat pink about the cheeks, that all direct communication had ceased the day the poet first left London in company with the two young women, some two years previously. ‘Mr Godwin has forbade him the house,’ she said, ‘and quite right too, after such a scandalous and disgraceful betrayal. He swore he would stop seeing Mary, you know. He stood there, on exactly the spot where you’re standing now and swore the affair was over and there would be no more clandestine meetings and midnight assignations and secret messages going to and fro. And the next we hear he’s upped and gone with her, and tricked my Clairy into going with them.’

 

I observed with mounting irritation Mr Godwin’s rather supercilious expression throughout his wife’s narration, and I was very much tempted to enquire how he reconciled his public condemnations of the institution of marriage with his continued ostracism of a man who appeared to have followed those precepts only too assiduously. Nor did I venture my own opinion as to the justice – moral or indeed political – of importuning such an individual for money while refusing to afford him even the time of day. Mrs Godwin, meanwhile, had become increasingly testy, saying that the current state of affairs was most trying and unsatisfactory, and had rendered it difficult, nay, almost impossible, to obtain the information they required as to Shelley’s wider intentions.

 

That, in short, was to be my undertaking.

You can see here, how I have attempted to translate fact into fiction. The preparatory work for the novel required almost the same degree of research as a biography, and in my case, letters, journals, and other papers were invaluable not just for what they said, but how they said it. I wanted to be able to speak in my characters’ voices, absorbing their own words, where appropriate, and drawing on contemporary descriptions. The suicide note Fanny left is reproduced in her own words, for example. And Charles Lamb was no great admirer of the second Mrs Godwin, and thus a particularly lively source. And even for a fictional character like Maddox, I wanted to create a strong sense of the period through an appropriate and convincing prose style.

To continue the story. Godwin later summons Maddox a second time, on the morning they discover Fanny has disappeared. It is entirely natural, within the world of the novel, that Maddox should offer to follow Fanny, and thus find himself at the Mackworth Arms on the day she died. History tells us someone intervened that day; in my novel that person is Charles Maddox:

I found Skinner Street in uproar – maids dispatched hither and thither in random and ineffectual enquiries, and the youngest Godwin child, a rather fearful-looking boy of some thirteen years, crying aloud for his sister and trailing about the house, unregarded, it seemed, by anyone in it. Godwin himself I found hunched over his writing-desk, taciturn and morose. As well he might be. What does it say of any father that all three of the young women consigned to his care had now gone to such extraordinary lengths to escape from it? But if Godwin had become silent in the face of such a calamity, his wife appeared even more strident, if such a thing were possible. Poor silly Fanny, she repeated incessantly, was always falling into such fits of dejection at the slightest provocation, and without the slightest cause. ‘You mark my words, William,’ she said to her husband. ‘It will just be another attempt to put herself forward and have people notice her. That girl never did know how to conduct herself properly – but what do you expect with an adventurer like Imlay for a father? It will all be just another billow in a ladle, just you see. I’ll wager even now she is thinking better of it, and is on her way home with her tail between her legs. And she’ll have a piece of my mind when she gets here, make no mistake about that.’

 

This vulgar tirade seemed at length to rouse the philosopher from his broodings, and he reminded his wife, with a certain terseness, that she might have done better to keep the secret of Fanny’s parentage from her, or at the very least informed her of it in a rather more delicate manner. I was forced to conclude from this that even if the circumstances of the young woman’s birth were widely known outside the family, Fanny herself had not known until recently of her own illegitimacy. I could see how sorely this might have affected her, and began to feel a degree of concern far in excess of what Mrs Godwin clearly believed either necessary or appropriate. And this concern was only augmented when Godwin took me aside to inform me that Fanny had, only a few days previously, been sadly disappointed in a long-held ambition to join her mother’s maiden sisters at their school in Dublin, and assume a career there as a teacher. Mrs Godwin then interjected loudly that that was all Mary’s fault, not Fanny’s, and how could you blame them? However reluctant I was to find myself in agreement with Mrs Godwin on any point of note, I had to concur that it was in all likelihood the public scandal occasioned by Miss Godwin’s elopement that had caused the ladies in question to decide against offering such a position to a young woman living in the same household, albeit their own niece. But the fact that Fanny was in no way to blame for this change in her prospects cannot have afforded her much consolation in the loss of them, left, as she must have believed, without any possibility of making a life for herself independent of her family. Godwin begged me then for my counsel, and I gave it as my opinion that there seemed only two places that the young woman might have fled: to her half-sister and step-sister in Bath, or to the aforementioned aunts in Dublin, and I thought it likely that Dublin would be her preference of the two. My advice, therefore, was that I should send one of my most trusted men to Bath, but I would go myself to Swansea, that being by far her likeliest port of departure for Ireland. I wrote out a description of Miss Imlay, and asked Mrs Godwin to ascertain the likely contents of her travelling case. How much more grave my concerns became when that lady returned downstairs to report Fanny had taken with her only a small reticule, and the clothes she was wearing. ‘And that watch that Mary bought for her in Swisserland,’ she said. ‘Make sure to mention that. Expensive, that was.’

 

I arrived eventually late in the afternoon of October 9th. A hard wind was blowing off the sea, and I wanted nothing more than a hot bath and an honest dinner, but disdaining both I made at once for the house of an acquaintance, a man in the employ of the port authorities. There had been but one crossing that day, he informed me, the wind being so foul, and there had been no young lady answering Miss Imlay’s description aboard. Having extracted a promise for vigilance and dispatch I repaired to a small ill-favoured inn, where I ordered such a repast as the sour and slatternly landlady could offer, and retired as soon as I might to my bed, exhausted, dispirited and uneasy.

 

I did not know – and it will haunt me to my dying day – that scarcely an hour after I had left the noisy and stinking tap-room there came a knock at the outer door and an enquiry, in low and trembling tones, whether there might be a room available for a respectable lady travelling unaccompanied. A small room only was required, and for that night alone. She would be gone, she said, by morning.

 

I wonder now, with pain, how she spent those last hours. How many times she put the bottle of laudanum to her lips before she had the courage to take the fatal dose. How sadly her thoughts must have returned to the mother she barely knew, who had tried, she too, to put an end to a life that had become to her unbearable. I wonder likewise if any circumstance might have prevented it. A kind word unlooked-for; a knock of concern at the door; a letter in a much-loved hand. But no help came. By the time a thin sun was rising over the bleak iron sea, I awoke to commotion and alarm in the corridor outside and arose in a terrified haste, my heart misgiving me and a terrible certainty weighing upon my heart like lead

 

The maid it was who found her. The maid who needed only one glance at the young woman on the bed to know that something was dreadfully amiss. She was lying, fully clothed, above the counterpane, in one hand her sister’s last gift, and in the other a single sheet of crumpled paper. I know all this, because I saw it. Before the doctor came, and the constable, and the idly and offensively curious, I thrust the maid from the room and slammed the door behind her. Then I went to the bedside and placed my hand against the pale forehead, and saw with a heart that faltered that on her eyelashes there still lingered tears. And then I took the paper from her cold and rigid fingers and read the words she had left for us to find.

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as

Fanny Imlay

 

My duty – my professional duty – was clear. This note must remain, and the constable must see it. But I had a higher duty, or so I thought then. Not to her family, who, I feared, would be only too ready to commence their forgetting, but to the young woman herself. I knew what scandal and gossip would be whipped up by the very mention of her name, and what vile speculation would dog her to her grave, if it were bruited abroad that one connected so closely with the Godwin family had died here by her own hand, desolate and alone. Hearing footsteps on the stair I knew I had no time, and I made a decision I have never since regretted, not for one moment: I took the letter and tore the name away, then stepped quickly to the hearth and consigned the scrap of paper to the fire.

 

It was little enough, by way of a service, and not as decisive as I had hoped, for I discovered later that she had her mother’s initials sewn into her stays, and I fear that the prying of a callous posterity will uncover the secret I was striving so desperately to keep. But for then, and I hope for some little time yet, it was enough – enough to keep her poor wounded name from the speculations of the newspapers, and cast the kindness of concealment about her last hours. And even if I had failed her living, I had the power to protect her dead. Swansea is a small town, and word of such an untoward incident promulgates only too quickly, but I was relentless. No effort was spared, no payment unmade, and by nightfall on the third day I had ensured that the inquest verdict was given merely as an unexplained death, and there would be none of those references to insanity or self-destruction as would have seen her corpse treated with indignity and disrespect.

 

Of the interment, I wish not to speak. The rain driving in off the sea, the black-suited clergyman racing through the service that he might return to the comfort of his own fat fireside, and the bodies, three of them, sewn into their rough sacks, heaved one by one into the tainted pit of a paupers’ grave. I did not even know which one was hers.

The second post will be on the second tragic suicide of that autumn: Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. The woman he abandoned, pregnant, when he eloped with Mary….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart.  She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

Byron and his women: Mad, bad and very dangerous to know

Page 1

by Alexander Larman
In the (mercifully) final season of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, played with wooden heartiness by Hugh Bonneville, is convalescing after a spectacular moment of bloody vomiting. To aid him in his recuperation, he is shown leafing through a volume of Byron’s poetry. There is a jocular exchange in which Byron is said to have been ‘a great lover of wine’, and then an indulgent chuckle before it is announced ‘and women too’. This has for centuries been the accepted public face of Byron, that of a man who loved – ‘not wisely, but too well’. He loved liberty, life and literature, and made himself one of the most talked-about men of letters who ever lived.

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage


 
The adjective ‘Byronic’ has entered the language in a way that the names of few other writers have, and is generally bestowed as a mark of approval. Many men, and not a few women, would regard being described thus as a badge of honour; it seems to convey dash and panache, coupled with a liberal political stance and peerless artistic achievement. The less savoury and more unfortunate aspects of Byron’s character – the often callous treatment towards his lovers; the violence of his mercurial temper; an attitude towards friends that alternated between reckless generosity and equally reckless dismissal – have not been ignored, but have become part of the Byronic myth. It is time to delve beneath the surface of the myth, and be prepared for what we may find there.
 
The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal. In addition to the innumerable chambermaids, maidservants and acolytes who were, in Byron’s own words, ‘tooled in a post-chaise- in a hackney coach – in a gondola – against a wall – in a court carriage- in a vis a vis — on a table — and under it’, he had a series of mutually destructive relationships with a variety of women. Some of them, such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, he was initially drawn to because of their status and wealth but soon grew tired of. Others, including his most tragic mistress Claire Clairmont and his mother Catherine Gordon, were treated with disdain and even anger. The two exceptions were his final lover, Teresa Guiccioli, who at least received a small measure of compassion; and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who weathered the slings and arrows of a scandalous and incestuous affair with a dignity and good humour that makes one wonder why she has been regarded by posterity as little more than a brainless dupe.
 
The answer, unfortunately, is a lazy misogyny that has permeated the Byron establishment for decades. In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man. When I decided to write an ‘anti-biography’ of sorts, it seemed obvious to examine his life through the prism of his relationships. I was not prepared at first for how distressing this would be, nor how revealing. Using as much of his lovers’ and friends’ correspondence as I could, I set out to paint a picture of those who were so much more than mere satellites orbiting an aloof star. I was equally keen for the voices of those around him to be heard, whether the precise, cold decisiveness of Annabella, the worried but fiercely loyal bustling of Catherine, the warm affection of Augusta and even the bewildered tenacity of his presumed illegitimate daughter Medora Leigh, product of incest and deceit.
Byron women
What is plain to see in the people I spent so much time with is how extraordinarily independent-minded and tough they all were. Catherine, abandoned by her feckless and debt-ridden husband, doggedly brought up her son to be worthy of the title that he inherited; Caroline took revenge on Byron by publishing a roman-à-clef that was nearly as scandalous as anything that her lordly lover ever wrote; the unlikely trio of Mary Shelley, Claire and Shelley travelled through Italy and Switzerland as free agents, casting off the shackles of respectability that they were expected to wear in favour of intellectual and sexual emancipation; and his daughter Ada Lovelace played a pioneering role in the development of computing science.
 
All nine of ‘Byron’s women’ in my book are a remarkable reminder, decades before universal suffrage and the concept of ‘women’s rights’, that intelligent and forthright women could and did expect to live lives considerably richer than merely serving as wives and dutiful producers of children at regular intervals. These lives might often have been difficult, or unconventional, or short, but they were seldom boring.
 
And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel. His personal legacy is undeniably a tarnished one, and many readers may have some sympathy with the manner in which Annabella attempted, without success, to bring up her daughter in ignorance of what her father represented. But there can be little doubt that Ada’s fierce protectiveness of him should find an echo in all but the most dogmatic of hearts. Unlike the Roman, I have come here neither to praise him, nor to bury him.
 
Nonetheless, as I consider, with some reluctance, the relationship between Byron, his romantic relationships and Downton Abbey, it is appropriate to remember the words of the Dowager Countess from an earlier episode: ‘The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.’
 
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women, published in September 2016. He is a writer and biographer whose books include Blazing Star (2014), a life of Byron’s predecessor the Earl of Rochester and Restoration (2016), a social history of the year 1666. He writes Alex Larmanabout literature and culture for publications including the TLS, Observer, Times and Telegraph, and lives in Sussex with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat’

Page 1

by Graham Henderson

This is how how Shelley described himself, during a visit to Chamonix and Mont Blanc in mid July 1816, in the company of Mary Godwin (later his wife), and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. According to his biographer, James Bieri, he “made at least four such registry inscriptions, including two hotels in Chamonix, an inn perhaps at Sallanches, and the mountain hut on the Montenvers.”
Of these, by far the most important has become the entry made at the Hotel de Villes de Londres, for on 19 July 2016 (almost exactly 200 years later), the University of Cambridge made a startling and almost completely unheralded announcement. They were in possession of a page from the register of a hotel in Chamonix: not just any page and not just any hotel. The hotel was the Hotel de Villes de Londres and the page in question was the one upon which Percy Bysshe Shelley had inscribed his famous declaration that he was an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat. Not a copy of it….the page. See their release here.
No reproduction or copy of this page has ever, to my knowledge been made available to the public. Evidence for what Shelley wrote was based almost exclusively on the reports of other people, such as Southey, Byron, or the Lutheran minister, John Pye Smith. In legal terms this is called “hearsay” and is notoriously unreliable. This new discovery will change, I think, the way the crucial incident in Shelley’s life is interpreted. A low resolution copy of the register page was provided on line by the University of Cambridge and appears below:

Page from hotel register, University of Cambridge

Page from hotel register, 23 July 1816, Trinity College, Cambridge

The Greek words for “atheist”, “lover of humanity” and “democrat” appear in the middle of the page on the right hand side.  Many people have sought to diminish the importance of these words and the circumstances under which they were written. Some modern scholars have even ridiculed him. I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him. They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.

Shelley’s atheism and his political philosophy was at the heart of his poetry and his revolutionary agenda (yes, he had one). Our understanding of Shelley is impoverished to the extent we ignore or diminish its importance.

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

Mont Blanc was a routine stop on the so-called ‘Grand Tour’. In fact, so many people visited it, that you will find Shelley in his letters bemoaning the fact that the area was “overrun by tourists.” With the Napoleonic wars only just at an end, English tourists were again flooding the continent. While in Chamonix, many would have stayed at the famous Hotel de Villes de Londres, as did Shelley. As today, the lodges and guest houses of those days maintained a ‘visitor’s register’; unlike today those registers would have contained the names of a virtual who’s who of upper class society. RyanAir was not flying English punters in for day visits. What you wrote in such a register was guaranteed to be read by literate, well connected aristocrats – even if you penned your entry in Greek – as Shelley did.

The words Shelley wrote in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres (under the heading “Occupation”) were (as translated by PMS Dawson): “philanthropist, an utter democrat, and an atheist”. The words were, as I say, written in Greek. The Greek word he used for philanthropist was philanthropos tropos. The origin of the word and its connection to Shelley is very interesting. Its first use appears in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the Greek play which Shelley was ‘answering’ with his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. Aeschylus used his newly coined word philanthropos tropos (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors. Bacon considered philanthropy to be synonymous with ‘goodness’, which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of ‘virtue’.

What do the words Shelley selected mean and why is it important? First of all, most people today would shrug at his self-description. Today, most people share democratic values and they live in a secular society where even in America as many as one in five people are unaffiliated with a religion; so claiming to be an atheist is not exactly controversial today. As for philanthropy, well, who doesn’t give money to charity, and in our modern society, the word philanthropy has been reduced to this connotation. I suppose many people would assume that things might have been a bit different in Shelley’s time – but how controversial could it be to describe yourself in such a manner? Context, it turns out, is everything. In his time, Shelley’s chosen labels shocked and scandalised society and I believe they were designed to do just that. Because in 1816, the words ‘philanthropist, democrat and atheist’ were fighting words.

Shelley would have understood the potential audience for his words, and it is therefore impossible not to conclude that Shelley was being deliberately provocative. In the words of P.M.S. Dawson, he was “nailing his colours to the mast-head”. As we shall see, he even had a particular target in mind: none other than Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Word of the note spread quickly throughout England. The Lutheran Minister John Pye Smith acidly reported to Shelley’s distant relatives, Sir John and Lady Shelley, that he was sure they did not want to be “confounded with a Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley, of Sussex, & his lady; whose names we had seen in every Inn’s Register since we left Cluse, with the horrid avowal of atheism industriously subjoined.’

As you can see from the image of the register, Shelley’s signature has been underlined twice – but by whom? Well, our biographies do tell us something about this. For generations, biographers, relying on a claim made by Byron, have believed that Byron, upon encountering Shelley’s entry some weeks later, scribbled out Shelley’s name. He claims to have done this to protect his friend’s reputation. Biographers have universally taken Byron at his word, David Ellis remarks that, “[Byron] must have felt that Shelley was too young to understand fully what a red rag to a bull of English public opinion the word ‘atheist’ would be, and how quickly news of its offensive presence would be spread…” . Personally I find that assertion ridiculous. For his part, Richard Holmes concludes, “Byron…immediately felt obliged to cross it out as indelibly as possible for Shelley’s own protection.”  Again, ridiculous. The Byron I know was hardly solicitous of the reputations of others and relished controversy. Well, we now have evidence that Byron’s story may well have been false.

What we see when we look at the register is that quite apart from scribbling Shelley’s name out, someone (and who else but Byron) underlined it not once but twice. Professor Wilson would seem to agree:

“Lord Byron, no stranger to scandal, claimed to have struck out one of Shelley’s inscriptions. There are grounds to think that this is Byronic hyperbole and that it was Byron who in fact underlined, rather than struck out, Shelley’s name in the hotel register”.

Now many motives may be ascribed to this if we are to assume that the underlining is Byron’s. One could conclude, charitably, that Byron delighted in his friend’s provocative action and sought to draw attention to it. On the other hand it could have been a crude attempt to compound what he might have viewed as Shelley’s indiscretion. We can’t forget that for all of his bluster, Byron was anything but an atheist or even deist. Given that fact that he appears to have lied about his action, the latter conclusion seems the more likely. There is something of an irony bound up in this. If in fact Byron did this to attract unwelcome attention to Shelley’s provocative statements, he actually would have played right into Shelley’s hand – for Shelley would have most likely thanked Byron for helping to draw attention to his declaration.

While Shelley was not a household name in England, he was the son of a baronet whose patron was one of the leading Whigs of his generation, Lord Norfolk. Behaviour such as this was bound to and did attract attention. Many would also have remembered that Shelley had been actually expelled from Oxford for publishing a notoriously atheistical tract, The Necessity of Atheism.
Necessity

While his claim to be an atheist attracted most of the attention, the other two terms were freighted as well. ‘Democrat’ then had the connotations it does today but such connotations in his day were clearly inflammatory (the word “utter” acting as an exclamation mark). The term ‘philanthropist’ is more interesting because at that time it did not merely connote donating money, it had overt political and even revolutionary overtones. To be an atheist or a philanthropist or a democrat, and Shelley was all three, was to be fundamentally opposed to the ruling order and Shelley wanted the world to know it.

What made Shelley’s atheism even more likely to occasion outrage was the fact that English tourists went to Mont Blanc specifically to have a religious experience occasioned by their experience of the ‘sublime’. Indeed, Timothy Webb speculates that at least one of Shelley’s entries might have been in response to another comment in the register which read, “Such scenes as these inspires, then, more forcibly, the love of God”. If not in answer to this, then most certainly Shelley was responding to Coleridge, who, in his head note to “Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” had famously asked, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders?” In a nutshell Shelley’s answer was: “I could!!!”

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

The reaction to Shelley’s entry was predictably furious and focused almost exclusively on Shelley’s choice of the word ‘atheist’. For example, this anonymous comment appeared in the London Chronicle:

Mr. Shelley is understood to be the person who, after gazing on Mont Blanc, registered himself in the album as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist; which gross and cheap bravado he, with the natural tact of the new school, took for a display of philosophic courage; and his obscure muse has been since constantly spreading all her foulness of those doctrines which a decent infidel would treat with respect and in which the wise and honourable have in all ages found the perfection of wisdom and virtue.

Shelley’s decision to write the inscription in Greek was even more provocative because as Webb points out, Greek was associated with “the language of intellectual liberty, the language of those courageous philosophers who had defied political and religious tyranny in their allegiance to the truth.”

The concept of the ‘sublime’ was one of the dominant (and popular) subjects of the early 19th Century. It was widely believed that the natural sublime could provoke a religious experience and confirmation of the existence of the deity. This was a problem for Shelley because he believed that religion was the principle prop for the ruling (tyrannical) political order. As Cian Duffy in Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime has suggested, Prometheus Unbound, like much of his other work, “was concerned to revise the standard, pious or theistic configuration of that discourse [on the natural sublime] along secular and politically progressive lines….” Shelley believed that the key to this lay in the cultivation of the imagination. An individual possessed of an ‘uncultivated’ imagination, would contemplate the natural sublime in a situation such as Chamonix Valley, would see god at work, and this would then lead inevitably to the “falsehoods of religious systems.” In Queen Mab, Shelley called this the ‘deifying’ response and believed it was an error that resulted from the failure to ‘rightly’ feel the ‘mystery’ of natural ‘grandeur’:

“The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur is in no danger of seductions from the falsehoods of religious systems or of deifying the principle of the universe” (Notes to Queen Mab).

He believed that a cultivated imagination would not make this error.

This view was not new to Shelley, it was shared, for example, by Archibald Alison whose 1790 Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste made the point that people tended to ‘lose themselves’ in the presence of the sublime. He concluded, “this involuntary and unreflective activity of the imagination leads intentionally and unavoidably to an intuition of God’s presence in Creation”. Shelley believed this himself and theorised explicitly that it was the uncultivated imagination that enacted what he called this “vulgar mistake.” This theory comes to full fruition in Act III of Prometheus Unbound where, as Duffy notes,

“…their [Demogorgon and Asia] encounter restates the foundational premise of Shelley’s engagement with the discourse on the natural sublime: the idea that natural grandeur, correctly interpreted by the ‘cultivated imagination, can teach the mind politically potent truths, truths that expose the artificiality of the current social order and provide the blueprint for a ‘prosperous’, philanthropic reform of ‘political institutions’.

Shelley’s atheism was thus connected to his theory of the imagination and we can now understand why his ‘rewriting’ of the natural sublime was so important to him.

If Shelley was simply a non-believer, this would be bad enough, but as he stated in the visitor’s register he was also a ‘democrat’; and by democrat Shelley really meant republican, and modern analysts have now actually placed him within the radical tradition of philosophical anarchism. Shelley made part of this explicit when he wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener stating,

“It is this empire of terror which is established by Religion, Monarchy is its prototype, Aristocracy may be regarded as symbolizing its very essence. They are mixed – one can now scarce be distinguished from the other.”

This point is made again in Queen Mab where Shelley asserts that the anthropomorphic god of Christianity is the “the prototype of human misrule”  and the spiritual image of monarchical despotism. In his book Romantic Atheism, Martin Priestman points out that the corrupt emperor in Laon and Cythna is consistently enabled by equally corrupt priests. As Paul Foot avers in Red Shelley, “Established religions, Shelley noted, had always been a friend to tyranny”. Dawson for his part suggests, “The only thing worse than being a republican was being an atheist, and Shelley was that too; indeed, his atheism was intimately connected with his political revolt”.
Three explosive little words that harbour a universe of meaning and significance. The Cambridge document has yielded other surprises and mysteries such as quote from Palms 14.1 (who inserted it?) and a third name (Claire’s?) that was scratched out (by whom and why?). You can find more on the hotel register by following this link to my article at www.grahamhenderson.ca:
References
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley; A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
Dawson, P.M.S. The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Ellis, David. Byron in Geneva, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press,( 2011
Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit Weidenfield. London: and Nicolson, 1974

This post originally appeared on Graham’s Shelley blog http://www.grahamhenderson.ca/shelley/

Graham HendersonGraham Henderson is President of Music Canada, an association that promotes the interests of the Canadian music community.  He is Chair of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and in 2013 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.  He is a lifelong student of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as of Canadian, Russian and Ancient history – Cicero is a favourite. Graham graduated from the University of Guelph with a double major in English Literature and Fine Art History. He completed his Masters at the University of Toronto, writing on ‘Prometheus Unbound and the Problem of Opposite’.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More

In the footsteps of the Shelleys: Italy

Page 1

by Anna Mercer

In September 2015 I spent four nights in the bay of Lerici. This visit was my first experience in this part of Italy: the region of Tuscany, an astoundingly beautiful landscape of beaches, mountains and distinctive Italian architecture. I have already been able to spend time in Rome and Venice as a research student, following in the footsteps of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. However, Tuscany really feels like the Shelleys’ home. This is where Percy and Mary spent much of their time from mid-1818 through to the spring of 1822 (just before Percy Shelley’s death on 8 July). In her notes to Percy’s Poetical Works, Mary writes:

The Bay of Spezia is of considerable extent, and divided by a rocky promontory into a larger and smaller one. The town of Lerici is situated on the eastern point, and in the depths of the smaller bay, which bears the name of this town, is the village of San Terenzo. Our house, Casa Magni, was close to this village; the sea came up to the door, a steep hill sheltered it behind.

I stayed in the town of Lerici, which looks over the bay of the same name towards San Terenzo. Our balcony (we hired a wonderful airbnb residence which was reasonably priced and very spacious – highly recommended!) looked out across the bay towards the house which Percy and Mary Shelley lived in: Casa Magni.
Mercer 1
A 20-minute walk took us round the bay to the house itself. Mary Shelley said this place had an ‘unimaginable beauty’.
mercer 2

The Shelleys moved here (after living in various other places in Tuscany, including Pisa, Livorno and Bagni di Lucca) in April 1822. Although they only moved here a few months before Percy’s death, the Shelleys were rarely stationed in one place for long, and Casa Magni is important because Percy Shelley moved his family and friends (Edward and Jane Williams) here with a view to set up home. However, biographers of Mary Shelley have implied she was unhappy here, finding it isolated and desolate (she did write: ‘we could scarcely have found ourselves farther from civilisation and comfort’). Casa Magni is a striking white mansion right on the beach, which would have stood alone and remote in the Shelleys’ time, but is now the centre of the strip of buildings in San Terenzo. It is now also a private residence available for hire, somewhere beyond my budget, sadly – but it does sleep up to 10 people, so a future gathering with friends/family there would be wonderful. Miranda Seymour’s research into the Shelleys’ lives suggests it was an intimate dwelling for their crowd, however, as the Williamses and the Shelleys lived ‘in inescapable intimacy, eating in the hall which held their bedrooms narrowly apart’.[1]
Here are some images of Casa Magni as it would have been in the nineteenth century:
casa-magni

casa-magni 2
This is the plaque on the house now:
Mercer 3
The fact that this part of the country is where Percy Shelley also spent his final days makes the experience of being there all the more poignant. Percy set out from this house on the 1 July 1822 in his new boat, the Don Juan. He was travelling to meet Byron and Leigh Hunt at nearby Livorno to discuss The Liberal, a new literary journal. Tragedy struck when on his return voyage the boat sank, drowning all three men on board (Shelley, Edward Williams and Charles Vivian, a young English boatman). Percy Shelley was just 29 years old. Mary – his lover, intellectual collaborator and confidante since their dramatic elopement in 1814 – was anxiously awaiting his return at Casa Magni. Looking out towards that sea and finally piecing together what had happened must have been terrifying for her: and Mary herself was only 24. She later wrote:

The spell snapped; it was all over; an interval of agonising doubt- of days passed in miserable journeys to gain tidings, of hopes that took firmer root even as they were more baseless- was changed to the certainty of death that eclipsed all happiness for the survivors for evermore.

Percy Shelley was cremated on the beach between La Spezia and Livorno, and in March 1823 his ashes were interred at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Percy Shelley wrote The Triumph of Life here, and Mary was to later consider that ‘When Shelley was [at sea], he had his papers with him; and much of The Triumph of Life was written as he sailed or weltered on that sea that was soon to engulf him.’
This is why the gulf of Spezia is known as the Golfo di Poeti. The name of Shelley has taken over more things than you might traditionally associate with the literary couple, however….
Mercer 4
Mercer 5
Mercer 6
Mercer 7
I  also travelled to Bagni di Lucca, via a mountain drive….
Mercer 8
The Shelleys moved to this spa town on 11 June 1818 and rented the Casa Bertini. It was during this residence that Percy wrote the essay ‘On Love’ and translated Plato’s Symposium.
Mercer 9
Mountains surround this town. This experience was probably the most beautiful example of isolated Italian landscape I have been lucky enough to see – the lack of the coast (but being conscious of the distant sea, off to the west) and the lush green hills make you feel enclosed in a rapturous space of tranquillity. Bagni di Lucca felt less touristy than Lerici and the other coastal towns; however, an Italian local in the cafe we stopped in was keen to point out that the place was still very populated with English expats.
We set out to try and find the Shelleys’ house. Miranda Seymour explains in her biography of Mary that the house ‘stood beside the oldest of the marble hot baths and the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s disused chapel at the top of a steep and twisted cobbled street.’[2] This was Casa Bertini and it was home to Percy and Mary Shelley, their two children, and Claire Clairmont for two months. Online instructions warned us that ‘Casa Bertini is devilishly difficult to
find’, however, we seemed to wander somewhere that may well have been the right place, reaching an ‘arched entrance’, taking a ‘switchback’ on the left, and up the hill to ‘a small, dead-end piazza’, we found a house.
Mercer 10
Mercer 11
Mercer 12
This now-abandoned house seemed to be in the right kind of place and was the right kind of size. We imagined the Shelleys here, or close to here at least. There was a beautiful view of the River Serchio below from the balcony, and some friendly cats also added to the spectacle!
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Mercer 14
Other highlights of this brief Shelleyan tour included an experience of the wonderful sunset over the bay and reading Percy’s ‘Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici’ in front of Casa Magni on the beach.

I dare not speak
My thoughts, but thus disturbed and weak
I sat and saw the vessels glide
Over the ocean bright and wide,
Like spirit-winged chariots sent
O’er some serenest element
For ministrations strange and far;
As if to some Elysian star
Sailed for drink to medicine
Such sweet and bitter pain as mine.
And the wind that winged their flight
From the land came fresh and light,
And the scent of wingéd flowers,
And the coolness of the hours
Of dew, and sweet warmth left by day,
Were scattered o’er the twinkling bay.
And the fisher with his lamp
And spear about the low rocks damp
Crept, and struck the fish which came
To worship the delusive flame.
Too happy they, whose pleasure sought
Extinguishes all sense and thought
Of the regret that pleasure [ ]
Destroying   [29-52]

Donald Reiman wrote that ‘what usually inspired PBS to write poetry, it seems, was some unhappy event or unfulfilled desire’.[3] ‘Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici’ is an enchanting example of the dissatisfied poet, world-weary and pensive. This tone might be what many people think of as an example of the stereotypical ‘Romantic’ poem – the disaffected male poet lamenting his thoughts, perhaps in a self-indulgent manner – but the power of Percy Shelley’s poetry is in its understanding of the human condition. Shelley’s voice here calls out to an otherworldly spirit that might seek an affinity with his own sad heart. It is the hope embodied in the gliding vessels, ‘Like spirit-winged chariots’, that the speaker meditates on. It is a more than a declaration of loneliness but rather a mind seeking a kindred soul. By writing this poem, was Shelley not reaching out to the reader? It is the recognisable emotion in this poem that is striking to a reader, rather than a monologue complaining of the narrator’s personal alienation. The fact that the poem is set in a definite place – the beautiful bay of Lerici – captures that human discontent that can still overwhelm in a natural wonderland. The place gives the poem an intimacy and a peculiar link to Shelley himself (and I am glad I have seen boats sweep over the exact same waters), but Shelley’s talent as a poet is that we can imagine feeling the same way ourselves, wherever we are.
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[1] Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley (London: Picador, 2000) p 294.
[2] Seymour, p. 208.
[3] Donald H. Reiman, Headnote to ‘The Aziola’ in The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Percy Bysshe Shelley Vol VIII ed. by Donald H. Reiman and Michael O’Neill (London: Garland, 1997) p. 322.
All quotes from Mary Shelley: ‘Notes on Poems of 1822’ in Shelley: Poetical Works ed. by Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) pp 675-680.
All photos are the author’s own. Please do not use without permission.
This post originally appeared on https://percyandmaryshelley.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/travel-blog-finding-the-shelleys-in-tuscany-almost-200-years-later/
Anna Mercer is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research is on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. She is also organising a day conference on the work of Percy and Mary Shelley in London in September 2017. For more details click here. Anna Mercer

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

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Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

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Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

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10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

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19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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Claire Clairmont: On her letters and journals

Page 1

By Lesley McDowell
“I have just got your amusing letter (no one writes such good letters as you do)…I have not the art of letter writing – You have it to an eminent degree.”
Mary Shelley was not attempting to ingratiate herself with her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, when she wrote these words to her towards the end of 1845. She was merely speaking the truth: Claire was a superb letter-writer. She was amusing, yes, but she was also frank, passionate and gossipy. Her letters are full of detail, but like any true writer, only of the necessary kind. Later in life she was tormented by a contradiction: the need to preserve and protect her identity, and the desire not to be “lost in oblivion.” Her letters and journals betray the former; but they also defy the latter.
Claire Clairmont was the archetypal Romantic woman, far more than her more famous step-sister, Mary Shelley. She was born, probably illegitimately, to a Mary Jane Deveraux, who happened to move to London close to the residence of one William Godwin, who was at that moment mourning the sudden death of his new wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, in childbirth. Godwin was also taking care of Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate daughter by a previous lover, Gilbert Imlay. A single father to two girls, he welcomed Mary Jane Deveraux eagerly and they set up house together. Mary Jane brought her daughter, Claire (then known as Jane), and her son Charles, to the relationship, and soon she and Godwin had a son together, William. In their household, no two children had the same
parentage.
It was a radical, freethinking household, then, and Claire clung to those early principles for a good deal of her life. But she is mostly remembered now for the scandalous event she later tried to hide from biographers: her youthful affair with Lord Byron, and her daughter, Allegra, the result of  that union. Full of girlish enthusiasm and excitement for the poet who was probably the most notable ‘celebrity’ of that age, her letters to him begin humbly, with a promise of frankness (“I have withheld nothing”), as she chases after him with such force that he calls her “a little fiend.” She was eighteen at the time, and probably hoping to emulate Mary’s passionate relationship with Shelley.
Claire plays the Romantic heroine to the hilt during this affair; one can easily imagine how a writer like Jane Austen would have ridiculed and used the situation in a novel. Because shortly before Byron left for the Continent, Claire slept with him for what was probably the first and only time; her letters thereafter are messages of unrequited love, sighing and pining, showing how little she really understood the man. Disillusionment was guaranteed.
For after her baby was born, she talked herself into handing her over to him, at only eighteen months old. In a letter dated January 12th, 1818, she did voice suspicions about Byron’s capability as a father for Allegra: “Suppose that in yielding her to your care I yield her to neglect and coldness? How am I assured that such will not be the case?” but she still did not understand that he despised intellectual women, and feminist women most of all, ending that letter, “I cannot bear that women should be  outdone in virtue and knowledge by men.”
Subsequent biographers of Byron have mostly blamed Claire for the tragic outcome of Allegra’s handing-over; several have criticised her for her high-handed manner in dealing with a man so socially superior to her. Her attitude in her letters is direct as always and often insistent, concerned  as she was for her absent child. But Claire also exemplified something else about the Romantic woman: she was a middle-class girl who had been properly educated. She wasn’t an aristocrat and she wasn’t a servant. She was a different being, a new kind of woman, and Byron hadn’t a clue how to handle her. He preferred to ignore her letters, or bait her, if she really annoyed him. It just made everything worse.
Claire’s pleas during this time are nothing short of heart-breaking and make for distressing reading. When the little girl finally died at the age of five on April 19th, 1822, in a convent where her father had placed her, Claire’s sorrow and anger go unrecorded either in her journals or letters, as though no words could express adequately how she felt. Less than three months later, in another tragedy, Shelley would be drowned and her whole world would change, her protector gone.
What is remarkable about her though, is how she picked herself up: by September 1824, she was in Moscow, preferring her “ice cave and bears” to a return to England. What followed were years of hardship and difficulty as she was employed in various Russian households as a governess. But her  letters to Mary, back in England, or to Jane Williams, give a fascinating glimpse both into life in Russian households of the early nineteenth century, as well as into the role of the governess. “I feel at every moment like a person who has lost his way…I never know whether the most innocent of my actions, the most common will not produce a dispute a scene…In Russia this leads to nothing – they attack you, you defend yourself; a thousand names are called on each side; the quarrel ends – the Russians think no more about it and are ready to quarrel with you again for fretting over such trifles, because with them it is as habitual as the bread they eat….”
By 1841, though, her fortunes had changed and she was living in Paris, an independent woman, complaining about the lack of a social life (which soon became very busy). Claire’s journals show her mood swings more clearly than her letters, which also veer between melancholy and happiness – habitually she suffered depressive feelings a few days before her period, which she marked in her journal with an ‘X’. The journals also show when bad memories struck her, laying her low. In Moscow at the beginning of 1827, for example, she “weeps for Shelley and that impostor B.”
She never forgave Byron the loss of her daughter. After he died in 1824, biographies were produced by anyone who had even the slightest connection with him, and Claire, now clinging to a fragile respectability, was regularly terrified that the public would discover her connection with him.  As the editor of her letters, Marion Kingston Stocking points out, “she lived in dread of appearing as a ‘Voluptuous Amour’ or a ‘Celebrated Character'”. She was an anomaly by the time the High Victorian period came along: an independent woman but not a rich one; unmarried, but the mother of a child. The values she had imbibed as a young girl in the Godwin household were not relevant or admired by the new age and by 1849, it seemed that she, too, had succumbed to a more conservative view of life. When her niece, Clara, married Alexander Knox after a scandalously speedy courtship of only a few days, she was appalled, and let the unfortunate couple know it.
In her old age, she became the imperious grand-dame of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, guarding her secrets and her past from would-be intruders. Except from Edward John Trelawny, her old friend from her days with the Shelleys and Byron, to whom she disclosed everything she could remember. He urged her to write her own life; she refused. Her recollections were unreliable by now though; she mistook dates, events, people. But her judgement was still astute; of Shelley, she wrote, “He was a wonderful Poet – perhaps in his transcendentalism, greater than any Poet that has ever lived – but when he laid aside his pen and ceased imagining and creating, he became purely and simply a man, generous, tender-hearted etc etc – but full of weaknesses that were not in keeping with his great intellect.”
Claire’s life ended with her hope that “my memory may not be lost in oblivion as my life has been.” Excised, often at her own request, either directly or through Mary, from biographical accounts of the lives of the Shelleys or Byron, she watched her own experiences disappear from view. But we should not forget them. For she was the ideal Romantic woman, as conjured up by Mary Wollstonecraft herself in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:  “The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng, and feel as men feel before we can judge of their feelings. If we mean, in short, to live in the world to grow wiser and better, and not merely to enjoy the good things in life, we must attain a knowledge of ourselves at the same time that we become acquainted with others…”
Rarely did any other Romantic figure “mix in the throng” and attain knowledge of herself through others, to the extent that Claire Clairmont did. For that, and for the marvellously revealing and candid letters and journals that she left behind, we should remember her.
LesleyMcDowell
Lesley McDowell is the author of two novels, The Picnic (2007) and Unfashioned Creatures (2013), as well as a work of non-fiction, Between the  Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers (2010).  She reviews regularly for The Herald, The Scotsman and The Independent on Sunday, and has a PhD on the work of James Joyce. Her Twitter ID is @LesleyMcDowell1.

15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
02.11.2018

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens   These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of […]

Read More
23.10.2018

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan   For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that […]

Read More
10.10.2018

“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole   When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, […]

Read More
19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
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