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

Page 1

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, history and personal interest we bring to our readings of it. Because analysis is subjective, isn’t it? We bring so much of ourselves to our individual understandings of a story.

If a text feels particularly poignant or personal, we may take opportunities, where possible, to increase our intimacy with it. In recognition of its bicentennial, my friend Tess and I each seized the chance to become closer to our favourite novel, Frankenstein. We each visited Geneva, Chamonix, and other significant sites, I in 2016 to follow the Shelleys, and she in early 2018 in the footsteps of Victor Frankenstein and his Creation.

Cologny, today a municipality of Geneva, was an essential stop as the birthplace of both the novel and its eponymous protagonist. Mary would not have had her famous dream of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” at the still-standing Villa Diodati, but there’s still a thrill that comes with standing so close to where Frankenstein began. I took a water shuttle – a boat that’s part of Geneva’s public transportation system – in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Villa from afar. While the motorized shuttle was a far cry from anything they’d have used, I could still envision the Byron-Shelley party boating out into the lake in view of a different city skyline, but with the same mountains towering above. Victor, Elizabeth, and Clerval also surely played along the shore and rowed into the lake themselves.

 

But they’re not the only ones in the novel who visit Geneva. We both had to visit the statue of the Creature in Plainpalais, despite its much-later formation and the morbid event its placement commemorates. The statue itself is absolutely incredible, its size more impressive than any human actor (even with the lifts in Karloff’s boots). This modern interpretation has the Creature dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but his mismatched limbs and patchwork skin evokes both his humanity and his monstrosity. It’s worth a few minutes to take photos for any lover of Frankenstein; even if, like Tess, you have to shyly ask English-speaking strangers to take a photo for you. She insists it’s worth it, especially if the strangers tell you to pose “like you’re in love.”

 

It can be harder to envision the streets that Frankenstein and Shelleys traversed in modern Geneva, but that’s not the case in Ingolstadt, especially in 2018. The whole city was celebrating Frankenstein, Tess felt like she couldn’t turn a corner without seeing posters advertising events and exhibitions, as well as informational pamphlets about the city’s connection to the novel. She admits a bit of tunnel vision, more interest in Frankenstein than other available tourist attractions. A storied and intellectual space, especially as Shelley presents it, Ingolstadt felt like the true beginning of Victor’s (and certainly the Creature’s) journey. Walking the streets of the old, walled city, Tess felt an emotional churning; “this is where things start to happen in the book, and here I am.”

Being in the physical space where a novel takes place can help solidify a part of the story in our minds. Even with a vivid imagination, the images we have are, to an extent, amorphous. Seeing a visual adaptation of a novel can help concretize our mental image of a character or setting, but reading a novel like Frankenstein, we can’t help but be informed by decades of re-imaginings, from films to ballets to breakfast cereals. While there’s no definite way the characters must look, we can start to bring our vision of their setting closer to what Mary Shelley envisioned herself. This is especially gratifying in a novel where the landscape is practically another character itself. Tess felt like she could see the Creature lumbering out of the walled city of Ingolstadt into its surrounding forests, and could feel Victor’s isolation on the rough and windy Orkneys. While the locals were warm (and apparently largely unaware of the islands’ connection to Frankenstein), their home was as harsh and unforgiving as Shelley describes.

My most striking experience of connecting with a Shelley’s work on my trip was not with Mary’s novel. While Pont Pélissier is briefly mentioned in Frankenstein, it’s more significantly the spot where Percy began writing “Mont Blanc.” I’ve always felt a sense of swirling intensity in the descriptions of the landscape in the poem, but standing in the “dark, deep Ravine” over the “vast river” and looking up at the sun on the mountains, I could, more than ever, connect with the sense of the sublime in Shelley’s words. From high in the Alps, as well as in the valley below, I was awestruck by the immensity of the mountains; it was easy to see how the Shelleys were moved to create some of their best work by the permanence, stillness, and scale of the scene.

Tess felt the same way visiting the Mer de Glace. She couldn’t fathom its size from photos alone, and felt like she couldn’t take it all in at once. There was too much. This was her first time being so close to mountains or glaciers, and she felt a sense of inherent awe and violence in the unforgiving ice and rocks of the Alps. This is a scene where only a truly superhuman being, like the Creature, could thrive. She was also able to ascend into the mountains, looking on Mont Blanc from a facing mountain range, and admits that she cried at its rugged beauty. (I did too, when I got close as close as tourists can get to Mont Blanc. It’s a lot to take in.) More than any art she’d seen before, this scene helped her understand what the sublime truly means.

 

 

While she doesn’t hope to communicate the sublime in every piece she creates, Tess believes that this experience helped her develop her art. She was able to do some drawing from life on her trip, and she truly realized how futile it can be to try to capture every small detail of a landscape. In any form of art, we can only communicate so much, but we can create something truly immersive. Tess is drawn to art (like Frankenstein) where there’s a sense that there’s more going on in the world of the story than what we’re being given. Barely-explored characters like Ernest Frankenstein and Margaret Saville have lives separate from the narrative. Animals live in the mountains near Chamonix and the forests outside Ingolstadt. The people living on the Orkneys barely realize they’re a part of Victor’s and the Creature’s narratives at all. This is something that we strive to incorporate into our own work – the sense that you’re only seeing a part of a bigger picture. You can’t take in that whole picture, so relish what you can take in.

 

 

The Romantics understood, of course, the inspirational power that the landscape could hold for artists, but they also understood the appeal of following artists who came before. Byron and Percy Shelley visited scenes of importance to Rousseau, and Keats followed Burns’ life in Scotland; these trips informed their work too. I find that this humanizes the poets who can seem a bit larger than life – their trip was motivated by the same desire as mine. Victor Frankenstein never set foot in the real Ingolstadt, but he’s just as (if not more) real in the public imagination at this point than his creator and her circle. Walking these real streets, changed as they are in two hundred years, feels like bringing these figures to life.

 

You can find more from Allison O’Toole and Tess Eneli Reid in Called into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein, which you can now support on Kickstarter! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/203148388/called-into-being-a-celebration-of-frankenstein

Allison is a freelance editor whose recent work includes Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women and The Pitiful Human-Lizard. Tess is an illustrator and storyboard artist who self-publishes comics that focus on stories about the agency of people in harsh landscapes, and exploring personal histories in the underbelly of small-town Canada.

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

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

Page 1

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 […]

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

Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, by Fiona Sampson

Page 1

by Barry Forshaw
 
Does Mary Shelley need rescuing from neglect? Has the young woman who created the most iconic figures in Gothic literature apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula — Frankenstein and his benighted, stitched-together creature — languished in the shadow of her husband and lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, her friend Lord Byron and her celebrated parents Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin?
 
The poet Fiona Sampson, author of this extremely readable biography, considers that Mary Shelley has been eclipsed of late, but it might be argued that the fascination with the young woman who created her durable monster and creator at a famous Italian literary gathering with Shelley, Lord Byron and others has more of a comprehensive hold on the popular imagination than others in her circle of family and friends.  Not least for the fact that this quiet, well-educated English girl counter-intuitively forged a gruesome horror myth that continues to inspire imitations to this day.
 
Sampson, however, clearly thinks that more attention should be paid to her heroine, and attacks her proselytising task (in the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein) with some panache.
 
As the daughter of a high-achieving mother (one of the founders of feminism) and a father famous for his shocking rejection of orthodox religion — and an equally unconventional espousal of free love — Mary had an iconoclastic upbringing and possessed the credentials necessary for success in the literary field.
 
But Sampson points out that we know less about her life after eloping with the poet Shelley because of the loss of her journals. And with the paucity of material describing Mary’s inner life, Sampson (as with earlier biographers of the writer) is obliged to bring her own imaginative constructions into play
 
While the famous ghost story face-off at Villa Diodati — at which Byron, the Shelleys and others attempted to frighten each other with their own tales of the macabre — has been communicated to us by several of the participants, it’s probably now better known via the various film versions of the gathering (in fact, for generations of viewers, the face of Mary Shelley was that of the English actress Elsa Lanchester, who played both the writer and the electric-haired female monster in James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein). That cinematic connection, in fact, makes the very filmic ‘cutting’ between scenes employed in In Search of Mary Shelley very appropriate.
 
What Sampson has done is to try to read the life of her subject through Mary’s most famous book, and it’s an approach that bears fruit. For instance, Sampson notes that Mary was concerned with the fragility of the human body. She suffered from a condition of the arm, which at one point was unnaturally swollen, and issues of birth (including her own miscarriages) were often in her thoughts; not hard to see reflections of Victor Frankenstein’s connection with both the giving of life and the distortion of the body.
 
As for the popular conception of Mary Shelley submerging her own life in that of her husband (even after his death when she returned to the house in which he was brought up as a boy), Sampson briskly disposes of this dated image, pointing up the writer’s remarkable individual achievements while not ignoring the fact that certain constraints would have been placed on her as a Victorian woman.
 
There is already a considerable body of literature concerning Mary Shelley, so one might not agree that her star has been somewhat dimmed. But Fiona Sampson’s study manages to illuminate her subject in prose that is both insightful and elegant
 
This review originally appeared in the i newspaper.
Fiona Sampson has written her own blog for us on Mary Shelley which you can read here.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

What the Victorians made of Romanticism

Page 1

by Tom Mole
 
My new book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers a new way of understanding the reception history of Romantic writers and their works in Victorian Britain. Other scholars have told this story before, of course. But they have mostly focussed on the ways in which Romantic writers influenced their Victorian successors. They tell us about how Alfred Tennyson responded to Byron, or how Matthew Arnold responded to Wordsworth. I’m interested in a different kind of story. The story I tell is about the material artefacts and cultural practices that remediated Romantic writers and their works amid shifting understandings of history, memory, and media. I pay attention to the things Victorians made – including illustrated books, anthologies, statues, postcards and memorial plaques – as well as to what they did with Romantic writers – citing and reciting them, including them in sermons, placing busts of them on their mantelpieces, and a host of other practices. These artefacts and practices made sure that the Romantics were renovated for new generations of readers – and non-readers – while recruiting them to address new cultural concerns in the process.
Mole 6
For a while, it seemed that the Romantics would not be remembered at all. Many early-Victorian commentators worried that the writing of the recent past no longer compelled readers’ interest, and that it would soon be forgotten. The predictions began polemically. Blackwood’s Magazine claimed in 1820 that John Keats had ruined his talent by imitating Leigh Hunt, and that ‘he must be content to share his fate, and be like him forgotten’, and Coleridge wrote in 1825 that he ‘dare[d] predict, that in less than a century’ Byron’s and Scott’s poems would ‘lie on the same Shelf of Oblivion’. But predictions soon became warnings. The Quarterly Review asserted that Scott was ‘in danger of passing – we cannot conceive why – out of the knowledge of the rising generation’, and Thomas Carlyle cautioned in 1829 that ‘Byron … with all his wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten’.
Byron Grasmere
 
Before long, the warnings became simple statements of fact. Orestes Brownson asserted in 1841 that Shelley was ‘seldom spoken of and much more seldom read’. The Graphic cattily remarked in 1873 that Hemans was ‘almost as much neglected now, as she was overrated formerly’. Stopford Brooke declared simply in 1893 that Byron was ‘not much read now’. If anyone read the Romantics, some claimed, it was only those people who scarcely counted, like adolescents or the uneducated. Selections of Wordsworth’s poetry ‘chiefly for the use of schools and young persons’ appeared from as early as 1831, while in 1848 Readings for the Young from the Works of Sir Walter Scott inaugurated a tradition of excerpting or retelling Scott’s works for children. Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘a stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for The Giaour or The Corsair …, but the real posterity – the quiet students of past literature – never read them or think of them’. The fact that the Romantics were remembered – at least some of them – is not down to the enduring excellence of their poetry, or to its ability to transcend the historical moment in which it was written. Rather, I argue, Romantic writers and their works continued to attract attention because they were mediated to Victorian audiences in new ways. This was necessary because the Romantics were increasingly in danger of seeming outdated. Victorian commentators worried that the literature of even the recent past was no longer suited to address the present’s most pressing concerns.
 
readingsforyoung
 
When Matthew Arnold hailed his generation as ‘we, brought forth and reared in hours / Of change, alarm, surprise’, he signalled a self-conscious modernity. In this accelerated and uncertain time, the literature of even the recent past began to seem alien or obsolescent. ‘Too fast we live, too much are tried, / Too harrass’d, to attain / Wordsworth’s sweet calm’, Arnold wrote. Poetry of the recent past no longer seemed like it could speak to the anxieties of the present. Echoing Byron’s Manfred, who found that ‘the wisdom of the world… avail’d not’, Arnold turned Manfred’s conclusion into a question and made it a matter of generational difference: ‘what availed it, all the noise / And outcry of the former men?’
 
Introducing an edition of Byron’s poems in 1866, Algernon Charles Swinburne reiterated Arnold’s sense of a generational shift, and framed it ironically in the religious language that Arnold would use earnestly in ‘Dover Beach’ the following year. ‘Men born when this century was getting into its forties were baptised into another church than [Byron’s] with the rites of another creed. … No man under twenty’, he asserted, ‘can now be expected to appreciate’ Byron or Wordsworth. This fear that the Romantics were being forgotten, and that they could not find new readers unaided, produced a whole set of efforts to bring them to new audiences, and make them newly relevant. In the book, I look at how these efforts took shape in four different media: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.
 
Retro-fitted illustrations – that is, newly-produced illustrations for works that didn’t appear with illustrations when they were first published – were produced for many Romantic works in Victorian Britain. They helped to make new editions of Romantic poetry look modern and up-to-date, because an increasing number of new books in the Victorian period appeared with illustrations from their first edition. Think of the close association between Dickens and Phiz or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. New illustrations helped to renovate Romantic poetry, allowing it to circulate once again in the market for new books. Illustrations therefore offered a way to come to terms with the sense that a generation gap was opening up between the Victorians and their Romantic precursors. I look at several examples of illustrated books that thematise this sense of the passage of time. In some cases, they update Romantic poetry by including recognisably Victorian people and scenes in illustrations. In others, they combine canonizing images that proclaimed the lasting value of Romantic poetry with images that invited Victorian readers to put aside their preconceptions and experience it afresh.
Victorian Keats
When Victorian people went to church, they heard Romantic poetry quoted in sermons surprisingly often. Some authors – such as Wordsworth – could be recruited in support of a generalised and often rather vague sense of spiritual uplift. Others – such as Byron – were more likely to serve as an awful warning, an example of misspent time and misapplied talent. But the way Victorian preachers and religious writers handled Romantic writers and their works could sometimes be surprising. Shelley, for example, was turned into an honorary Christian by a number of progressive figures in several Christian denominations. And Byron was quoted not only as an example of a sinner, but also approvingly, for example for his paraphrases of certain psalms and his descriptions of nature. I look at one preacher in particular – Charles Haddon Spurgeon – who quoted Byron regularly. Spurgeon’s library has survived almost intact, and so we can trace the ways in which he encountered Byron through anthologies, primers and books of quotations.
 
Several Romantic writers were commemorated in statues and other kinds of memorials. These monuments were part of a wider effort to create a new British pantheon. The new pantheon was secular, and liberal enough to include people with drastically different political views. It helped to create a new kind of cultural consensus during a period of radical introspection about who constituted the nation and what they shared. And crucially, it was not housed in a particular structure or institution, but spread out across the cities of London and Edinburgh, and eventually across the country as a whole. I examine the statue of Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, and the statue of Byron in Hyde Park, London, as key monuments in the development of this new pantheon. I also show how these monuments were remediated in figurines, postcards, and cigarette cards.
 
Byron_Statue
Finally, I examine the ways in which anthologies mediated Romantic poetry to Victorian audiences. I’ve looked at over 200 Victorian anthologies, and for the first time I can explain in detail which poems by Byron, Hemans and Shelley they included, which sections of long poems appeared, and how they framed these poems with editorial material such as headnotes, footnotes and glosses. The results are fascinating. The anthologies produced their own version of Byron, Hemans and Shelley, which is different in several key ways from the version you get in a collected or selected edition, as well as the versions of those poets that English students today discover in modern classroom anthologies.
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Overall, the book aims to show how literature of the past can be appropriated and made newly relevant in ways that could not have been imagined by its authors. I think recent critics have often tended to connect literature so closely to the context in which it’s written that we tend to overlook its ability to function in other contexts. I hope What the Victorians Made of Romanticism will help people to see some of the ways in which literary works get redeployed in unexpected ways.
 
Dr Tom Mole received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2003 and has worked at the University of Glasgow, the University of Bristol and McGill University. He is currently Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Tom Mole 2Edinburgh. With Michelle Levy, he wrote The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017) and edited The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014). His other books include Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture (ed, Cambridge, 2009) and What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (Princeton, 2017). From 2008-2013 he was Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print research group, whose collaboratively written ‘multigraph’ will be published by Chicago UP in 2017. He is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee.
 

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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Shelley's friend and biographer, Thomas Jefferson Hogg

Page 1

by Nick Smith
 
“I have fifty days to live …”
So begins the ‘Hoggblog’ in my novel, Drowned Hogg Day, just published by Justin Roseland Books. My narrator/blogger, Alex Hogg, is convinced that he will drown on 30th December 2016 and he sets himself the task of chronicling the last fifty days of his life. Only gradually does he discover that his life is, in most crucial respects, a carbon copy of the life of a distant ancestor, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Yes, that’s right, the TJ Hogg who played a walk-on part in the Gothic drama of Shelley & co.
Looking back on those crazy, crazy days in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, many have fallen in love with feisty, black-eyed Claire Clairmont, mother of Byron’s “love-child”, Alba/Allegra. Claire was also (possibly) the on-off lover of the protean, Peter-Pannish Percy Bysshe Shelley, though half a century later she broke her lifelong silence and excoriated the whole Romantic free love enterprise. Others have a soft spot for William Polidori, who tended to all of Byron’s peccadillos and recast his master as an ur-Dracula, long before Bram Stoker told that tale. Or, then again, who could resist the gauche Ophelia-like Harriet Westbrook, who was such sad collateral damage under the tank wheels of Shelley’s triumph of life?
 
But for me the most fascinating fellow-traveller has always been Shelley’s old college friend, Jefferson Hogg. I even took him as my specialist subject on Mastermind. But who was he, and why does he deserve our more serious consideration?
 
Hogg was born, like Shelley, in 1792 (in Norton, 15 miles from Durham), the son of a Justice of the Peace. Just as the Shelley family’s wealth had been accumulated by the poet’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe, so the Hogg fortune was largely made by his grandfather, Thomas Hogg. Jefferson was another family name and we are asked to believe that T.J. Hogg was not named with the American President in mind at all.
Hogg was a few months ahead of Shelley at University College, Oxford, or ‘Univ’ as it was and is universally known.
Univ
 
Our Jefferson appears to have made no friends whatsoever prior to the young Etonian’s arrival and latched on to the squeaky-voiced fresher almost as soon as he turned up from Horsham in October 1810. If Hogg’s memoir, Shelley at Oxford, is to be believed, the two young men lived in each other’s pockets for two terms until they were both sent down on 25 March 1811. Certainly, Hogg seems to have parked himself in Shelley’s extensive rooms (the site of the current Junior Common Room) and aided and abetted the full range of PBS’s chemical and literary experiments in his brief Oxford career.
 
These were two well-read young men even before their undergraduate days and they seem to have radicalised each other, swapping the most dangerous books and ideas of the day while plotting the overthrow of the university and all other established institutions . But the university proved annoyingly tolerant, turning a blind eye to the numerous incendiary publications that Shelley insisted on having festooned across the bookstore windows along the High. His Essay on the Existing State of Things (recently rediscovered and now on show here ) sailed underneath the academic radar, but at last they struck gold with the misleadingly-titled Necessity of Atheism, a relatively mild pamphlet squarely in line with the established Enlightenment views of John Locke and David Hume. “Did you write this?” bellowed the college authorities. “You have no right to ask me?” replied Shelley, mock-pleading the Fifth Amendment. “Well, off you go then, Mr Shelley – that saves us debating the actual content of this document.”
 
It’s not clear how much of Necessity Hogg actually wrote, if any, but he was determined not to let his friend grab all the glory. Shelley’s inquisitors were busy packing up their gowns and quills after the brief show-trial when the Durham boy rapped on the door and insisted on facing precisely the same question and offering the same non-answer. We may imagine the deep sigh with which the Dean and the Master issued a fresh set of marching orders. The two martyrs paraded up and down the Front Quad before skulking off to the Big City. For Shelley, it may have been a shrewd career move but it didn’t do Hogg much good in his relatively conventional ascent up the ladder of the judiciary or in his later bid to become a professor in Roman Law at the brand new University of London. His youthful iconoclasm could never be quite forgotten.
 
If being ‘sent down’ was embarrassing, worse was to follow six months later when Hogg wangled an invite to Shelley’s honeymoon hidey-hole in Edinburgh. Shelley had eloped with a pretty schoolgirl called Harriet Westbrook and abandoned all his anti-marriage principles in order to have his wicked way with her . What she hadn’t bargained for was her husband’s determination to share his bride with like-minded souls within days of the wedding. Hogg had never even met Harriet but he liked what he saw when he did. Before long, Shelley had engineered the chance to leave the two of them to their own devices in York while he swanned off back to London. But Harriet was having none of it. Shelley must have heard the screams of horror even as far away as Horsham.
Hogg spent the rest of his life trying to draw a discreet veil over that ill-judged incident but it was by no means an isolated event. Hogg’s sex-life seems to have consisted largely of attempts to inveigle himself into bed with Shelley’s paramours, while his old friend would have liked nothing more than to spy on his old friend in flagrante from a convenient wardrobe.
 
But it never happened, as far as we know, for the simple reason that Shelley’s women were having none of it. Like Harriet before her, Mary Godwin (the future second Mrs Shelley) had no intention of welcoming the clod-hopping Northern lawyer into her bed. But Mary was a good deal more wily about it than Harriet had been. Rather than screaming at the top of her voice, she applied a strategy of perpetual deferment, holding out the prospect that, after the morning sickness was over and the baby born, she might finally be ready to indulge Shelley’s bizarre juvenile fantasy. In truth, Hogg had neither the charms nor the looks of her poet-lover and Mary had no intention of validating Shelley’s dalliances with her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, by doing the same herself.
 
By now, any amateur psychologist would have come to the conclusion that the true object of Hogg’s desire was Shelley himself but that he willingly sublimated his true feelings by playing the courtly lover to Shelley’s female admirers . And in the end it was third time lucky. His belated conquest was Jane Williams, the muse of Shelley’s final lyrics (‘With a Guitar, to Jane’, ‘Lines written in the Bay of Lerici’, etc).

Jane Williams, by George Clint

Jane Williams, by George Clint


 
Jane never met Hogg in the poet’s lifetime. But after both Shelley and her common-law husband, Edward, drowned off the coast of Livorno, the impoverished ‘Mrs’ Williams was introduced to Hogg by Mary herself. True to past form, Jefferson, possibly still a virgin at the age of 30, was immediately infatuated by Shelley’s final paramour.
By now Hogg was well on the way to being the portly, balding, gout-ridden barrister that we see in the one image we have of him.
Thomas_Jefferson_Hogg
 
But Jane’s only marketable asset, apart from her undoubted beauty, was her connection to the notorious poet, and, in such straitened circumstances, what was a poor girl to do? Jane and Jefferson were to spend the rest of their lives together in a partnership of belated conventionality. Their marriage even survived the blackmail attempts of Jane’s first husband, John Edward Johnson, who claimed that his own marriage to Jane had never been dissolved. When the Hoggs refused to pay up, Johnson decided to spill the beans in a scurrilous magazine called The Satirist. But the editor, Barnard Gregory, mixed up the names, referring not to Thomas Jefferson Hogg but to James Hogg, MP for Beverley, who promptly launched a libel suit. Johnson disappeared back into the woodwork while Gregory went to gaol and Mr and Mrs Hogg were left in peace.
 
But was there ever something between Hogg and Harriet Westbrook? She may have kicked him out of the digs they shared in York but that little “misunderstanding” was forgotten in later years. After Shelley had abandoned Harriet (and their two children, Charles and Ianthe) and moved in with Mary and Claire, Hogg often became the willing intermediary between the poet and his inconvenient first wife. Richard Holmes catalogues a number of visits that Hogg made to Harriet and the children, but there may have been many more that we do not know about. Little of Hogg’s correspondence survives and he never wrote his own life-story.
 
When Harriet and her unborn baby were fished out of the Serpentine in December 1816, there was no obvious father – Shelley and his entourage had been dreaming up ghost stories at the Villa Diodati at the time of conception. There were rumours of a Captain Smith in the Indian or Wellington army but it now seems far more likely that Harriet had adopted the name ‘Smith’ as her way of preserving her anonymity in Bayswater, perhaps inspired by the Harriet Smith in Jane Austen’s latest best-seller, Emma, another girl encouraged to marry above her “station” with (temporarily) disastrous consequences.
 
Of all Shelley’s crimes, his claim that Harriet had descended into a life of promiscuity and even prostitution was perhaps the most heartless. Harriet was a good bourgeois middle-class girl. Promiscuity would have been anathema to her. And yet she was undeniably pregnant when she died. There is one obvious candidate: Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the one man with whom she had regular contact between 1814 and 1816. For the jobbing lawyer who divided his time between the Middle Temple and the Durham Assizes, the opportunity would surely have been too good to miss. Harriet was both beautiful and desperate and, of course, she was as close to Shelley as Hogg was ever likely to get.
 
Hogg had the family fortune at Norton behind him and a secure legal career ahead of him. Did Harriet welcome Hogg into her bed as a last desperate throw of the dice only to find that, once she was pregnant, he didn’t want to know any more? Or perhaps he was never told of Harriet’s pregnancy and, after her death, convinced himself that he would have done “the right thing” and supported her, had he known? It’s all guesswork. If Hogg ever consummated his passion for the girl he had so clumsily propositioned in York, it was not something he was prepared to share with posterity.
 
If Hogg’s life had been no more than a series of pratfalls and missed opportunities his value to history would have been minimal, but he did make one remarkable and underrated contribution to the literary history of this period: a novel called Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff.
Hogg novel
 
First impressions are that it is a light and whimsical exercise in picaresque fiction with an implausible plot-line, paper-thin characters, and a certain mawkish sentimentality. It reached a handful of readers on first publication and there is just one surviving copy. The Folio Society exhumed it in 1952 and a few Shelley scholars have skim-read it since.
 
The eponymous Prince Alexy was based squarely on Shelley himself and the stories that Bysshe had told his gullible college friend. But Hogg was hardly unique in this respect – Thomas Love Peacock was to build a whole career out of fictionalising the over-heated drama of Shelley’s life. But Hogg’s novel did give him a certain entrée into the poet’s household. Hogg may have looked like a rather stodgy and earnest law student, but the fact he had published such a racy novel hinted at a much more interesting personality under the surface. In fact, Mary rarely referred to him by his true name – he was always Prince Alexy or Prince Prudent to her. For his part, Hogg did his best to play up to the image of a dashing Russian prince but it was an uphill struggle.
 
There is no doubt that the Memoirs created a strong impression on the 17-year-old Mary Godwin. Of the many literary influences on Frankenstein, Hogg’s novel is amongst the most important alongside Caleb Williams and Rousseau’s Emile. Hogg’s novel and Frankenstein both begin in St Petersburg, a city that neither of their authors would ever visit, and describe the adventures of a Shelleyan hero travelling across various exotic settings in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and, eventually, Britain. At the heart of both novels is the struggle between the hero and a kind of alter ego, to whom the protagonist is alternately attracted and repelled. In Alexy’s case, that doppelganger is the Eleutherarch, the charismatic leader of a university/cult that seeks to brainwash our hero. Their final deathly embrace is an obvious inspiration for Frankenstein’s conclusion.
 
There are also a number of stylistic and structural links. Hogg’s name did not appear on the original edition published by Hookham in 1813. The cover read as follows: MEMOIRS OF PRINCE ALEXY HAIMATOFF. TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL LATIN MSS. UNDER THE IMMEDIATE INSPECTION OF THE PRINCE BY JOHN BROWN, ESQ. Thus Hogg’s John Brown has much in common with Robert Walton, Mary Shelley’s imaginary explorer, who sets about transmitting Victor Frankenstein’s story. Of course, the veneer of historical scholarship is, in each case, whisper-thin, barely more than a literary jest, but it gave each author a literary alter ego, a symbiotic relationship that parallels the central plot of each novel.
Hogg wrote no more fiction but his licentious Memoirs of Prince Alexy were to play a surprisingly large role in the literary history of the period. Was his passion for Harriet Westbrook ever fulfilled? Perhaps one day we will know the truth of that.
 
Nick Smith studied English at University College, Oxford, completing a doctorate and training as a teacher. In 1989 he founded Oxford Open Learning (www.ool.co.uk) which is now the UK’s leading provider of distance learning courses for GCSE and A-level.  As a writer, Nick is best known for his works on bridge, including Bridge Literature (Cadogan, 1993) and, with Julian Pottage, Bridge Behind Bars (Master Point Press, 2009). He was NPC of the England bridge team in 2016. He has also made a name as a regular on various TV quiz shows including Mastermind (where he answered questions on T.J. Hogg), Countdown, Only Connect and Eggheads.  As a playwright, Nick was the winner of the Oxfordshire Drama Network Playwriting Competition of 2014 with Yusupov and Rasputin.  Drowned Hogg Day is his first and last novel.
Nick Smith
The novel is available from Amazon or it can be read in blog-form at http://tinyurl.com/jy4buhl
 

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: Switzerland and Mont Blanc

Page 1

by Anna Mercer
 
In June 2016 I made a pilgrimage to an area in Europe known for its sublime scenery. I have read so much about the snowy peaks of the Alps and the shores of Lake Geneva, primarily from two sources that figure in my life because of my PhD research at the University of York. I am studying Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, two Romantic authors who, before their marriage but after their romantic union, spent the summer in the environs of Geneva and Chamonix in 1816, exactly 200 years before I arrived there.
Percy Shelley had originally thought of leaving England for Italy. The Shelleys were instead convinced to head to Cologny near Geneva by their travelling companion Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, who in London had begun an affair with Lord Byron.
On 13 May 1816 the Shelleys and Claire arrived in Geneva, followed on 25 May by Byron and his physician Dr John Polidori. By June, both parties had taken residences close to each other on the shores of the lake; Byron stayed at the Villa Diodati. Incessant rain often prevented them from going out on the water in the evenings, and even stopped Percy, Mary and Claire from returning to their own lodgings. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 has devastated the weather across Europe, and 1816 is recalled now as ‘the year without a summer’.  I also arrived to an atmospherically rainy Geneva:
Anna 2 post 1
The weather eventually cleared, and we explored the town, and like the Shelleys, we were also intrigued by the literary greats who had graced the city.
Anna 2 post 2
 
During the 1816 summer, Percy, Mary and Claire stayed at Maison Chapuis but often spent time at Byron’s grander lodgings nearby. Geneva is where Mary Shelley began writing her most famous and enduring novel, Frankenstein (first published in 1818). Mary’s terrifying novel – according to her 1831 introduction – was ostensibly inspired by a ‘waking dream’ she had after hearing Percy and Byron’s discussions on ‘the nature of the principle of life’ to which she ‘was a devout but nearly silent listener’. This account of her literary genius is characteristically modest, as her silence is in all likelihood overplayed; the community at Geneva in 1816 offered a stimulating intellectual environment and Percy and Mary collaborated on the novel as well as many other works.
Mary began writing Frankenstein in June 1816. The Shelleys met Byron on 27 May, and he took up residence at Diodati on 10 June, and by June 22 Percy Shelley and Byron went on a tour of Lake Geneva together. So, although Mary only recorded the composition of Frankenstein in her journal in July, it is likely the novel was started between 10-22 June.
In a previous blog for the Wordsworth Trust, I reviewed the excellent exhibition on Frankenstein at the Bodmer Foundation Library and Museum: Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness. We were treated with a walk around the grounds of the Villa Diodati itself.
Anna 2 post 3
Anna 2 post 4
 
Percy and Mary included descriptions of their travels in the 1817 publication History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. Mary’s view of Geneva was muted to say the least:

There is nothing … in it that can repay you for the trouble of walking over its rough stones. The houses are high, the streets narrow, many of them on the ascent, and no public building of any beauty to attract your eye, or any architecture to gratify your taste. The town is surrounded by a wall, the three gates of which are shut exactly at ten o’clock, when no bribery (as in France) can open them.

However, the dramatic weather offered her respite:

The lake is at our feet, and a little harbour contains our boat, in which we still enjoy our evening excursions on the water. Unfortunately we do not now enjoy those brilliant skies that hailed us on our first arrival to this country. An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house; but when the sun bursts forth it is with a splendour and heat unknown in England. The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud, while perhaps the sun is shining cheerily upon us. One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.

I am particularly fascinated by this jointly-authored publication History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, Mary’s first foray into print (besides her early light verses published in her father’s library). The text of this volume is an intermingling of voices, the provenance of each section being drawn from a joint journal, numerous letters and original words composed for the edition. I will be discussing the History in a paper at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference in York this July.
On our first day in Geneva, after wandering around and dodging the rain, we immediately set off to cross the border. We were staying in an idyllic, isolated chalet in France, and the first place we wanted to visit the next day was the site of many inspirations for both Percy and Mary: the town of Chamonix, which rests under the imposing gaze of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.
Our travels from Geneva to the French Alps reminded me of Mary Shelley’s third novel, The Last Man (1826), in which the protagonist Lionel and his companion Adrian (a Percy Shelley-esque figure) make a similar trajectory:

We left the fair margin of the beauteous lake of Geneva, and entered the Alpine ravines; tracing to its source the brawling Arve, through the rock-bound valley of Servox, beside the mighty waterfalls, and under the shadow of the inaccessible mountains, we travelled on; while the luxuriant walnut-tree gave place to the dark pine, whose musical branches swung in the wind, and whose upright forms had braved a thousand storms – till the verdant sod, the flowery dell, and shrubbery hill were exchanged for the sky-piercing, untrodden, seedless rock, “the bones of the world, waiting to be clothed with every thing necessary to give life and beauty”.

This excerpt concludes with a quotation taken from Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, by Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. This inspired Mary in her own travel writing. This was a text in which the author sought ‘to let my remarks and reflections flow unrestrained’ (Advertisement). The writing of Mary Shelley’s radical parents (her father was William Godwin) were some of the texts the Shelleys were both reading – occasionally aloud together – in 1814, the year of their elopement, and their first journey to the continent. Texts included the Letters written during a Short Residence by Wollstonecraft and Caleb Williams by Godwin.
On the day of our arrival in Chamonix, the mountains were not only seemingly inaccessible, but invisible. Low cloud prevented us from identifying Mont Blanc above us, but did not damage the charming nature of the town, now a popular ski-resort.
Anna 2 post 5
 
Despite the cloud, we decided to get the train to the ‘Mer de Glace’. Perhaps bad weather would have prevented tourists from making the journey in the Shelleys’ day, but in 2016 the Montenvers Railway (opened 1909) takes you right up to the viewing platform. On arrival, we were sorely disappointed, as we couldn’t see a thing. Mildly upset that we had travelled all this way up and wouldn’t see the glacier itself, my companion convinced me to take the cable car that descends into the mist despite the slightly miserable conditions. When we landed at the bottom, the glacier was in full view. I will firstly give you Percy Shelley’s description of this natural wonder in the History of a Six Weeks’ Tour:

We have returned from visiting the glacier of Montanvert, or as it is called, the Sea of Ice, a scene in truth of dizzying wonder. The path that winds to it along the side of a mountain, now clothed with pines, now intersected with snowy hollows, is wide and steep. … We arrived at Montanvert, … On all sides precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost, surround this vale: their sides are banked up with ice and snow, broken, heaped high, and exhibiting terrific chasms. The summits are sharp and naked pinnacles, whose overhanging steepness will not even permit snow to rest upon them. Lines of dazzling ice occupy here and there their perpendicular rifts, and shine through the driving vapours with inexpressible brilliance; they pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth. The vale itself is filled with a mass of undulating ice, and has an ascent sufficiently gradual even to the remotest abysses of these horrible desarts. It is only half a league (about two miles) in breadth, and seems much less. It exhibits an appearance as if frost had suddenly bound up the waves and whirlpools of a mighty torrent. We walked some distance upon its surface. The waves are elevated about 12 or 15 feet from the surface of the mass, which is intersected by long gaps of unfathomable depth, the ice of whose sides is more beautifully azure than the sky. In these regions every thing changes, and is in motion. This vast mass of ice has one general progress, which ceases neither day nor night; it breaks and bursts for ever: some undulations sink while others rise; it is never the same. The echo of rocks, or of the ice and snow which fall from their overhanging precipices, or roll from their aerial summits, scarcely ceases for one moment. One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and that the frozen blood for ever circulated through his stony veins.

We dined (M***, C***, and I) on the grass, in the open air, surrounded by this scene. The air is piercing and clear. We returned down the mountain, sometimes encompassed by the driving vapours, sometimes cheered by the sunbeams, and arrived at our inn by seven o’clock.

However, we were not just relieved to be able to see more than cloud, but shocked by the lack of glacier before us.

Carl Hackert, ‘Vue de la Mer de Glace et de l’Hôpital de Blair’ (1781), Centre d’iconographie genevois

Carl Hackert, ‘Vue de la Mer de Glace et de l’Hôpital de Blair’ (1781), Centre d’iconographie genevois


 
Anna 2 post 7
 
Percy Shelley’s premonition that Buffon’s ‘sublime but gloomy theory’ that ‘this globe which we inhabit will at some future period be changed into a mass of frost’, was entirely unfounded. We knew that the ice was melting – the majority of us do (I am avoiding any political comment here) – but we were still affected by this huge difference across the decades. You can read more on this subject at the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe website, an AHRC-funded project at the University of Leeds.
 
You can now go inside the glacier itself:
Anna 2 post 8
When we went back up in the cable car, the clouds had cleared and we had an astounding view of the Mer de Glace and surrounding peaks. This reminded me of Vol II Chapter II of Frankenstein, as Victor makes the same ascent. He makes it alone, because ‘the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene’. Just as in our visit, in the novel the clouds clear from the protagonist around midday:

It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. Presently a breeze dissipated the cloud, and I descended upon the glacier.
From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy.

On our way back to Chamonix, we had the same luck again – an overwhelming sight.
Anna 2 post 9
We returned two days later in marginally better weather to take the cable-car that made the ascent of Mont Blanc itself. To be honest, the cloud had left me confused as to where the peak of this infamous mountain was.
A ride up the side of the mountain to the Aiguille Du Midi took my breath away. This trip is a must for any visitor to the area. We were warned that the visibility would be bad at the top, but when we arrived the clouds cleared and left us with spectacular views. If you are a lover of the Shelleys, you will be further mystified in wondering just what those two incredible authors would have made of the sight, if they could have ascended to 3,842m and see the ‘vast animal’ Mont Blanc this close.
Anna 2 post 10
Mont Blanc appears in both of the Shelleys’ works (such as Mary’s Frankenstein and The Last Man), but it is Percy Shelley’s poem dedicated to the mountain that reveals the full extent of their awe. You can read the full poem here, but I will leave you with its final lines:

Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them:— Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

 
 
 
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
 
This post originally appeared on Anna’s blog – https://percyandmaryshelley.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/in-the-footsteps-of-the-shelleys-france-and-switzerland/

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

Shelley in the 21st century

Page 1

by Graham Henderson
Most writing on Shelley seems frustratingly designed for scholarly audiences and much of it is almost unreadable by anyone outside a university setting. Most of the books and articles written between 1980 and around 2005 are written in a scholarly style that limits readership to a handful of people: esoteric, jargon-filled, arcane and at times pompous.
This is a pity because many of these books contain extremely important insights that would help the lay reader to better understand Shelley’s intent in writing a poem like Prometheus Unbound. For my part, I hope to write about Shelley in a manner that is straightforward and accessible.
Evidence of the extent of the problem abounds today. When the Guardian published a recently discovered, highly charged, political poem by Shelley, the reactions in the comments section were telling.
Poetical essay
The Guardian readership is literate and engaged, yet the vast majority of the hundreds of comments which were posted suggested that even a literate audience had a very poor understanding of who Shelley was and what his philosophical and political preoccupations were. Here is a representative sampling of how readers reacted to the poem:

Maybe Corbyn ought to quote this Shelley stuff at [ Parliamentary Questions].

If Jeremy Corbyn needed a script, he need not look any more.

Kind of like Tsipras and Corbyn, but with balls.

Corbyn during next [Parliamentary Questions]: “I’ve had a poem sent to me by Shelley which I would like to read to the house”

Young, keen and well afire – good for him. Every era, every minute, every place needs such a cutting flame.

Anti-war, Anti-colonialism, Anti-slavery, Anti-state-oppression. I’ve just read it, and it’s brilliant. I wonder why it disappeared?

Revolutionary socialist with the guts to stand outside his privileged class, expose its oppressive nature & champion workers.

Had no idea he was so radical..wow…RESPECT!

Interesting to read his critique of contemporary British imperialism within the poem. I’ve tended to largely miss Percy Shelley’s work before, will have to have a proper look at it.

At a recent seminar I attended at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Patricia Matthew commented that many of her students were surprised to learn that there was a Shelley other than Mary, his wife and author of Frankenstein. A nephew of mine in fourth year at a distinguished Canadian university thought I was talking about Mary when it was mentioned that I was engaged in research on Shelley.
And when Shelley IS taught in university, it is usually his more anodyne, less political poetry that is offered to students. As recently as 1973, Kathleen Raine in Penguin’s “Poet to Poet” series omitted important poems such as Laon and Cythna as well as most of his overtly political output – and she does so with gusto and states explicitly, “without regret”. In the most widely available edition of his poetry, the editor, Isabel Quigley, cheerfully notes, “No poet better repays cutting; no great poet was ever less worth reading in his entirety” and goes on to suggest wrongly that Shelley was a more than anything else a platonist. With friends like this, who needs enemies! The current Norton Anthology includes this extraordinarily unrepresentative sampling of Shelley’s poetry:

from A Defense of Poetry; from Preface to Prometheus Unbound; A Dirge; Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude; Worlds on Worlds; The World’s Great Age; O World, O Life, O Time; Song of Apollo; To Jane. The Invitation; The Triumph of Life; Stanzas Written in Dejection; To Jane. The Invitation; To — [Music, when soft voices die].

Editors often consign sophisticated political tracts such as Queen Mab to the category of “juvenilia” with the predictable result. This is all nothing short of criminal.
Shelley, to the extent he enters a casual, non-academic conversation at all, enters shorn of almost everything for which he stood. The reasons for this are varied and complex but what Michael Gamer refers to as the “Shelley Myth” and what Paul Foot in his thrilling book, Red Shelley, more tartly refers to as the “castration of Shelley” is a fact that anyone who cares about Shelley must accept. I think of it as the “hallmarkification” of his reputation. Most people encounter snippets of Shelley on greeting cards one of the most common being: “There is a harmony in Autumn, and a lustre in its sky”
Autumn pic
That this has happened represents a great loss to modern culture and society because if ever there was a poet speaking to our time, it is Shelley. Shelley was first and foremost a skeptic, a skeptic who was also an atheist, republican, revolutionary, philosophical anarchist, leveler, feminist and vegetarian (he also happened to write some rather fine poetry and essays!). The issues which preoccupied him, for example vast disparities in wealth, have if anything become exacerbated with the passage of time. Wealth today is concentrating in fewer hands than at almost any time in history. Far from the influence of religion receding, its icy grip has been strengthened, and where it grows in power so too do tyrannical and oppressive regimes. The man who, translating Lucretius avowed that: “I tell of great matters, and I shall go on to free men’s minds from the crippling bonds of superstition” would be absolutely appalled at this development. Shelley believed that “…the delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality; they omit thought.”

Paul Foot, one of the 20th century’s great socialists had this to say in summing up Shelley’s life:

Shelley was not dull. His poems reverberate with energy and excitement. He decked the grand ideas which inspired him in language which enriches them and sharpen communication with the people who can put them into effect. That is why he was loved and treasured by the chartists workers, the socialist propagandists of the 1890s, the suffragists and feminists of the first 20 years of the 20th century and that is why socialists, radicals and feminists of every hue should read Shelley today – read him, learn him by heart and teach him to their children. If Shelley’s great revolutionary poetry – all those glaciers, and winds and volcanoes – can get to work on the imagination of the hundreds of thousands of people who have had enough of our rotten society and of the racialism and corruption off which it feeds; if that poetry can inspire them to write and talk with a new energy, a new confidence and a new splendour, then there is no telling what will happen. Certainly the police will have to be sent for.”

Engles, commenting on the importance of Shelley’s thought to the 19th century wrote that “Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of [his] readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.” And Marx himself offered this idea:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”

My goal is to try to restore this man to at least a few modern readers. Shelley has the power to enthrall, thrill and inspire – to change our world. Our institutions need to teach him in a radically different way. The reactions of the lay readers of the Guardian demonstrate the power of his ideas. Perhaps this individual said it best:

Maybe a copy of this poem ought to be nailed to the door of the Palace of Westminster in the same way Luther nailed his ’95 theses’ to the door of a church in Wittenberg…….our political class needs a Reformation just as much as the Catholic Church did……”

It is time to bring him back – we need him; tyrannies, be they of the mind or the world are implacable foes.

This post originally appeared on Graham’s Shelley blog http://www.grahamhenderson.ca/blog/shelley-in-the-21st-century
Graham 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’. Graham Henderson

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

Shelley in London: Poland Street

Page 1

by Anna Mercer
 
Soho is my favourite part of London. I love walking from Oxford Circus to Leicester Square, dipping into Covent Garden. I don’t know much about the history of Soho (reading recommendations welcome!), but a stroll around this part of the capital today provides an air of history and also a modern, exciting, charming experience. It feels friendlier than other parts of the tourist’s London (and I admit to being more of a tourist, not a Londoner, so I still feel like a ‘visitor’). Earlier this year I was in Soho to find the blue plaque that marks Percy Bysshe Shelley’s residence on Poland Street.
It is well worth seeking out. Firstly, the surrounding area is full of record shops and restaurants, and despite the range of retail outlets and eateries, it is a quiet haven in the city, a stone’s throw from the busy (often too busy!) hubbub of Oxford Circus. Secondly, as well as the blue plaque itself there is a wonderful Shelley mural that takes up the whole side of the building, depicting a poet-figure beneath a tree. The mural is named after Shelley’s famous poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and is by Louise Vines; it has decorated the building on the corner of Poland Street and Noel Street since 1989.
poland-street-1
However, the young Shelley’s experiences on Poland Street took place well before he composed ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Shelley lived here in 1811, when he – along with his friend and collaborator Thomas Jefferson Hogg – had just been sent down from Oxford for publishing that notorious pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. They moved to London, found lodgings at 15 Poland Street, the name of which intrigued Shelley because of Poland’s fight for freedom.[1]  By this time Shelley had not yet written any of the revolutionary material (such as The Mask of Anarchy) that later generations would associate so strongly with him, however his moral interest in the oppressed and destitute was growing. What we know of Shelley’s life in London at this time can be gauged from his letters: after his Oxford expulsion, Shelley wrote to his father repeatedly from 15 Poland Street. He also wrote to enquire about the success of one of his early novels St Irvyne: “Circumstances may occur, which will oblige me, in case of their event to wish for my accounts suddenly”. As the editor of Shelley’s letters, Frederick Jones, explains, Shelley was short of money, and hoped to draw on a favourable balance from the sales of that novel.
 
After three weeks Hogg left for York in the north of England, and Shelley was lonely. In a letter to his absent friend he describes a reclusive life:

Certainly this place is a little solitary but as a person cannot be quite alone when he has ever got himself with him, I get on pretty well. I have employed myself in writing poetry, & as I go to bed at 8 oClock time passes quicker that [than] it otherwise might. … Miss Westbrooke has this moment called on me, with her sister. It certainly was very kind of her. Ad[ieu]

 
One of the ‘Miss Westbrookes’ Shelley refers to is Harriet, whom he would later marry and have two children with, before eloping with Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) in 1814. On 29 April 1811 he again writes to Hogg: “Father’s as fierce as a lion again. …]He wants me to go to Oxford to apologise to Griffiths &c – No – of course”. Griffiths was the master of University College, and clearly Shelley was defiant in his refusal to bow to Oxford’s rules.
poland-street-2
James Bieri’s detailed biography of the poet tells us more about his life in Poland Street after Hogg has left. Shelley walked with Medwin along the Serpentine and “delighted in skipping rocks across the water and floating paper boats”. At a dinner party hosted by Medwin, “Shelley and John Grove defended a feminist position on women against some male chauvinists”. Some of Medwin’s recollections of Shelley are evocative of the strange, wayward young man that was unpredictable and existed in a ‘dreamy state’: “in Leicester Square one morning at five o’clock, I was attracted by a group of boys collected around a well-dressed person lying near the rails… I descried Shelley, who had unconsciously spent a part of the night sub dio. He could give no account of how he got there.”
 
A strange time of displacement and uncertainty in Shelley’s life, it is fascinating to return to Poland Street and imagine him finding his way and establishing his beliefs amidst the busy, ever-changing landscape of London, no doubt feeling free of Oxford and its constraints, but anxious about the future.
 
 
[1] James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)
 
This post originally appeared on Anna’s website https://percyandmaryshelley.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/long-post-shelleys-home-in-poland-street-soho-london/
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

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 […]

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

Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

Page 1

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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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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Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

Page 1

by Ellen O’Neill
October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge).

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs…

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant’Anselmo. The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn’t easy to find out when it would be open.
I visited Rome throughout the first decade of the new century, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum’s curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.) And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.
 
What is it about those Stairs?
ellen-steps
The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.
 
Then came the Brits
It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.
Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge’s in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.
 
Capturing the Bright Star
I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:
“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats’ verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”
brightstarlavendar
What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.
brightstarlinen
Against all this ‘life’ is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:
“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’
 
In the House today
And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.
I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats’s window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.
ellenwindow1
And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.
ellenceiling1
Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I’ve always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)
 
This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog https://mapeel.blogspot.co.uk/
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds. Ellen O'Neill
 

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

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23.10.2018

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

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10.10.2018

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

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19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

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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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At home with the Wordsworths

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23.07.2018

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

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