In the footsteps of the Shelleys: Switzerland and Mont Blanc

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:
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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:
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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.
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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.
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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 –

Shelley in the 21st century

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…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”
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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
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

Shelley in London: Poland Street

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.
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.
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
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

Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

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.
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.
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.

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.
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–––


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.

Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Godwin's bookshop

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


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


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


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


That, in short, was to be my undertaking.

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Fanny Imlay


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


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


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

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

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

Diets of the Romantic poets

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

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

by Graham Henderson

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

Page from hotel register, University of Cambridge

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

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

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

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared on Graham’s Shelley blog

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

8th July 1822 and the burning, reckless heart of Shelley

by Ellen O’Neill

It is to-day a hundred years since that sultry afternoon when Edward John Trelawny, aboard Byron’s schooner-yacht Bolivar, fretted anxiously in Leghorn Harbour and watched the threatening sky. The thunderstorm that broke about half-past six lasted only twenty minutes, but it was long enough to drown both Shelley and his friend Williams. . . .

Christopher Morley The Powder of Sympathy

One of my favourite finds from a used book store is Christopher Morley’s The Powder of Sympathy, a 1923 collection of essays from this true man of letters, best known as the author of Kitty Foyle (the film version of which is famous for Ginger Rogers’s only Academy Award for Best Actress), and the godfather of bloggers.

The title of one essay is simply “July 8, 1822,” the date that Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Tuscany. Morley was struck that 1922 was 100 years hence, and decided to commemorate the date of the great Romantic poet’s death by copying out part of Edward John Trelawny’s description of the cremation of Shelley’s body on the Italian coast from his indispensable Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And so I follow suit, on our July 8, 2016. It is quite a graphic description, so let’s pick it up with

Byron could not face the scene; he withdrew to the beach and swam off to the Bolivar. Leigh Hunt remained in the carriage. The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all, was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt.

Morely in 1922 was able to say “There are those still living who have shaken the hard, quick hand that snatched Shelley’s heart from the coals.”

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier, Liverpool Walker Gallery

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889), Liverpool Walker Gallery

We in 2016 can make no claim. Trelawny gave the heart to Mary Shelley, and it was found among her things when she died and buried with her at St. Peter’s Church, Bournemouth. So while Shelley ashes are over in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, his heart is in England.

Morley’s other personal commemoration was to reread Francis Thompson’s essay entitled “Shelley,” “which remains in our memory as a prismatic dazzle of metaphor.” That’s one thing to call it. Francis Thompson is an odd, ascetic figure on the literary landscape whom I wrote about because he is on the list of Jack the Ripper suspects. His Shelley essay is here [God bless the Gutenberg Project and all who partake.] It is dense, baroque, almost insanely passionate, and brilliant.

Shelley’s work has, of course, inspired great passion from the actual greats. Here is Yeats: “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”

Morely muses upon a weekend meditation on Shelley and “what he still means to us.” A fair question in 1922, even more so in 2016. What Morely did not have in his day was epic television. Yeats was brought into the pop culture consciousness through The Sopranos and A.J. studying “The Second Coming” at college. And Shelley’s “Ozymandias” had a huge resurgence because Moira Walley-Beckett built season 5, episode 14 of Breaking Bad around it. These guys were cultural rebels, I think they would have liked this eschalon of TV, breathing new life and generations into their work.

But on this 194th anniversary of Shelley’s death by drowning, “Ozymandias” and its decay is not the voice to listen to. It’s Morley himself, in his closing thought about the poet and what he brings into our lives:

“Though lulled long ago by the blue Mediterranean, that burning, reckless heart survives to us little corrupted by time–survives as a symbol of poetic energy superior to the common routines of life.”

And we’ll follow Yeats into Prometheus Unbound to see that burning, feverish heart for a momentary break from our daily routine:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog
Ellen O'NeillEllen 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.

In the footsteps of the Shelleys: Italy

by Anna Mercer

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

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

I stayed in the town of Lerici, which looks over the bay of the same name towards San Terenzo. Our balcony (we hired a wonderful airbnb residence which was reasonably priced and very spacious – highly recommended!) looked out across the bay towards the house which Percy and Mary Shelley lived in: Casa Magni.
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A 20-minute walk took us round the bay to the house itself. Mary Shelley said this place had an ‘unimaginable beauty’.
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The Shelleys moved here (after living in various other places in Tuscany, including Pisa, Livorno and Bagni di Lucca) in April 1822. Although they only moved here a few months before Percy’s death, the Shelleys were rarely stationed in one place for long, and Casa Magni is important because Percy Shelley moved his family and friends (Edward and Jane Williams) here with a view to set up home. However, biographers of Mary Shelley have implied she was unhappy here, finding it isolated and desolate (she did write: ‘we could scarcely have found ourselves farther from civilisation and comfort’). Casa Magni is a striking white mansion right on the beach, which would have stood alone and remote in the Shelleys’ time, but is now the centre of the strip of buildings in San Terenzo. It is now also a private residence available for hire, somewhere beyond my budget, sadly – but it does sleep up to 10 people, so a future gathering with friends/family there would be wonderful. Miranda Seymour’s research into the Shelleys’ lives suggests it was an intimate dwelling for their crowd, however, as the Williamses and the Shelleys lived ‘in inescapable intimacy, eating in the hall which held their bedrooms narrowly apart’.[1]
Here are some images of Casa Magni as it would have been in the nineteenth century:

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

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

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

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

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

The haunting of Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Lynn Shepherd

This fiend, whose ghastly presence ever
Beside thee like thy shadow hangs…

Percy Bysshe Shelley was many things: a poet, a political radical and pamphleteer, a philosophical thinker, and a faithless husband. He was also – and this may come as a surprise – obsessed with the occult, and this fixation with spirits, demons, and dark inversions of the self was to haunt him to the end of his life.

It was a preoccupation that began very early – Shelley was conjuring a world of spirits and magic and the supernatural to terrorise his younger sisters when he was not much more than ten. As Elizabeth Shelley later recalled, “we dressed ourselves in strange costumes to personate spirits or fiends, and Bysshe would take a fire-stove and fill it with some flammable liquid…” He made up ghost stories to scare his sisters, went on mysterious moonlit walks, and drew doodles of devils and monsters in the margins of his copy of Tales of Terror. He devoured the cheap horror novels of the period, and later wrote one of his own, The Nightmare, which has since been lost.

At Eton, at the age of 16, he was discovered one night within a circle of blue flame, trying to raise the devil; Beelzebub apparently did not oblige. And on another occasion he wrote to a friend arranging to meet him in the holidays, warning him that he might meet on the way “Death-demons, & skeletons dripping with the putrefaction of the grave” and “at the frightful hour of midnight” awake to see “the Hell-Demon lean[ing] over your sleeping form.” And all the while he was prey to nightmares, and sleepwalking, and strange waking visions in which he could no longer tell reality from hallucination. His university friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalled Shelley telling him that that during one of his midnight walks he’d become convinced he could hear the devil pursuing him, rustling in the grass. It was only the first of many such ‘following figures’ that were to obsess him until his death. But were any of these spectres real, or were they nothing but the ‘shaping fantasies’ of his own fevered mind?

One of the strangest examples of this occurred in 1813 – so strange that it inspired a central episode in my own novel, A Treacherous Likeness. It happened in Tremadoc, North Wales, where Shelley was staying temporarily with his first wife, Harriet. Within weeks of their arrival in the town Shelley had antagonised many of his neighbours, particularly a local landowner named Robert Leeson. On the night of February 26th, in the midst of a storm, Shelley was apparently the subject of an assassination attempt. He certainly thought it such, and more than one gunshot was heard, but no-one but Shelley saw the man who attacked him, even though the supposed assailant came back to the house a second time the same night. Even many of Shelley’s friends thought it was some kind of delusion, and years later the incident was still being referred to in the Tremadoc area as Shelley’s Ghost’.

Shelley always believed that Leeson was the man who tried to murder him, improbable though that suggestion was, and over the next few years this idea became almost a mania with him – he even claimed he’d seen Leeson following him in London, and once as far away as Pisa. Something was certainly persecuting Shelley, but it wasn’t Robert Leeson. Again and again in his letters and journals Shelley talks of the ‘doubleness’ of his own nature, of a dark ‘anti-self’, and once he describes himself “starting from my own company as if it were that of a fiend”. Like a ‘ghastly presence ever beside him like his shadow’, it was his own self Shelley could not escape.

And with that thought, we move to the last days of Shelley’s life. In the spring of 1822 he and his second wife Mary, author of Frankenstein, moved with their friends Edward and Jane Williams to a small house on a wild and lonely stretch of the Ligurian coast, near La Spezia. The Shelleys’ marriage was by then in serious trouble, and Mary could not rid herself of a sense of foreboding, a premonition of “some impending horror”. Shelley, by contrast, was exhilarated by the landscape, and the situation of the villa right by the sea, but the terrible atmosphere in the house eventually told on his nerves, and he became prey once again, to sleepwalking and apparitions that deeply disturbed him.


One evening on the terrace with Williams, he claimed to see a little naked child, rising from the sea, with its hands clasped. And later, he woke the whole house with his screaming, and they found him staggering in a trance-like state, claiming to have seen two visions – one of Edward and Jane Williams covered in blood and the sea rushing into the house, and one of a figure standing over Mary, its hands about her throat – a figure that had Shelley’s own face. And it was not the first time he had seen his own döppelganger: a few days before he had met the same figure, in sunlight, in the garden, and the man had asked him ‘how long he meant to be content’. All of this was no doubt the result of the extreme stress Shelley was suffering, and the calamitous state of his marriage, but one other incident cannot be so easily explained. Writing to her friend, after Shelley’s death, Mary recalled that

the strangest thing is that Mrs Williams saw him. … She was standing one day… at a window that looked on the terrace, with Trelawny….[and] saw, as she thought, Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket ; he passed again. Now, as he passed both times the same way, and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall 20 feet from the ground), she was struck at her seeing him pass twice thus, and looked out and seeing him no more, she cried, ” Good God, can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?” “Shelley?” said Trelawny, “no Shelley has passed. What do you mean?” Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this, and it proved, indeed, that Shelley had never been on the terrace, and was far off at the time she saw him.

Less than a month later he was dead, drowned with Williams in a sudden storm as he was sailing back from Livorno. That same night his friend Lady Mountcashell dreamt of him, his face pale and melancholy, saying mournfully, “I shall never eat more”. She had no idea then, that he was dead.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran.
Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

It was ten days before the bodies were found, flung onto the beach near Viareggio. By then Shelley was only identifiable by the clothes he wore, and the book he still carried in his pocket. His face and hands had been completely eaten away.

This post was originally written for the Spooky Isles website, which offers stories of the paranormal, horror and dark history in Britain and Ireland.

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), and A Treacherous Likeness, which is a fictionalised version of the dark and turbulent lives of the Shelleys (published as A Fatal Likeness in the US). Her latest book, The Pierced Heart, is inspired by Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula. She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

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