The title of my post today is intended to be ambiguous: I mean to say that it is thanks to the love of his wife Mary that Percy Shelley is celebrated as a major poet, and that both he and all poetry readers must thank her for her efforts. As she wrote, ‘He died, and the world showed no outward sign. But his influence over mankind, though slow in growth, is fast augmenting; and, in the ameliorations that have taken place in the political state of his country, we may trace in part the operation of his arduous struggles’. Yet, while it is true that Percy Shelley’s post-humous fame was based on the gradual discovery that his texts were politically relevant and inspirational for later times, his writings would not have survived without Mary’s editorial intervention and her determination to make them be known.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) died shortly before his thirtieth birthday. He had published a long list of volumes (about twenty) including poetry, drama, fiction, and essays but Shelley was known only by a small circle of connoisseurs. He had no public fame in life comparable to that which his good friend Lord Byron enjoyed (if that is the correct word) though he had a high impact among those who knew him. Famously, Byron said of Percy Shelley that ‘I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him’, which suggest he was also well liked as a person, not only as an artist of the word.
Percy drowned in the sea, near Livorno in Italy, where he lived since 1818, in a boating accident that was the product of imprudence and poor seamanship. A fierce summer storm caused his poorly build ship, the Don Juan, to sink. Percy, his friend Edward Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien had no time to react. Shelley’s much disfigured remains washed up on the shore eventually and he was cremated on the beach following Italian quarantine laws. Legend, established by the mendacious Edward Trelawney, has it that his heart survived the burning, though Duncan Wu argues that the cherished relic is possibly a piece of the liver… No matter. His devastated widow–who was only 24 and had also lost three children–set out to make sure that the memory of her husband survived for posterity, with the help of devoted friends like Leigh Hunt.
In 1824, two years after Percy’s death, Mary published Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a lovingly assembled volume which shows her accomplished editorial skills (she worked in some cases with almost undecipherable manuscripts). Amazingly, Mary had to withdraw this book from circulation at the request of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley. He adamantly refused her the right to publicise the details of his son’s complicated private life, fearing that scandal would hurt the snobbish family. Percy’s father only relented when he was approaching ninety, apparently out of affection for his grandson Percy Florence, Percy and Mary’s only surviving child. Sir Timothy finally allowed Mary to publish in 1839 The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on condition that she did not include a biography. Mary added abundant notes to the poems that can be read as a sort of covert life of the poet. She had no doubt that her notes would tell the truth about the man, for she had ‘the liveliest recollection of all that was done and said during the period of my knowing him’.
I’ll get back to Sir Timothy later but I’d like to stop first at Mary’s ‘Preface’ for the 1839 anthology. My opinion about Percy Shelley is no doubt coloured by the negative view transmitted by my dear teacher Guillermina Cenoz that he was, basically, a selfish man. She saw Frankenstein as a work which Mary wrote mainly aiming to secretly expose and punish her husband’s artistic career and personal self-centredness for the cost it meant to family life. I tend to agree with her view, for Percy’s biography is, besides, full of his palpable need to get attention from adoring women: not only his two wives (Harriet Westbrook and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) but also other women present in his life as intimate friends, such as Jane Williams.
It is often supposed that Percy was a practitioner of free love, and that he not only had liaisons with other women but also that he tried to have Mary involved with other men. I think this is part of our constant over-sexualization of every close relationship and that Percy was, rather, a man who craved for emotional attention. Of course, what do I know? It occurs to me, though, that if he had misbehaved in a very serious way, Mary would not have made the effort of producing the two volumes (the second edited while her health was seriously impaired). She would not have written, either, the preface for, though she speaks of fulfilling a duty, nobody really expected her to do anything for her late husband.
Mary’s preface has been accused of sanitizing Percy and offering an angelic view of the man. She called him ‘a pure-minded and exalted being’ and though she referred to his brain and not his body, her hagiography, which led to Shelley’s canonization in Victorian times, is only now being contested from a more politically-oriented stance. It is important to recall that Mary was writing under the strict surveillance of Sir Timothy and that a loving widow (she never remarried) is not probably the most impartial judge of her dead husband. I find, however, the preface as candid a view of Percy as was possible under the circumstances and I don’t think, anyway, that an artist’s widow in more recent times would produce something substantially different in tone and intention. It is also interesting to note that the efforts of Mary’s own father, William Godwin, to honour his dead wife’s legacy, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) caused much outrage because of his outspokenness. This was no doubt a precedent Mary had in mind.
Mary begins mentioning the ‘obstacles’ now ‘happily removed’ which allow her to ‘fulfil an important duty,—that of giving the productions of a sublime genius to the world, with all the correctness possible, and of, at the same time, detailing the history of those productions, as they sprang, living and warm, from his heart and brain’. She will offer no comments on his private life, ‘except inasmuch as the passions which they engendered inspired his poetry’. A bit mysteriously, she writes that the time ‘to relate the truth’ has not come and she will not, anyway, offer a convenient version. ‘Whatever faults he had ought to find extenuation among his fellows, since they prove him to be human; without them, the exalted nature of his soul would have raised him into something divine’. To err is to be human, then, though we will never know to what faults Mary referred. And why should we?
Now, for the main qualities: ‘First, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement; and the fervent eloquence with which he discussed such subjects’. Mary launches then into presenting Percy as a man fully committed to the cause of political freedom, with utmost passion: ‘any new-sprung hope of liberty inspired a joy and an exultation more intense and wild than he could have felt for any personal advantage’. These words were written after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the first timid step into the widening of the franchise to all male voters in Britain, and Mary stresses that decades before, when her husband was politically active, defending any kind of freedom was a risky enterprise. Percy’s poetry reflects ‘the determination not to despair’, against the tenet that Romanticism is the expression of despair.
Mary argues that Percy’s poems are of two types: ‘the purely imaginative, and those which sprang from the emotions of his heart’. Of the second type, the ‘more popular’, she writes that they were the expression of personal feeling that, while running deep, he was ‘usually averse to expressing (…) except when highly idealized’. This is puzzling for it suggests that Percy’s ‘intensity of passion’ and ‘extreme sensibility’ were better manifested in the poems than in person. Mary refers to finding fragments of unfinished poems with manifestations of his deep self of which she was not aware but, then, every person leads a secret emotional life not even available to their spouses. Interestingly, she mentions that Percy himself valued the ‘metaphysical strain’ expressed in the less popular poems above the personal effusion: ‘He loved to idealize reality; and this is a taste shared by few’, though she trusts that there is plenty in his Platonic poems ‘that speaks to the many’.
Mary, born in 1797, was forty-two when she wrote the preface, thirteen years older than when Percy died. She grants that ‘there is the stamp of such inexperience’ in all his production, for ‘the calm of middle life did not add the seal of the virtues which adorn maturity to those generated by the vehement spirit of youth’. On the other hand, Mary notes that her husband was a ‘martyr to ill-health’, attributing his heightened sensitivity to ‘constant pain’, which made this ‘perfectly gentle’ man often irritable and overexcited. Mary reports that the day before his untimely death Percy declared ‘If I die to-morrow I have lived to be older than my father’, meaning that his body had accumulated in less than thirty years more sensibility and feeling than many others could expect to have in much longer lives. Live fast, die young… and leave a sadly destroyed body and an inconsolable widow. A tragedy, really.
Percy Shelley’s family background is that of the gentry portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Percy’s paternal grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, was 1st Baronet of Castle Goring (a baronetcy is the lowest title in the aristocratic hierarchy; baronets are commoners with a right to be called Sir). His upward social mobility and that of his son Timothy were secured by means of rewarding matches with rich heiresses (the same tactic followed by Byron and his father). It is often forgotten that upper-class patriarchal masculinity treated sons as chattel to be traded with other equally powerful families, and this is what Percy resisted.
Initially the relationship with his father was good, as proven by the fact that Sir Timothy financed the first four volumes his son published (two collections of poems with one of his sisters, two gothic novels). A disastrous turning point happened, however, when Percy, then nineteen, married sixteen-year-old Harriet, a schoolmate of his sister Helen and the daughter of a coffee-house owner. If the Westbrooks thought the match would guarantee their daughters’ financial and personal happiness they were quickly deceived. Sir Timothy reduced Percy’s allowance to a minimum and the couple survived, together with her sister Elizabeth, mainly by borrowing much above their possibilities. To make matters even worse, Percy had got himself expelled from Oxford shortly before eloping with Harriet for having written the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. He had no degree, no qualifications, and no way of entering any of the gentry-sanctioned careers for men.
Romantic legend has presented the relationship between Percy and Mary as the stuff of beautiful, romantic legend but nothing could be further from the truth–it was, at least at the beginning quite a sordid affair. Percy originally met Mary when she was fourteen and he, then nineteen and recently married, a visitor in William Godwin’s home. Mary’s father was happy enough to receive money from his admirer but he was outraged when, two years later, Percy abandoned Harriet to elope with Mary, then sixteen, to Europe. They may have married there but if this happened then Percy became a bigamist. Harriet had his second child (Charles, the elder was Ianthe) a few months before Mary had her first with Percy, Clara. Mary and Percy could finally marry legally in England in 1816 a few weeks after Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park’s Serpetine. She was then heavily pregnant, probably from a lover, not Percy. Sued by Elizabeth, Harriet’s sister, Percy lost custody of his two children, who were put in foster care. One can imagine Sir Timothy’s disgust as his son’s behaviour, though he did not come to the rescue in any way, leaving Harriet’s children unattended.
In the preface Mary writes that Percy ‘spurned’ his privileges because he foregrounded his ideological duties. ‘He was generous to imprudence, devoted to heroism’, she writes. I will not deny his idealism but it is important to note that once Sir Bysshe died in 1815, Percy became the beneficiary of an annuity of about £1000. This was not much in relation to the lifestyle of his social circle, which is why Mary and he eventually moved to Italy, where they frequently coincided with Byron. When Percy died, Mary depended on her work as a writer (she published other novels, not only Frankenstein) and on the rather limited help which Sir Timothy gave her for the upkeep of Percy Florence. It seems that one of his conditions was that she never used her name in her publications, to prevent any connection with the surname Shelley (see https://knarf.english.upenn.edu/People/tshelley.html).
The anonymous author of the article I have referenced calls Sir Timothy a ‘mean-spirited, hard-hearted’ man and a ‘forsaker of genius’, an expression I have found nowhere else on Google. This seems a fair judgement particularly since Sir Timothy was indeed aware of his son’s literary talent. The life he intended for Percy was a repetition of his own: a political career as an MP in some rotten borough under the protection of an aristocratic patron and marriage to a landowning heiress. It is easy to see why an idealistic youth like Percy would reject this plan but, of course, the downside of his rebelliousness is that Shelley always depended economically on the men of his family, both his father and his grandfather. This great defender of the workers of England never worked to earn a living, though I grant that he did much work on the literary front. In contrast another idealist young man decided decades later to make the most of his father’s money by running his factory and embezzling funds to start a political revolution. I mean, of course, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).
Shelley’s idealism and commitment to the cause of freedom are, then, respectable but also the product of his class and privileged circumstances. Mary celebrated her late husband in her preface and the two anthologies but I wonder how she felt about Harriet. It is hard not to sympathise with this poor woman and her children. As a worker’s daughter I myself have a great deal of mistrust against upper-class individuals presenting themselves as liberators, much more so against those who never did a day’s paid work in their life. I may value Percy Shelley’s poetry (I really do) and I might accept that he was not as selfish as my teacher painted him. Still, I have many doubts about Shelley, beginning with whether he really deserved all the love Mary put into the task of ensuring his immortality. And I wonder whether he would have done the same for her.
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