I have finished
the Shelley biography
that Jamie gave me
for my birthday
I would never finish
it was riveting
and so stressful
I DID IT. This book is 733 pages long and I didn’t think I would actually finish it until the second to last chapter when I suddenly realized that I would. What a wild ride! When I finished I flipped back through the first chapter and couldn’t believe the length of the journey I had just taken; Percy’s sad time at boarding school and his hijinks at Field House seem so incredibly distant to my mind. I began reading this book last August on a sleeper train to Chicago.
The first sentence of the book is: “There will always be Shelley lovers, but this book is not for them.” The last sentence is: “Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget.” In between are lots of other sentences, many of them beginning “It was during this difficult time that Shelley conceived his most audacious poem yet”
I found the experience of reading this book extremely interesting. The book itself is interesting for many reasons. Shelley’s life is interesting, his times are interesting, all the details about daily society in the early 19th century are fascinating, reading about these kids gallivanting around Europe and recording their observations is fascinating, etc. But also, it’s interesting to read this book with an eye peeled for women. When you’re interested in women from history—their lives, their thoughts, their experiences—you often have to read between the lines of other histories written about men. You see the women who surrounded the men kind of peeking out from behind all the stuff about somebody’s great ode ‘pon the death of Keats or whatever. Behind all that are women doing things, not just cooking and cleaning up after the men, or doing things that reflect directly on the men’s artistic development, but also just doing stuff unrelated to the men that is itself interesting, but you have to kind of use your imagination in tying it all together. Such is the case with this book (and sidenote, when I finally finished it and threw it down on the ground, interrupting my husband who was watching a baseball game on his iPad, I said “say what you will about Percy, but this is QUITE A BOOK TO HAVE WRITTEN” (additional sidenote: only after finishing it did I realize this was Richard Holmes’s FIRST BOOK. Devastating)). Because, I read this book not because I’m particularly interested in Percy Shelley but rather in order to learn more about a different Shelley, namely MARY Shelley, the wife of the great man. And the thing is that even though Holmes himself is mainly interested in her insofar as she affected Percy’s life (there’s an unfortunate use of the word “nagging” throughout in his descriptions of their marriage), at the same time his book is FULL of her. She peeks out from behind the lengthy exegeses of Ozymandias and such (one hot tip for getting through a book like this—skip all the analyses of poems. I know they’re penetrating and good but….“WHO CARES”). There she is, in the background, and if you read the book with an eye peeled for her, you learn a lot.
I don’t mean to sell Holmes short, as he is an absolute genius, and also he’s interested in these women and in their experience, a lot more so than your average biographer in 1974. In fact one thing that sets his biography apart from the other Great Romantic Era Fellows Biographies I have read is the fact that he takes the women in Percy’s life a lot more seriously—their letters, their diaries, their thoughts and feelings, their perspective on Percy. He takes a sympathetic tone with them and doesn’t work to paint Percy’s often truly horrendous actions regarding them in a positive light. All of this is much appreciated. But still, it’s a biography of the Great Poet, and mostly the information is organized based on how it helps to explain the man and his works, so there is still a lot of between-the-lines reading one must do if one is actually more interested in Mary, not to mention Claire (more on Claire in a minute). Also there is an alarming tendency to move directly from a documentation of the results of Percy’s awful or stupid actions into a discourse on how his feelings about these results influenced whatever poem he was writing at the time. Like a woman kills herself because of him, and then there’s six pages on how Percy channeled his shame into a great poem. I must say that a little of this goes a long way, although again I realize that this kind of thing comprises much of the point of writing a book like this.
Really all the women in Percy’s life are fascinating. Both of his marriages started when he essentially kidnapped a pair of sisters. Two different times! Eloping in the dead of night with your 16 year old girlfriend and her sister. Very weird. He’s married to this girl Harriet when he falls in love with another 16 year old, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin, the daughter of two famous radical philosophers. The story of their relationship is so epic: he’s been hanging around the house because he’s obsessed with William Godwin and wants Godwin to be his daddy (this daddy complex had terrible repercussions for Percy’s future finances, as Godwin basically spends the next 7 years emotionally blackmailing him. Godwin doesn’t come off well in this telling; it’s a shame, really, for as a young man he was quite spectacular). Mary of course was raised in a wild and radical way, reading philosophy and holding her own in dinner table arguments with all kinds of great men of letters/politics. Imagine growing up knowing that your mother was Mary Wollestonecraft!!!! Who died giving birth to you?! She grew up reading her famous mother’s books and essays. So epic. So anyway one day Mary tells Percy she has something to say to him, so they go to Wollestonecraft’s GRAVE, a special place where Mary undertook all her serious thinking, and there she calmly tells him she loves him and will love him forever no matter what else may happen. This absolutely BLOWS PERCY’S MIND, her calmness and boldness, the intensity of the setting and of her declaration, and it seems to have sent him off into a sort of manic episode. He tells his wife he doesn’t love her anymore, he tells Godwin that he and Mary are in love and want to be together without getting married, and to his surprise (to anyone’s surprise, really, as Godwin was all Mr. Free Love and himself lived with Wollestonecraft sans marriage for quite awhile) Godwin freaks out and forbids Percy from coming inside the house ever again and demands that he cut off all ties with his daughter. Percy responds with just the kind of wild violence you expect from the kid who got kicked out of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism and who then threatened to beat up his dad’s solicitor: at one point he breaks into the family living room with a bottle of poison and threatens to kill himself on the spot, while Mary’s screaming and crying, and Godwin’s second wife is like “Lord save me from these Romantic-era poets.” I imagine him all sweaty and handsome with his floppy hair screwed into tangles from him wrenching melodramatically at it. And then finally he runs off in the night with both Mary and Jane, her step-sister. And they go on a really fun adventure—they sail to the continent and go to Switzerland and have a blast, all of them writing in their diaries about the cool sights they see and the fun food they eat and how scandalized their various landlords are. Percy is the oldest and he’s only 21; they’re just a bunch of rabble-rousing kids kicking up a ruckus. They think it’s so fun/funny that they’ve run away from home. Later it will become less fun, as Percy’s financial situation is extremely bad, and it turns out no one back home in England thinks it’s very cool for a married man with a pregnant wife to steal not one but TWO daughters from a famous Enlightenment philosopher. Percy seems always to have been surprised by people’s reactions to the wild shit he does; he seems never to have quite figured it out. What do you MEAN it’s bad that I’m living in sin with two sisters while trying to agitate the working classes into open rebellion against the monarchy?? I thought you’d think it was cool!
It’s actually pretty sad, how disappointed he is by his friends over and over again. A lot of his beliefs are extremely sound; his take on Britain’s class system for example. You know what, the working people SHOULD fucking rise up and overthrow the goddman hereditary monarchy and also Parliament, and frankly I’m on Percy’s side when it comes to all his milquetoast liberal friends telling him he’s too hotheaded. “FUCK YOU ALLLLLLLL”
Anyway, re: this whole Mary/sister thing, I don’t think I ever fully realized what the deal was. I knew that he and Mary traveled around and lived for years with the sister, Jane Clairmont, who of course is actually the famous “Claire Clairmont” (she changes her name to reflect her more adventurous new life). Holmes does this cool thing with her where he introduces her as Jane and withholds the information that she is really the famous Claire until she herself chooses her new name; so for me, as a bit of a Shelley dilettante, I didn’t know who this Jane was at first. Then when she announces her new name I was like OH SHIT THIS IS THAT GIRL WHO SEDUCES LORD BYRON.
But anyway Claire is always there, in histories of Percy, of Mary, of Frankenstein. She was there in the room on the famous night when Frankenstein was conceived, the ghost-story-in-Geneva night. She was there literally for the entirety of Percy and Mary’s marriage; save for a few stints here and there where Mary would send her away for a bit, the three of them lived together always, as a family, a ménage a trois as Holmes puts it. Indeed Holmes calls the whole trio “The Shelleys.” Percy and Claire were clearly lovers although the language is sort of weird on this point; Holmes acts like this hasn’t been proven, and he also seems to think that Mary was unaware of it, neither of which can possibly be the case. What seems to be the deal is that Percy eloped with a pair of sisters and then lived in a kind of half-acknowledged bigamist marriage with both of them. They certainly considered themselves a family unit—when Mary’s son dies, Claire writes in a letter of “losing our boy” e.g. On the honeymoon, the three eloping kids ride a donkey into the Swiss alps and all sleep in the same bed at the inn. To be fair I think it was a lopsided group marriage, as Mary is always sick of Claire and asking Percy to send her away, but he more or less refuses. Holmes quotes tons of Percy’s letters to Claire, and it seems like he just really liked her. He calls her his “dearest,” his “love,” at one point, his “best friend.”
Percy, as Holmes notes, had a weird thing with women. He liked them, and liked to be surrounded by them, he liked to live amongst a gaggle of ladies with whom he had both platonic and sexual relationships. From his earliest adulthood he’s constantly trying to set up these big free love radical communes; he’s always scheming with his best friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg to try to help Hogg seduce whatever girl Percy is currently with. Indeed, Hogg and Mary seem to have had an affair during the early part of the relationship (and, in an amazing coda, Holmes notes that eventually Hogg ended up common-law-married to yet another one of Percy’s ex girlfriends, the lady he was having an affair with when he died). In the very last year of his life Percy is still trying to get a big ol’ community of English weirdos to start a commune in Italy with him. He wants to fuck all the ladies and publish radical pamphlets with all the men. One of his earliest political beliefs was one he never altered, and it was the belief that marriage is stupid. He wrote all these poems about how love always changes and is never permanent; why should two people chain themselves to one another forever, when the nature of love is that it will fade and subside into gentle friendship? Shelley was always disappointed in the women in his life for insisting that he marry them. And after he abandons his first wife Harriet for Mary, he writes Harriet these truly bizarre letters about how obviously now they are “brother and sister,” no longer husband and wife, and would Harriet please come live with him, Mary, and Claire, so that he can take care of her, as a brother would? LITERALLY. Asking your pregnant wife to come live platonically with you and your new pregnant girlfriend?? He seems to have found nothing odd in this request. There is obviously a lot of obnoxious “we as humans” universalizing in his statements on love, and it’s also very immature, especially in a world where sex has extremely real physical and social consquences ONLY FOR WOMEN AND NOT FOR MEN. Reading this biography, one gets the impression of these dudes bouncing around the world leaving an absolute trail of literally bloodstained women in their wake, women who are now “ruined” and also destitute and everyone points and laughs at them in the street, and they have to spend the rest of their lives writing groveling letters to these dudes about how they can’t pay the rent or feed the kids. Some of them go on to commit fucking suicide. So yeah, free love is great for you, Percy.
Holmes elegantly skewers all the free love stuff and Percy’s thoughts on love generally:
The reader, however much he sympathizes with Shelley’s position, cannot be unaware of immaturity and inconsistency of thoughts, and a tendency to approach real human problems in a spirit of scornful, bookish brilliance. Shelley’s attitude to love is marred by two obvious blind spots. The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations, so that loving has the chance to develop from a static ‘sweet sensation’ into a cumulative process of discovery and exploration…His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship. Shelley was to remain faithful to his free love principles throughout his life, but he was to pay dearly—and make others pay dearly—for his personal blindness in both these respects.
“the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations, so that loving has the chance to develop from a static ‘sweet sensation’ into a cumulative process of discovery and exploration”????? DAMN. Richard Holmes just neatly and perfectly summarizing the potential joy of monogamy as a means of calling Percy Shelley an immature egomaniac? Sign me up
However, it’s complicated! These guys are all reading Mary Wollestonecraft and agitating for women to get the vote and stuff. They’re radicals! They’re egalitarians! In fact part of what Shelley hated about marriage was that, at his time, it included no legal protection for women, it turned women into chattel, and he found that disgusting, which is a correct and good attitude. It’s interesting to see these 19th-century radical guys who “get it” to some degree—they have an awareness of class warfare and the horrors of modern capitalism; they can see the subjugation of women; they’re reading Wollestonecraft and being like YOU GO GIRL; and they’re very encouraging of the women in their lives in certain ways. I mean as much as I am fully Team Mary and would rather read Frankenstein ten times in a row than actually sit down and try to read Alastor or whatever, you can not deny that Percy played a major supporting role in getting that shit published. He negotiated an amazing contract for her, a much better contract than he ever got for any of his own publications; he read it, edited it, talked about it with her, etc., he wrote an extremely hardcore preface for it and everything, in many respects he was more supportive as a husband than you would think was possible for a 20 year old kid in 1816 to be. And yet on the other hand he’s just blithely impregnating women all over the place and going out dancing with Claire while Mary is at home violently grieving the death of their baby. TWO DIFFERENT WOMEN KILL THEMSELVES BECAUSE OF PERCY. They fucking DIED. One of them (Harriet!) wrote a suicide note telling him she wished him happiness and forgave him for leaving her socially and financially ruined and abandoning his children; all she asks is that he allow her sister to continue raising the kids. Did he honor this incredibly pathetic note from a woman whose life he destroyed? Nope. Instead he freaked out and engaged in a protracted legal battle trying to win custody of these two kids he seems not to have even thought of one time in his life. He’s suing his former parents-in-law for custody and they are like I WILL KILL YOU YOU PIECE OF SHIT, all they want is their poor dead daughter’s children so they can raise them in a decent home but Percy insists he should have sole custody and finally the judge rules in neither of their favor and sends the kids to live with random foster parents out in the country. And even though he grants Percy visitation rights Percy NEVER BOTHERS TO GO SEE THE KIDS AGAIN. After all that! It was just a power play, something he did to hide from his shame and guilt. Lord
So it’s a real mixed bag, with these guys and the women in their lives. Like on the one hand it’s so fun to imagine Lord Byron blasting around Europe having affairs with all these noblewomen, filling his mansion with pet peacocks and llamas, throwing huge parties and giving no fucks for what anybody thinks; on the other hand oooops maybe the woman gets pregnant and isn’t fun anymore and then he just absolutely bails on her, and again at least one of these ladies killed herself after being literally caricatured in the British press as this pathetic fool following Byron around pleading with him to love her…I mean at the point when NEWSPAPERS ARE MOCKING YOU for being broken and ruined by a dude it truly doesn’t seem like a fun romp anymore, and the fact that these dudes clearly did not give one shit about the anguish these women were going through—like maybe even if you no longer “love” someone you could still feel some human compassion for them??—kind of belies all the egalitarian talk, and quite frankly it also belies all the “love” talk itself, like I think you and I have very different ideas of what “love” means, Percy, like deep down it’s all just the same old misogyny and not seeing women as human beings. So in one respect, fuck all these guys. But then like I said, in other respects, you kind of have to hand it to them. I truly think it is so fun that Percy was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet about how God doesn’t exist. And he was literally attacked and shot with a gun in his own home for trying to organize local workers into a union to demand better wages! And he was an ethical vegetarian, and he was horrified by poverty, and he wanted to bring about utopia, and he was also very good at telling ghost stories. Anyway, make of him what you will. I guess today we’d call him a brocialist
Holmes is pretty good about the ladies, as I’ve said, but still there are these weird moments where the way he reflects on an event is far removed from the way I view it, and it causes weird dissonance. For example, when yet another one of Mary’s children dies, Holmes discusses how everyone tries to help her and cheer her up, including Lord Byron, who gravely asks her to make a fair copy of the poem he’s just finished. I read that and was like….wait what? This lady’s child just died and he’s asking her to do some secretarial work for him? But this gesture was clearly meant to PLEASE HER—the great Lord Byron “gravely” asking for her help. This was his effort to cheer her. And she fucking did it! I know times have changed but honestly can you imagine.
The attitude of people in the past to children dying is fascinating. It was just so much more an accepted part of normal reality than it is now (at least, from where I’m sitting in good old middle class 21st-century America). I think I already wrote about this back when I was reading the Schumann marriage diaries, how the baby dies and after like three days it’s back to practicing the piano. It is crazy to read the recitation of facts and dates in this regard, because it forces you to realize that things like “grieving the death of a child” are not actually universal processes. It turns out you can actually grieve the death of a child in really different ways depending on time and place and context. E.g. the Shelleys’ beloved four year old son dies abruptly of a fever and like 3 days later they’re packing up to move, and writing people letters, and the letters are like “oh it’s so sad, we are quite miserable. Please send English newspapers and a copy of Milton to me in Livorno if you get a chance, my best to your family.” Like they’re definitely sad, but not devastated, not totally laid up with grief like people are today when a kid dies. For example Mary’s grief over the loss of her first baby is clearly considered excessive by those around her, and then you look at the date and it’s only been like 2 weeks. Everyone’s like “oof, Mary, come on kid get over it.” And even she is like “I don’t know why this is haunting me so intensely, I feel crazy.” After just a couple of weeks??? It’s really strange, jarring, surreal. But you just couldn’t possibly be shattered by a baby’s death in 1816 when you know you’re going to (a) give birth like a thousand times and (b) half of those babies will die in early childhood. Society would have ground to a halt if every lost baby meant that people were absolutely shattered. Still, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly life goes on, back then. Percy’s like “oh damn” and writes a sad poem and then it’s back to the ladies and to his sailing.
It’s also crazy to think of sex without birth control. I know this is still the state of things in much of the world and even in this country, but I mean it’s crazy to think about a world in which “birth control” isn’t even a thought in your head. The situation being just that sex = putting the woman in extremely real danger for her life. All these guys in the era who have second and third and even fourth wives and you’re like, wait, divorce wasn’t legal, and then you’re like OH SHIT. Imagine a situation in which making love to your wife who you care about means putting her life in danger! I don’t know how to put it into words but it’s just really bizarre to me, to imagine going ahead and having sex knowing that there’s a 50/50 chance she’ll die in childbirth. Again, that was just the way life went and what could you do about it? It’s just wild, these childbirth scenes. The great man working on his important poem while on the second floor a woman he loves screams in agony for 27 hours. The social relations between the sexes are truly so weird; the fact that some people go through childbirth and other people don’t, based on their biology, is honestly crazy. I mean I realize this is not new information but it’s just hitting me all of a sudden. How the fuck are we supposed to get along with each other
Anyway I really can not imagine writing a proper review of this book. How would one organize one’s thoughts? I learned SO MUCH and so much of it was so interesting. For that matter, I can truly not imagine writing the book itself. It’s one of those books that reminds you yet again of how spectacular archival research can be. To think of tracking down all these letters and cross-referencing them to get some sort of three dimensional idea of an event or a time in this guy’s life. Finding references in letters between people talking ABOUT Shelley, not even letters to/from the man himself! All these scraps of paper and bills of sale and weird notebooks where Shelley has doodled a bunch of drawings of devils. The tantalizing, surely devastating loss of documents, e.g. there’s a scandalous period in the Shelleys’ life that not much is known of, because they all RIPPED OUT THOSE PAGES OF THEIR DIARIES. Imagine being Richard Holmes and wanting to know! Wanting to know so badly!! And staring at those goddamn tattered page-ends interrupting otherwise highly informative diaries. WHAT HAD BEEN WRITTEN THERE????? There’s also wonderful work with different drafts—like, comparing the first draft of a letter that someone didn’t send, to the draft they did send, and noting all the provocative stuff that was deleted in the final draft. Crossing out “dearest” e.g. From details like these Holmes speculates wildly yet compellingly about the changing nature of these relationships, the feelings of everyone involved, etc. Figuring out from postmarks which letters to Claire were secret—meant to be kept from Mary—and which she was likely to have read. That sort of thing.
There’s a part where Percy is sent into raptures of enthusiasm after visiting an Italian macaroni factory.
I love the nineteenth century so much. I love the way people wrote. Holmes includes excerpts from an absolutely blistering review of The Revolt of Islam that really shook Percy because he thought (incorrectly) that Robert Southey had written it. But check this out, can you imagine someone writing this about your latest poem:
Like the Egyptian of old, the wheels of his chariot are broken, the path of mighty waters closes in upon him behind, and a still deepening ocean is before him:–for a short time are seen his impotent struggles against a resistless power, his blasphemous execrations are heard, his despair but poorly assumes the tone of triumph and defiance, and he calls ineffectually on others to follow him to the same ruin—finally, he sinks ‘like lead’ to the bottom, and is forgotten. So it is now in part, so shortly will it be entirely with Mr. Shelley.
Claire’s seduction of Byron is so triumphant, even though it ends in such heartbreak. She’s like 19 years old, and wants a famous poet of her own, given that Mary has officially snagged Percy. She literally just starts writing letters to Byron, these wonderful letters that are perfectly designed to reveal (a) her liberal attitude regarding premarital sex, (b) her lively intellect and interest in poetry, thanks to living with Percy Shelley, who is really great and who he should really meet as she thinks they’d like each other (Holmes notes that Percy helped her with these letters, LOL what a scene) and (c) just enough hints about her weird living situation to be intriguing but not upsetting (Byron is weirdly prudish in certain regards). AND IT WORKS. He’s like say, you seem cool as hell, and they start a relationship. What on earth! Times were truly different. Byron was EXTRAORDINARILY FAMOUS at this time, and was also fabulously wealthy and a member of the high nobility. But this saucy 19 year old random kid was able to seduce him through return of post. Wild stuff! Anyway he got her pregnant and then treated her with absolutely monstrous cruelty for the rest of his life, took her baby, wouldn’t let her see the baby, stuck the baby in a convent, and then it died and he didn’t even write her a letter to tell her about it; he wrote to Percy, like “sorry old chap, guess you’ll have to break the news to old you-know-who.” Percy, to his credit, was profoundly enraged (by this as well as some other stuff) and never wanted to be friends with Byron again, although he did still try to rope him into his utopian radical pamphlet scheme. Then they both immediately died: Percy sailed a boat directly into a storm and drowned and ten days later his body washed ashore and his face was eaten off by crabs but he was identified thanks to his smart nankeen sailing trousers; Byron sailed off to Greece to fund a militia of freedom fighters in the war for Greek independence but then caught a fever and died. Mary spent the next 15 years begging Percy’s father for rent money until he died and her son, her only child, good ol’ Percy Florence inherited the baronetcy. She never remarried. Claire never married at all, and spent her life working as a governess for various rich people. When she was an old lady, a student from Harvard came to visit her in hopes of weaseling all her love letters out of her. She rebuffed him and told everybody about what an idiot he was, and this was later immortalized in a short story by Henry James making fun of biographers.
The index is wonderful. Under “Shelley, Percy Bysshe” one can look up page numbers for among other things
– “and wedding night shooting incident”
– “local opinion against strange behaviour of”
– “takes laudanum to cure nervous attacks”
– “attacked by ruffians”
– “distributes propaganda”
– “and fire balloons”
– “hides from bailiffs”
– “his attitude to Wordsworth”
– “and discusses ghosts with M.G. Lewis”
– “and pistol incident at Lake Como”
– “experiments in mesmerism”
– “Byron’s presence acts as challenge to”
– “dissuades Claire from kidnapping Allegra”
– “ability to laugh at himself”
– “callousness, cruelty”
– “self-identification with the Devil”
– “hallucination and ghost theories of Tan-yr-allt shooting incident”