Anne Barton

  • Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour
    Murray, 665 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5711 9
  • Mary Shelley in Her Times edited by Betty Bennett and Stuart Curran
    Johns Hopkins, 311 pp, £33.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6334 1
  • Mary Shelley's Fictions edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra
    Palgrave, 250 pp, £40.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 333 77106 0

Richard Holmes published Shelley: The Pursuit in 1974. More than a decade later, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), he recalled how obsessive his engagement gradually became, not just with Shelley, but with that whole group of English expatriates associated with him, as it moved from Geneva through Italy – Bagni di Lucca, Este, Venice, Rome, Naples, Ravenna, Pisa – shedding some members and adding others, before finally disintegrating when Shelley and Edward Williams were drowned off Leghorn in July 1822. Shortly thereafter, Byron and Trelawny embarked for Greece, Mary Shelley’s troubled and troubling step-sister Claire Clairmont departed to become a governess in Russia, and in 1823 Mary and her last surviving child returned to the England she had not seen since 1818. ‘The pursuit,’ Holmes confessed,

became so intense, so demanding of my own emotions that it continuously threatened to get out of hand. When I travelled alone I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance. I came often to feel excluded, left behind, shut out from the magic circle of his family. I wanted to get in among them, to partake in their daily life, to understand what Shelley called ‘the deep truth’ of their situation … Indeed I came to suspect that there is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer: a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.

Holmes ends with a generalisation about ‘the trailing figure of the biographer’, but it is significant that it should be the Shelley ménage – in a book that also explores his biographical ‘intimacy’ with Robert Louis Stevenson, Gérard de Nerval and Mary Shelley’s remarkable mother Mary Wollstonecraft – that occasions the reflection. There is something about ‘the Shelley circle’, and particularly its bizarre life abroad, that produces this effect. At its most extreme, it can lead to such a reductio ad absurdum as I am Mary Shelley, a book published in 1977, whose author Barbara Lynne Devlin claims to be her reincarnation and, with the help of an obliging medium, revisits Mary’s past, informing the inquisitive readers that (yes) she did – though only once – go to bed with Byron and it was predictably wonderful (‘holding me in his fine, strong arms’ etc), whereas sex with Shelley’s long-time friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg was quite revolting (‘He slobbered!’)

Rather more soberly, Holmes in 1992 seems to have exorcised his own Shelleyan ghosts by writing a radio play about the last weeks at Casa Magni, that beach-house dangerously close to the sea at San Terenzo that Shelley loved and Mary (who by now was emotionally estranged from her husband, and suffered a near-fatal miscarriage there) detested. (‘To the Tempest Given’ appeared last year, in Holmes’s collection Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.) The material, based on letters and other biographical evidence, is enough to haunt anybody: the weird and isolated building, with too many people crammed together in it; Shelley’s desperate but successful attempt to staunch Mary’s haemorrhage by plunging her up to the waist in ice: his flirtation with Jane Williams (with whom Mary herself was later to fall in love); his nightmares of strangling Mary and of the sea overwhelming the house; various hallucinations including the one about meeting his own double, who asked him disconcertingly, ‘How long do you mean to be content?’; then the anguished days while the women waited for news of the little boat in which Shelley, Edward Williams and their cabin-boy had set sail from Leghorn, followed by the ghastly cremations on the beach.

Miranda Seymour, in the preface to her new biography, Mary Shelley, confesses to having perpetrated, some twenty-five years ago, a novel (Count Manfred) about Byron. That is by no means unusual. Novels in which Byron appears more or less thinly disguised began during his own lifetime with Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon of 1816. (‘I read Glenarvon too, by Caro Lamb,’ Byron remarked sourly after it was sent to him on the Continent. ‘God damn.’) Mary Shelley herself would contribute several to the list. And they continue to be written. Shelley has received less fictional attention than Byron, although the American poet Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) did produce an embarrassing prose fantasy, The Orphan Angel, in which Shelley is rescued from the sea by a passing American schooner, and spends the rest of his life on that side of the Atlantic, without ever managing to communicate his whereabouts to anyone at home. Peter Ackroyd’s Milton in America (1996) seems curiously, if perhaps unconsciously, parasitic on this earlier extravaganza. Milton, however, despite some fleeting fictional attention from Robert Graves, has never been able to vie with the Romantics in this respect. That perhaps has something to do with the degree to which many of the latter fictionalised themselves in their own work, thus offering an open invitation to later writers to extend the process. It also reflects the strikingly ‘novelistic’ character of many of their lives.

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