‘I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table ... We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar.’ Thus Henry James in the Preface to The Aspern Papers, the germ of which was the story of an American Shelley-worshipper seeking out the eighty-year old Claire Clairmont to trick or wheedle her into handing over precious documents illuminating her youthful relations with Shelley and Byron. There has been a flurry of activity with reference to these poets in our own time: Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron and their associates have been the subject of recent visitations by literary scholars and editors, by Freudians and students of taboo, by historians of medicine, by novelists (see Amanda Prantera’s recent Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 162 Years after his Lordship’s Death), and by Ken Russell, who has tried to make them palpable in his latest film, Gothic.
If one considers the current general concern with the Aids virus in conjunction with these detailed studies, both scholarly and popularising, of the lives of the so-called Satanic School on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, and later in various cities of northern Italy, one is likely to come down on one side of James’s divide – that of feeling the past familiar. Not that Russell can be said to have made it interesting, for in his torrid film all the hysteria and none of the genius of the English on Lake Geneva has been caught and condensed into ninety minutes of writhing in mud, blood, rats, leeches, spit and foam (mostly from Claire’s mouth). There is a kind of familiarity here, though: the protagonists might be a pair of pop stars cavorting with a few favoured hangers-on. Substitute laudanum for cocaine and syphilis for Aids, and leave the sexual rompings much the same, and you have indeed close similarities between past and present. You don’t, however, ‘have’ Byron and Shelley – just some of the things they got up to.
Of the books under consideration here, James Twitchell’s Forbidden Partners is the one which addresses its subject, not only in terms of a continuity between past and present, but also from the widest cultural angle. The incest taboo is studied first as it appears and is flirted with in the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and in the poetry of the Romantics, particularly Shelley, and then as it features in suggestive advertising, and in erotic and pornographic films, of the present day. There is much of interest here, especially where Twitchell observes that in Romantic literature, incest between fathers and daughters is frequently aired (as in The Cenci) but invariably punished or rejected, while incestuous relationships between siblings are presented (as in ‘The Revolt of Islam’) as the attainment of perfection. Twitchell’s simultaneously portentous and everyday style and the sheer scope of his undertaking mean, however, that he fails to analyse in detail what he calls ‘this interest in valorising siblings’ in the ‘art poem’ of the Romantic period. He writes rather in the way some White House spokespersons speak, and he becomes so entangled in the snares of his subject as to mistake the respective genders of Hero and Leander (‘our Hero’, he writes of Poe’s story ‘The Spectacles’, accepts ‘his proper Leander’). He appears also to have temporarily taken his eye off the object of his study, for he refers inexplicably to the well-known lines in the Dedication to Canto I of Don Juan thus: ‘As Byron reportedly said of Coleridge’s metaphysics, “I wish he would explain this [sic] explanation.” ’
Another way, the scholarly one, of making the past feel familiar is to collect and edit documents relating to your subjects, leaving nothing out, refusing to be scornful about shopping lists or scribbled dinner invitations, making, as it were, a long arm to grasp the details of Shelley’s unpaid debts for furniture and carriages or the relative salaries of Byron’s Italian servants, as well as drafts of poems such as ‘Beppo’. This is the task which the editors of the manuscripts in the Carl Pforzheimer Library in New York have taken on. Their beautifully produced and lavishly documented Shelley and his Circle continues with the publication of Volumes VII and VIII, taking us up to July 1820. The inclusiveness of it all may cause some puzzlement. It is hard to grasp the interest or importance of Edward Trelawny’s shopping lists during 1820-1823. These take up sixty pages of Volume VIII, and honesty forces the editors to admit that ‘the amount of useful information that can be readily extracted is disappointingly slight.’ In desperation, perhaps, they note, rather oddly, that they can find in Trelawny’s notebook ‘no indications of provision for Shelley’s vegetarianism’. One presumes that Shelley ate the bread, cheese and vegetables which feature regularly in the lists, while the others ate the meat as well.
There are, of course, sound reasons for inclusiveness, particularly with reference to the publishing history relating to Byron and Shelley. These reasons are only partly to do with that semi-chimerical monster, the prudery of the Victorian middle-class reader, being at least as much to do with Mary Shelley’s desire to ensure her son’s future as heir to the Shelley estates and the desire of each of the members of Shelley’s circle – Hogg, Peacock, Medwin, Trelawny, Countess Guiccioli – to write histories of their relations more or less flattering to themselves and more or less revelatory of the awfulness of others of the group. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the poetry and lives of Byron and Shelley were presented in the 19th century in distorted and mutilated ways. A combination of distance in time, a somewhat changed climate of opinion, and a much changed view of what is acceptable scholarly practice in handling historical documents, has made it inevitable that we should now be given access to every available detail concerning the two poets.
This granted, one may still enter a plea for moderation and proportion. It is one thing to give us every scrap of writing, scrupulously reproduced and copiously annotated by literary detectives energetic enough to follow up every clue to identity (though the editors here finally give up in the face of a large number of amorous letters to Byron from unidentified and unidentifiable Venetian women). It is another to claim, as the present editors do, great ends to which inclusiveness is a means. Their edition, they say in the Introduction to Volume VII, is ‘a modest attempt to restrain the erosion of the sands of life, whipped by the winds of circumstance and seas of time’. Difficult to understand as this is, it sounds a portentous note which is kept up throughout the edition. What can surely be claimed as no more than an admirable piece of scholarship placed at the disposal of literary critics, social historians and others who might make use of some of its evidence is canvassed as something more: as a contribution to the ‘rehabilitation’ of the reputations of the Shelley circle and to the ‘dissemination’ of ‘the influence of their thought and art both within the academy and throughout the world’. I cannot think that this is true. How can our now detailed knowledge of the extent of Shelley’s debts and his skill in keeping his dignity while leaving them unpaid ‘modify’ our view of his genius as a poet? ‘Because of his poetry,’ say the editors in this connection, ‘his luminous wings continue to beat but – thanks to a growing body of documentation and research – no longer in a void.’
In Shelley’s Venomed Melody, Nora Crook and Derek Guiton take as their starting-point Thornton Hunt’s comment in an article of 1863 that Shelley probably contracted venereal disease as a young man, and proceed to examine his illnesses and hypochondria in the light of medical thinking at the time. They then consider metaphors of disease and healing – particularly sexual disease and sexual healing – in Shelley’s poetry. Finally, a verdict of non-proven is returned: Shelley may have had syphilis, but as this disease – and here the authors pertinently invoke the present concern about Aids – was known as ‘the great imitator’, having ‘the potential for presenting the symptoms of many different diseases’, it may be that Shelley only thought he had it. Then again, he may simply have had recourse in his poetry to language medically and metaphorically connected with syphilis in order to render his political, moral and social polemics striking. Such language includes references to grey hairs, ophthalmia, leprosy, plague and elephantiasis as symptoms, and electricity, lightning, herbs and berries as homeopathic cures. Shelley suffered from the first two (grey hairs and ophthalmia) and thought he had contracted the last (elephantiasis). The authors do not press for a biographical certainty which is unattainable, but they tactfully apply the tools of historical research to the study of an element in Shelley’s poetry of which no reader can have been unaware.
That is not to say that this study escapes entirely the charge levelled at Shelley’s poetry by Christopher Ricks some years ago, of elephantiasis, and the authors are aware of the possibility. Indeed, the whole subject is not without humour. Voltaire and Boswell, to name but two observers, saw syphilis as God’s practical joke on his creation. The more serious-minded have long seen it in terms of a plague visited on sinners by a just and angry God. That Aids has been greeted by sections of the press and public as the nemesis of sexual licence in our time gives strength to the déjà vu school of historical thought.
All this may be palpable enough. What is less so, despite the best detective work, is what Mary Shelley thought when she ceased to be an infatuated mouthpiece for Shelley’s views in the first days and weeks of their lives together. She made sure that the long arm of posterity could not quite grasp the object in her case. Her journals, newly edited in two volumes, must rank as among the most costive of private records. They require, and get, extensive annotation and explanation from the editors, but the entries themselves, especially during Shelley’s lifetime, are seldom more than notes hinting at feelings and crises. The Mary Shelley we do almost get to know is the widow, caught in the clash of two sacred duties – that of glorifying Shelley’s memory and that of bringing up her only surviving child, Percy Florence. The first of these was compromised by Sir Timothy Shelley’s veto on her bringing his abhorred son’s name before the public, as a condition of his furthering young Percy’s prospects as his heir.
One of the most interesting items after Shelley’s death is Mary’s brief record of a meeting with Coleridge, probably at Charles Lamb’s house, in 1824: ‘Seeing Coleridge last night reminded me forcibly of past times – his beautiful descriptions, metaphysical talk & subtle distinctions reminded me of Shelley’s conversations – such was the intercourse I once dayly enjoyed.’ We know that Shelley when abroad thought chiefly of Coleridge when he talked of the poetry of England; he reacted hysterically to hearing ‘Christabel’ read out to him by Byron at Geneva (see Russell’s Gothic); his poem ‘Oh! there are spirits of the air’ was addressed to the older poet, whom he consciously resembled. One is struck again, on reading the new selection of Coleridge’s letters, by the similarities and continuities between the young Coleridge of the 1790s and Shelley in the 1810s. Both experimented with science and pseudo-science (Coleridge with laughing gas, Shelley with electricity and hypnotism) and with drugs; both saw themselves as caged elemental beings – ‘self-incaged’ in Coleridge’s honest phrase to Godwin in 1802. Both had views on monogamy, loving women other than their wives. Whether Shelley, if he had lived, would have lost his charm, as Coleridge did, we cannot know. That charm, anyway, we have to take partly on trust. No amount of scholarly (or cinematographic) reaching has yet made it palpable. The past is strange, despite all attempts at familiarising it. We like to have it brought before us with new details drawn in; we also like it to remain, as it does, different by remaining finally elusive.