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.
John Barrell has observed acutely (in the LRB of 2 November 2000) that so-called literary biography seems now to have become markedly less ‘literary’, subordinating or virtually ignoring the work of the writer concerned, except insofar as it can be made to mirror the ups and downs, pleasures, pains and supposed secrets of his or her personal existence. This observation seems regrettably true and, although the balance is to some extent redressed by such excellent studies in the accurately entitled Literary Lives series (published by Palgrave) as Michael O’Neill’s Percy Bysshe Shelley (1989) or Caroline Franklin’s Byron (2000), not-very-literary biographies, some running to four hundred and more pages, continue to accumulate in the bookshops. There (presumably) they attract readers far more interested in the Romantics as personalities than in the works which, after all, are or should be the principal reason anyone at such a distance in time should want to revisit the lives of their authors. Inevitably, perhaps, these biographers often dress up speculations of their own as fact: that the young Wordsworth operated as a government spy, for instance, that Byron was a ruthless paedophile, or that Claire Clairmont in 1816 confessed that she had conceived a child by Shelley which he helped her to abort.
For a variety of reasons, the life of Mary Shelley offers rich opportunities for fantasies of this kind, and it is very much to Miranda Seymour’s credit that for the most part she declines them, or at least makes it clear that the hypotheses she does entertain are mere hypotheses. Her biography is level-headed, thorough, scholarly and consistently sympathetic to its subject without lapsing into hagiography. It is also lively and well-written. The notorious conundrums are all faced. Did Claire Clairmont at any of a number of possible points have an affair with Shelley? Who were the parents of Shelley’s mysterious Neapolitan ‘charge’ Elena Adelaide, the short-lived infant he falsely registered as Mary’s and his in February 1819? Exactly what caused his boat to go down in 1822: merely the squall, or was it rammed? Alternatively, did Shelley refuse to lower the sails in response to a sudden suicidal impulse? Did Mary’s passionate relationship with Jane Williams after the two women returned to England become physically sexual? Seymour wisely refrains, given the continuing lack of evidence, from imposing answers.
A few vaguenesses, or factual errors, mar the book. Closer attention, for example, to Marion Kingston Stocking’s superb edition of The Clairmont Correspondence (1995) would have allowed Seymour to pinpoint more precisely than she does both Mary’s first meeting with Byron, and the actual date (Saturday, 20 April 1816) Claire Clairmont finally manoeuvred him into bed. Seymour’s statement that Thomas Moore ‘had never bothered to read the memoirs which Byron gave him when he visited Venice in the autumn of 1819’, and so was entirely dependent in 1827, after they had been destroyed, on Mary Shelley’s own account when writing his biography of Byron, is untrue. Unlikely in itself, it is contradicted by a letter of Moore’s to Lord Holland in November 1821, in which he specifies the material he believes would need to be censored when the memoirs were eventually published. Her reference to Trelawny’s dissolution of his ‘brief marriage to a maid of Greece’, because she tried to abandon native dress for French fashions, rather glosses over the peculiarities – not to say, enormity – of the union itself. One wonders how much Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter ever learned about Trelawny’s unfortunate child bride. And the ‘Pisan affray’ of 1822, of which Mary was a terrified witness – that very ugly skirmish with the dragoon Masi, probably instigated by the authorities in the hope of dislodging the Gamba family and their radical English associates from that part of Italy – could have done with more and sharper attention.
In some ways, the second half of Seymour’s biography, dealing with Mary Shelley’s life between her husband’s death in 1822 and her own in 1851, is the fresher and more arresting. This is a comparatively untrodden area. Understandably, the later years have always attracted far less attention than those during which the 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped spectacularly with Shelley from Godwin’s London house to the Continent, came back to confront debt and estrangement from her father, then – established once more in Switzerland with Shelley – began Frankenstein during the famous ghost-story session with Byron, confronted the suicides of her own half-sister Fanny Imlay and of Shelley’s wife Harriet after another return to England, and subsequently (now as Mary Shelley) took up that peripatetic existence in Italy which was to claim the lives of two of their three small children, and ended only when Shelley was drowned. It has sometimes been hard to remember that Mary Shelley’s life continued for almost thirty years after that final catastrophe, extending well into the Victorian age. Her widowhood has never haunted biographers or moved them to long for admission to its various supper tables. Yet, as Seymour’s book ably demonstrates, this period is in its way quite as extraordinary as the better known earlier one, and equally riddling.
Seymour is excellent on the vexed subject of Mary’s increasing conservatism: her eventual attempts to conceal something about which she had once been unabashed – that she lived with Shelley before they were actually married – her retreat from the atheism and the radical politics she had once shared with him, and her suppression or alteration, when editing his poetry and prose, of certain passages she came to regard as politically or sexually too outspoken. This was not simply a matter either of youthful unorthodoxy repudiated in age, or of response to the changing social climate in England. Compounded with those factors, at least for a time, was real fear lest she lose possession of her surviving child, Percy Florence, and of the meagre allowance granted the two of them by Shelley’s appalling father. (Sir Timothy refused to the end of his days ever to meet her, and did his best to prevent publication of his son’s work.) Seymour’s respect and affection for Mary Shelley, attractively evident throughout, are especially conspicuous in these final sections of her book, as she sets out to chart Mary’s struggle to earn badly needed money for herself, her stolid and disappointing son, and her distinguished but perpetually indigent father in the only way available to her: through her writing. As heroic in its way as Walter Scott’s determination to pay off his creditors with the proceeds from yet another novel, it was further complicated by what became her crying – and unsatisfied – need once more to love and be loved in return.
Mary Shelley’s journals after Shelley’s death make painful reading. By September 1824, an undeniable deep grief for the partner she had lost, rendered worse by her own sense of having failed him during his last years, was merging with cries that ‘now I am not loved – I never never shall be loved more – never o never more shall I love … – never more shall I be happy – never more feel life sit triumphant in my frame – I am a wreck.’ She had already made the first of what were to prove many attempts to find ‘Another Companion!’: not of course another Shelley – he was irreplaceable and unique – but someone with less transcendent qualities to whom, nevertheless, she could devote herself during what remained of her life. (She was then only 27.) ‘I cannot live,’ she moaned in September 1826, ‘without loving & being loved.’ The various men on whom in the course of time she seems to have placed her hopes (Bryan Proctor, Aubrey Beauclerk, John Howard Payne, Washington Irving, Prosper Mérimée) tended to want too much from her, remain elusive or abruptly marry someone else. Most depressing of all was her late romantic fixation on the Italian adventurer Ferdinando Gatteschi, to whom she gave sums of money she could ill afford, and from whom she was eventually obliged to extract compromising personal letters of her own under a threat of blackmail.
The most excruciating disappointment, however, stemmed from a woman not a man. Jane Williams had shared those last months in Italy and, whatever Mary Shelley may have felt at the time about her husband’s attentions to this attractive musician to whom he addressed some of the most yearningly exquisite of his late lyrics, once back in England she herself became ‘excessively’, as she admitted, attached to her. Jane was her ‘sole delight’, and although aware from the start that her own affection was stronger than Jane’s, she nonetheless felt for a time that she lived ‘to all good & pleasure only thro’ her’. Their relationship foundered when Mary learned, first that without confiding in her at all, Jane had married Thomas Jefferson Hogg, by whom she was pregnant, and then that she had spread ugly tales about the unhappy marriage of Percy and Mary Shelley, and how greatly Mary’s coldness had been to blame. That, given her own remorseful feelings about their last years together, was to inflict a particularly grievous wound.
Seymour tells this story of betrayal well. She is also able, largely thanks to Betty Bennett’s painstaking and brilliant recovery of the history of ‘Walter Sholto Douglas’, as set out in her book Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (1991), to illuminate Mary Shelley’s proud assertion, in her journal for October 1828, that although she may never have written as her mother did, ‘to vindicate the Rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed – at every risk I have defended and supported victims to the social system’. The story of Mary Diana Dods, the illegitimate and, in conventional terms, unattractive daughter of a Scottish earl, who assumed both a male identity and masculine dress, and passed herself off successfully for some time in Parisian society as the husband of Isabel Robinson, and father of ‘their’ child, is remarkable in itself. But it is also remarkable that the Mary Shelley who increasingly tried to bury her own irregular past, and declared in 1838 that ‘since I lost Shelley I have no wish to ally myself to the Radicals – they are full of repulsion to me’ should nevertheless have gone far beyond any radical brief by supporting Mary Diana, of whose lesbian orientation she must have been entirely aware, to the extent of welcoming her transvestism and even being instrumental in negotiating a forged passport in 1827 for ‘Walter’ and his ‘wife’.
Mary Shelley was inclined, following Shelley’s death, to become a bit ‘tousy-mousy’ (as she enigmatically put it) for women. Although her own fiction after Frankenstein and Matilda carries a somewhat dispiriting freight of gentle and inevitably golden-haired charmers, their self-sacrificing attentions entirely focused on men, she did once tentatively suggest, in her novel Lodore (1835), a very different scenario. Fanny Derham in that book, a young woman of superior intellect and learning, is described as ‘more made to be loved by her own sex than by the opposite one’. But she hovers on the outskirts of the plot, never fully integrated into it, and Mary Shelley interestingly refuses to tell her story: ‘What the events are that have already diversified her existence, cannot now be recounted; and it would require the gift of prophecy to foretell the conclusion. In after times these may be told.’ One would certainly rather hear more about Fanny than about Lodore’s daughter, the saintly and unconvincing Ethel, but as Caroline Gonda has wittily remarked (in the special Mary Shelley issue of Women’s Writing, 1999), ‘like Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Giant Rat of Sumatra, it seems, the tale of Fanny Derham is a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’
Miranda Seymour says about Fanny Derham only that ‘she declares with Mary’s own passion the importance of championing oppressed women.’ With Lodore, as elsewhere in writing about Mary Shelley’s fiction, she is primarily concerned to sketch plots, then identify various autobiographical elements: Lodore himself as a portrait of Byron, Ethel’s intense relationship with her father as a reflection of Mary’s with Godwin, Ethel and Edward Villiers’s attempts to evade the London bailiffs as mirroring Shelley’s financial predicament in 1814, Lady Santerre as a portrait of Lady Shelley, even the reformed Cornelia Lodore, in the second half of the book, as a projection of Mary. Although Seymour briefly suggests that Lodore should not be dismissed as just another ‘silverfork’ novel, she never really addresses herself to its peculiarities or to the question of its artistic merits. A similar shying away from engagement with Mary Shelley’s work, except as it comments on her life, is evident throughout this (again) not-very-literary biography. Seymour has, of course, a particular excuse for writing (in Barrell’s terms) yet another ‘new novel’: the compulsively self-reflexive nature of Mary Shelley’s fictions – a tendency increasingly marked after the early Frankenstein. Her novels might indeed be classified as a form of very literary biography.
How good are they, when viewed in detachment from their author’s life? A hint of what might be Seymour’s actual opinion surfaces when she observes of the short critical-biographical notes on Italian, Spanish and French literature that Mary Shelley wrote over a period of some five years in the 1830s that she may well have felt ‘this kind of work suited her as well as, and possibly better than “romancing”,’ adding, significantly, that ‘few readers today would disagree, if they were able to sample her contributions to the Lardner Cyclopaedia, long out of print.’ (The Lardner Lives are not represented in the fine 1996 Pickering and Chatto edition of Mary Shelley’s works, under the general editorship of Nora Crook.) Seymour’s reservations here were anticipated by Muriel Spark in her own crisply excellent Mary Shelley (revised edition, 1988), a book neatly divided between biography and literary criticism, which praises the Lives while finding only Frankenstein, The Last Man and isolated passages in Perkin Warbeck worth serious attention among the fictions. That, however, is not at present a fashionable view.
The bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s birth, 1997, generated a number of conferences and publications in her honour. Academic journals produced special Mary Shelley issues, and two other collections have now appeared, one edited by Betty Bennett and Stuart Curran, the other by Michael Eberle-Sinatra. Much recent Mary Shelley criticism, as might be expected, is specifically feminist in orientation, some though not all of it concerned with the way her fictions shadow her own life and that of various people she knew. Other writers address her editing, travel books and reviews, or else explore her novels as comments on current affairs. A certain amount, perhaps less persuasively, is psychoanalytic. (Do we gain much by being told that Frankenstein’s Creature – looked at closely – is a daughter, that the shudder which convulses its limbs as it awakens into life is an orgasm, or that what Matilda beholds when she discovers her drowned father’s body in the cottage on the beach, ‘something stiff and straight’ covered by a sheet, is undeniably a phallus?) There is some excellent and fresh new work in the various anthologies – the Gonda piece, for instance, William St Clair on ‘The Impact of Frankenstein’, Michael O’Neill on Mary Shelley as an editor, Charles Robinson on ‘Mathilda as Dramatic Actress’ (the last three in the Bennett/Curran collection) or Nora Crook intelligently defending the revised 1831 Frankenstein in Eberle-Sinatra. But, for some readers, nagging doubts are likely to remain about the stature of Mary Shelley’s work as a whole.
There is a case for adding Matilda to Frankenstein and The Last Man as a major achievement. A novella that remained unpublished until 1959 (Godwin, to whom Mary sent the manuscript from Italy, suppressed it, understandably horrified by the implications of its incestuous father/daughter relationship), it is powerful in some of the same visionary ways that Frankenstein and The Last Man – especially Book Three of the latter – are powerful. Part of the trouble with the others stems from Mary Shelley’s clumsiness with dialogue. Her characters tend to speak in long, stilted paragraphs and, however impressive her historical research (as in Valperga and Perkin Warbeck), she is rarely convincing in her portrayal of human relationships other than those of a most extreme and unusual kind. Hence her success with Frankenstein and the Creature, or Matilda and her father, but failure with the happy de Lacey family in Frankenstein, or with the love of Perdita and Raymond in The Last Man. Where all her novels shine is in the evocation of place, whether the rigours of the frozen north, or, more usually, the varied landscape of Italy. She is at her finest when Lionel Verney, in The Last Man, is left as the sole human survivor of the plague, and wanders through noiseless and unpopulated cities, particularly Rome at the end, where the grass grows between the stones of the streets, and only the colossal wreck of a civilisation is to be seen.
The other problem is Mary Shelley’s lack of a sense of humour. This deficiency is one her admirers have indignantly denied as ‘a canard’, pointing to her acceptance of such nicknames as ‘Pecksie’ or ‘Maie’, her unchaperoned excursion to the opera in London with Jane Williams, when the two of them pretended to be Italian ladies, and giggled a lot, or to those rather ponderously ‘light’ short stories ‘Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman’ or ‘The Bride of Modern Italy’. Not all readers will be convinced. That Mary Shelley was capable of sharply turned and acerbic comment is incontrovertible. Laughter is another matter. To have christened one of her two heroines in Valperga ‘Euthanasia’ is indicative enough. It was like her also to believe that the fifth act of The Cenci was Shelley’s finest work, and to take so strongly against his scintillating jeu d’esprit The Witch of Atlas, apparently because it contained ‘no human interest’, that her husband was moved to address a reproachful poem to her on the subject. One sometimes wonders whether, as she made all those fair copies for Byron of cantos of Don Juan, a smile ever crossed her lips. Certainly she manages, in her note on Shelley’s Peter Bell the Third, to avoid any suggestion that the poem might be funny, not simply designed for the ‘instruction and benefit’ of the world. Having registered this, however, one is likely at once to feel churlish. There wasn’t, after all, a great deal in Mary Shelley’s eventful but tormented life for her to laugh about: from Mary Wollstonecraft’s death (caused by complications resulting from her own birth), her problematic relations with Godwin and with her stepmother and stepsister, the suicides of her half-sister and of Shelley’s first wife, the deaths of three of her small children, followed by the uneven years with Shelley, his drowning, and the long, dreary aftermath in England in which she was left to live with her remorse and, finally, only a devoted daughter-in-law for support. As Miranda Seymour says, in the final pages of this long biography, although ‘hounded, persecuted and vilified’, Mary Shelley nonetheless never surrendered, remaining to the end generous, forgiving and hopeful. That, under the circumstances, was no mean achievement.