Review: The Collaborative Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. By Anna Mercer. New York and London: Routledge. 2019. Pp. 210. £115.00 (hardback), ISBN 9780367277956.

The relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is fascinating to many, both scholars and the general public, but it has been subject to many myths and misunderstandings – some of which were simply bias. The customary misogyny of Victorian and Edwardian – and later – scholars assumed that Mary Shelley could not have written her books without the help of her husband and she met with plenty of criticism for her editing of Shelley’s poems, although we would have far fewer of them were it not for her work. Since the rise of feminist scholarship, it is often assumed that Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘interfered’ with Frankenstein, and his remarks about her writing are sometimes interpreted as negative even though his admiration for her work and intelligence never faltered.

Anna Mercer is not dealing with the emotional side of the relationship between the couple. The relationship under discussion is a working, collaborative, literary one. Mercer shows how they continued to inspire each other, to share interests and ideas, to pass on subjects for composition, to read together and play literary games, no matter what other events were disrupting their writing careers. I am following Mercer’s practice in using their initials to identify each Shelley in order to avoid confusion.

In this study, Mercer has built on the work of the editors of the facsimile editions of the Shelleys’ mss such as the Garland editions of The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts and The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics. These editors frequently made the original discoveries of notes in the mss which indicate how the Shelleys commented upon, altered, or added to each other’s work but Mercer’s study has collected these and presents the information in a continuous story written in an engaging style, taking a chronological approach. This means we begin with PBS’s declaration in 1814: ‘Your thoughts alone can awaken mine to energy […] How divinely sweet a task it is to imitate each other’s excellencies – & each moment to become wiser’ (p. 1). PBS was to admire his wife’s writing and frequently encourage her to write (pp. 112, 145).

As Mercer remarks (p. 2), her ‘findings […] are representative of a specific attitude: the strength of the Shelleys’ individual works must be, in part, a testament to the stimulating environment created by a relationship shaped by literary pursuits’ (p. 2). Mercer defines collaboration as ‘creativity based on “united labour, co-operation”’ and ‘archival and intertextual study’ finds ‘evidence of their textual practices of reading, writing and copying’ (p. 3). Mercer is emphatic that ‘the assumption that MWS was simply a subordinate partner’ (p. 4) must be challenged. Her research shows that MWS ‘invariably informs [PBS’s] thinking and influences his writing’ and that ‘at certain episodes in their relationship they would generously share ideas and assist one another but not without identifying – or claiming – their distinctly personal voices’ (p. 7).

When the Shelleys eloped in 1814, ‘the spirit of collaboration blossomed between them as they toured Europe’ (p. 32). MWS began her journal, originally shared with PBS, which inspired their History of a Six Weeks Tour. They also worked on PBS’s unfinished novel The Assassins and were to work in a similar way together on Frankenstein which ‘benefited from PBS’s editing and […] evidences their collaborative and sometimes blended voices’ (Charles E. Robinson, quoted, p. 63). Mercer goes on to discuss this and the shared interest in PBS’s Laon and Cythna with its dedication to MWS. Meanwhile, PBS wrote other short poems to MWS and they read and studied together, MWS learning Latin. Later he translated the Symposium, citing the need for it for those who did not read Greek, like MWS (p. 180).

Mercer goes on to discuss the way in which MWS influenced PBS’s work on The Cenci. She mentions their evening play readings. In these the Shelleys read their way through almost the whole Beaumont and Fletcher canon and other Jacobean plays, and they were undoubtedly a great influence on both The Cenci and on PBS’s later, unfinished Charles the First. PBS originally thought MWS better able to execute this play, perhaps because of her skill and liking for historical research, but he also suggested The Cenci should be written by her. As she did not feel competent as a poet she refused to do it, although she admits that they ‘talked over the arrangement of the scenes together’ (p. 82). It was she who had translated the ms on which the play was based, and the story also inspired her novella, Mathilda. The shared interest in drama led to MWS writing two short plays, Proserpine and Midas, for both of which PBS provided some lovely lyrics.

Manuscript evidence from The Mask of Anarchy shows MWS, when copying, following PBS’s extremely complex alterations accurately, making suggestions, corrections and supplying missing words. As these were approved by him, it is clear that for the Shelleys this was a method of working which supported both of them and that the criticisms of their ‘interference’ in each other’s work is misguided. After PBS’s death, MWS continued a practice sanctioned by him in his lifetime.

Their collaboration is shown in other ways, such as the similarity in characters of the Maniac in Julian and Maddalo and Beatrice in MWS’s Valperga, references by PBS in the dedication to the ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ to not erasing lines ‘at the request of a dear friend’, his teasing dedication to The Witch of Atlas referring to their difference of opinion about whether his poetry was too ‘abstract’, and his completion of poems such as Rosalind and Helen because MWS encouraged him to do so. MWS actually contributed a line to The Letter to Maria Gisborne (p. 119), reminiscent of the way in which PBS wrote with his sister Elizabeth when they were teenagers.

The chapter on the editing of PBS’s posthumous work shows how it became for MWS both a source of comfort and pride as well as torment, and the way in which she was wounded by the undeserved and ill-intentioned criticism she received for, for example, omitting the dedication to PBS’s first wife, Harriet. It is pleasant that the book does not end with this painful episode, but with the way in which MWS engages with her memories of her husband and their life together, including locations and acquaintances, creatively using them as a source for her later novels and short stories. Although this might not be termed collaboration, it is fair to comment, as Mercer does, that PBS remained an inspiration and a voice in her work long after his death and the actual collaboration of their lifetime.

This book is a valuable contribution which sheds light on the work of both the Shelleys and how two writers can influence, inspire, critique and aid each other in composition. The on-going discussion about whether PBS’s work was too ‘abstract’ and without plot or story was no doubt stimulating to him both in encouraging him to write ‘personal interest’ stories like The Cenci and in reacting against it with The Witch of Atlas. His tremendous enthusiasm for MWS’s talent as a writer and a researcher was undoubtedly an inspiration to her not just in his lifetime but afterwards. Although they enjoyed only eight brief years together, Mercer has revealed the evidence for this inspirational relationship which should make us value the Shelleys the more.

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Author of The Theatre of Shelley (2010), Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (2015), and the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends (touring November 2019: see performances)

WSG and Joint WSG / Foundling Museum Bursaries for 2019 now open

In 2016 to celebrate its 30th anniversary the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 began a bursary scheme. This year WSG pleased to offer two bursaries: one of £750, and one of £500 jointly with The Foundling Museum.

The WSG bursary is offered to an early career researcher*, independent scholar or PhD student who is a member of the WSG and the bursaries are intended to support research in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837. The joint WSG / Foundling Museum bursary is also offered to the Foundling Hospital Research Forum (FHRF).

For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form.  The deadline for applications is 30th November 2019.  Applicants will be notified of the outcome by January 2020. For further information on membership, see here.

Reminder: WSG seminar November 2019

The second seminar of the year takes place on Saturday 23 November, with papers on early modern science, authorship and overlooked lives.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including those for the visually impaired.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 23 November, 2019. Chairs Miriam al Jamil and Felicity Roberts
Masuda Qureshi: Celestial Revolutions: Hester Pulter and the circular skies.
Natasha Simonova: ‘Semiramis does not stand still’: Amabel Polwarth and Amateur Authorship
John Beddoes: Anna, Emmeline and Maria Edgeworth, Three Sisters of the Enlightenment: “I do not wish to be the cause of one of your tight laced faces.”
Francesca Saggini: Below and Beyond. On Re-reading Burney’s Biographies

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

WSG and Joint WSG / Foundling Museum Bursaries for 2019 now open

In 2016 to celebrate its 30th anniversary the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 began a bursary scheme. This year WSG pleased to offer two bursaries: one of £750, and one of £500 jointly with The Foundling Museum.

The WSG bursary is offered to an early career researcher*, independent scholar or PhD student who is a member of the WSG and the bursaries are intended to support research in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837. The joint WSG / Foundling Museum bursary is also offered to the Foundling Hospital Research Forum (FHRF).

For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form.  The deadline for applications is 30th November 2019.  Applicants will be notified of the outcome by January 2020. For further information on membership, see here.

WSG members visit the National Portrait Gallery

Many thanks to WSG member Carolyn D. Williams for writing the following report on this fascinating visit. Karen Hearn will be giving a tour of her upcoming exhibition, Pregnancy Portraits, 1130am, Saturday, 15th February 2020 and if you would like to attend the tour, please send an expression of interest to Miriam Al Jamil.

On Thursday, 3 October 2019, Karen Hearn and Helen Hackett gave the National Portrait Gallery’s lunchtime lecture, on the appearance of Queen Elizabeth I at 60. WSG members were reminded of this by email and the website, and those of us who attended were treated to a presentation that was just as thought-provoking and informative as you would expect from this pairing. They alternated every few minutes, with each speaker focussing mainly on her areas of particular expertise: Helen told us a lot about written records, while Karen concentrated on the more practical details of the materials and methods used to create early modern portraits (which sometimes overlapped dangerously with the materials and methods used to apply early modern make-up). Nevertheless, it quickly became obvious from the slickness of the dovetailing that each presenter was well versed in the relevant aspects of the other’s disciplinary field.
They paid due attention to events in and around 1593, including contemporary perceptions of Elizabeth I as a waning moon, and fears about what might happen when this virgin queen died without having given birth to, or even named, a successor. They also examined more recent attitudes to her, including nineteenth-century comparisons with Queen Victoria, where the former is considered an evil tyrant and the latter a model monarch (because of her role as wife and mother). I was reminded of Louise Duckling’s conclusion to Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837, which draws similar comparisons, and also uses visual material to support the argument.

The most challenging element of the presentation consisted of Elizabeth I’s appearance in pictures, films, and television programmes, where she often becomes a Gothic monstrosity, with a dead white complexion, a bald pate covered by a series of unconvincing red wigs, and appalling teeth that would have fallen out years before if they had been real. These portrayals sometimes seem to have been executed without paying any attention to the date of the incident depicted: whether she was in her 40s, 50s or 60s, illustrators, performers and make-up artists have endowed Elizabeth I with perpetual, and exceptionally grotesque, old age. Perhaps this could all be accounted for by carelessness or ignorance. Anybody who attended this lecture could have learned, for example, that wearing wigs was not a sign of baldness, but a fashion that had become popular among the upper classes since the middle of the sixteenth century, when women’s hair was no longer concealed. They could also have learned that the dead white complexion to be found in so many sixteenth-century portraits was not intended by the artists, who would have added touches of vermilion: unfortunately, the vermilion has usually faded over time. As for those terrible teeth, well, yes, they were pretty bad by the end of her life, and she had lost so many on the left side of her face that her speech was indistinct, but at least she kept her slim, girlish figure to the last, due to a regimen of diet and exercise. But maybe these depictions of Elizabeth are not just mistakes. We are left wondering whether they indicate enduring hostility to older women with power.