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.
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)
2 thoughts on “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.”