Angelica Kauffman. Edited by Bettina Baumgärtel. With contributions by Inken Maria Holubec, Johannes Myssok and Helen Valentine. Munich: Hirmer Publishers. 2020. £35 / $45 (hardback), ISBN: 978-3-7774-3462-9 (English edition).

In June 1780, Angelica Kauffman (1747–1807) was paid one hundred guineas for a prestigious commission: the creation of four ceiling paintings at Somerset House in London. Representing ‘The Elements of Art’ – Invention, Composition, Design and Colouring – critics lavished praise on ‘the celebrated Angelica Kauffman’, whose ‘very capital pictures which adorn the ceiling’ had ‘an infinite deal of character, and sweetness’ (cited on p.18). The four paintings commemorated Somerset House’s new function as home of the Royal Academy of Arts, where Kauffman was one of the thirty-six founding Members, one of only two women Members. It is these roundels– the only known examples of murals painted by a woman artist in the eighteenth century –which would have been at the heart of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, which was scheduled to open on 27 June 2020.

Members of the WSG will have greatly lamented the cancellation of the London iteration of Angelica Kauffman, which was one of the first exhibitions to be removed from the RA programme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the sheer number of international loans that made up the show (from at least 34 institutions, plus private collections), it may have proved too difficult to coordinate a delayed installation in London. Instead, the catalogue’s good quality, 144 colour illustrations now serve to remind us of what fresh research and exciting loans we have missed. It is not clear if the show will be rehung at a later date (as we have seen with the National Gallery’s rescheduled Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition) but the German instalment, at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, has been extended to 29 September 2020.

The exhibition catalogue is edited by Dr Bettina Baumgärtel, the exhibition curator and Director of the Angelica Kauffman Research Project (AKRP). Generously illustrated and handsomely designed, it opens with four relatively short, thematic essays. The first and the longest is a chronological account of Kauffman’s extraordinary life, written by Baumgärtel, and contains research that will be familiar to many Kauffman scholars. Baumgärtel covers Kauffman’s early years, her training in Italy, her arrival in London in 1766, her cultivation of female clients and finally, her return to Rome. Next, Helen Valentine writes on the RA’s four ceiling roundels, which, she confesses, languished in the basement of Burlington House for thirty years in the mid-nineteenth century – representative, no doubt, of Kauffman’s secondary reputation at that time. In the third essay, Johannes Myssok is concerned with the friendship between Kauffman and the sculptor Antonio Canova, whom Kauffman counted as her ‘amico pregiatissimo’ (highly prized friend) and who went on to coordinate her funeral in 1807. Opening amongst the cosmopolitan milieu of late eighteenth-century Rome, Myssok’s new research is based on unpublished documents and provides a fascinating glimpse into the companionship enjoyed by these two artists. The final essay, written by Inken Maria Houlbec, makes a technical examination of two paintings in the collection of the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf: Agrippina Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus (1793) and Portrait of the Impromptu Virtuoso Teresa Bandettini Landucci (1794). These mature and sophisticated compositions were created in Rome, and Houlbec’s astute scientific analysis is illustrated with helpful cross-sections and coloured details.

The majority of the book is given over to the catalogue, which is organised into nine sections, detailing eighty-one familiar and surprising works. Reciting the organisation of the catalogue gives an indication of the exhibition’s contents: ‘I. Stagings of the Self’; ‘II. Training in Italy’; ‘III. The History Painter: The Homer and Shakespeare Revival’; ‘IV. Founding Member of the Royal Academy of Arts’; ‘V. The Portrait Painter as the Arbiter of Fashion’; ‘VI. New Heroines’; ‘VII. Beautiful Young Men as beau idéal’;VIII ‘Parnassus of the Muses: Masquerades and Role Play’ and finally ‘IX. Rome, Residence of the Fine Arts, and International Commissions.’ Collectively, the one-page introduction to each section, as well as the individual catalogue entries, offer much to learn for those unfamiliar, and familiar, with Kauffman’s ouevre. Furthermore, the extensive six-page bibliography will be of great use to students of both Kauffman and eighteenth-century women artists more broadly.

A closer examination of Kauffman’s printed oeuvre, her designs for the print trade, and more of her engagement with the decorative arts, would have been a welcome element to the catalogue. It seems that these media were included in the exhibition, as indicated by the Kunstpalast’s website, but there is little discussion of their importance for Kauffman’s reputation, and income, in the catalogue. For more on these, we eagerly await Dr Baumgärtel’s forthcoming, and no doubt highly illuminating, catalogue raisonné.

Once they return from Düsseldorf, Kauffman’s four roundels will be installed back in the entrance hall ceiling in Burlington House. Thankfully these paintings, as well as the preliminary oil studies in grisaille which are housed at the V&A, will be available for us to view once again. Yet, as former Tate Curator, Martin Myrone, lamented in a recent article: ‘There are important pictures elsewhere in the UK, but, given that she was one of the most celebrated artists of the day, Kauffman remains woefully underrepresented’ (Tate Etc. Issue 43: Summer 2018). The exhibition catalogue testifies to the great level of collaborative research that went into coordinating this exhibition, which would have been an important opportunity to revisit Kauffman’s work and recover her status as one of Britain’s foremost eighteenth-century artists. Sadly, it looks like London will have to wait a little longer before she is given the attention that she deserves.

Hannah Lyons

Birkbeck, University of London

Hannah Lyons is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and the V&A. Her dissertation explores the role, status and output of women printmakers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. Previously she was Assistant Curator at Tate Britain and Curatorial Assistant at Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.

Angelica Kauffman is currently on sale in the RA shop for £20 plus postage.

Book Review: The Gossips’ Choice. By Sara Read. Wild Pressed Books. 2020. Pp 296. £12 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-916-4896-8-4. Reviewed by Rebecca Simpson

‘That’s the thing, mother. The journals got me thinking. I know you use them to help you teach. But think how many more midwives would learn from you if we made them fit for printing. I’ve published several guides to women’s health, but nothing like this, and you’d be writing from life, not other books. Think about it, mother: you’d be the first English woman to write a midwifery guide. It could make your fortune!’ (p.82)

Lucie Smith, the protagonist of Sara Read’s debut novel, chooses not to listen to the urging of her son, Simon, and retains her extensive journals for her personal private use. The journals, which comprise of detailed notes on cases from thirty years of midwifery practice, are a document of women’s secrets, and their author chooses to keep them from the eyes of the public. As Lucie herself remarks, few midwives in the seventeenth century would have either the inclination, or the literacy, to keep such detailed and valuable notes. It is unsurprising then, that many of Lucie’s remedies, and the advice she gives to her patients, are drawn from the work of Jane Sharp, who in 1671 actually became the first English woman to publish a midwifery guide, The Midwives Book: Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.

Lucie Smith’s story begins in a bedchamber at Calstone Manor, where she has just safely delivered a young woman of her first child. Privately, Lucie believes that the new mother, sixteen-year old Lady Eleanor Calstone, is too young to be having children, and disapproves that the aristocratic Calstones have hired an expensive London doctor to oversee the delivery. It is clear that the circumstances of the opening chapter are not typical of Lucie’s practice – she is more familiar with delivering the babies of the wives of farmers, weavers and local aldermen, and she is certainly unused to the presence of men in the birth chamber. However, Lucie takes seriously her oath as a midwife to not turn away a patient, and throughout the novel attends to the needs of labouring women, no matter their class, occupation, or circumstances.

The Gossips’ Choice depicts Lucie’s day-to-day existence as the most respected and in-demand midwife for the market-town of Tupingham, and surrounding area. Much of the novel is occupied with individual cases drawn from the works of Jane Sharp, and the eighteenth-century midwife Sarah Stone, who also published a midwifery guide. Should Lucie have followed her son’s urgings and published her own journals, we might have expected them to resemble Stone’s A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), which consists chiefly of annotated case studies, much like those Lucie uses to train her apprentice, Mary. Like Stone, Lucie Smith is married to an apothecary and is frequently called to intervene when less accomplished midwives, like the unlicensed hand-woman Mother Henshaw, risk losing their patients through malpractice. It is in the description of these many deliveries that Read’s extensive knowledge of birthing practices, and the lives of women in the seventeenth century, shine most strongly.

A number of separate storylines interweave throughout the novel, including: the fractious relationship between Lucie’s husband and their son Simon, a printer living in London; the ongoing rivalry between Lucie and Mother Henshaw; a clandestine relationship between the Smith’s maid Martha and a local widower; and finally the repercussions of a tragedy that occurs in one of Lucie’s cases. Although the events of The Gossips’ Choice are fictitious, the novel is richly informed by Read’s extensive work in the field of seventeenth-century medicine and reproduction. Here, she has skilfully blended anecdotes and cases drawn from the real work of early modern midwives, with an engaging story that explores the experiences of women across several social classes and stages of life. At times the novel feels slightly imbalanced between the narratives of Lucie’s cases, and the overarching plotlines which are concentrated largely in the second half. This does have an effect on the novel’s pacing, and its conclusion appears somewhat suddenly. However, Lucie Smith is a wonderfully rounded character whose expertise and authority shine through the text, and her charisma buoys forward the narrative.

Post-Restoration tensions in England are demonstrated through the interwoven connections between the Smith and Calstone families. The Calstones are newly elevated to the aristocracy for their support of Charles II, whereas the local townsfolk of Tupingham, and the Smith family in particular, are Parliamentary sympathisers and secretly hope for a return to the days of the Protectorate. These ideological differences are set against the friendships that develop between Lucie and Simon with various members of the wider Calstone family, and are complicated by the pervading presence of the conflict’s aftermath: in the wounded war veterans that linger on the edge of both the town and the narrative, and in Martha’s pervading spinsterhood – her fiancé having been killed fighting Prince Rupert’s army. The novel is also set against the events of the Great Plague of 1665, and the themes of quarantine, contagion, and the fear of disease are especially topical and poignant given its publication in May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Gossips’ Choice largely avoids the debates surrounding man-midwifery that dominate eighteenth-century discussions of midwifery and women’s healthcare. Aside from the appearance of the arrogant London doctor in the first chapter, the pregnant women in Tupingham are all attended to by other women, save for the occasional appearance of a male surgeon. As readers we are invited into a world in which pregnancy and birth are the exclusive domain of women, and Lucie works hard to maintain ‘the female-only space that was proper’ (p.10). Indeed, it is the ritualistic aspects of childbirth, including the gossips (female friends invited to be present at a birth) that give the novel its title, as Lucie’s extensive knowledge and successful record in delivering babies makes her the first-choice midwife of the local gossips.

Read has also written a companion pamphlet, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman, also by Wild Pressed Books (full details below), which serves as a primer for the medical world of The Gossips’ Choice. Also drawn largely from Jane Sharp’s work, the guide modernises much of the antiquated language of Sharp’s book, and serves as a sort of introduction to the knowledge seventeenth-century gossips might acquire from their own tenure as birth attendants and mothers.

Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman by Sara Read

Framed as a tool for the unfortunate time traveller (the back cover tells us that this guide will tell you all you need to know ‘should you find yourself unexpectedly in the seventeenth century’) the guide is a light-hearted pastiche of the slew of pregnancy books available to modern readers. With sections detailing how to tell if you are pregnant, how to determine whether infertility is the fault of husband or wife, instructions for antenatal care, and an explanation of the ritual of ‘churching’, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman unveils some of the secrets of womanhood that Lucie Smith wished so desperately to keep from the press.

The attention to detail in both A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman, and The Gossips’ Choice, will delight any readers familiar with the medical world of seventeenth-century women, whilst also offering an excellent and accessible introduction for newcomers and popular readership.

Rebecca Simpson

University of York

Rebecca is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research explores representations of pregnancy and birth in the literature and medicine of the long-eighteenth century, and she is particularly interested in the literary output of midwives and female medical practitioners.

*Disclosure: Sara Read is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558–1837.

The Gossips’ Choice and the Handy Guide are available from Wild Pressed Books.

A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman. By Sara Read. Wild Pressed Books. 2019. Pp 17. £4.50 (pamphlet)

Review: Early Modern Female Book Ownership. Edited by Mark Empey, Sarah Lindenbaum, Tara Lyons, Erin McCarthy, Micheline White, Georgianna Ziegler, and Martine van Elk. Reviewed by Valerie Schutte

Early Modern Female Book Ownership is a website dedicated to individual books that can be traced to female owners from 1500 to 1750. On the home page, immediately under the blog title, is the hashtag #HerBook, which the editors want site visitors to use when discussing or mentioning the blog. They often refer blog users to their Twitter page for up-to-date information about their project or to reach out with suggestions.

The main menu for the website has four tabs: Home, About this Blog, Resources, and Finding Aid. The home page is where all of the blog posts appear, one after the next, making the home page incredibly long, as the earliest blog post dates to 3 December 2018. According to this first blog post, which serves as a welcome to the website, the project is designed to showcase short posts of books owned by early modern women featuring an inscription by that woman. The blog features mostly English entries, but would like to include others. Blog posts are typically short, no more than 1,000 words, and are accompanied by pictures of the title page of the book owned by a woman and of her inscription or signature. The pictures appear to have been taken by those writing the blog post, not stock images from the internet or Creative Commons.

On the right side of the home page is both a search tool and a list of categories. In selecting a category, only the books tied to that category are shown on the home page, such as sixteenth century, seventeenth century, Dutch, and drama. There are 24 categories to choose from. However, even when you select a category, the blog posts still appear in the order in which they were posted to the blog and one right after the next on the home page. There is no way for further filtering, unless you only use the search function to look for a specific book or female book owner.

Under the About this Blog tab, the blog editors explain the purpose of the blog and welcome guest posts from scholars, collectors, and students. They hope to contribute to the study of female book ownership by offering examples of female owned books and how women showcased their ownership.

Under the Resources tab, there is a brief bibliography of books, articles, websites, and other blogs that are about women book owners and readers, which is incredibly helpful for further research on the subject. This list is far from inclusive and many of the books and articles mentioned are those by the blog editors.

Under the Finding Aid tab, they offer a list of the books and female book owners for which they have blog posts. They suggest researchers scan this list for patterns and to find specific blog posts quickly, as within the list all of the book titles are hyperlinked to the relevant blog post. This page should perhaps be the home page, in that it is much easier to scan for a specific female book owner or book, while the home page is overwhelming with information and pictures.

Overall, the blog is very useful and offers researchers and people interested in early modern books with short posts of information that they can follow up on for themselves. Most useful are the photos of the inscriptions, which are often not included in book and journal essays on the subject and allow for inscription comparison over time, and as the blog develops, across borders.

Valerie Schutte

Independent Scholar

Valerie Schutte is author or editor of several books on Tudor monarchs and their books, Shakespeare, and Queen Mary I. She is currently writing the first academic biography of Anne of Cleves.

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Early Modern Female Book Ownership. Edited by Mark Empey, Sarah Lindenbaum, Tara Lyons, Erin McCarthy, Micheline White, Georgianna Ziegler, and Martine van Elk. https://earlymodernfemalebookownership.wordpress.com/. Accessed 15 July 2020.

Review of A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte William Biggs, by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2017) ISBN: 9781473863460 £19.99

On a Friday in 1987, the antiquarian book dealer John Byrne was making his way home from work when he was mugged in a street in Pimlico. The thief made off with his briefcase, a loss made all the more pertinent thanks to a rare eighteenth-century manuscript, lent to Byrne by his colleague Marius Kociejowski. A week later, the police contacted the pair to say the discarded case had been recovered and that the contents were, unfortunately, torn to shreds. When the fragments were returned, however, the manuscript was miraculously intact, possessed of a potency that had ensured its survival across time:

It was wet but in a single piece, and such was the quality of the handmade paper and the iron-based ink that once the sheets were dried out there was hardly any damage at all. (p. xxii)

The manuscript had been discovered in a cupboard by Kociejowski in a moment of serendipity, the extraordinary significance of which would later reveal itself. It was ‘stitched together to make a small booklet of twenty-eight quarto pages (three of them blank) and a covering letter of sixteen octavo pages, dated 26 February 1821, and signed “Charlotte B —”’ (p. xx). This was, it transpired, an autobiographical memoir written by Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, known as Charlotte and, at the time of composition, an elderly woman recalling her first love who, decades earlier, had abandoned her in search of riches in India. The intended recipient of the letter was none other than Sir David Ochterlony (1758–1825), who rose to the role of British Resident to the Moghul court in Delhi at the end of the Georgian period. More remarkable than this was that Kociejowski was a direct descendent of Ochterlony. In his preface to A Georgian Heroine, Kociejowski recalls how ‘the effect it made on me was absolutely electrifying […] it was as if the post had arrived over a century and a half late’ (p. xxi). What follows is a lively and richly detailed account of Charlotte’s life, drawn from her surviving writing by biographers and genealogists Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Major and Murden are regular co-authors and as well as several published biographies maintain the wonderfully vivid and panoramic blog All Things Georgian. Here, through impressive archival work, they have pieced together the previously unknown life of an extraordinary Georgian woman.

Charlotte’s story begins on the shores of the Thames in 1770s Lambeth where she was courted by Ochterlony as a young girl. In the first in a series of calamitous twists, Ochterlony set out for India to earn his fortune only to find himself unable to return to England and instead forced to join the East India Company’s army. With Ochterlony in no position to support her, Charlotte was left alone in London and it is here that her account, transformed into lively prose by Major and Murden, takes off. Enter the villainous Richard Heaviside (a name ‘worthy of a Restoration comedy’) as an obsessive and dangerous young man whose crimes Major and Murden go on to document. Heaviside was the illegitimate son of a timber merchant, whose business and fortune he inherited in 1775. A regular visitor to Covent Garden, he soon became acquainted with all that neighbourhood had to offer. He nursed a growing obsession with Charlotte (whose family he knew well), ‘one that would lead to her downfall and destroy all her youthful hopes’ (p. 4).

Major and Murden’s presentation of Charlotte in this period as a passive, naive young woman who would eventually become a victim of abduction and rape at the hands of Heaviside (‘Charlotte’s unobtainability only heightened her desirability and Heaviside’s need to possess her’ p. 5) makes for difficult reading by a modern audience versed in the necessity and resonances of the #MeToo movement. There is no warning ahead of a chapter describing the rape itself, followed somewhat incongruously by a chapter not on Charlotte but on the early life of her rapist. Charlotte’s biographers do, however, offer early glimpses into the ingenuity and self-reliance that would perhaps characterise and preserve her in the years following her imprisonment at the hands of her tormentor. Requesting books, needle and thread from her captor in a bid to appear compliant, Charlotte used the tools to stitch together a secret message which, delivered to a neighbour by a visiting apothecary, secured her eventual rescue by a peripheral character in her story, Benjamin Hunt Briggs.

Charlotte fled to France with Briggs, to whom she may have been married, only to find herself once again imprisoned in the French Revolution. Eventually returning to England, Charlotte had become politicised enough to write a pamphlet A Maximum; or, the Rise and Progress of Famine, addressed to the British People, which William Wilberforce cited in parliament, crediting it to ‘a gentleman.’ She would go on to rise in Georgian society, organise the jubilee celebrations for George III and return to continental Europe, possibly as a spy, raising interesting questions about the agency and opportunities open to a woman subjected to such brutality.

Comparisons between the early events of Charlotte’s life, drawn directly from her unpublished manuscript, and the novels of Samuel Richardson are inevitable. Her writing, Major and Murden tell us, is peppered with references to her favourite poets and novelists, suggesting a self-conscious mode of composition that leads them to question the validity of the events she describes. This brings its own complications for modern readers, particularly considering the centring of sexually violent content alongside contemporary, vital calls to believe women. Repeated references made by Kociejowski as well as Major and Murden to Ochterlony having ‘gone native’ in Nepal as well as the frequent usage of ‘whore’ to signify sex workers invite further scrutiny, particular in the context of a narrative shaped by systemic injustice and disempowerment.

Although A Georgian Heroine might have benefitted from deeper engagement with Charlotte’s own words, the result is an account of the suffering and triumphs of a life lived during a turbulent period of British history in which it was supremely difficult, and regularly dangerous, to be a thinking and writing woman. Major and Murden form a compelling portrait of the previously elusive Charlotte, offering up a meaningful contribution to the ongoing feminist project of recovery. Interestingly, no visual portrait of Charlotte survives and indeed in his introduction, Kociejowski wishes that one might be found in the aftermath of the book’s publication. Certainly, Charlotte commissioned at least one miniature portrait during her lifetime, which she enclosed in an earlier letter to Ochterlony, writing with it:

it will therefore … be very pleasing to me to know you possess an object which may remind you of me when I am not more, and if as Gray says “even in our Ashes live their wonted fires” my spirit will be soothed should it be conscious that I am not entirely forgotten (p. xxv).

But, as A Georgian Heroine testifies, it was her words, committed to an explosive manuscript, that would outlive Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs and ensure the survival of her legacy. In their hands, the emotive and affective power of her manuscript is revealed by Major and Murden, who demonstrate the myriad ways women’s life writing can offer new perspectives on the past.

Madeleine Pelling
University of Manchester

Madeleine is a postdoctoral fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on material and visual culture in the eighteenth century, and appears in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Women’s History Review and Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She is currently writing a monograph on the Duchess of Portland’s museum.

*Disclosure: Sarah Murden is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558–1837.

This book is available from Pen and Sword.

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)