Mary Shelley and Europe: Essays in Honour of Jean de Palacio. Edited by Antonella Braida. MHRA, Oxford: Legenda. 2020. pp. 206. £80 (hardback), ISBN: 9781781885482. £10.99 (paperback, forthcoming), ISBN: 9781781885529.
Mary Shelley and Europe is a wonderful selection of essays which discusses an aspect of Mary Shelley’s life that was so important to her art and yet is perhaps under-emphasised in discussing her work. Mary Shelley travelled to Europe in 1814 and lived in Italy from 1818 to 1823. She wrote two books of travel, which mark the beginning and end of her writing career, and many of her novels and stories are set either wholly or partly in Europe. She spoke Italian and French fluently and translated from those languages. Europe was very much present to Mary Shelley even when she was unable to travel. And yet, in 1951, when Jean de Palacio began to study her work, she was known mainly as the editor of Shelley’s poems and the author of Frankenstein – and at the time her work as editor was very much under-appreciated and Frankenstein was better known for James Whale’s film version than the novel itself.
Jean de Palacio’s study of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Epipsychidion led to his interest in Mary Shelley, especially when he discovered that she had correctly included a line omitted by a Victorian editor of the poem. Yet he was discouraged from this study and found it difficult to find texts, reading them in the British Library and acquiring them from rare books dealers. Since then, as he notes in his chapter, Mary Shelley’s status as a writer has been completely transformed and now she is considered a major writer of the time. De Palacio was one of the first to show how Mary Shelley’s transcription of her husband’s poetry and her knowledge of Italian made her superior to the Victorian editors who followed her.
Nora Crook, as well as paying tribute to de Palacio’s pioneering work, shows how many poems, reviews, articles and translations have been identified subsequently, thus establishing Mary Shelley as a professional writer with her own style and voice and showing her as European. She describes the difficulties of identifying these and other contributions to journals where they are unsigned. Although style, subject matter and dating are helpful, mistakes can be made. She gives examples of possible work yet to be confirmed and stresses the need for fora to be set up to establish an agreed canon of work since no current bibliography on Mary Shelley is comprehensive.
De Palacio also suggested that collaboration between husband and wife tended to give Mary Shelley an entitlement to sometimes make additions, though she may have exceeded this on occasions. He also appreciated the importance of Italy to Mary Shelley. Michael Rossington, also paying tribute to de Palacio’s groundbreaking work, considers how, when he started his studies in the 1950s, the critical appreciation of the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, then at its nadir, began to rise. Manuscripts from the Shelley family were donated to the Bodleian Library prompting fresh books and essays from scholars, in particular Geoffrey Matthews, who seems to have been one of the first to have realised the difficulties facing Mary Shelley as an editor, citing examples of text crossed out, written criss-crossed or upside down. The difficulties were not only practical but emotional, such as the pain involved in looking at text stained with seawater as a result of being in the boat when her husband drowned. Valentina Varinelli also discusses what she describes as two forms of dialogue with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry (p. 57), being the memories prompted from these texts, and Mary Shelley’s poem The Choice. Varinelli’s extended critique of this poem is particularly interesting. The theme of collaboration is discussed in more detail by Anna Mercer in her essay, which also looks at the poetry that Mary Shelley wrote in Italy.
Lisa Vargo’s chapter on Mary Shelley’s political thought and activity shows that Mary Shelley was always interested in Italian politics and that, although her politics remained liberal, she never wished to ally herself wholly to a group and did not want to play a public part. Maria Parrino’s essay emphasises Mary Shelley’s study of Italian. When they lived in Italy, the Shelleys’ knowledge of the language distinguished them from other English residents. Mary Shelley was not only able to converse with well-educated Italian friends but to chat happily with her servants, using their colloquial phrases. Years later, on her return to Italy, she was still able to speak Italian fluently, showing that she had in the intervening years kept up her study of the language. Indeed, she reviewed books and translated stories from French and Italian, so the knowledge of the languages was very much part of her cultural life and her career.
Other essays in the book discuss the reception of adaptations for the theatre of Frankenstein, such as Presumption (1823), and popular images of Mary Shelley. However, the idea of her as a European, whose working life involved translation and travel in Europe and interaction both politically and artistically with other Europeans, is one which transforms her image from that of an indigent, lonely widow and single mother living on memories of a brief happiness into an independent professional woman with a fascinating creative life and interesting contacts. One realises that this must have always been the case, of course, but emphasis on her editing of her husband’s poetry and on Frankenstein, rather than on the later novels and stories, has obscured the literary and personal achievements of her later life. This book does much to redress the balance.