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)