Friday, 18 March 2011

Shelley's not so blithe spirit

Here in Oxford there's an exhibition currently at the Bodleian devoted to Shelley and his circle, which I've visited twice and hope to visit again before it closes on the 27th March. It's called Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, it's free and it's certainly worth a look. The library has an excellent Shelley archive, so in the dimly-lit room you can see papers, pictures and 'relics' - because as you stroll round the most striking aspect of it all is that of the creation of literary myth. It's part poignant, part-irritating, to see how, in typical Romantic/Victorian fashion, Shelley's friends, relatives and wife set about the canonization of a writer famed for being an atheist.

I was touched by the doominess of it all: the sense of brief lives flaring in passion and self-destructiveness. There's not just Shelley himself, but his first wife who drowned herself, the suicide of Fanny Imlay, Mary Shelley's half-sister, Mary Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft dying as a result of childbirth, Byron's daughter Allegra, taken from her mother Claire Clairmont, only to die at the age of four in the convent Byron consigned her to, Mary Shelley's son William ... a catalogue of morbid melodrama which you wouldn't dare to make up (rather like reading about the Brontes' brief lives).

Linked with it the self-obsession, arrogance and self-indulgence - the posturing opinions, the dwelling on loss which in Mary Shelley's case seems to have reached an almost psychopathic level. Necklaces and rings were woven with the hair of the deceased, a 'shrine' was set up in her house where she could worship the god of her heart. Mary Wollstonecraft writing notes to William Godwin when she was pregnant, telling him she had 'no doubt of seeing the animal today' when she was close to giving birth to Mary Shelley. Fanny Imlay's last letter, full of reproach, emotional blackmail and self-pity. I found myself thinking of one of my favourite scenes in the Blackadder series set in the Regency, when all the Romantic poets are gathered, moaning and groaning, at Mrs Miggins' Pie Shop, and she says 'Ooh Mr Byron, don't be such a big girl's blouse!'

Yet there is much that is inexpressibly moving. Who could fail to sympathise with Mary Shelley when, on her son's death, her father wrote to her like this? 'But you have lost a child and all the rest of the world, all that is beautiful and all that has a charm upon your kindness, is nothing, because a child of three years old is dead!'

I was particularly struck by Shelley's doodles on his various notebooks: faces, trees, and ironically, boats, all sketched with verve. I was moved by a letter from Allegra to her father, Lord Byron.There's Mary Shelley's sense of doom and dread in the last days by the lake in Italy, there's Shelley's last hasty note to her, and there are the books he had with him on his boat, washed up, pages and covers swollen, after he drowned. I was impressed by the pages from the original manuscript of Frankenstein, with Shelley's editorial changes.

However, the artifact I found most moving was a letter from Keats to Shelley, written on August 16 1820, some months before Keats' death in Rome from tuberculosis. Shelley's poetry has never appealed to me in the way Keats' does: ironically, the one poem on display that really spoke to me was 'Adonais', which is Shelley's lament for Keats. The grace of Keats' handwriting and the liveliness of his voice and his intelligence stayed with me longer than anything.

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