Letter from Percy Florence Shelley to Tom Taylor, Jan. 11, 1871
Rare Item Analysis
by Emily Bell, Catherine Burr, and Alex Ueckert
Percy Florence Shelley, the son of the famous romantic poets, Percy and Mary Shelley, decided to take a different route in his life from that of his parents. He decided to become a playwright instead of following in his parents footsteps as poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley, although he wrote a play, Prometheus Unbound, did not intend for the play to be produced but to instead be read as lyrical poetry. Likewise, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which was later adapted into a play. While both of his parents had some involvement in theatre and plays, Percy Florence decided to dedicate the majority of his time to this genre. A recently discovered letter from Percy Florence Shelley to Tom Taylor reveals the family dynamics of the Shelleys mentioned within this letter (Percy Florence, Jane, and Bessie), the shift of Percy Florence focus to playwriting as opposed to the poetry and prose of his parents, and the direct and indirect manner in which this speaks to the relationship between Percy Florence and his parents.
This letter from Percy Florence Shelley to Tom Taylor was recently found in the Armstrong Browning Library by Melinda Creech. The letter was originally acquired in a 1964 Sotheby’s lot. This lot, presumably, was targeted for the letter it contained from Robert Browning to Mrs. Tom Taylor in condolence for the passing of her husband. It contained other letters of condolences to Mrs. Tom Taylor from which this letter was later discovered to have been included. This letter from Percy Florence to Tom Taylor is categorized as a manuscript letter and while it is currently uncatalogued in the library, it will be included in the Victorian Letters Collection. The letter most directly relates to Tom Taylor (1817-1880), Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889), John Palgrave Simpson (1807-1887), and Bessie Florence Gibson (1852-1934).
At the beginning of the letter, Percy Florence tells Tom Taylor about the “approaching marriage in February” which is for Percy and Jane’s adopted daughter, Bessie (Shelley, 1). Percy Florence writes that this is a busy time for their family with the upcoming wedding. After the passing of Bessie’s biological mother, she was adopted by Jane, her paternal aunt, and Percy Florence, who had no children of their own. Because of this busy season within their family, he is less in-tune with the upcoming Easter plays. The familial theme at the beginning of this letter, which leads into the discussion about plays, helps us gain understanding within the Shelley family and perhaps what led Percy Florence to playwriting. While Percy and Mary Shelley touched on theatrical writing during their careers, playwriting is what Percy Florence decided to dedicate his personal career to. Perhaps he did not want to try and compete with his very successful parents in their respective crafts, or he may have wanted to rebel against their own rebellion by pleasing audiences rather than shocking them or challenging them. Percy Florence did this by carrying the title of baron, received from his grandfather, hosting plays at the family estate, and even being an early member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes (Bird, par. 8). Percy Florence also established a theatre in his own home, and this is the theatre in which several plays mentioned in this letter were performed.
The familiar tone of the letter suggests that Percy Florence and Tom Taylor knew each other, at least fairly well. Looking into both of their educational backgrounds, they both were roughly equal in age (Tom being two years the senior), both attended Trinity College, Cambridge, beginning in 1837, and would likely have been in association based on what can be ascertained from the letter. Tom Taylor was born in 1817 to a lower class family but made the most of his opportunities by excelling in school. He studied mathematics and English and was accomplished enough to be offered a fellowship for a masters program. He wrote for various publications throughout this time and served as a professor of English at University of London from 1845-1846 before his acting and playwriting really took off and he started touring. He was considered a leading dramatist of the time and as an art critic was only second in prominence to John Ruskin.
To further understand the impact that Percy Florence had on society through his art as a playwright, one should look into the (assumed) acceptance of his work. Little is known about how the author’s personal work was received by the public, but Percy Florence’s desire to please Tom Taylor indicates his priority on obtaining approval over challenging expectations. “The Leader”, an editorial of the time, mentions Taylor’s work, Two Loves and a Life, saying the “dialogue is very superior to what we are usually treated to… sparkling sentences, and occasionally a touch of poetry” wedged within the play (“The Leader” 1). The way in which Florence honors Taylor’s opinion in the letter, points to an understanding that he formed his work to mirror his fellow writer in the fact that he fashions the works and asks for Taylor to review them. Shelley tells Taylor in the letter “I have written [the play] which is devoid of slang- that was according to order” by either society or Taylor himself (Shelley, 2). Shelley desires to be accepted as an author, and unlike his rebellious parents, he thinks that the way that he will become one is to conform to the standards of the society of the time. Bringing to light how Shelley’s plays were reviewed, one should look at the plays themselves, and in reading them one can see if they are congruent with the society of the day, in poise and propriety, or if they divulge a risky attitude like his father. The fact that Shelley’s A Fairy Tale only has two copies in the British Museum and is not widely studied may be a statement in itself that the author conformed to what was normative. There is not enough information concerning the other plays mentioned in the letter to go into complete detail, other than they may be lost manuscripts. In not causing a stir in the world of theatre, his art did not live on to become a well-known classic like his parents’ did.
Collaborating evidence surrounding Taylor reinforces the idea that he and Percy Florence were more concerned with public reception in that particular moment than lasting fame. Percy Florence mentions how the audience should receive his play, A Fairy Tale, saying “our audience will be pleased with it in the way we shall manage it” (Shelley, 2). Taylor was widely considered to be a kind and industrious man, primarily working towards his audience’s satisfaction rather than lasting permanence. Even the obituary of the publication he worked with most of his life, Punch, praised Taylor for his work ethic and fellowship rather than his talent or wit.
The home is a place where a family is formed, nurtured, and children brought to adulthood, to state the obvious. While the Shelley’s home performed all of these functions, albeit imperfectly due to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s early death and great financial difficulties, during Percy Florence’s childhood, its purpose was translated to that of theatre later in his lifetime. Percy Florence mentions staging the plays at their home theatre in the letter. The Boscombe Theatre was created from the Shelley’s house and is still in operating condition. There is a website dedicated to further restoration of the theatre, though this began ten years ago (“Our Big Idea”) . The former home is currently being used as a community theatre, platform for live music, dancing, and a general creative space. The theatre is open and functioning for half of the calendar year. This is a beautiful example of how Percy Florence wished to leave a legacy of art, and that dream came to fruition with the still-operating theatre.
The Shelley family as a whole placed a large value on legacy and chasing what they thought was right, even if it was not congruent with the views of the day, however, Percy Shelley as an individual did not focus on how his own legacy would affect the lasting canon of Romantic and Victorian history. When we think of the Shelley name we think of the genius of the parents, of their work. Early research on this letter has led us to picture Percy Florence not just as the son of the two poets, but as a standalone figure of the time himself. This letter provides new information on who Percy Florence was beyond that of the son of two of literature’s greatest and beyond that of a minor title of baron. It shows us how theatre played a part in his life, something we may have assumed with how the Shelley/Boscombe Theatre was developed and handled. Also, this separation from his parents’ chosen medium of art is akin to “Pen” Browning’s (the sole child of the famous Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) focus on painting when his parents were famous for their poetry and prose. These children born of Romantic and Victorian era writers were unique people with interests of their own apart from those pursued by their parents, and they often shied away from the method in which their parents attained so much fame.
In understanding the Shelleys as a family unit and their positions in society, one further understands the artwork that was created from all three of the members. Though this is an excellent starting point for seeing a bit more about the Shelley’s history, this is just the start of the possible research to be had on this artifact. It would expand the history of the family even more to locate the complete plays of Percy Florence in order to read them and piece together what they brought to the world of art. Alternatively, the relationship between Tom Taylor and Percy Florence is only touched upon here, but as we can see in the letter, the two families seem to be fairly close and further research could be done into how close of friends they were between the two of them and of their immediate families.
Bird, Belinda. “Inside the Royal Yacht Squadron – we get a rare view of the most exclusive club”. Yachting World. 18 May 2015.
“Our Big Idea.” Shelley Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Shelley, Percy Florence, personal communication to Tom Taylor, 11 Jan. 1871.