Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland: with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. London: T. Hookham, Old Bond Street and J. Ollier, Welbeck Street, 1817. ABL Browning’s Lib Cop X BL-C 914.04 S545h 1817.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Posthumous poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: John and Henry L. Hunt, 1824. ABL Brownings’ Lib Cop X BL-C 821.7 S545p 1824.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Essays, letters from abroad, translations, and fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. ABL Brownings’ Lib Cop X BL-C 826.7 S545e 1840 v.1.

Rare Items Analysis: Mary Shelley’s Curation of Her Husband’s Legacy

By Makenzie Fitzgerald

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet, famous for his daring, sometimes scandalous works, as well as for his friendships with other poets such as Lord Byron and John Keats. However, the height of his fame came after his death, largely due to efforts of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,[1] to publish and preserve his works. I studied three works in the ABL Rare Books Collection, connected to the fascinating lives of the Shelleys: History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland: with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (History); Posthumous poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Poems); and Essays, letters from abroad, translations, and fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley (Essays). History was written largely by Mary with a few letters and a poem by Percy, and the latter two items are of Percy’s writing, collected and edited by Mary after his death.[2] As we will see, Mary’s accounts of her husband, as well as her editorial choices about his works raise more questions than they answer, particularly in how Mary appears to ignore some of the questionable aspects of Percy’s character for the sake of immortalizing his work and memory.

In the prefaces Mary gives to both Poems and Essays, Percy is depicted as the paragon of virtue, the best possible man.

The comparative solitude in which Mr. Shelley lived, was the occasion that he was personally known to few; and his fearless enthusiasm in the cause, which he considered the most sacred upon earth, the improvement of the moral and physical state of mankind, was the chief reason why he, like other illustrious reformers, was pursued by hatred and calumny. No man was ever more devoted than he, to the endeavor of making those around him happy; no man ever possessed friends more unfeignedly attached to him… Hereafter men will lament that his transcendant powers of intellect were extinguished before they had bestowed on them their choicest treasures. To his friends his loss is irremediable: the wise, the brave, the gentle, is gone for ever…. Before the critics contradict me, let them appeal to any one who had ever known him: to see him was to love him… (Poems iv)

The preface to Essays is similar, intensifying the religious tone of the praise she gives Shelley.

For myself, no religious doctrine, nor philosophical precept, can shake the faith that a mind so original, so delicately and beautifully moulded, as Shelley’s, so endowed with wondrous powers and eagle-eyed genius, so good, so pure, would never be shattered and dispersed by the Creator; but that the qualities and consciousness that formed him, are not only indestructible in themselves, but in the form under which they were united here, and that to become worthy of him is to assure the bliss of a reunion. (xv-xvi)

These passages are representative of the almost worshipful tone of Mary’s prefaces, providing a stark contrast to the moral ambiguity of Percy’s character. There is no mention of any of his adulterous or negligent behavior, nor of the irresponsible financial actions which brought the Shelleys into dangerous poverty and may have, in some cases, sped the deaths of their children.

Yet, Mary’s strange near-deification of Shelley is also seen in her organizing and editorial choices. History at first appears like a typical travel document – popular during the Shelleys’ time – containing some of Mary’s journals and a few of her and Percy’s letters from their travels. Yet, at the end, Mary adds a surprising content: Percy’s poem, “Mont Blanc,” inspired during their trip. However, “Mont Blanc” is more than a mere travel poem, as Percy addresses many of his theories about the mind, humanity, and our interaction (if any) with a metaphysical reality (if any). Such an influential poem within Percy’s canon seems to take the spotlight, yet the order of History almost seems to encourage this. Part 1 contains Mary’s journals; Part 2 contains Mary and Percy’s letters, hers first and his two letters last, with the letter concerning Mont Blanc coming last; and Part 3 is only the poem, standing alone. This organization, rather than following a chronological or geographical account of their trip, is one that best emphasizes “Mont Blanc.” This is also, notably, the first printing of the poem, making its placement even more significant and interesting.

When examining Poems, the first oddity appears in the Table of Contents. In the list of intriguing titles, one catches the eye: “To ────.” This strange title raises the question “to whom?”, causing particular interest as it repeats itself five times, occurring on pages 193, 200, 205, 211, and 214. Surely, Percy would not have hidden the poems’ recipient from himself, and it seems strange to have half-titled five separate poems rather than leaving them untitled. Examination of the poems reveal that they are love poems, each deeply passionate, promising undying love to the object of affection. The shortest is illustrative of the rest:

I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden,

Thou needest not fear mine;

My spirit is too deeply laden

Ever to burthen thine.

I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion,

Thou needest not fear mine;

Innocent is the heart’s devotion

With which I worship thine. (Poems 193)

Why would a woman hide the recipient of her husband’s love poems – unless some of them were written for another? This particular poem was probably written to Sophia, a young woman with whom Shelley fell in love, but this was not the only poem addressed to other women. [3] Another in this volume, on page 200, seems to have been to Jane Williams:

I can give not what men call love,

But wilt thou accept not

The worship the heart lifts above

And the Heavens reject not,

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow? (Poems 200)[4]

Shelley’s poems intended for Jane Williams, the Shelleys’ neighbor, were written during a rough period in their marriage, when several of their children had passed away and they were having financial difficulties.[5] Percy’s courting of Jane during his troubles with Mary are eerily reminiscent of his courting Mary during his first marriage to Harriet. Indeed, his courting of Jane was further complicated, as Jane was married and had already left her husband for her common-law partner, Edward, who would ultimately die with Percy at sea. Yet, rather than hiding these poems, Mary prints them, while simply hiding Jane’s name – possibly to still show the talent she sees in Shelley’s poetry, though we cannot be certain.

One might, after viewing these items, write Mary Shelley off as a naïve young woman, blindly devoted to her husband and unable to see any flaws in his character or writing. Or one might think she is unwilling to recognize these flaws, consciously ignoring them. Before drawing either conclusion it is important to recall Mary’s biography and take stock of the many credits to her intellect, insight, and fortitude. When we see the many things she endured, often because of or at the hands of Percy, it is difficult to imagine her as naïve or blind; it is even more difficult to imagine her as unintelligent or willfully uncritical when we note how some of her major works – particularly Frankenstein – critically address some of Percy’s ideas and personal characteristics.

So, what theory might explain Mary lauding her husband’s work and character after his death, though she was aware (perhaps more than most) of his scruples? This quote from Essays reveals a crucial concern of Mary:

I do no conceal that I am far from satisfied with the tone in which the criticisms on Shelley are written. Some among these writers praise the poetry with enthusiasm, and even discrimination; but none understand the man. I hope these volumes will set him in a juster point of view. (xxvi)

Mary certainly felt some pressure to protect her husband’s memory from his many critics. We must ask how much of this shaped the picture she leaves of Shelley, being perhaps too uncritical in an attempt to balance out his reputation. Moreover, as Dr. Joshua King has suggested, as an agnostic woman, Mary might view this immortalized portrayal of Percy and his works as the only after-life he would have, acting accordingly merciful to a husband she had loved dearly.

Looking closely at these items raises some fascinating questions which could be further explored with students or in other research. Mary and Percy – as well as Lord Byron – were in conversation about their various works and ideas. It would be interesting to do more direct comparison between some of their works. It would also be interesting to look more closely at the biographical lives of the Shelleys to explore the context for their writings, especially how Mary’s works evolve through Percy and after his death. Further work could also be done with the texts Mary prints and other existing manuscripts – as there is still some debate about which versions of Percy’s texts to use for study, with some significant difference found in a few of the Bodleian manuscripts. Ultimately, further study of these poets can only be beneficial.

[1] For a complete chronology of Mary Shelley’s life, see the following link: For a brief (but relatively thorough) biography, see:

[2] To put the works in context, History was published in 1817, Poems in 1824, and Essays in December 1839 (dated 1840 on the title page). Percy drowned in July 1822, and Mary’s Frankenstein was published first in 1818 and again, heavily revised, in 1831.

[3] Paul A. Vatalaro, Shelley’s Music: Fantasy, Authority, and the Object Voice (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 105. See also Shahida Bari, “Lyrics and Love Poems: Poems to Sophia Stacey, Jane Williams, and Mary Shelley,” in The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Michael O’Neill, Anthony Howe, and with the assistance of Madeleine Callaghan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] Cian Duffy, “Percy Shelley’s ‘Unfinished Drama’ and the Problem of the Jane Williams Poems,” European Romantic Review 26, no.5 (2015): 623.

[5] For poems meant for Jane, Duffy and Bari both list “With a Guitar. To Jane,” “To Jane [‘The keen stars were twinkling’]”, “To Jane. The Invitation,” “To Jane—The Recollection,” “The Magnetic Lady to her Patient,” and the fragment “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici” (also known as “Bright wanderer, fair coquette of Heaven” (Bari 382, Duffy 627). Duffy adds “Remembrance” and “When the lamp is shattered” and also connects the poems “One word is too often prophaned,” “I love thee not,” “One word has changed the Universe for me,” and “Tell me star whose wings of light [‘The World’s Wanderers’]” to “his attachment” to Jane (Duffy 627).