Monday, January 10, 2011

Creating a monster

To Oxford last week to see the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family. The exhibition looks at the way in which Shelley’s posthumous image was created by the careful control of how documents about and by Shelley and his circle were published – in edited form, not at all, or with restricted access. Shelley’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, had no interest in literature and it was his wife Jane who was the main architect of the Shelley image. She even set up a shrine to Shelley in her house, which contained items such as his watch, a plate from which he ate, and a collection of locks of hair from Percy and Mary Shelley and their friends. These people were big on collecting hair: there is an entire necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s tresses from which hang two lockets containing more hair.

Shelley’s reputation certainly needed protecting. There was and still is an unsavoury air to him, even if some of the scandals don’t bother us so much these days: atheism, illegitimacy and infidelity do not perhaps cause so much shock as they once did. It’s easy to rake up the dirt on him, and covering it up was quite a feat. Another generation might broadcast the particulars of his life in order to depict him as a pioneer of sexual or spiritual freedom. But no matter how you judge his behaviour – if indeed you think it relevant to judge it at all - the exhibition cannot fail to move.

It’s quite interesting to see the plate Shelley ate his raisins from, but nothing like so fascinating as his notebooks full of doodles and scribbles, or the much-crossed out and reworked drafts of Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, or Queen Mab. Shelley and his circle lived for and by their writing. The only reason we pore over their lives at all is because they were poets, novelists, essayists. So it’s the pages that matter, the product of the moving hand, the living mind, that connects us to their lives. The exhibition’s many treasures enables many such connections. There are pages from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein showing some of her husband’s amendments: a disquieting object, given the lingering assumption that the book’s real author was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley’s transcriptions of her dead husband’s poems bear witness to her editorial effort, and make you wonder if she got her own back with a few subtle changes to his work here and there.

For me the exhibition’s greatest treasures are contained in one page and three small notes. The page is from the manuscript of Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay On Poetry, and the three small notes are the last she wrote to Godwin while she was awaiting the birth of her daughter, Fanny. It’s exciting enough to see work in a writer’s own hand; when that writer is a hero of yours it’s incredibly moving.

The exhibition runs until 27 March 2011 and admission is free, but if you can’t get to Oxford you can view it on line at

Read Germaine Greer on the argument about who wrote Frankenstein in The Guardian, Monday 9 April 2007: Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious - because the book is so bad

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