Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Spotlight On...Begbrook House, Frenchay, Bristol

On 11 November 1913, the head gardener at Begbrook House in Frenchay near Bristol discovered that the   building was on fire. The house stood in its own wooded grounds, and was said to have twenty rooms and a fine old staircase. Within a few hours the house was gutted. The fire caused £3,000 worth of damage. A copy of the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette , was left at the site with the message, “Birrell is coming. Rachel Pease is still being tortured”.  Begbrook House Picture: Frenchay Village Museum Augustine Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North, and a cabinet minister. He was frequently targetted by militants in Bristol. Suffragettes interrupted his meetings and two women once accosted him at Temple Meads Railway Station with their demand for the vote.    Begbrook House belonged to Hugh Thomas Coles, a wealthy banker. Hugh Coles was the son of   William Gale Cole of Clifton, who was also a banker, and was born in Clifton in 1856. Lik

Dickens and Chickens

On 17 April 1860, in fields near Farnborough, Charles Dickens joined an audience amongst whom were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, as well as a number of MPs and clergymen, to watch the American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) beat one another blind and bloody in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted nearly two and a half hours. The fight ended in a draw when Aldershot police stormed the ring, forcing the fighters and their illustrious spectators to flee the scene. It was the brutality of this match that signalled an end to the bare-knuckle era and prompted the development of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. Dickens’s interest in pugilism was of long standing. In 1848 Dombey and Son , which had been published in serial form over the preceding two years, came out in book form. One of many of his novels that draws on the world of the prize fighter, it introduces the unforgettable Mr Toots, a would-be man about town, an

The Bristol Boys: The Bare Knuckle Champions and The Hatchet Inn

The Hatchet Inn on Frogmore Street in Bristol is all that remains of a row of seventeenth-century timbered houses dating back to 1606 – making it one of the city’s oldest pubs. It was substantially altered in the 1960s, and these days it stands on a traffic island. But at one time it boasted extensive grounds – and amongst the facilities on offer was a bare-knuckle boxing ring. Plaque at The Hatchet Inn, Bristol The pub’s connection with Bristol’s boxing heroes is commemorated in a plaque illustrating five of Bristol’s champions – one of whom, Hen Pearce, features in Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery. Hen Pearce (Detail) Bristol born Hen Pearce, The Game Chicken (1777 – 1809), a former butcher’s boy, became champion of England in 1805. He was a hero inside and outside the ring. In 1807 he climbed onto the roof of a building in Thomas Street, Bristol to rescue a servant girl from a fire. Always a popular figure, this courageous act inspired many eulogies in pr