Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family

Duncan Wu is gripped by a tale of a remarkable family's careful crafting of its public standing

February 17, 2011

Shelley's Ghost is a book the plan of which, on the face of it, looks agreeably wayward. Chapter one describes how the Bodleian Library in Oxford came to acquire its Shelley collection in 1893; chapter two examines William Godwin's handling of Mary Wollstonecraft's literary estate; chapter three narrates the story of relations between Godwin, his daughter Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley; chapters four and five examine some of the treasures in the Bodleian archive (including the Frankenstein manuscript); chapters six and seven reveal the styling of Shelley's posthumous reputation by his widow; chapter eight continues that tale into the lifetime of Jane, Lady Shelley (wife of the poet's son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley); and chapter nine examines the fate of those manuscripts that "escaped" into institutions other than the Bodleian.

One's sense is that the authors are offering the reader themes of three or four separate volumes in fewer than 200 pages. This apparent act of generosity makes more sense when one realises that the book is the catalogue for an exhibition that opened at the Bodleian in December 2010 and runs until March this year.

It would be churlish not to express gratitude for its high production quality: almost all the illustrations are in colour, even those of Shelley's manuscripts. The writing is so clear, fluent and engaging that it hardly matters whether, outside the context of the exhibition, its structure seems arbitrary. Stephen Hebron takes responsibility for the bulk of the book, and has done a fine job of assembling the insights of many scholars.

He is, perhaps, a little dry on occasion, as when he reports that Byron placed his illegitimate daughter "in a convent", as if that were normal behaviour rather than the insane act it actually was - one that caused tremendous pain not merely to the child's mother, Claire Clairmont (Mary's stepsister), but also to the Shelleys. However, Hebron is no different from other scholars in this, all of whom seem to imagine that criticism of Byron for such terrible cruelty would be unseemly.

Hebron and his co-author, Elizabeth Denlinger (who contributes the final chapter), tell a story that is astonishing in its eccentricity and could have only originated in Victorian England which, seen through its prism, looks like the maddest place on Earth. It concerns the macabre intrigues surrounding Shelley's heart, the part of his anatomy that "would not take the flame" when his body was cremated on the beach at Viareggio, and ended up in an urn in the "Shelley Sanctum" retained by Lady Shelley at Boscombe Manor.

The supporting cast is straight from an Ealing comedy, including amateur astrologer Richard Garnett, erstwhile panjandrum of the British Museum and spiritual adviser to Lady Shelley; Scrope Davies, the dandy who fled to Europe having incurred gambling debts, leaving the manuscript of the third canto of Byron's Childe Harold in his local branch of Barclays Bank; Harry Buxton Forman and Thomas J. Wise, the Steptoe and Son of bibliographical studies; and Major George Gordon de Luna Byron, self-styled "son" of the noble Lord and amateur forger.

There is a point, around chapter seven, where Hebron's story becomes totally crazy and unputdownable and it is well served by his sober attention to detail, for it needs no embellishment. Indeed, there could be no better-informed guide to the Bodleian exhibition. Shelley's Ghost will stand as an indispensable reference for experts, and a helpful introduction to the Shelley collection for everyone else, containing exquisite illustrations that should turn those who see them into keen palaeographers.

Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family

By Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger

Bodleian Library, 176pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781851243396

Published 30 November 2010

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