Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shelley's Ghost, in the flesh

Monday, finally, to Oxford, to catch the exhibition at the Bodleian in its final week. (I went with the most fortuitous of companions, who deserves and will have an entry of her own.) Shelley's Ghost is subtitled "Reshaping the image of a literary family", though I wish it were "Mary, her husband, their daughter, and her lover (and their friends)". It examines how the Victorian Shelley descendants tried to protect, manipulate, and burnish the reputations of this quartet of ancestors, mainly by selectively withholding or publishing the documents in their possession. Brand reputation management, C19 style.

I must confess that I was exceedingly tired at the beginning of my visit, and not best able to absorb a huge amount of detail. But the exhibition was so well curated that I pulled myself together to appreciate it.

Physical objects
Most of the display cases are full of letters and manuscripts, which have all been published in one form or another; their content is no surprise. It was good to see the portraits up close, and a novelty to contemplate the silver-topped bottles of Mary Shelley's toilet set, arrayed in its velvet case. How the other half lived! I doubt if her mother ever owned anything similar. There was Shelley's guitar, too -- in the days when guitars had connotations other than rock 'n' roll. Previously, my understanding of Sir Percy, the only surviving child of MS and Shelley, and thus the only grandchild of MW, was as a huntin', fishin', and shootin' squire. Shelley's Ghost confirms that he was not literary, but apparently his enthusiasms were cycling (a new-fangled hobby), amateur dramatics (his life lacked the real thing), and ... sailing (which killed his father).

For me the highlight was, not surprisingly, the small case devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft. (Referring to someone as "our " is an indicator of familiarity, and often of family ties, in some English dialects. Here, amidst the plethora of Mary Shelley memorabilia, I want to say "my Mary" to differentiate mother and daughter. But I resist.) Two items in particular took hold of my attention and imagination. 

On Poetry
One was the first page of the manuscript of her essay "On Poetry"
A taste for rural scenes, in the present state of society, appears to be very often an artificial sentiment, rather inspired by poetry and romances, than a real perception of the beauties of nature. But, as it is reckoned a proof of refined taste to praise the calm pleasures which the country affords, the theme is never exhausted. Yet it may be made a question, whether this romantic kind of declamation, has much effect on the conduct of those, who leave, for a season, the crowded cities in which they were bred. 
I have been led to these reflections, by observing, when I have resided for any length of time in the country, how few people seem to contemplate nature with their own eyes. I have "brushed the dew away" in the morning; but, pacing over the printless grass, I have wondered that, in such delightful situations, the sun was allowed to rise in solitary majesty, whilst my eyes alone hailed its beautifying beams. The webs of the evening have still been spread across the hedged path, unless some labouring man, trudging to work, disturbed the fairy structure; yet, in spite of this supineness, when I joined the social circle, every tongue rang changes on the pleasures of the country.
I found this oddly moving. My companion and I played paleographer, getting into the idiosyncrasies of the handwriting, piecing out the text, finding the rhythm of the sentence, and speaking the words aloud.  Our effort and our soft audible voices made tangible precisely what MW was arguing -- personal experience is what counts. You actually have to get up in the morning to see the sunrise; praising its beauty without having seen it is mere prattle. This realisation alone made the trip to Oxford worthwhile. The train ride provided just enough time in nowhereland to reflect and talk, and thus to allow these epiphanies to bubble to the surface.

Notes to Godwin
The second display that captured me was the series of three notes to Godwin, written while MW was in labour with the future Mary Shelley. (Husband and wife lived in nearby apartments, and had convenient anonymous servant girls to run errands, including the delivery of letters. Like text messages, but cheaper.) I've read these notes before, of course, but to see in front of me some of the very last words she ever wrote, on torn and stained scraps of was special. (NB Each note is dated in full, Aug 30, 1797, but no time is stated.)

I have no doubt of seeing the animal to day; but must wait for Mrs. Blenkinsop to guess at the hour – I have sent for her – Pray send me the newspaper – I wish I had a novel, or some book of sheer amusement, to excite curiosity, and while away the time – Have you any thing of the kind? 
Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me that Every thing is in a fair way, and that there is no fear of the event being put off till another day – still, at present, she thinks, I shall not immediately be freed from my load – I am very well – call before dinner-time, unless you receive another message from me – 
Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me that I am in the most natural state, and can promise me a safe delivery – But that I must have a little Patience
Does anything else like this exist? A written record of those moments of tedium, excitement, and enforced patience, from one literary figure to another? (In our day, we have women -- or more often their partners -- live-tweeting labour & delivery.) These notes are unbearably poignant. I end my Twitter project of telling MW's life over #38days with reassurance from the midwife. "She promises me a safe delivery." What a loss!

What a loss
The death of Mary Wollstonecraft had deep and multifaceted effects. It was the loss of mother and wife: her grieving widower Godwin ("This light was lent to me for a very short period, and is now extinguished for ever!") ;  the toddler Fanny, who was to grow up without either birth parent; newborn Mary, farmed out to a wetnurse, I believe. It was the loss of sister and daughter-figure, to those who depended on her for protection, younger siblings, the Bloods in Ireland. It was the loss of a writer in the full strength of her powers, with her pen ever at the ready to tilt against injustices. It was the loss of a woman through the most womanly of activities, child-bearing, and thus a confirmation of the prejudices of many, who remained convinced that there was no point in educating girls, because they would just succumb to motherhood one way or another. It was the death of the movement for women's rights for a generation. 

My main criticism of Shelley's Ghost is that, while attempting to tell the story of a literary family, it shortchanges the mater familias. There just wasn't enough about MW. It's not their fault, necessarily: all exhibitions depend on what they have, and what they can borrow.  Related to this, there are a few items I'd expect to find that I didn't see. Evidently the National Portrait Gallery hadn't been persuaded to lend the Opie portrait, for example.  I didn't see (though I may have simply missed) the illustration of young Mary and her lover, meeting surreptitiously at MW's grave. "Over my dead body!" I hear her growl to the tousle-hair'd poet. "She's only 16, and you're married. Cease and desist!" But the sonnets won the day.

Here is a BBC Oxfordshire audio slideshow of the exhibition, mostly an interview with the curator. I'll review the website and catalogue shortly (here).


  1. This is a fascinating account! thanks Roberta - some compensation for my not being able to get to the exhibition.

  2. makes me wish i could see the exhibit, but gives me a lovely feeling of 'apres-vu' --the sensation of having witnessed or experienced a portion of it.

  3. Shelley's Ghost closed its doors for the last time today. Thank you for saying that my words gave you a taste. Your comments are always welcome!

  4. I have never seen MW handwriting before, so thanks for the link!