Mary Shelley's Editions of the Collected Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Editor as Subject

By Gladden, Samuel Lyndon | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Mary Shelley's Editions of the Collected Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Editor as Subject


Gladden, Samuel Lyndon, Studies in Romanticism


I dislike speaking of myself, but cannot help apologizing to the dead, and to the public, for not having executed in the manner I desired the history I engaged to give of Shelley's writings.

--Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, "Note on the Poems of 1822" (1)

Thus I have put down my thoughts. I may have deceived myself; I may be in the wrong; I try to examine myself; and such as I have written appears to me the exact truth.

--Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Journal (2)

PERHAPS THE MOST INSIGHTFUL REFLECTION ON THE STATE OF MARY SHELLEY studies comes from Betty T. Bennett, who notes that "until recent years scholars have generally regarded Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley as a result: William Godwin's and Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter who became Shelley's Pygmalion." (3) Indeed, Mary Shelley traditionally has been treated as something of an appendage to her parents' and her husband's literary careers, an extension whose primary function was to cultivate and to guard the reputations of the more illustrious minds that framed her own. Muriel Spark's oft-cited biography Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley reduces the writer's life after the death of her husband--some twenty-nine years, including, as Bennett observes, the "most prolific" period of her career as an author and editor (125) (4)--to a particularly infertile period better rushed through in study, a miserable denouement mercifully ended in 1851 by the writer's slow and painful death from a brain tumor. Richard Holmes' treatment of Mary Shelley's life after her husband's death implies a similar lack of significance, a deadening period of depression, failure, and regret: "She was still obsessed by Shelley's papers, and trapped by memories both idealized and remorseful, her life attained a curious stillness, interrupted only by sea-bathing at Sandgate, increasingly acid correspondence with Claire [Claremont], [Edward John] Trelawny and Jane [Williams], and occasional expeditions to the Continent with [her only surviving child] Percy's undergraduate friends" (732). (5) Holmes' language shrinks the twenty-nine years of Mary Shelley's widowhood to jealous and bitter nothingness, and, intentionally or not, his image of her sole relief--"sea-bathing at Sangate"--charges the widow with repetition compulsion, her baths re-enacting in miniature the very conditions of her husband's untimely demise. Holmes' morbid representation might best be couched in the language of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," in which the twentieth-century poet engages in a series of ritual acts of self-destruction, among them "[praying] to recover you" (14) "[i]n the waters off beautiful Nauset" (13), all in futile attempts to "get back, back, back to you" (59). (6) Such accounts paint a dismal picture, indeed.

Mary Shelley's lengthy career covered much ground, both textually and ideologically, and the roles she assumed proved similarly varied--as an author of fiction and nonfiction, as a reviewer of the works of her contemporaries, as the executor of her father's literary estate, and as the maker of her husband's posthumous reputation. Primarily recognized as the author of the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley is still too often acknowledged "as a result," as Bennett has observed. Even her introduction to the 1831 Standard Authors edition of her most famous novel props up this myth of the silent woman, this image of the author as the plaything of the wills and whims of the greater minds around her. Recalling the circumstances that culminated in the composition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley weaves a pattern of passivity through both the grammatical structure and the descriptions of her relationships to the others present: "'We will each write a ghost story,' said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to" (362); "I busied myself to think of a story.... I thought and pondered--vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. …

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