Percy Bysshe Shelley, Exile of Unfulfilled Renown

By Gilmour, Ian | The Byron Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Exile of Unfulfilled Renown


Gilmour, Ian, The Byron Journal


PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, EXILE OF UNFULFILLED RENOWN. By James Bieri. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. Pp. 441. ISBN 0 87413 893 0. £45.95.

For many years James Bieri taught clinical psychology, not English literature, in a number of distinguished American universities, but this is not his first excursion into Shelleyan studies. Fifteen years ago he revealed that Shelley's father, Timothy, for all his pious horror at his son's transgressions, had himself produced an illegitimate child; consequently P. B. Shelley had an older half-brother. In addition, there is a previous volume to Bieri's biography. This book's abrupt beginning, without introduction of the main characters or their circumstances, may lead some readers to suspect as much despite, apart from one inadequate sentence in the blurb, there being no mention of it by either author or publisher. Evidently both assume that any reader of the book will have read its predecessor, though many potential readers may, like this reviewer, have been unaware that it had one.

As usual with the Delaware press, the book has a handsome look and feel to it, but its appearance is rather spoiled by the subtitle being printed, both on the cover and the spine of the book, as 'Exile of Unfulfilled Reknown' instead of 'Exile of Unfulfilled Renown'. Also, the reader would have been helped by the inclusion of a list of abbreviations, all the more so as the bibliography is far from straightforward.

Much more important than these minor complaints, Bieri's biography is careful and scholarly, and contains a mass of information; if anything, indeed, sometimes too much, making the book seem more like a chronicle than a biography. For instance: 'At five in the morning of March 11, Shelley, Mary, Claire, Elise, Milly, William, Clara, and Allegra departed for Dover. Shelley, owing Charters over 500 pounds, had another coachmaker repair his carriage. Shelley wrote his banker from Dover to honor what he owed Peacock, Godwin, Ollier, and the agent for Albion House, a total of 327 pounds.'

Nevertheless such passages are rare. There may be few frills in Bieri's prose, but he has produced a well-written and absorbing narrative. The years 1816-1822 saw, of course, the creation of all Shelley's greatest poetry, and Bieri particularly excels at illuminating Shelley's life by his poetry and vice versa.

The book begins in late 1816, which was a sad time for Shelley and Mary Godwin. In October, Mary's half-sister, the plain and downtrodden Fanny Godwin, killed herself at Swansea. Shelley and Mary could not help thinking that, if they had been more hospitable to her, she would almost certainly have still been alive. Then some two months later the body of Shelley's wife, Harriet, was fished out of the Serpentine. Shelley initially took the line that Harriet's family, the Westbrooks, whom he described as abhorrent and unnatural, were the culprits; he called Harriet's sister, Eliza, a 'viper' and alleged that she had murdered Harriet to get her father's money. Maintaining that he and Mary were wholly without blame, he claimed everybody gave him credit for 'the uprightness and liberality' of his conduct to Harriet. That was not, perhaps, the most accurate description of someone who, having eloped with a sixteen-year-old girl, then deserted her, although she had borne him one child and was carrying another, in order to run off to France with the sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin, who was accompanied by yet another sixteen-year-old, Claire Clairmont, also a member of the Godwin household. Before Harriet's death, of course, Shelley had no prospect of being able to marry Mary Godwin.

Doubtless it was Shelley's attempt to cover up his own shattering guilt which drove him to make his protestations of complete innocence and to level his strident denunciations against the Westbrooks. Mary, who, having been misinformed by Shelley, initially blamed Harriet, much later wrote in her journal: 'Poor Harriet, to whose sad fate I attributed so many of my own sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death'. …

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