The Lost Shelley Story Is No Literary Gem; Maurice or the Fisher's Cot. by Mary Shelley. Introduction by Claire Tomalin (Viking Hardback, Pounds 9.99). Reviewed by Monica Foot

Article excerpt

Last year, The Times, in an exclusive heading, announced: "Mary Shelley's lost children's story found in Italian palazzo".

The document, fully authenticated by Claire Tomalin, biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's mother, and Catherine Payling, curator of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, is a slender effort and is here printed twice. Twenty-nine pages lo ng the first time round, this is a corrected version, "slightly modernised for ease of reading."

The second version shows Mary Shelley's original "lineation, pagination, spelling, punctuation, corrections and emendations; only the old double 's' has been modernised. The manuscript has been re-set line for line, with vertical rules indicating the ori ginal page breaks."

So far, so pretty boring all in all, especially as Maurice itself is a rather pious tale of a lost boy who has been stolen in infancy from noble parents, to whom he is returned at last after an exemplary childhood spent revering an ancient fisherman.

William Godwin was probably right to turn it down for publication at the time. However, in acting as a springboard for a masterly introduction by Claire Tomalin, who is incapable of writing a boring or pious word, Maurice serves us well.

In a dazzling work of learning, Mrs Tomalin guides us through the historical, literary and biographical background surrounding both the work itself and its discovery in a "small Tuscan town in the Apennine hills, above Pistoia": San Marcello Pistoiese.

Her own story of modest literary detection is told with wit and verve: "Returning from a week's holiday in early November 1997, I found in the long loop of faxes delivered during my absence one from Italy. It was handwritten and the signature at the end meant nothing to me - Christina Dazzi."

Mrs Tomalin has been working on the lives of the Shelley family and publishing a range of work about them for a quarter of a century now and was certainly perfectly placed to set this modest children's tale in its context. …