James Bieri. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography

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James Bieri. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xviii+832. $45.00.

The publication of James Bieri's biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley--initially in two volumes from University of Delaware Press in 2004 and 2005, and now in one volume from The Johns Hopkins University Press (including in paperback)--is a true milestone. It has been a staggering thirty years since the last comprehensive biography of Shelley appeared, Richard Holmes's 1974 Shelley: The Pursuit. While the gap has been filled by the ongoing publication of the indispensible Shelley and His Circle project, as well as by the complete reediting of Shelley's poetry underway by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (two volumes to date), Bieri's exhaustive and painstaking portrait of the poet, reportedly the culmination of decades of travel and research, may tightly be called standard, in the sense that all succeeding biographies of Shelley will both benefit from and be judged against it. It achieves this distinction through its patient and exceedingly thorough marshalling of documentary evidence, as well as through the new light it shines on, and context it provides for, several previously murky and in some cases unknown aspects of Shelley's life.

Bieri devotes the second chapter of the biography to the poet's mother, Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley, and presents the six extant letters written by her along with details of her early life. This is the first appearance of these letters and the richest contextualized portrait we have of Shelley's mother, who obeyed her husband Timothy's wishes not to acknowledge their son for the last third of his life and then for years after his death. Bieri finds her a lively and "feisty" intelligence, a letter-writer "more literate, outspoken, and expressive" than her Oxford-educated MP husband (23). The eldest daughter of Charles Pilfold and Bethia "Theyer" White of Horsham, Sussex, Elizabeth might have possessed a "temper," and she apparently harbored an "underlying anger toward Timothy expressed not only in outbursts but, more subtly, in feelings of disdain and disparagement that her son would have sensed" (26). Bieri's description of Elizabeth's letters and family life is presented along with his suggestion that her influence on her son was substantial, an influence obfuscated by the poet's lifelong and wellknown conflict with his father. Citing Kenneth Neill Cameron as the first to make this argument, Bieri views the maternal influence on Shelley in two ways. First, Bieri posits Shelley's relationship to his mother as the origin of both future poetic imagery and future problems with women: "separation from and felt loss of the mother, the infant's prototypical anxiety experience, may be viewed as leading to subsequent 'falling in love' experiences, acts of restoring the lost maternal figure. If so, Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley remained her son's inner collaborator in his creative life as well as a crucial influence in his troubled relationships with women" (29). (Such psychologizing is a regular interpretive gesture of Bieri's, though it does not intrude or become heavy-handed.) Second, Bieri locates some of Percy's political courage--and all of his literary "genius" (19)--in Elizabeth, who not only stood up in her own way to the "tyrannical" Timothy, but was not afraid to take "socially unpopular stands" for which, her son noted later, she took "abuse" for years" (26).

One of the "socially unpopular" actions of Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley was evidently to welcome into Field Place the illegitimate son of her husband. Bieri is responsible for unearthing the existence of Percy's illegitimate elder half-brother, whose name, birth date, and mother are unknown, but whom Percy felt to be the favorite of their father. It appears likely that the child who became "Captain Shelley"--so indentified to Percy by his friend Horace Smith in a letter of April 1821 after overhearing a conversation in a London coach--lived in, or at least was frequently welcomed into, the Shelleys' home. …