Lia Guerra (Università di Pavia)
Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy
Mary Shelley wrote the largest amount of literary biography at a time when the British reading public was particu-
larly eager for this genre. This essay seeks to clarify the context of Shelley’s entrance into the biographical genre,
and examines her own approach to biography by looking at her lives of contemporary Italian authors written for
Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia and, more precisely, her ‘Life of Foscolo’, the sources of which will be recon-
sidered. As convincingly demonstrated by Jean de Palacio, Mary Shelley’s involvement with history and bio-
graphy – directly via Godwin, and indirectly via Johnson – was a very early one. She came to consider bio-
graphical writing as a way of investigating history and producing a new philosophy of history through private
stories. As a result, her contributions to Lardner’s Cabinet were not merely conventional ‘lives’, but also the re-
cords of the authors’ intimate experiences in their strong connections with specific environments. Shelley carefully
reconstructed social and domestic relationships, and, through the simple procedure of foregrounding relevant
issues, provided commentary on specific ‘political’ topics. Thus, she successfully deployed forms of participation,
sympathy, and involvement in the public sphere without excessively exposing herself, because the publication was
anonymous and also because she wrote about someone else’s experiences. Finally, the essay considers her ‘Life of
Foscolo’ as the site of a series of comments that Mary Shelley will later reprise and re-elaborate in the political
reflections offered by her 1844 Rambles in Germany and Italy.
The period when Mary Shelley produced her major contributions to literary biography corresponds to a phase in British literature characterized by an ‘unusual appetite’ for the genre – as testified, for instance, by the success of the subscription family libraries, which had begun in the early part of the nineteenth century to become a major publishing enterprise by 1838.1
My purpose here is twofold: first of all I would like to set the stage for Mary Shelley’s entrance into this genre by considering the cultural milieu of the early nineteenth century. Afterwards, I intend to examine her treatment of biographies of contemporary Italian authors, concentrating in particular on her contributions to Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835), composed for the third volume of Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet of Biography – and more specifically on her life of Ugo Foscolo – in order to reconsider her sources and their impact on her work.
Many factors contributed to the popularity of literary biography in Romantic-period Britain, starting with the consolidation of the paid profession of ‘literary journalism’ in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The profession itself had begun to emerge in the
1 See Joseph W. Reed, English Biography in the Early Nineteenth Century 1801–1838 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 25.