Anti-Social Sociability: Mary Shelley and the Posthumous "Pisa Gang"

By Sheridan, Claire | Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Anti-Social Sociability: Mary Shelley and the Posthumous "Pisa Gang"


Sheridan, Claire, Studies in Romanticism


THIS ARTICLE DRAWS ON RECENT CRITICISM OF ROMANTIC BIOGRAPHY, AS well as scholarly attention to Romantic sociability and Romantic afterlives, to revise our understanding of how Percy Shelley's literary reputation was shaped and preserved by his friends immediately after his death.

Julian North's 2009 book on biography in the Romantic period, The Domestication of Genius, makes a crucial reassessment of the role of biography in our understanding of the Romantic poets. (1) In her discussion of Mary Shelley, North is especially attentive to Shelley's affinity, developed in the biographies she wrote for Dionysius Lardner in Lives of Eminent Men, with the radical implications of biography as exemplified in Lives by William Godwin and Mary Hays. Nevertheless, North's chapter on Mary Shelley also elides Mary's complex relationship with solitude. This elision is a consequence of North's argument that Mary Shelley's biographical persona is a sociable and feminine one, in contradistinction to Percy Shelley as an unsociable, masculine subject. While North characterizes Mary Shelley as being sociable in her role of posthumous, eyewitness biographer, I am struck by Mary's paradoxical claims for solitude, of having outlived the sociability of coterie, of being last.

What I aim to do in this essay is consider Mary Shelley's commemorative work in relation to the contending memorializing activities of her friends and acquaintances. Previous interpretations of Mary Shelley as biographer have yet to do this. The critical point has still not been made explicitly that the content of the various "eyewitness" memoirs of Percy Shelley is mutually determined. (2) Not only do claims for authority in certain memoirs relate directly to similar claims in others, but the whole tone of some of these biographical works is related to behind-the-scenes tugs-of-war over the issue of who has the right to write about the shared past. This level of personal competition frequently results in claims to be the last of the coterie, claims that are a denial of the past as a shared one. Assertions of a unique status occur simultaneously with other identical assertions.

The "Pisa gang"

In 1873, Edward John Trelawny, the Byronic "adventurer" who had been one of the Shelleys' close associates in Italy in 1821-22, wrote to Claire Clairmont: "Jane and you and I are the last of the Pisa gang." (3) The word "gang," suggesting a roguish element to the group he is identifying in retrospect, is a choice typical of Trelawny, whose celebrity was based on his piratical pretensions. "Gang" is also an appropriate denomination for some elements of the network that pertained at Pisa from January 1820, which encompassed Byron's "Pistol Club," (4) and members of the revolutionary Carbonari, who were resisting Austrian rule in Italy. But the "gang" at Pisa can also be characterized in other ways. Betty T. Bennett has described "an international circle of British, Greek, and Italian friends." (5) In addition to the Shelleys, Byron, and Trelawny, this included, at various times, Claire Clairmont, Byron's Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli, her father and brother (the Gambas), Percy Shelley's cousin Thomas Medwin, his friends Jane and Edward Williams, the Greek Alexandros Mavrocordatos, the improvvisatore Tommasso Sgricci, Lady Mountcashell (a disciple of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mountcashell's former governess), and just before Percy Shelley's death, Leigh Hunt and his family. Hunt had arrived at the instigation of Shelley and Byron, with the idea of setting up The Liberal.

Maria Schoina has pointed out that "opinions divide as to who were the 'rightful' members of the Shelleys' circle" in Pisa. Schoina also suggests that a group of the sort to be found at Pisa with the Shelleys is "controversial because the kind of project this highly heterogeneous group of expatriates and natives embodied still remains largely undefined, complex and equivocal. …

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Anti-Social Sociability: Mary Shelley and the Posthumous "Pisa Gang"
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