Saturday, June 13, 2009

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley

I picked up Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself because I listened to Eleanor Wachtel talk to the author, Ann Wroe. It was slow going and I mentioned to my sweetie that maybe I needed to be more familiar with Shelley's poetry. A few minutes later, she dropped a tiny, tattered book of his work next to me. Moments with Shelley (1907) had belonged to her great-uncle Jack.

The poems made me feel rather off-balance. Heady, old-fashioned language. (" 'T is like a child's belov├Ęd corse / A father watches, till at last / Beauty is like remembrance cast / From time long past.")

Next, I read a teen novel about Shelley's romance and marriage with Mary Shelley: Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett. Much more accessible. Bennett had a lot of exciting stuff to work with.

A proponent of free love, Shelley left his first wife, Harriet, for Mary when she was 16. They ran away to France together... with Mary's stepsister, Claire, who was also 16 and also romantically involved with Shelley. Shelley's first wife was pregnant (possibly with his child) and committed suicide. He was unsuccessful in gaining custody of his two previous children by Harriet because a judge found him immoral. Mary and Shelley had several children who died young (which explains the line I quoted about a father watching a beloved child's dead body) and then Shelley drowned in a boating accident when he was 29.

Probably because it is a teen novel, Bennett left out many of Shelley's additional suspected romantic involvements, even when these people were included in the story, such as Mary's older stepsister, Fanny (who also committed suicide) and Jane Williams. Jane and her husband shared a house in Italy with the Shelleys. In Angelmonster, Mary doesn't finish writing Frankenstein until after Shelley's death, but she actually completed it when she was 18 years old. In the author's note, Bennett acknowledges this discrepancy and I can understand why she structured the novel this way. It does have a powerful ending.

After a few weeks of reading Shelley's poetry before bed, I grew to love it. Being Shelley remained dense, however, and even going back to re-listen to the Wachtel interview didn't help me get through it. I ended up just skimming and stopping to read bits that caught my attention. There was a time in France when Shelley, Mary and Claire walked from Paris to Troyes - a distance of 120 miles - with all of their luggage on a mule. I wish scenes like this had also been included in Angelmonster.

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