15 June, 2007Issue 6.3EuropeLiteraturePoetry

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The Light at the End

Jacob Risinger

Anne Wroe
Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself
Jonathan Cape, 2007
464 pages
ISBN 978-0224080781

Janet Todd
Death and the Maidens:
Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle

Profile Books, 2007
304 pages
ISBN 978-1861979551

Shelley’s biographers seem always to struggle with where to place him in Plato’s infamous cave. Did he soar, skylark-confident, in an ultimate world of ideas and forms, or was he simply stuck in a world of shadows, a bird barred from flight who, like Plato’s poet-philosopher, was always “looking upward and careless of the world below”, loving without knowing exactly what to love? It is a conundrum that looms unmistakably behind the two newest explorations of Percy Shelley and his circle: Anne Wroe’s comprehensive study of Shelley’s interior life, Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself, and Janet Todd’s narrative approach to “one of the first families of Romanticism”, Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle. Working toward a conception of Shelley from two diverging angles, both books are welcome additions to a long line biographies of the poet that have tended toward the idealisation and condemnation of Shelley in fits and starts.

Matthew Arnold famously described Shelley as a “beautiful but ineffectual angel”, an image of Shelley that tends to predominate over his poetry – a Shelley who could criticise Wordsworth’s conservatism and Bryon’s vanity while remaining categorically trapped in his own conceits. In Being Shelley, Wroe reverses the “usual priorities of biographies” in an attempt to understand these conceits, triangulating Shelley’s life “from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature.” While this sort of methodology might sink under the weight of a longer life, Wroe paints a convincing picture of Shelley’s short but significant span while at the same time capturing the mutability and flexibility that he constantly sought. The events of “earthly life” necessarily intrude and are effectively reiterated in Wroe’s biography – Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford and his elopement with Harriet Westbrook in 1811, for example, or the tragic consequences of his second elopement with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her step-sister Claire Clairmont in Switzerland in 1814 – but his internal reactions and responses to the world around him are always privileged over the despotism of specific facts and events. The prompt, of course, lies in Shelley’s own Defence of Poetry (1821): “A story of particular facts is a mirror which distorts and obscures that which should be beautiful.” It is in the dismissal of this factual obscurity that Wroe becomes the poet’s ideal biographer, allowing Shelley and his psychology to speak for itself – and in his own terms.

The form this meticulous and imaginative biography takes is perhaps more classical than romantic, with a central theme – Shelley’s “search for the meaning of life and the truth of his being” – pursued through several distinct variations: earth, water, air, and fire. In this exploration of “steadily rarefying elements”, details stretch from the mundane to the metaphysical. In her discussion of “Earth”, for example, one learns that Shelley “hated earth to sully him”, and that “‘filth’ was almost the strongest word in his lexicon, a spasm of horror.” But layers of detail coalesce into larger claims, allowing Wroe to note that both the corporeal body and earthly society were, for Shelley, culpable – an assertion thoroughly borne out in detailed drafts, scribbles, and dead-ends from Shelley’s notebooks and manuscripts housed in the Bodleian Library.

In reading an earthly link between “political oppression, moral evil and physical degradation”, Wroe demonstrates her thorough assimilation of Shelley’s arsenal of images. And yet the real strength of Being Shelley lies in its emphasis on the surprising fault lines evident in Shelley’s imagination. Wroe writes, for example, of the way death drew Shelley forward, moving him to stand “on the brink of precipices, his inspiration-places” and coolly consider plunging into an annihilation that was at once “the boundary of the life of man” but also his last hope for a place in which he might exist “sincerely inviolably eternally.”

In tracing these thoughts through other variations and elements, Wroe links Shelley’s fascination with mortality to an equally complex attraction to water. Whether puzzling over its molecular fluidity at Eton, sailing paper boats in Sussex, or pondering the strange, inscrutable sea from the Casa Magni in San Terenzo, water was, for Shelley, a “distillation of wisdom” that might slake “a thirst that was spiritual as much as physical in the desert of the world.” But more importantly, in the watery depths he found something strangely immutable, a kind of self-knowledge and understanding “unmoved by surface turbulence” and related to the inviolable, eternal existence he might encounter after death. An amalgamation of such metaphysical impressions leads to Wroe’s subtle intimation that Shelley’s death by drowning in the Bay of Spezia in July 1822 was in a way self-willed and exploratory, a simultaneous abandonment to the elements and bid for self-realization:

His reasoning self insisted that things beyond the grave could not be known. Men could believe, if they cared to, in eternal life; but in belief of that sort, the sort that priests demanded, the will was passive and the intellect suspended… Nothing beyond visible phenomena could be subjected to rational analysis. It was a realm of phantoms and faith. The first he had outgrown, the second he rejected as poison. But looking into water – water running deep and quiet, his own face looking back at him – he sometimes felt he was on the edge of understanding, and leaned down towards an embrace.

At the end of The Triumph of Life” (1822), Shelley’s last, uncompleted poem, he breaks off and asks, quietly and clearly, “Then, what is life?” Being Shelley offers an exhaustive sense of what Shelley’s answer may have been – and in this presumption, perhaps, lies one of the biography’s greatest risks. Shelley himself, as Wroe notes, told John Gisborne that “you might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect any thing human or earthly from me.” In supporting Shelley’s sense of his own ethereal self, Wroe reads the earthly and all too human bits of Shelley’s life as prompts for the poet’s growing self-knowledge and understanding rather than as important in themselves. It is a risky venture, one that Janet Todd works against in Death and the Maidens, her corrective to the ideal of Shelley as an ethereal “son of light”. While both biographies struggle to make sense of Shelley’s vision, Todd looks past Shelley’s own wavering self-assessments to the concrete impact of his life on that of another.

Although a critique of Shelley’s idle idealism is implicit in Death and the Maidens, it is primarily a biography of Fanny Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s half-sister. Fanny, the illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and her American lover Gilbert Imlay, was adopted by William Godwin after Wollstonecraft’s death but left behind by Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Claire when they left London in 1814 to pursue their own version of Godwinian free love on the Continent. Shelley’s first wife Harriet Westbrook would describe Fanny as a girl “very plain, but very sensible”, noting further that the “beauty of her mind fully overbalances the plainness of her countenance.” It is an ambivalent verdict that Godwin, Shelley, and Mrs. Godwin seemed to echo despite the fact that Fanny played a central role in the sordid and sundry dealings between the Godwins and the Shelleys after the elopement had ruined their respectable relations. In the end, Fanny’s continual exclusion from the utopian community that Shelley desperately wanted to create around himself – combined with a long-suffering lack of appreciation from a financially-straitened Godwin and his self-obsessive wife – led to Fanny’s quiet dejection and obscure suicide. An overdose of laudanum in a quiet Swansea inn and a pauper’s grave were illuminated only by a placid and purposeful suicide note from which someone – possibly Shelley, as Todd speculates – had simply torn off her name:

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature existed as…

One notices the way in which Fanny drifts toward the third person in describing herself, a reflection of the sad reality of an ordinary life caught amid what Todd perceives as the nineteenth century’s emerging “cult of genius”. It is thus a tribute to her sympathetic biography that Fanny emerges as perhaps the most conscious of the group, with her na√Øveté and desire to belong yielding a love and affection for Shelley and Godwin that was almost entirely selfless. It is, perhaps, one of the cruellest of Romantic ironies that such a devoted, idealised love was overlooked so carelessly, but for all of Todd’s detailed work and speculation, the exact nature of Fanny’s love for Shelley is ultimately too untraceable and intangible to excite much curiosity:

So there is no clear answer to the question whether Fanny loved Shelley in any straightforward sexual sense – if sex is ever quite straightforward. She was certainly inspired by him, fascinated, and a little overwhelmed. And she responded to him with many of the complex needs of a disrupted life.

Shelly was careless with the lives of those who loved him, but for all of that, attributing Fanny’s suicide to a quiet and unacknowledged love for Shelley seems to reconcile a complex chain of circumstances too simply and succinctly. It might, in some ways, be the natural result of the sparse and unrevealing written remains of Fanny’s life: Todd’s forte, like Wroe’s, is for well-informed extrapolation and speculation. But it must also be said that Todd’s strength and sense of her subject seems to be at its best when navigating amongst Fanny’s relationship to Mary Wollstonecraft (of whom she has written a skilled biography) and the Godwin household. Her perception of Shelley often falls short of his complicated life and imagination.

Death and the Maidens nonetheless remains a revealing illustration of the emotional carnage and grudging attention to conventional propriety that followed behind so much of both Godwin and Shelley’s revolutionary thinking. If Todd’s writing is uninspired at times – she twice describes Paris during the French Revolution as simply “dramatic,” and refers to Percy and Mary Shelley as “literary young people” – her understanding of the Shelley story is both relevant and necessary. In translating Plato’s Symposium Shelley echoed Aristophanes in hoping that love might “heal the divided nature of man,” but it was a hope that had to be borne out in a staid and shadowy world. Todd’s Death and the Maidens illustrates the stumbling block of the shadows, but it is in Wroe’s Being Shelley that the poet’s desire for something more lovely and noble is clear.

Jacob Risinger recently completed an MSt in Nineteenth Century English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford in 2007.