Hello! It’s been a while. I’ve been very busy, but today I thought I’d take the time to update my blog with what I’ve been doing, and shared an edited version of a talk I gave at Cardiff University in October.
I now work at Cardiff University, delivering lectures and seminars (this term on women writers of the late eighteenth century) to third year undergraduates. I love it and it’s such a friendly, welcoming department.
I still also work at Keats House, where I am assisting in the production and execution of their exciting ‘Keats200’ programme which launches tomorrow. Do come along! A day full of free events awaits (including a talk by me).
But in this post I want to share another talk I did during ‘Frankenweek’ – the week when the international project that is ‘Frankenreads’ took place around the world. Celebrating 200 years of Mary Shelley’s novel around Halloween, hundreds of institutions hosted readings of the novel, and then talks, quizzes, workshops, celebrations, and many other events to mark the occasion.
I was lucky enough to take part in two events. On 31 October itself I was hosting a workshop at Keats House, similar to that which I held at Senate House earlier this year.
A few days prior to Halloween I gave a talk at Cardiff as part of Cardiff BookTalk. I’ve edited the talk and I’m sharing it here in case it is of any interest to readers!
The brief was to respond to the film Mary Shelley (2017 dir. Haifaa al-Mansour). Now, I did not like this biopic – but having the challenge to write and talk about it was interesting. I’ll go straight into the talk here but more information about both events can be found on the K-SAA Blog.
A sneak peak of upcoming blogs…
A talk: Mary Shelley in 2018, reflections on the new biopic
Thou Friend, whose presence on my wintry heart
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among […]
These were lines written by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Shelley. The fact that the ones in the film were actually never directed to her is a shame. But I am starting with these lines as I want to paint a picture about the Shelleys closeness and authorship, regarding Frankenstein, and beyond… how did their works interact? What do we know of their literary relationship?
In my PhD and in my forthcoming book I present a reappraisal of the Shelleys’ writings and original manuscripts, which then reveals Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley as a remarkable literary couple. I argue they were participants in a reciprocal and creative exchange. Hand-written evidence shows Mary adding to Percy’s work in draft and vice-versa. A focus on the Shelleys’ texts – set in the context of their lives and especially their travels – is used to explain how they enabled one another to accomplish a quality of work which they might never have achieved alone.
I talked about the film, and, we all seemed to agree it left much to be desired. I resisted listing the errors within it. The only thing I liked was the depiction of Claire Clairmont and Mary’s friendship, and genuine love for one another. So often we think of those two women at odds. But at least at first they must have been so incredibly close, and, I think they understood one another, in a way that the film shows very successfully.
I suppose my main issue with the film was that there was no evidence of the Shelleys engaging in writing or reading as a shared experience. Not once! There are scenes of them both writing but they are separate all the time. One of the most important critics who has inspired and informed my research, Charles E. Robinson, has described the possibility of the Shelleys being ‘at work on the [Frankenstein] Notebooks at the same time, possibly sitting side by side and using the same pen and ink to draft the novel and at the same time to enter corrections’. We can make these assumptions because we have the manuscripts to look at.
So the point I want to make is that some of these inaccuracies actually hinder what the film I realised by the end was trying to do. It seemed to want to present Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley as two star crossed lovers who were destined for one another. But the way things were presented, it was almost as if writing drove them apart – as if it was literature that could have destroyed their relationship. Quite to the contrary, it was their connection through reading, composition, inspiration, editing, and publishing that was a constant throughout their often troubled experiences as a couple. And they didn’t have a period of separation as such. For all the tragedy, the Mary and Percy were together until Percy Shelley’s fateful death in 1822.
The idea that the Shelleys would argue over authorship is something that in my research I show to be quite untrue. If anything, their communal creativity lent itself to authorship being very fluid. Mary Shelley’s first publication – not Frankenstein, but the travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour – appeared in 1817. This was a collaboration with Percy Shelley (and is missing from the film). In my thesis and my upcoming book I’ve examined the way in which his words find their way into her entries in the volume, and vice-versa. They don’t ‘claim’ ownership but labour together to produce a successful text. In fact, look at this letter by Percy Shelley:
The little volume which you have been quicksighted enough to attribute to its real authors is composed of two letters written to [by] me signed S, & some [two] other letters & the Journal signed M. written by Mrs. Shelley. […] I ought to say that Mrs. Shelley, tho’ sorry that her secret is discovered, is exceedingly delighted to hear that you have derived any amusement from our book. — Let me say in her defence that the Journal of the Six Weeks Tour was written before she was seventeen, & that she has another literary secret which I will in a short time ask you to keep in return for having discovered this.
Look at the words here. ‘Our’ book (this truly was a joint publication and now is presented with both names on the cover): the end of the letter alludes to Frankenstein (a ‘literary secret’), and, Percy is very much involved in the publication and sharing of Mary’s works, just as she was in his.
We have drafts, and fair copies of Frankenstein. Scholars have edited The Frankenstein Notebooks and identified the different hands of Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley, showing a transcript of his alterations to her draft. This can also now be viewed online at The Shelley-Godwin Archive. This resource is totally free to everyone. So, the film’s dramatic license to suggest the book was written in one night actually removes the idea that the drafts were toiled over and altered – by both Shelleys – for months and months.
My research argues that this collaborative exchange continued throughout the years they spent together. Most crucially I suggest that Mary Shelley also contributed to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works – but first, how did the Shelleys collaborate on Frankenstein? Robinson has concluded that ‘[Percy Bysshe Shelley] contributed at least 4,000 to 5,000 words to this 72,000-word novel’, and ‘collaboration seems to be the hallmark of the Shelleys’ literary relationship’. Frankenstein is the ‘most significant’ instance of their collaboration on one text.
If you look at the draft of Frankenstein you can also observe the changes Mary Shelley made to her own writing and ideas. If we take that famous line ‘It was on a dreary night in November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’, this was originally in draft: ‘It was a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed’.
So because Percy Shelley did contribute to Mary Shelley’s novel there has been the notion that Percy ‘patronized’ Mary, imposed himself on her work in an act of patriarchy and didn’t actually improve it (although the subjectivity of that is questionable). However this disregards the gradual movement in academia that has produced a positive change in the way we view the Shelleys’ works, as the product of a collaborative relationship between the two authors.
I hope this year of Frankenstein in 1818 will encourage more people to read Mary Shelley’s other writings as well. As Professor Nora Crook explains – in the Shelley manuscripts there ‘emerges a sense of the Shelleys’ literary careers as a complementary endeavour’. The composition of Frankenstein may well represent a peak in the closeness of their collaboration, but there are many other examples. You can find some details of this in my article in the Keats-Shelley Review.