"Bitches, man"

I was walking past the 5th Avenue Public Library when I saw a sign for their temporary exhibit: “Shelley’s Ghost: the Afterlife of a Poet.” Shelley’s posthumous reputation is very interesting to me because to us, he’s such a huge part of the Romantic poetry movement, but his poetry was almost unknown in his own time.

I read once that in England, Shelley was more famous for his atheism than for his poetry, and that in the mid-Victorian years when some Oxford students were getting up an informal debate about his merits, many of their teachers had never heard of him and thought there must be a mistake in the name.

That didn’t turn out to be a focus of the exhibit, though. It was mostly manuscripts and first editions of Shelley and people who knew him. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. But I saw the manuscript of Frankenstein! And two heartbreaking notes Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to Godwin in childbirth, assuring him she would be fine.

Some thoughts:

1. In theatrical posters and reviews of Frankenstein, the Creature was referred to using dashes or dots: “The Role of (***) by So-and-So.”

2. Whoever wrote the placards for the exhibit hated Godwin. Just hated him. Constantly referenced how he asked Shelley for money and criticized him for making some snarky comments about Shelley in a draft of a letter to his daughter which he then cut out of the final version.

If I were Godwin and my married student in his twenties abandoned his pregnant wife to run away with my sixteen-year-old daughter, taking one of my other teenaged daughters with them, I wouldn’t be best pleased either! I mean look, I’m very fond of Shelley myself, but that doesn’t mean no one can criticize his behavior.

3. Placard Writer was really, really indulgent towards both Shelley and Byron, though. The placard on Claire Clairmont read something like this: “Byron had many ardent fans. Claire Clairmont was one of those who seduced him.”

Now, I have no wish to deprive Claire of her sexual agency, and good on her for making the first move if indeed she did, but I think that’s a pretty ballsy statement considering that she was 16 and he was 26. I also think it’s rude and misogynistic to make her sound like a predatory fangirl.

4. In the section about Shelley’s death and Mary Shelley’s journals, P.W. made sure to tell me that maybe Mary Shelley didn’t always treat Shelley right by choosing for the quoted passage: “Oh my beloved Shelley — It is not true that this heart was cold to thee.”

5. P.W. quotes a letter Shelley wrote about Byron, describing it as “prejudiced”:

“He associates with wretches[…]who do not scruple to avow practices, which are not only not named, but I believe seldom even conceived in England.”

I’m pretty sure it didn’t give any more context than that! If I hadn’t already known that it was a homophobic reference and that it originally read “wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait and physiognomy of man” I would have thought maybe Byron was going to BDSM clubs. I can’t help feeling they cut out the really awful part of the remark to make Shelley look better. Or else gayness is just too shocking to be mentioned in a library.

6. Shelley edited Frankenstein before its publication. I would not want my husband editing my work, but I guess they had a really close relationship. Anyway, on the pages on display, he changed “handsome” to “beautiful” and added in that the Creature had “hair of a lustrous black.”

7. His only poem that was available in England during his life was “Queen Mab,” which was passed around by radicals in pirated editions. I’ll have to read it!

8. His family called him by his middle name, “Bysshe,” which (I never realized) was pronounced “Bish.” Yes. Shelley went by “Bish.” So adorkable!

9. The “Life” heading in his Wikipedia entry has the subheadings:

1.1 Education
1.2 Marriage
1.3 Byron
1.4 Two suicides and a second marriage
1.5 Italy
1.6 Death

4 thoughts on “"Bitches, man"”

  1. Yeah, the Norton anthology bio of Byron describes Claire Clairemont as “a misguided seventeen-year-old who had forced herself on Byron,”which seems awfully strong. It also basically says he was forced to marry Annabella Milbanke because he was so distressed by all these ladies perusing him, which, really?

    1. I agree, “forced herself on” is REALLY strong wording. On further reading it does sound like he was depressed and she was insistent, and if he felt taken advantage of that really sucks. BUT the difference in their ages and levels of social power and experience makes it really hard for me to see her as a villain, and the fact that the literary establishment rushed to his defense and to condemn her (and continue to do so) just makes it more uncomfortable.
      Byron is complicated. Obviously he did his share of objectifying women and treating them badly, and was very publicly misogynistic. And he was pretty whiny about his fans who he spent a lot of time and energy encouraging initially. (And he interpreted their interest in him as consistently erotic and aggressive when often they were more interested in his poetry.) But at the same time, he did feel sexually persecuted, and sometimes when people have major body image issues and then have hundreds of sexual encounters and count them, it’s a sign that something is wrong. And I don’t want to deny that experience, you know?

  2. Have you read Daisy Hay’s book Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives? It’s a really fascinating look at their whole social circle, and definitely worth reading. (I have to say, I came out of it not feeling fond of Shelley AT ALL, but that’s partly because I’ve known a few people like him in real life…so I have a raw spot there.)

    1. I haven’t! But I’d like to–my problem with books about them is that I have really strong feelings myself, if that makes sense? I’m so fond of Byron and Shelley but I also have SO many problems with them. So I can’t deal with it when authors obviously dislike them! But I hate it when biographers idealize them! A balanced view that covers their other acquaintances too sounds really appealing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.