Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles






England's First Family of Writers


Julie Carlson


Balltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 328 pp.  

Hardcover. $52.00. ISBN 978-0-8018-86188


Percy Bysshe Shelley : A Biography


James Bieri


 Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 (2004). xviii + 833pp.

Paperback. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-8018-88618


Reviewed by Rowland Weston

The University of Waikato


Our starting point is the infamous Fénelon Fire Case. In his celebrated anarchist treatise Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) William Godwin declared that should we be given the choice to save from certain death either a member of our family or the celebrated intellectual Archbishop Fénelon, then we should choose the latter as his survival would logically contribute more to public utility than that of our mother or sister. Godwin’s refusal to privilege the claims of domestic affection over those of wider benevolence, along with his critique of the current organization and institution of marriage contributed substantially to the increasing horror with which his views were regarded by the British public. Julie A. Carlson’s exciting and innovative work stresses the ongoing and complex engagement with these issues of Godwin, his first wife Mary Wollstonecraft and their daughter Mary Shelley.

It is, perhaps, Wollstonecraft who, through her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is best remembered as a critic of the existing nature of domestic relations and of the necessity of educational and literary reform in the pursuit of social and sexual amelioration. Yet all three writers variously shared these obsessions: Carlson reveals how England’s first family of writers were also one of England’s most active and insightful writers of family. While Godwin commenced his career with an adamant assertion that domestic attachments undermined the individual’s ability for independent ratiocination and consequently for the procurement of wider political justice, he came to regard family life more favourably by the late 1790s. This occurred not least as a consequence of his association with Wollstonecraft, whose prescriptions for social progress were always predicated upon a radical reordering of extant domestic relations. Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin consistently pursued in their lives as well as in their writings not just the redefinition of the nature of sexual relations but also the enlargement of the range of the family, that is, of the reach of domestic affections. And if Shelley’s optimism about the possibilities for social reform became less sanguine, her literary accomplishments and innovations are for that no less striking. For all three were literary reformers (though all to varying degrees disillusioned with the revolutionary potential of writing): Godwin in history and biography, Wollstonecraft and Shelley in their fictional rejection of the traditional perceptions of, and possibilities available to, women. What Carlson opines about Shelley’s literary philosophy is also applicable to her parents:

...[T]he best chance for altering the misery of reality and the reality of misery is to occupy oneself with writing. Only this activity redresses constraints on reality by revising the forms that inform us [192].

An interest in the power of writing to change the world is, of course, most closely associated with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, though, as Carlson rightly asserts, emphatically prefigured in Godwin’s oeuvre. Attention is drawn to the engagement with the action and effect of literature exhibited by her three protagonists for whom writing and reading were not only engines of public evolution but also constitutive elements of domestic affection. Carlson further points out that the family’s reflections on this topic are rendered especially poignant given their adverse reputations and the effect these had on the public reception of their works. This was to impact directly on Godwin and Shelley’s responses to the death and subsequent remembrance of Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley, and consequently provided occasion for general reflection on the remembrance and memorialisation of the ‘“Illustrious Dead”’ [164].

Carlson explores at welcome and fascinating length Godwin’s undeservedly understudied Essay on Sepulchres (1809), a work which stresses the incalculable ways in which an individual’s life and especially their writings can survive their death and impact upon the world for good. Carlson investigates Mary Shelley’s initial inability (or refusal) to adopt Godwin’s rational, associationist response to grief, or trauma more generally. Shelley asserted grief as a proper human response emphasising the fidelity and truthfulness of one’s attachment to the recently departed. Yet in time, for both Godwin and Shelley, mourning for lost, beloved family members prompted a radical reconsideration of past and future in which progress, utopia, personal identity and even the will to live became tied to the memorialisation or revivification of the dead with whose persons or writings we enjoyed intimacy. For Shelley in particular, the literary process of remembrance, of recomposing the departed’s life and writings, became itself an essential existential act. Viewed thus, Carlson draws welcome attention to publications hitherto regarded as unworthy hackwork, such as Shelley’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835-37) and Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (1838-39), and the voluminous writings for children of all three family members.

England’s First Family of Writers also engages fruitfully and intriguingly with the all too often simplistically construed scholarly dichotomy between reason on the one hand and feeling and imagination on the other. For Carlson, the writings of Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Shelley “enact a dialectic of Enlightenment” [12]. Sentiment is not regarded synonymously with passion, nor is the latter opposed to reason. Imagination and fancy, moreover, are similarly crucial to the reformatory and progressive objectives of all three writers and underpin their generic diversity and literary experimentalism. For Wollstonecraft, fancy provides the insight necessary to locate – and the energy required to pursue – alternatives to current social realities. The complexification of these issues also enables analysis of the vast and generally neglected range of Godwin’s writings. 

And it is perhaps in her examination of the little-known texts Essay on Sepulchres and the late novels Cloudesley (1830) and Deloraine (1833) that Carlson contributes most profoundly to Godwin scholarship. Especially insightful is her reassessment of Godwin’s supposed about-face on the issue of domestic affections. Carlson supplies a much more complex and, ultimately, convincing reading of Godwin’s intellectual development. She shows how he consistently advanced a critique of the dangers of domestic attachments to the maximisation of political justice and public utility and in doing so advocated a Wollstonecraftian collapsing of the public and private spheres. Similarly, much scholarship has tended to regard Shelley’s fiction as a conservative critique of the radical views of her parents and of the unsatisfactory and unusual domestic arrangements in the Godwin, and later, in the Shelley, home. This is to overlook the fact that the normative relations critiqued in the novels are far more unorthodox than any suggested or practised by her parents and spouse. As Carlson reminds us: “Family feeling in her novels is almost always incestuous, usually necrophilic and, in the early days, homoerotic” [93]. Later writings like Lodore (1835) are supposed to evidence to an even greater degree Shelley’s conservative revisionism with their presentation of ‘happily ever after’ married scenarios. Yet as Carlson convincingly demonstrates, Lodore should be read as a sustained examination of the conditions required for a happy marriage rather than as simplistically assuming that a happy marriage is a natural, unproblematic norm. Moreover, Shelley’s later novels radically assert the importance of female friendship as an antidote to the debilitating domestic and literary models traditionally available to women. Always, however, the Shelleyan objective is thus to emphasise the fundamental Godwinian imperative that interpersonal intimacies and obligations enhance rather than frustrate wider social utility. 

The final chapter draws attention to the ‘case of Shelley’: the elevation of Percy Shelley into paradigmatic Romantic, a figure to be assessed ultimately as a poet rather than a person. Carlson asserts that the lionising of critics and the censorship of family – and in particular, the occlusion of his especially eccentric attitudes and behaviours regarding love and family – has tended to obscure the very real achievements of Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley on these topics, not least by focussing attention on the radical tenor of their lives. Explored in blunter prose, the far-sighted and innovative interrogations of love and family of Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley have been sidelined by the lyricism, idealism and obscurity of Percy’s “derivative” [258] investigations.

In his Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Biography James Bieri is rather more certain of the uniqueness and originality of the poet’s artistic and philosophical achievement and of his continued relevance. Bieri modestly proposes that his “own background in clinical psychology and ...long-term interest in literature” [xii], may provide new insights into a topic scrutinised by nearly two centuries of biographers and literary commentators. Few poets’ lives lend themselves so readily to psychoanalysis as does Shelley’s; yet the author’s interventions in this regard are always informed by an intimate knowledge of his archive and a profound, though not uncritical, affection for his subject. While a little new evidence is brought to light – such as letters of the poet’s mother – the achievement of this work is its coherent synthesis of mountains of extant Shelley scholarship into a riveting, psychologically astute and fully historicised biography of England’s pre-eminent radical intellectual and poet.

At the same time as he insists on Shelley’s originality, Bieri readily acknowledges the influence of (especially) female intimates, including his sisters in whose company he developed his strong affinity for social justice and women’s rights. We learn that this aversion to inequality and tyranny was further compounded from the age of ten by Shelley’s experience of the English public school system wherein his intelligence, sensibility and general lack of athleticism continued to mark him out as a ready subject of persecution and torment. One derives, then, an appreciation of an acutely intellectual sensibility formed in response to a variety of childhood social encounters as much as in response to voracious and wide-ranging reading habits. There is, admittedly, less stress on the creative and philosophical impact of central figures from the poet’s mature life, such as William and Mary Godwin. The author prefers rather to focus on Shelley’s ambiguous and competitive relationship with Byron, a relationship undermined by Byron’s rejection of Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, his seemingly effortless poetic success and his relative political disengagement. 

A portrait emerges of an unbalanced, hyper-sensitive young man whose idealistic and philosophical cast of mind abetted rather than tempered his emotional volatility and fragility. As Bieri demonstrates, Shelley’s inevitably disastrous serial infatuations were borne of his proclivity to imbue women with divine qualities and consequently, necessarily, to become disillusioned and disappointed. Ultimately, perhaps, this idealised love was profoundly narcissistic, as Shelley himself indicated in poems like Alastor and Epipsychidion and in prose works such as his essay On Love. There also seems a realisation – at least in Alastor – that this fundamental narcissism precluded the positive, intimate relations Shelley perennially sought but failed to achieve. Certainly, in defining love as “‘that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves’” [410], Shelley exhibits a conception of love with affinities to the sublime and ideal so extreme as to undermine any possibility of enjoying enduring quotidian human affection. Yet if Shelley could be occasionally blind to his own intellectual and moral shortcomings (or perhaps powerless to combat them), he was adept at recognising them in others. Prior to his own poetic elaboration of the narcissistic, epipsychic conception of love noted above, he was perceptive enough to diagnose it in James Hogg’s infatuation for his sister Elizabeth. Shelley’s perspicacity therein underlines, for Bieri, his “projection” of his own complicated feelings for Elizabeth onto his friend [150]. In foregrounding and exploring these psychological reflexes, Bieri productively enhances the reader’s sense of the extent to which these romantic obsessions and entanglements infiltrated Shelley’s poetry.

Again and again, Bieri’s narrative alights upon the abiding theme of his subject’s constant, often reactive, motion. Chapter titles include: “Exiled to Education”; “Icarus at Oxford”; “Elopement and Betrayal”; “The Irish Expedition”; Wandering Reformer”; “‘Paradise of exiles, Italy’”; “Drawn to the Sea”. The work foregrounds Shelley’s definitively peripatetic existence. Wrenched at an early age from the stasis and security of a rural childhood in which the future poet was unreservedly adored by four younger sisters, we follow Shelley to school at Syon House, Eton and Oxford and then on across Britain and Europe. Ever driven, never resting, whether expelled from university for atheism, eloping, on the run from creditors or in search of the warmer weather which invariably fed his poetic creativity, in all Shelley’s activity Bieri discerns a sense in which his subject, though not without agency, is driven by implacable and uncontrollable necessities. Bieri’s Shelley is the victim both of unjust, patriarchal ancien régime England and of his own sensitive, passionate and idealistic nature. Motion is, of course, a key trope in Shelley’s poetry, expressing and instantiating his turbulent emotional and social life and prefiguring, as some psychologically-minded scholars – though not Bieri – have suggested, his premature demise. Though constantly illuminated by psychological insight Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Biography rightly eschews such mystical conjectures and is thankfully devoid of the simplistic psychological reductionism to which lesser scholars might have been tempted. More qualified than most to pronounce upon Shelley’s psychological makeup, Bieri insists that the poet’s “complex personality structure negates any simple diagnostic formulation” [636].

This is a work sure to become an indispensable resource for the next generation of Shelley scholars. We are provided with an immensely detailed and yet never dull account of the fraught and endlessly fascinating life of this archetypical Romantic poet. Bieri goes to great lengths untangling Shelley’s complex financial dealings, occasions often as fruitful as his poetry in providing insights into the poet’s character and philosophy. Family looms large in Bieri’s account as it does in Carlson’s, though Bieri’s Shelley benefits from his starring role in contrast to his shadowy, slightly ominous presence in England’s First Family of Writers. Bieri reminds us both of Shelley’s great generosity and compassion for the wider public and his less laudable moral failings with his intimates. Yet these acknowledged shortcomings and eccentricities are always balanced with examples of Shelley’s practical (and often anonymous) compassion for his family, such as his efforts in behalf of Allegra, Byron’s daughter by Claire Clairmont. Shelley’s generosity to Godwin is a matter of literary historical record, but Bieri alerts us to Shelley’s continued financial support of Godwin even during periods in which the philosopher refused to acknowledge or speak to his son-in-law. Bieri’s Shelley endears himself as a man who loved generously, spontaneously and carelessly. A practical, though not always pragmatic, champion of Godwinian universal benevolence, Shelley was devoted to the amelioration of humanity. The public returned Shelley’s ardour with indifference to his poetry and abhorrence for his philosophy and life-choices. If Mary Shelley’s careful editing of the poet’s life and writings began a hagiographic celebration of Percy as England’s pre-eminent lyrical poet, Bieri’s sympathetic, yet scholarly and even-handed account contributes significantly to our appreciation that Shelley’s flawed, fragile and complex humanity was integral to his undoubted intellectual and artistic gifts.






Cercles © 2010
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.