Thanks to “pure serendipity“, Crook had chanced upon the largest collection of unpublished letters by the author of Frankenstein to be discovered in decades.
The letters date between 1831, nine years after the death of her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and 1849, when Mary Shelley was already unwell with the brain tumour that would kill her two years later, and show a woman who was skilled in charming favours from friends, bursting with pride in and concern for her teenage son – and not unconcerned with frivolities…
Shelley’s letters were written between 1831 and 1849 to Horace Smith and his daughter Eliza. The friendship between Smith and Shelley had been known before, but the letters show her personality — loyal, grateful and attentive, Crook says, as well as revealing her “charming wheedling side.”
Shelley was the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He died in a boating accident in 1822. The Shelleys had one surviving child, a son who was also named Percy.
“Percy is growing up a very fine young man & developing tastes & talents that would remind you of his father,” she wrote. When he was at Cambridge, she wrote, “he is getting all that we could wish — he is getting very liberal — & has so much character & talent — though still shy — that I have every hope for his future happiness.” Praising his sweet nature, she admits, “I am mortified he is not taller.”
My dearest Percy,
I am so glad to hear that you have been developing your tastes and talents liberally while at school. Pray do not disturb yourself over not having been sent down yet. I remain confident that any son of Percy Shelley will find a way to insult his tutor and find himself rusticated before Michaelmas. Have you remembered to publish atheistic tracts insulting the dons? Be sure to publish atheistic tracts insulting the dons, if you haven’t already. I do hope you have reminded any peers you might find yourself seated next to at dinner that eating the mangled flesh of lambs is a vomitous stain upon the soul of man. I often find myself thinking, in between things like inventing Gothic literature, that any son of Percy Shelley who could make it through a term without reminding the son of a peer that eating the mangled flesh of lambs is a blot on the escutcheon of humanity must be hardly a son of Percy Shelley at all.
Assuming that you are the son of Percy Shelley, of course; the summer of 1818 is mostly an opium haze, and I did take an awful lot of boat rides with Lord Byron that July. You know what can happen on a boat ride with Lord Byron. Ours was a very open marriage, your father’s and mine. Full of Lord Byrons and Gallic highwaymen and what have you. Generous in spirit and liberal-minded in bed. Lord Byron, of course, was a reasonably tall man, so then again maybe it wasn’t him at all. Must have been at least five foot eight, Byron was. Whoever your father is, I remain most lovingly,
P.S. I do hope you are wearing the shoes I sent you (they have lifts in them) [to make you look taller]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.