Shelley Sunday: Our Debt to Mary

Unfortunately, a lot of people underestimate Mary Shelley’s immense contribution to the world, not only in her authorship and creation of the science-fiction and horror genres, but also in her unrelenting devotion to making Percy Shelley’s writing known to the public at large. Without Mary and her meticulously edited editions of P.B.S.’s work, we certainly wouldn’t have the bulk of Shelley’s writing at all. Shelley would have tragically faded away into complete obscurity. Mary Shelley is one of the most important figures in all of literature and I certainly hope she soon begins to receive the recognition she deserves.

“Mary Shelley gathered together all the manuscripts of Shelley she could find. She was determined that the poet’s name should be better known, and in 1824 published his Posthumous Poems. She intended to follow this with an edition of his prose, but Sir Timothy Shelley threatened to withdraw her allowance if she did so. He wanted an end to the notoriety his son had attached to the family name, and demanded that no further editions, nor any account of Shelley’s life, be published.

It was not until the late 1830s that Sir Timothy, then approaching ninety, finally relented. In December 1838 Mary agreed to sell the copyright of Shelley’s writings to the publisher Edward Moxon, and to edit the poems. In 1839 she produced a four-volume edition of Shelley’s poetry, with long biographical introductions. Her two-volume edition of his prose was published the following year.

The completion of these editions was an heroic achievement. The work was emotionally demanding, and the manuscripts themselves were a huge challenge. Mary told Moxon, ‘you cannot imagine how confusing & tantalizing is the turning over Manuscript books – full of scraps of finished or unfinished poems – half illegible’. She compared the work to cracking a code: ‘The M.S. … consisted of fragments of paper which in the hands of an indifferent person would never have been deciphered – the labour of putting it together was immense.’ – From the Bodleian’s Shelley’s Ghost

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