Shelley Sunday: Shelley’s sisters

Reprinted from Shelley’s Ghost

This miniature shows the longest-lived of Shelley’s sisters, Hellen and Margaret. Margaret (on the right) appears to be wearing the necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair. The sitting was probably arranged by Lady Shelley, who was always keen to bring the various branches of the family together. She engaged the best artist: Sir William Ross was the foremost miniaturist of his day and a favourite of Queen Victoria.

The frame has been inscribed: ‘Helen Shelley / b. 29th Sept 1799 d. 10thMay 1885 / Margaret Shelley / b. 20th Jan 1801 d. 9th Jul 1887. / Sir William Ross R.A.’ Thomas Jefferson Hog refers to it in a letter he wrote to Lady Shelley on 12 December 1857 after meeting Hellen and Margaret Shelley:

They are two charming persons, that is quite certain; worthy in every respect to be the sisters of my incomparable friend! I am so happy to have seen them, & I greatly desire to see them again; to have a good spell of their society. They spoke of you with great esteem & regard, & this alone was enough to procure a favourable impression.

They came rather before twelve, & we were sitting talking so nicely; we agreed exactly in every thing, & they told me many things; but most unfortunately, at half past twelve, that rascal, Hookham, came; I had him shewn into another room, but supposing I was particularly wanted, the ladies were too polite, notwithstanding my assurances to the contrary, to remain more than a quarter of an hour longer; so the little Imp cut six good pages of text out of my book! – There is some thing weird about them; as there ought to be. So tall, so thin, so straight; such little round hands, such little faces, small features, & large, wild, staring eyes, like Bysshe; at once young & old, but rather young, than old! They are fit sisters for a poet & a necromancer. – The miniature is like & unlike; to common apprehensions it is like, but it does not make them look sufficiently like Enchantresses; they do not look in the portrait, as if they were able to turn you into a milk-white kid, & Percy into a statue of black marble, w.chno doubt, they c.d do easily if they pleased.

In the 1860s Sir Percy Shelley took a photograph of Lady Shelley and Helen and Margaret Shelley sitting together at Boscombe. On the back of the photograph he wrote: ‘Miss Shelley (Hellen) very fair, blue eyes, and tall, very slim. Miss Margaret Shelley, deep blue eyes, dark hair, and shorter than her sister,’

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