Enfilade

Searching for Shelley’s Ghost on Shelley’s Birthday

Posted in anniversaries, on site by Editor on August 4, 2011

The storied poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was born on this day in 1792. This exhibition helps explain how some of those stories were framed by his grieving wife in the wake of his death. From Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum:

Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family
Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery, Grasmere, Cumbria, 7 July — 30 October 2011

Curated by Stephen Hebron

ISBN: 9781851243396, $35

Few families have such a remarkable reputation for their contribution to the literary and intellectual life of Britain as the Godwins and the Shelleys. In the course of their lives, each of the important writers in these families accumulated an archive of letters, notebooks and literary papers. After their death, surviving family members pored over this material, publishing some records and withholding others in an attempt to control that reputation.

Now, parts of this archive material are being brought together for display from two great Shelley collections – the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the New York Public Library, home of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and his Circle. Shelley’s Ghost will open in the Wordsworth Museum on 7 July 2011, and show until 31 October. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the real lives of three generations of a family that was blessed with genius, marred by tragedy, and often surrounded by scandal. It begins with the relationship between Wordsworth’s radical friend William Godwin and the feminist campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft; it goes on to cover their daughter Mary’s elopement and subsequent relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose expulsion from Oxford for the publication of The Necessity of Atheism and elopement four months later with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook had already caused notoriety; and it concludes with the roles played by the Shelleys’ only surviving child, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley, as the guardians of the family papers.

A central theme of the exhibition is the effort made by the grieving Mary Shelley in 1822, immediately after Shelley drowned aged 29 in the Bay of Lerici, to collect and edit his work and create a compelling image of his character. Shelley expected posterity to judge him as a poet: the court, he said, was ‘a very severe one’, and he feared the verdict would be ‘guilty death’. Sir Percy and Lady Shelley went on to house the family manuscripts in a special ‘Shelley Sanctum’ alongside treasured family relics such as portraits, personal possessions and locks of hair. For years they guarded them closely, seeking to protect the images of Shelley and Mary that we see in the portraits: smiling, ethereal, other worldly. Much of this archive remained intact when it was gifted to the Bodleian in 1893, as a collection which now enables us to see the dramas of these years preserved in private letters and journals, written in times of great stress and recording the most painful emotions. The exhibition will therefore show how the deliberately selective release of the manuscripts on display, which have been the basis of many biographies, has shaped public knowledge of this great literary family. The exhibition will also include rare books and family possessions, the first draft of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the best-known portrait of Shelley, painted in Rome by the amateur artist Amelia Curran in 1819.

The exhibition’s interactive website is available here»

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About Dove Cottage:

Dove Cottage was the home of William Wordsworth from December 1799 to May 1808, the years of his supreme work as a poet. As with many old buildings, the early history of Dove Cottage is difficult to trace accurately; although the date of its construction is not recorded, this is likely to have been during the early 17th century. Its original use is also unknown, but during the second half of the 18th century it became an inn called the Dove and Olive. Many of the building’s distinctive features date from this time; its white-washed walls, flagstone floors and dark, wood panelling. However, in the early 1790s, the Dove Cottage was closed down. It seems likely that the building remained empty for the next few years, until William and Dorothy Wordsworth arrived as tenants on 20th December 1799.

In the building’s time as a pub, the downstairs bedroom would have been used as a drinking room, but for the Wordsworths, it was always used as a bedroom. Initially this is where Dorothy slept and it would have been here that she wrote much of her ‘Grasmere Journals’. In the summer of 1802 this became William’s bedroom in preparation for his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in October. The washstand displayed in this room belonged to William and Mary and is a rare example of a double washstand.

When William and Dorothy arrived they decided to use the upstairs bedroom as their sitting room. Without the dark panelling of the rooms downstairs, this room was naturally brighter making it a much better place for reading, writing and entertaining guests which included Sir Walter Scott in 1805, Thomas deQuincey in 1807, and their most frequent visitor and close friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There was also the advantage of the view. In their time there were no buildings on the opposite side of the lane, (which was then the main road through the Lake District), giving them an uninterrupted view of Grasmere lake and much of the valley.

The Wordsworths were succeeded at the cottage by their young friend Thomas de Quincey, later famous for writing The Confessions of an English Opium Eater. From 1836 there was a varied succession of tenants until 1890, when a trust, formed by the Reverend Stopford Brooke (1832-1916), bought the cottage and opened it to the public a year later. Explaining the aims and ideals of the first board of trustees, responsible for opening Dove Cottage to the public, Stopford Brooke wrote, in 1890:
There is no place, … which has so many thoughts and memories as this belonging to our poetry; none at least in which they are so closely bound up with the poet and the poems … In every part of this little place [Wordsworth] has walked with his sister and wife or talked with Coleridge. And it is almost untouched. Why should we not try and secure it, … for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world.

Today, about 70,000 people visit Dove Cottage, a Grade 1 listed building, every year. All visitors are offered a guided tour, telling the story of the house and family. Many of the Wordsworth’s household items: furniture, family possessions and portraits are displayed. The garden (open, weather permitting), Wordsworth’s ‘domestic slip of mountain’, has been restored to the half wild state that he and Dorothy lovingly created from local plants and materials.

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