Debbie sent me to the library today. We’re working on a review of a book about collecting during the Romantic era, and she wanted to use a quote about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s jawbone from the book Letters About Shelley.
Debbie has her own copy of the book with her in Chicago, but she explained in her e-mail to me, “I must have tore out [pages 43-45] to use in some other context, and so I don’t have them!” I cringed as I read the e-mail. Wait, Debbie, I wanted to holler, what context makes you rip pages from old books?
In her e-mail, Debbie sent the call number for the book as well as the author and title, and I walked up the hill to the main library. The book was shelved on the utter sole of the library, in the bottom basement in compact storage; it’s my favorite place in the library. The books in compact storage lay beyond fashionable scholarship—it’s the place I troll for old personal narratives, travel, and geography books. Yesterday, I fetched 120-year old plant descriptions from compact storage.
Letters About Shelley was in one of many compacted aisles of British literature and on one of several shelves of Shelleyana. Our library copy of Letters About Shelley was published in 1917, but the pages to which Debbie had directed me were uncut. The book had been checked-out several times since 1930, and I was surprised at the uncut pages. I checked-out the book from the library, and, when back in my office, I used my Swiss Army Knife. I slit cleanly the margins to separate the pages to make them readable, exposing this quote requested by Debbie: “Trelawny has a piece of Shelley’s jawbone—charred of course—wh. he showed me. Oh that it were mine one day! I wd. imitate ‘the priests of the bloody faith’ and enshrine it.” I’m looking forward to seeing what Debbie does with this paean to Shelleyana.
While I was in compact storage, I grabbed a couple of other things. Rather than simply reading letters about Shelley, I wanted also to read some of Shelley’s letters so I took along Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Elizabeth Hitchener. Richard Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, described Hitchener as “a striking figure, tall, black-haired and dark eyed, self-possessed and remarkably articulate.” One would like to have met her. Shelley was nineteen when he began his correspondence with Hitchener, who was ten years his senior. The correspondence begins with discussions of books and Shelley’s religious antagonism, it progresses to his relationship with Harriet Grove before and after marrying her, but the correspondence is a long seduction of Elizabeth Hitchener. Shelley pulls Hitchener toward his ménage. His letter of 20 November 1811 is impetuous: “Writing is slow, soulless, incommunicative. I long to talk with you. My soul is bursting. Ideas, millions of ideas, are crowding into it: it pants for communion with you.”
I can’t help envisioning a pair of blue jeans as Shelley’s “pants for communion.” Shelley’s bursting pants as much as his soul led, I suspect, his desire for communion, which makes me think more about Mary Godwin than Elizabeth Hitchener.
Shelley refers repeatedly to William Godwin in his letters to Elizabeth Hitchener. Godwin’s writings bewitched Shelley. He was drawn to meet Godwin, but Shelley’s communion was ultimately with Godwin’s daughters. Mary Godwin would become Shelley’s second wife.
Escaping William Godwin’s house with Godwin’s daughters became a Shelley communion goal. They walked to the cemetery. Young Mary Godwin was wooed on cemetery grass at her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. That’s my favorite story about Shelley, and to imagine the graveyard seduction of Mary Godwin before the daffodils that surround her mother’s headstone is better, I think, than owning a piece of Shelley’s charred jawbone.
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The Richard Holmes biography is Shelley: The Pursuit; the description of Elizabeth Hitchener quoted above is from p. 71 of the 1995 Flamingo edition.
The quotation from the Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Elizabeth Hitchener (1908, Bertram Dobell) is from page 91.