Julian Roach studied English at Oxford before becoming a television scriptwriter, in which position he worked on everything from soaps (he wrote 267 episodes of Coronation Street) to comedies. In Shelley’s Boat he returns to 1822 and Shelley’s final summer, spent on the Golfo di Spezia, and describes the events up to and beyond the poet’s death.
“You’d be hard pushed to come up with any list of books about Shelley that didn’t have Richard Holmes’s biography sitting on top of it. That apart, there is no significance in the titles’ order. As anyone would, I have tried to pick 10 books that give, through their variety, a rounded understanding of Shelley’s thought and works, the flavour of the world he lived in and the complicated nature of the man. If I have landed on the coast of lit-crit only as a raider, leaving the jungle of the interior well alone, it’s because of an allergic response to books with a colon in the middle of the title. The Cain-mark of academe, it usually threatens the minute examination, at great length, of immaterial evidence about something or the other not very important, in language few can understand and noone could enjoy. Whatever a writer has to say, it’s his or her job to make it easy for me to understand. Even that’s not enough. They have to make me enjoy it. Otherwise it goes straight out of the hammock.”
1. Shelley: The Pursuit, by Richard Holmes
Thirty years and more now since the last definitive, indispensable – and so forth – biography of Shelley appeared. In the ordinary succession of things, you’d expect a big new book from someone, somewhere, would by now have been brought to market with much trumpeting as the new definitive, indispensible and so forth bees-knees job. Don’t go down to Waterstone’s with the sleeping bag to wait for it: Richard Holmes is likely to be the only serious claimant to the title for at least as long again as he has been already. The acknowledged legislator. His colon may be entirely ignored.
2. Mary Shelley, by Miranda Seymour
You could hold a grudge against the publishing house of John Murray. Murray was Byron’s publisher, and it was in the fireplace of his Albemarle Street office that Murray and Thomas Moore burned the manuscript of Byron’s too-shocking memoirs, so denying them to scholarship, posterity and, more importantly, to lascivious readers such as you and me. Had they not struck the match, The Memoirs of Lord Byron would probably be in this top 10. The publisher has since made up for it a bit, however, with Peter Quennell’s vast edition of Byron’s Letters and Diaries, and earned a little more remission with Miranda Seymour’s big, thorough and readable biography of Mary, which also carries the ‘indispensable’ rosette. Mary was not just any old wife, after all: with her devotional editing of Shelley’s works and refashioning of his public image in the decades after his death, she was his midwife too.
3. Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, by Edward Trelawny
Trelawny was not a man who went in for the due diligence of authorship. A broad brush and plenty of imagination were his tools, but he was acute and he was there: an actor with a brief but luminous role in the last act of each poet’s extraordinary drama. Mary was smitten with him the minute he walked in and his direct one-to-one style (in addition to his good looks) gives you a clue as to why. Reading him is so like hearing the old spell-binder talking to you, you’d think he’d written his Recollections for radio. The magic is that he makes the rest of the circle audible, too, as well as readable. If happen to pick up his Records of Shelley, Byron and The Author instead, no matter. Put it in the basket. He recycled his material many times so, as the book-clubs say, these two count as one.
4. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H Reiman and Sharon Powers
Shelley-the-republican might have liked to know that the best single-volume collection of his work is not English but American (although someone might have to break it to him that the US has become a semi-theocratic plutocracy, opposed with all its might to everything he thought a republic stood for). The densely annotated ‘critical edition’ comes with no fewer than 23 essays – a terrifying fusillade of colons here – mostly by American academics. Reading them is not compulsory, but a skim gives you an idea of what the drums are beating out in the interior these days. If you really need to follow the life cycle of every colon through every manuscript and revision, you’ll need the multi-volume Norton edition by the tireless Reiman and Neil Freistat. For something less body-building, try the Oxford World Classics paperback.
5. Red Shelley, by Paul Foot.
A bare 30-odd years after his death, Shelley was carved in marble – as a dead spit of the dead Christ, draped across the lap of one grieving Mary impersonating another, in the Baptistry of Christchurch in Dorset, one of the grandest parish churches in all England. Not bad going for the man who wrote ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, and got himself kicked out of Oxford for it. But he’s long been back in his old college, too, re-matriculated for all eternity, white and dreamily dead in Carrara marble from the very hills that looked upon his funeral pyre.
Luckily, there’s no longer a shortage of published work devoted to reminding us that Shelley was not a pillar of the church and the ruling elite, but a revolutionary enemy of both. Unluckily, too much of this is written by Marxist academics in the complicated form of Pidgin-English imposed by the collective. Paul Foot’s is an admirable exception. He’s sensibly untroubled by Shelley’s inconsistencies in revolutionary theory and Marxist analysis. Perhaps he remembered that Shelley died 26 years before the Communist Manifesto saw the light of day.
6. A Philosophical View of Reform, by PB Shelley
By Shelley, not about him, but has to be on this list because until lately it couldn’t have been on any list. Shelley began it in 1819 in a great fit of anger after the Peterloo massacre, and it is all the more remarkable for being, really, not much beyond a first draft. When Shelley’s friend Leigh Hunt declined the privilege of the certain jail sentence he’d have earned by publishing it, a disheartened Shelley put it aside.
His dispirited idea that it would never find a publisher turned out to be too gloomy. A mere 170 years later it was published, along with his revolutionary songs, by Redwords. It is now out of print, but Redwords keep saying they’ll reprint it. I put in on this list so that you can chivvy them. Paul Foot, not surprisingly, supplies the concise introduction on which you should stick a post-it note saying ‘crib essay’ if you’re doing Shelley for A level (or even if you’re not).
7. The Making of The English Working Class, by EP Thompson
It was the worst of times. In Castlereagh’s England, to be poor – and almost everybody was – was to understand one great dismal economic truth: you could work yourself to death and earn enough to be merely hungry, or be thrown out of work and starve directly instead. To protest was treason, earning the lash, the Yeoman’s sabre, transportation or the gallows.
Shelley’s response was not only an angry call for radical change but also a profound insight into the economic and political machinery of injustice. As Shelley wrote, “a genius does not invent, he perceives.” Thompson’s eye-line and Shelley’s are the same, and this great dissection of England’s diseased body politic during, almost exactly, the years of Shelley’s life, is the soundest basis available for understanding what made Shelley think like Shelley.
8. Memoirs of Shelley, by Thomas Love Peacock
A small book – even when amplified by a collection of letters from PBS to Peacock – and easy to read, these Memoirs, like Macaulay’s essays, were first published as reviews of the works of others. There is now little point in wading through the turgid prose of Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s Life of Shelley, which makes Shelley too ridiculous, and no point at all in picking up the Memorial, by Richard Garnett (the hired pen of Lady Shelley, née St John), which tries to make him too respectable.
Hogg’s sometimes sneery tone may have been brought on by Peacock’s own satire of his friend and former drop-in neighbour in Nightmare Abbey, a joke that Shelley enjoyed – but Peacock had wit, style, a light touch and, unlike Hogg, not an atom of envy. Peacock had a sense of justice, too, and it shows in his defence of Shelley’s abandoned first wife. Though his forensic correction of Garnett’s malicious account of her does not reflect well on Shelley, he will not see the Harriet he knew well sacrificed to Lady Shelley’s squeamish snobbery. You have to like the man. You have to like his open, readable English. It’s hard to believe that Hogg and Peacock were writing in the same century, let alone the same decade.
9. Shelley’s Mythmaking, by Harold Bloom
Time to get serious. Bloom does lit-crit and no mistake, but the language he does it in is (usually) transparent. Here, in a number of essays, he subjects the half-dozen or so core works to a close reading, and nobody brings a better range of lenses to the microscope than Bloom. His awareness of Hebrew scolarship, for instance, is brought to bear usefully on the Ode to the West Wind – and therefore Shelley’s whole conception of himself and his work – by clarifying just what a prophet is and isn’t. Elsewhere, however, he points out a deep parallel between the Ode and the Biblical Song of Deborah. Must be my glasses: I can’t see it for the life of me. Still, this essay is especially enjoyable for its deadly swatting of FR Leavis, who allowed his prejudices to make a stupid man of him when reading Shelley.
10: The Flight of The Skylark, by Sylva Norman
This is unusual, as biographies go, in starting at the death of its subject and going on, rather than back, from there. It’s not a biography of Shelley, though; it’s the biography of his reputation, and as immortal fame is a posthumous affair, it seems a reasonable way to go. Published half a century ago, it no longer quite tells the whole story, but it’s a good account of how Percy was shifted in the public mind from anathema to angel and from revolutionary to rhapsodiser. Bloom shows how Shelley set about the creation of new myths; Sylva Norman (who was for a while married to another Shelley biographer, Edmund Blunden) traces the ways in which those whose lives Shelley touched were fated to spend their days creating another new myth, called Shelley.
Bonus 11: The New Glenans Sailing Manual
It may not have much to say on Shelley, but had it only been available, this is the book I would have recommended to Shelley – and especially to his drowning companion and self-appointed skipper, Edward Ellerker Williams. Every aspect of sailing lore, science and skill from the great French sailing school, in excellent translation by James McGibbon. Much more useful aboard than that volume of Sophocles or a borrowed copy of Hyperion.