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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: Anna Mercer on the Shelleys’ Collaborative Literary Relationship

Anna Mercer is a Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.  She is particularly interested in the dynamics of literary relationships, the works and experiences of women writers and the possibilities unlocked by manuscript studies, and has published a number of articles on these topics.  She organised the Shelley Conference in 2017, works closely with Keats House and the Keats-Shelley Association of America, has served on the BARS Executive as Blog Editor and was recently elected to the new role of BARS Communications Officer.  Her first book, The Collaborative Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, which we discuss below, was recently published by Routledge.

 

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book on the collaborative relationship between the Shelleys?

My first engagement with the Shelleys was when I had the opportunity to study Frankenstein and A Defence of Poetry as an undergraduate – which is surely a very common way to initially encounter these two writers.  A section of research that features in my book probably appeared in some form in a second-year undergraduate essay on Romanticism (well, according to memory it does, although I wouldn’t like to seek it out and read it again!).  I had spent time examining the unity between the language of the Shelleys’ letters and their journal entries during the Alpine travels of 1816, and then compared it to what appeared in the printed 1818 version of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (MWS’s) Frankenstein.  Even as an undergrad it was something that – as I explain in the introduction to my book – I did feel really drawn to, like this way of reading was leading somewhere interesting if only I had the time, credibility and determination to explore such a line of enquiry further.  I expected to find a book that already existed about the Shelleys’ broader collaborations beyond Frankenstein, but didn’t find a full-length study focusing solely on that.  I did of course find some amazing, inspiring work by scholars looking at aspects of the Shelleys’ relationship, including perhaps most significantly Charles E. Robinson’s excellent research on the Frankenstein manuscripts (in which he suggested someone should undertake a further major study of the Shelleys’ collaboration).  Other critics that had spent time identifying the Shelleys’ close working practices that influenced me (I can’t mention them all here) included Nora Crook, Michael O’Neill and Donald H. Reiman.  I went on to study the Shelleys for my MPhil dissertation and then was lucky enough to be funded by the AHRC to complete a PhD at the University of York on the Shelleys.  In early 2018 I was delighted to be offered a contract with Routledge to edit what was my original thesis into a monograph.

 

2) Where did you find evidence of the Shelleys’ collaborative ethos?  To what extent do you think that the surviving record allows for a full picture?

As I explain in the book, I found evidence of the Shelleys’ collaborative ethos primarily in manuscript facsimile editions of the Shelleys’ shared notebooks.  These were invaluable to me as I explored The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts and The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics in great detail.  In these wonderful publications you can find undeniable pen-on-paper evidence of the Shelleys’ collective working (whether ‘collective’ is the same as ‘collaborative’ is one of the key things I discuss in the book!).  MWS’s involvement in the drafting and copying stages of The Mask of Anarchy, for example, cannot be denied when we look to the manuscripts.  And there are many instances of collective working beyond the famous interventions by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) on the draft of Frankenstein.  It’s important to emphasise, though, that as much as looking at the facsimiles of the holograph drafts (and on occasion, the original documents themselves) was important, it was crucially the editorial work of several hugely influential scholars that supported my research.  Their work framed these notebooks and brought the scribbles to life through explaining the relevant context(s) and providing detailed transcriptions as well as nuanced interpretations.  Without these editions I don’t think my project would have been possible.  Manuscript evidence coupled with the knowledge that we have of the Shelleys’ day-to-day activities (thanks mainly to MWS for recording them and including reading lists!) just substantiates the connections between the two authors’ works.  The Cenci and Mathilda are sister-works by theme; but what is also relevant is that we can identify the crossover points at which PBS and MWS were working on these individual projects.  For example, we know MWS was beginning to write Mathilda just as PBS was completing The Cenci in August 1819.  As for a full picture, I’m not sure.  Obviously so much is missing with regards to what has and hasn’t survived, and we can never truly ‘know’ anything about the way PBS and MWS thought, studied, and composed.  My book seeks to cover a broad period, using a chronological method to trace the ebbs and flows in their relationship, but both of the Shelleys were so prolific it is very fair to say I have only covered a series of case studies and there is so much more work to be done.

 

3) How would you characterise the collaboration between the Shelleys?  Did each fulfil particular defined roles for the other, or were their interactions more fluid and specific?

I think the range of ways in which the Shelleys collaborated is very important.  What I haven’t already mentioned about my inspiration for the study is the divisions evident in Shelley criticism that saw the couple separated in popular culture and, to some extent, in scholarly observations.  In some (often influential!) pockets of criticism, Shelleyans were divided into two very distinct ‘camps’.  Some who worked on PBS saw MWS as inferior in intellect and style in the first instance, and then a corrupt editor of his posthumous publications in the second, and perhaps worst of all: they considered that she didn’t even have the capacity to understand him.  But it was not just this troublesome group of Percy Shelleyans that were the problem.  Some of the people who worked on Mary Shelley thought that the only way she could be brought back from obscurity would be to denounce him – blame him for overshadowing her, and then even attack the way he collaborated on Frankenstein as an act of patriarchy.  I get very frustrated at the whole idea that PBS and MWS didn’t like each other or one another’s work.  Obviously, they had some relationship difficulties (unsurprising for most people, and expected for a couple like the Shelleys given the tragedies that befell them).  But I think this polarisation – the unhelpful separation of two authors who lived and worked together from 1814 to 1822 and who were also in love – seems a huge shame, especially when Romantic studies and studies of English literature of have of late been far more successfully focused on the idea of social creativity, rejecting the idea of the solitary genius.  I will note again here that the gradual force of change has been led by critics such as Robinson from the mid-twentieth century onwards, and again I am indebted to all of their work.

 

4) How do you think Romantic Studies might benefit from (re)examining collaborations in the period more widely?

I think Romantic Studies is generally excellent at emphasising the social nature of creativity and I am thrilled to be part of an area of research that is constantly growing and exciting new audiences.  Having said that, the Shelleys can be overlooked in terms of collaboration even now.  I think the Shelleys are one of the greatest of the so-called ‘Romantic collaborations’, alongside Wordsworth and Coleridge for example, and it would be a shame if we were to overlook them because of their shared critical history (which has been turbulent to say the least) and their difficult, frustrating representations in popular culture (see the latest film on Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning).  I enjoy introducing the idea of literary collaboration to my students at Cardiff University and also in the work I do in communications and at Keats House Museum: I think the idea of poets and novelists conversing, sharing their inspirations, and working together on iconic literary texts can be a way of appealing to people who might be less familiar with the Romantics.

 

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve said a lot about my love for manuscript studies already – and so I’m thrilled to say I’m currently working on transcribing and editing the only manuscript book containing PBS’s hand that has not been published as a facsimile edition.  The book is MSS 13,290 in the Library of Congress.  For a taster, here’s a short blog post about one of the pages in the notebook via European Romanticisms in Association.  This project in itself is a collaboration!  I’m working with Professor Nora Crook and Dr Bysshe Coffey.

Beyond that, as well as teaching at Cardiff, I continue to work with Keats House Museum on their #Keats200 project(s) and also with the Keats-Shelley Association of America and BARS to promote new activities in Romantic Studies.  I will be organising a conference for the bicentenary of PBS’s death on 8 July 2020, along with Sharon Ruston, Bysshe Coffey, Amanda Blake Davis, and others.