Report from the Newcastle University Research Symposium on the Shelley-Godwin Circle

(We’re very glad to welcome Anna Mercer (University of York) to the BARS Blog – she’s the first of a number of new contributors who will be joining the blogging team over the coming weeks.)

 GodwinsandShelleys(Image from the Shelley’s Ghost online exhibition , Bodleian Library, Oxford:

On 13th April 2015 I visited Newcastle University to attend a Research Symposium in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics (SELLL). This event, organised by Will Bowers, began with two panels of presentations by Newcastle researchers and a poetry reading, all of which paid specific attention to William Godwin, Percy and Mary Shelley and their circles. This was followed in the evening by the literature visiting speaker programme, with talks by Elizabeth Denlinger (New York Public Library) and Gregory Dart (University College London). Their talks focussed on ‘Editing Romantic-Period Writings in the 21st Century’.

Research symposiums like this are important in that they bring eighteenth century and Romantic studies together. It reminds us (and sometimes we do need reminding) why it is that Romanticism is more often connected to the ‘long eighteenth century’ rather than the Victorian period. Here specifically the symposium united eighteenth-century thought and Romantic writings by considering one celebrated family: the Godwins and the Shelleys. As they functioned as a familial group, the Godwins and the Shelleys are exemplary of the bridge between late eighteenth-century literature and the early nineteenth-century work of the second generation of Romantics. Of course, the symposium extended beyond this remit, and works by Charles Lamb, S T Coleridge and Adam Smith, for example, were also brought into the discussion. The diversity of authors discussed recalled how the Godwins and the Shelleys, although particularly recognisable because of their blood-family link, perpetually sought to extend their literary circles beyond their immediate contemporaries and relations.


Part I: Godwin, Shelley and their Circles: Presentations by SELLL Researchers

In the papers at the symposium there was an emphasis on intertextuality that functioned brilliantly alongside the tone of the event as a place of academic sharing and growth. The papers led to interesting discussions following each panel of speakers. On the first panel we heard from Laura Kirkley, who explored Mary Wollstonecraft as a cosmopolitan writer, concerned by what it means to be a patriot. Jonathan Quayle then discussed ‘Shelley’s Utopian Visions’: Percy Shelley’s preoccupation with a perfect society, his denouncement of tyranny, and how a tension between a distinct ideal of Utopia and the need to discourage a violent response to oppression manifests itself in his poetry. Matthew Grenby led the discussion onto William Godwin, discussing the Juvenile Library within the complex bibliographical history of children’s literature. This was exciting as it prefigures the publication of the next volume of Godwin letters edited by Grenby, and we were treated to slides showing some of Godwin’s letters in manuscript. The organiser of the event, Will Bowers, then presented on ‘”Newspaper Erudition” and the Pisan Circle’. This was about Percy Shelley’s engagement on another literary level – not with an author present in his circle, but with the newspapers he read in Italy, and the influence of this on Hellas. Finally, Margaret Wilkinson gave a fantastic sneak peak of an upcoming radio drama she is working on for the BBC about Mary Shelley. This section was completed by two atmospheric poetry readings. John Challis read poems written during a residence at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome. Bill Herbert talked about the dialogue between poets, and the influence of myth, science and literature on poetry as an art form, before reading a poem he had written, followed by a response in verse to this, composed by another poet.

The second panel began with Leanne Stokoe, whose paper discussed ‘Adam Smith and the Principle of Self in Percy Shelley’s Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics’. Intertextuality was a crucial element here, as her discussion considered Smith, Hume, Godwin, and the Shelleys. Michael Rossington followed with a fascinating discussion of his recent research in the Huntington Library, California. Having looked at a press copy of Percy Shelley’s Hellas (one of the last poems to be published in Shelley’s lifetime) in the hand of Edward Williams, he identified how editing (by an unknown compositor) has transformed words and phrases in Shelley’s original work, so as to affect the published texts we read today. This fascinating close discussion of the manuscript really emphasised the preciseness and importance of manuscript study, and alongside the consideration of digitisation elsewhere in the symposium, championed the necessity of examining manuscripts in person.

A joint presentation by Helen Stark and Beatrice Turner then discussed the possibility of a digital edition of Godwin’s ‘Essay on Sepulchres’. Helen Stark gave a preview of her upcoming project on the role of the grave, and literary representations of the grave. Beatrice Turner discussed her work on ‘inheriting Romanticism 1820-1850’, and considered how authors use writing to explore what it means to be a family. Eliza O’Brien then spoke on the connections between Godwin’s fiction and his biographical and historical work, e.g. how in novels like Caleb Williams he used ‘fictional enquiries’ to explore the state of the individual. Callum Fraser, a creative writing PhD student, completed this panel with a talk on the Godwin circle and their creative practices. He discussed why, as a writer, he personally identified with this group of talented individuals, and why the study of them continues to be important. The Godwin circle frame their literary identity as something larger than themselves, he said, and a crossover of interest in different genres, philosophical thought, authors and modes of creativity was again evident in all of the papers here.

Throughout the symposium there was considerable interest in the idea of the physical text, both in terms of the original manuscript, and also in relation to the potential for producing digital versions of texts. The paper that stood out for me was Michael Rossington’s discussion of the Shelley manuscripts. As a research student I am attempting to incorporate manuscript study in my own thesis on the works of Percy and Mary Shelley, and here was a renowned Shelley expert’s experience of encountering the real thing, and unearthing previously unnoticed aspects of a manuscript. This manuscript of Hellas was a typical Shelleyan copy – written by an amanuensis, with spaces left for Percy Shelley’s completions, and corrections in Shelley’s hand. However, Rossington’s research demonstrated how it was also a unique document that deserves further study. Rossington (with Will Bowers) has also been working on Hellas for the upcoming Longman edition of the complete poems of Shelley Vol V.


Part II: Literature Visiting Speaker Programme

After a wine reception, Elizabeth Denlinger gave a talk on the birth and early growth of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, which launched in 2013. At the archive now ( you can see the Frankenstein manuscript drafts, with transcriptions and a clear distinction between the hand of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley (using the online tool you can easily toggle between what is Mary Shelley’s hand and what are Percy Shelley’s additions and corrections). Denlinger is the curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. She discussed the progress of the Shelley-Godwin archive as it moved towards the launch date, the obstacles they faced, and what is planned for its future. The Prometheus Unbound notebooks are the next selection of manuscripts to be digitised. This work on the Shelley-Godwin manuscripts is incredibly useful to scholars as the original Garland facsimiles of the Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts and the Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics are now expensive and difficult to obtain for libraries, let alone individuals.

Gregory Dart (Senior Lecturer at UCL and editor of the OUP collected works of Charles and Mary Lamb) gave the final, compelling paper on ‘Lamb, Godwin, and the Seventeenth Century 1795-1805’. Dart discussed Romantic friendships and considered how the Romantics were using Godwin in the late 1790s. He specifically discussed Rosamund Gray (1798) as being ‘like a Lyrical Ballad in prose’ and reflected on the purpose of Lamb’s Godwinian villain. Dart placed specific emphasis on the politics of friendship discussed in the letters of all young writers in the 1790s – and how this brought public issues into the private sphere.

The Godwins and the Shelleys were always attempting to explore their connections to other authors in writing, and thus their compositions function alongside an awareness of their contemporaries, precursors, and even the potential of their own legacies. The range and calibre of academic work presented at this symposium demonstrated a similar dynamic by which scholars engaged with each other’s work in order to build on their own knowledge, and it was a fantastic environment to be a part of.

1 thought on “Report from the Newcastle University Research Symposium on the Shelley-Godwin Circle

  1. Keith M. Collis

    With thanks to Anna Mercer, it may be worth mentioning works coming in 2016 inspired by Mary Shelley’s most famous composition; i.e. 1816 conference posted by IGA – Dr. Catherine Spooner, a commissioned opera in Belgium, a new ballet by Royal Opera House and full staging of a Dance Opera Seria work (copyright 1989; Twin Cities USA). With kind regards to all devotees, Keith M. Collis

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