Romanticism Exactly 200 Years Ago: On This Day in 1815

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Welcome to a new series of posts on the BARS Blog. We have been inspired to create this series following the popularity on Twitter of the ‘OnThisDay’ hashtag, featured by the accounts @1815now and @Wordsworthians. As we reach the bicentenaries of many Romantic events, we want to present a catalogue of #OnThisDay blog posts that relate to events happening exactly 200 years ago. The premise of the blog is to give readers a snapshot of 1815 in 2015 (and on into 2016 and beyond!), relevant to that month or even that particular day. We will welcome contributions to this as 1815 and subsequent years mark many interesting milestones in the history of Romanticism. In the post below on the 28th July, we begin with the Shelleys…


28th July 1815 – The First Anniversary of the Shelleys’ Elopement

In July 1815, after a summer tour of Devon, Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) remained in the Clifton area of Bristol while Percy Shelley went to London in search of a house. On the 27th July, Mary (who was pregnant at the time) writes to her lover. What appears to be a simple forlorn love letter actually tells us far more about the Shelleys’ lifestyle and demeanour, in a way that would come to be reflected in their creative writings. Mary writes:

We ought not to be absent any longer indeed we ought not – I am not happy at it – when I retire to my room no sweet Love – after dinner no Shelley – though I have heaps of things very particular to say – in fine either you must come back, or I must come to you directly.

Emphasis here is placed on the things that Mary has ‘to say’: this implies conversations of a personal nature but also intellectual conversations. We know from Mary’s journal and the Shelleys’ other letters that reading aloud to one another and discussing their thoughts on literature and philosophy was important in their relationship. The Shelleys’ shared reading list for 1815 (recorded by Mary in the journal) shows a wide range of works. Under the heading ‘Mary’ are texts such as ‘Paradise Regained’, ‘Spenser’s Fairy Queen’, Godwin’s ‘St. Leon’ and ‘Coleridge’s Poems’. These works in the list, and many more, are carefully marked with an ‘x’ to show ‘S. has read also’ (Percy Shelley). The social nature of this reading project is also evident in notes like ‘Shakespeare’s Play. Part of which Shelley reads aloud’.

William Powell Frith, 'The Lover's Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard'

William Powell Frith, ‘The Lover’s Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard’

In the 1815 letter Mary uses the pet names ‘Pecksie’ and ‘Maie’. Percy Shelley uses the word ‘Pecksie’ in the manuscript of Frankenstein when he corrects Mary’s mistakes (e.g. her misspelling of ‘enigmatic’). This has been misconstrued as patronising. The letter we are presented with here provides further evidence to counteract any reading of the nickname as mocking: Mary writes, ‘I shall think it un-Pecksie of you’. By referring to Percy as ‘Pecksie’, this letter indicates that the nickname can function for either member of the couple, and is therefore used in an endearing sense, in a reciprocal, equal way, rather than showing Percy Shelley acting condescending.

Mary continues:

Tomorrow is the 28th of July – dearest ought we not to have been together on that day – indeed we ought my love & I shall shed some tears to think we are not – do not be angry dear love – Your Pecksie is a good girl & is quite well now again – except a headach (sic) when she waits so a(n)xiously for her loves letters – dearest best Shelley pray come to me – pray pray do not stay away from me – this is delightful weather and you better we might have a delightful excursion to Tintern Abbey – my dear dear Love – I most earnestly & with tearful eyes beg that I may come to you if you do not like to leave the searches after a house

Mary’s emphasis on the 28th July refers to the fact that this will be the first anniversary of their elopement. That they would choose to recognise this day is demonstrative of their untraditional relationship: as yet unmarried, they choose to remember the anniversary of when they decided to abandon London to travel to the continent, leaving behind the 16-year-old Mary’s disgruntled father William Godwin and the 21-year-old Percy Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet. But this is a well-known Romantic legend: and that was 1814, not 1815. Exactly 200 years ago from now, in 1815, the Shelleys were back in England, paradoxically settled and unsettled, as Mary’s 1815 letter shows.

These emotional love-letters were typical of the Shelleys’ correspondence in the early years of their relationship. Percy Shelley wrote to Mary in October 1814:

Mary love – we must be united. I will not part from you again after Saturday night. We must devise some scheme. I must return. Your thoughts alone can waken mine to energy. My mind without yours is dead & cold as the dark midnight river when the moon is down. It seems as if you alone could shield me from impurity & vice. If I were absent from you long I should shudder with horror at myself. My understanding becomes undisciplined without you.

Mary is a source of mental stimulation for Shelley: her ‘thoughts’ are what can ‘waken’ his own to energy, he becomes ‘undisciplined’ without her; his ‘mind’ is ‘dead’  in her absence.

Amelia Robertson Hill, 'Percy Bysshe Shelley (1882)', Tate Britain

Amelia Robertson Hill, ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley (1882)’, Tate Britain

The lesser-known letter by Mary from Clifton discussing the Shelleys’ first anniversary of their elopement (exactly 200 years ago in 1815) shows a continuing commitment to each other that is shaped by intellectual inspiration on a reciprocal level. Percy Shelley did find a house in London that year, and on or just before the 4th August (his birthday), the couple took up residence at Bishopsgate, the eastern entrance of Windsor Park, where they remained for the next nine months. Mary would later transfer aspects of this experience to her novel Lodore (1835), where the young married couple Villiers and Ethel experience poverty and separation.

– Anna Mercer (University of York)