Title: Shelley: The Pursuit
Author: Richard Holmes
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
I knew very little about Percy Bysshe Shelley prior to reading Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit, besides the fact that he was married to the author of Frankenstein and was friends with Byron. The going was slow in the first parts of biography, as Shelley is sent down from Oxford and treats his first wife rather poorly. But, the more I read, I found myself surprised by my own empathy for Shelley and my respect for his moments of genius. This is all owing to Holmes’s skill as a biographer. He presents Shelley as a flawed yet brilliant man who took part in political causes and espoused egalitarian ideals, even as his personal life was something of a mess.
Shelley was born into a very privileged position, the elder son of Sir Timothy Shelley. If he had only followed tradition, finished his degree at Oxford, and lived according to the rules of 19th Century English society, he would have had a very comfortable life. However, Shelley was born with a rebellious nature and had no qualms about announcing his atheism and radical social and political opinions. He even eloped with his mentor William Godwin’s daughter, Mary, and stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, while still married to his first wife, Harriet.
Shelley eventually became an exile from his home country and saw his poetry first ignored by the public and then not even released by his publisher. Holmes does a good job of explaining the historical context of Shelley’s work. Since Shelley was not in England, his publisher would have been prosecuted for any content deemed unsuitable (and some of it was likely to have been judged so). The publisher was not willing to take that risk. Instead, letters went unanswered, and some of Shelley’s most brilliant work remained unpublished at his death. Reviews of his published work included negative commentary on his personal life. He struggled with his own feelings of inadequacy, perceiving himself to be in the shadow of Byron’s fame, and did not write much while in the company of the more renowned poet.
Holmes offers a balanced narrative of Shelley’s life. Shelley’s personal life was often in turmoil. He was at times hopelessly immature and spendthrift, accumulated debts he could never repay, and often treated the women in his life in an unsympathetic way. But Shelley also created works and voiced opinions that would impact future generations. The Masque of Anarchy, a poem Shelley wrote after the Peterloo Massacre, contained theories of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. It was particularly influential to later political thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. Holmes’s respect of Shelley’s genius is very clear, but it never got in the way of his portrayal of Shelley as a mixture of good and bad, a person with flaws and talent.
Shelley was also an avid sailor, and, unfortunately for him, could not swim. Holmes foreshadows Shelley’s eventual fate. He died at the age of 29 without the level of fame he deserved. The ending to this biography was perfect, and it contained a brief note about the fates of the rest of Shelley’s circle. This was one of the best biographies I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in literary history or the Romantic poets.