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The Shelleys on Display: Exhibiting Lives and Letters
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The Shelleys on Display:
Exhibiting Lives and Letters
Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family. An exhibition held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 3 December 2010–27 March 2011; Dove Cottage, Grasmere, 7 July–31 October 2011; New York Public Library, 17 February–24 June 2012. Accompanying book by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010). Pp. 192. $35.00. Accompanying website: http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

Shelley’s Ghost, an exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Dove Cottage, and the New York Public Library, is explicitly concerned with the forms and processes of literary and biographical memorialization. It concentrates on the family papers of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. As Stephen Hebron, the curator, explains in his accompanying volume, the exhibition is not “a biography of these great literary figures, nor a critical appraisal of their work.” Instead, it displays “the manuscripts on which so many biographies and critical appreciations have been based, and explores how these manuscripts were either published or withheld by their owners in an attempt to shape the family’s reputation” (13). The exhibition begins with papers relating to Wollstonecraft’s marriage and death, especially Godwin’s notoriously candid Memoir of her life and work. The outrage that greeted this memoir leads the viewer to another publishing scandal thirteen years later, Percy Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism. The exhibition’s focus then turns to the complex and enthralling personal lives of the Godwin-Shelley circle: interwoven and sensational tales of elopements, suicides, illegitimate children, fatal accidents, financial hardship, and—lest we forget—exceptional literary productivity. Alongside letters and relics documenting these events are manuscripts and notebooks containing drafts, sketches, and collaborations [End Page 177] by the Shelleys and their associates. The rest of the exhibition details subsequent attempts to honor and control the Shelleys’ posthumous images, first by Mary herself following her husband’s death, and later by her daughter-in-law Lady Jane Shelley, who worked tirelessly to craft a family history and image fit for the Victorians and later posterity.

Shelley’s Ghost therefore engages with the central practices of exhibiting: how the politics of choosing, displaying, preserving, and even destroying texts and other materials can service particular interpretations of people and their histories. Evidently, there are important questions here for historical, literary, and biographical studies, specifically how the deployment and presentation of certain kinds of evidence can affect not simply the assessment of literary import or the construction of an individual life story but also the comprehension of “the past” in broader terms. When gazing at relics from Lady Shelley’s “Shelley Sanctum”—locks of hair, jewelry, cutlery—one wonders what exactly is being memorialized by these objects? The lives of famous literary figures, elevated to pseudo-sainthood by the very preservation of their inconsequential trinkets? The sensibilities of Lady Shelley herself, determined to celebrate, crystallize, and disseminate her personal reverence and familial pride? Or do the objects reveal wider late nineteenth-century presumptions about the proper interpretation of the past and its actors: attention to personal material possessions, legitimate genealogy and aristocratic descent, and sanctioned histories authorized and framed by the guardians of the necessary evidence? Shelley’s Ghost invites us to contemplate the overlapping complexities of these issues, not least because it requires a certain self-consciousness about the nature of exhibition-going. It encourages us to see the objects viewed and the practices of viewing them as dually implicated in interpretative processes. When we see the Sanctum relics, we are looking at a Victorian individual’s understanding of a more distant past, but we do so through the additional filter of our own twenty-first-century predilections and perspectives, especially the trappings of a modern celebrity culture that values biographical exposure (34). Throughout Shelley’s Ghost, understanding lives and letters is never a straightforward matter.

One of the exhibition’s key themes is that members of the Godwin-Shelley circle consciously conducted and constructed their lives through both writing itself and the collection and presentation of documents. This point is first evident in Godwin...