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  • 1816 in the manuscripts of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley1
  • Jane Stabler

Numerous vexing editorial questions arise as soon as one tries to establish a stable reading text. This article focuses on the turmoil and creativity of the manuscript and the fluid relationship between the writer and the amanuensis—the figure who (after the writer) is the first reader and, in some cases, the first editor. Mary Shelley later accorded the summer of 1816 great importance, the moment she "stepped out of childhood into life."2 The beginning of her life as a mother and her life as a writer coincided with the beginning of her work as Byron's amanuensis. Mary Shelley's copying work for Byron between 1816 and 1823, I will show, generates its own peculiar after-life in Byron's poems and in her own writing.

The idea of a textual after-life is significant for Mary Shelley because so much of her copying for Byron after 1816 was undertaken during periods of bereavement. Directly and indirectly, the summer of 1816 brought a traumatic succession of deaths to the Shelley household. Byron had addressed his absent daughter Ada at the end of the 1816 canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage as "a token and a tone, even from thy father's mould" (III, line 1075), and the idea of a child as a copy, bearing or failing to transmit the trace of its parent, was a theme to which Mary Shelley returned.3

Copying Byron's poems provided Mary Shelley with tactile, creative employment and mental discipline that helped to curb the [End Page 55] extended mourning of which her father so strongly disapproved. After Clara's death, William Godwin urged the grieving mother to prove herself superior to those "ordinary," "pusillanimous" persons who "sink long under a calamity of this nature."4 His famous fire clause had established the task of aiding the philosopher as the highest moral imperative, a duty far more compelling than that of tending a family member. Mary thus felt herself under filial and philosophical obligation to subordinate her personal pain—and her own talent—to assisting the man of genius.

During the nineteenth century, copying work lost some of its previous social status as the labor of an educated, literate secretary in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. The profession's decline in reputation can be seen in an 1844 short story, "The Amanuensis," which suggests the systemic exploitation behind one lady novelist's employment of a female amanuensis:

All rejoiced that she had an Amanuensis, but none asked any questions respecting the poor orphan girl who filled the station; they considered her as a human copying machine––a person who ministered to their selfish love of pleasure, by enabling their favourite authoress to produce double the number of pages she could otherwise do; and they considered her lone and laborious existence with … little feeling.5

The story's denouement reveals that "the poor orphan girl" is already, herself, a best-selling novelist. Four years earlier, Lady Morgan had similarly disrupted the routine ascription of inferiority to amanuenses. Female scribes and secretaries were "by no means unusual" in ancient Rome, she opined, noting that Vespasian "greatly esteemed," "admired," and indeed "confided in" his female amanuensis, Antonia.6

The themes of trusting relationships between authors and amanuenses and of copying work as a form of literary training emerge in Dionysus Lardner's series of Eminent Literary Lives. Madame Roland, Mary Shelley tells us, in her essay for Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers, "was her husband's friend, companion, amanuensis," who "gave herself up to labour"; and "became absolutely necessary to him [End Page 56] at every moment, and in all the incidents of his life"; the cost of this "servitude … caused a sigh; but the holy sense of duty reconciled her to every inconvenience."7 A rival contributor, James Montgomery, noted Torquato Tasso's work as his father's copyist—transcribing multitudinous poems and letters—and its usefulness as a poetic apprenticeship. Montgomery suggests that there is a special form of contact between two minds in the act of copying:

To put a passage of an eloquent author...


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