This week’s Shelley conference Q+A is with plenary speaker Nora Crook, who discusses her lecture: ‘Mary Shelley’s Editing of Percy Bysshe Shelley’. Crook expands upon the idea of Mary’s ‘posthumous collaboration’ with Percy, as well as reflecting upon her own experience of editing Percy’s works.
Crook speaking at the Shelley Conference at Senate House, London, University of London (Friday 15th September 2017).
In your lecture you spoke about Mary’s ‘posthumous collaboration’ with Percy. For those who were unable to attend your paper, can you explain what you mean by this phrase? How does it inform your understanding of the Shelleys?
I put the concept of “posthumous collaboration” forward as a deliberate paradox, aware of its contentiousness! Certainly it needs to be hedged around with caveats. (As I said in the lecture, I certainly do not mean that Mary felt herself to be receiving communications from Percy beyond the grave.) I think that “posthumous collaboration” is an appropriate term in a case when one partner dies and the other continues to work on and promote a project that they had started together.
“Collaboration” is a large term. As regards the Shelleys, it may involve: co-authoring, as in the case of History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), where each contributed to the volume; co-editing, as with Frankenstein; or, co-translating, as on a long lost translation of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza in 1820. More broadly, “collaboration” can also have the extended sense of two partners working together to disseminate each other’s works, views, and to spread each other’s fame by preparing MSS for the press, negotiating with publishers, publicity, etc. The Shelleys certainly did so in life, and Mary tried to bring to fruition left-over work that Percy had failed to publish while he was alive, and on which they had worked together. By “worked” I don’t necessarily mean something like the closeness of their work on The Cenci, where she and Shelley discussed the conduct of certain scenes. What I am talking about can cover cases where she transcribed Shelley’s press-copy, which was sent off to Shelley’s publisher, Charles Ollier, who then sat on it for the next two years. Ollier’s delays were sometimes because the poems risked prosecution, sometimes because Ollier was dilatory, sometimes because he anticipated, with good reason, that PBS might send some more poems to make up a volume, sometimes because he was in deep financial trouble.
After Percy’s death, Mary raised heaven and earth to retrieve all these unpublished press-copies, sent to Ollier between 1819 and 1821. I didn’t mention them much in my lecture, as they are another story, and won’t be in volume 7 of the Johns Hopkins edition. This unpublished group of poems includes: Peter Bell the Third, To the Lord Chancellor, The Witch of Atlas, Ode to Naples, and one major piece of prose, A Defence of Poetry. Then there was Mask of Anarchy, which was in Leigh Hunt’s hand. All of these had been press-copied by Mary from Percy’s intermediate draft. She almost certainly also press-copied Lift not the Painted Veil, and very probably To Night, Rarely, Rarely Comest Thou, Lines to a Reviewer, Lines to a Critic. Typically, Percy would make a rough draft or several rough drafts; he would write an intermediate draft, Mary would copy that, often supplying punctuation; he would make minor changes and corrections to her copy, finalize wording, and off it would go to Ollier, or to Leigh Hunt to give to Ollier. This process is best seen for Mask of Anarchy, where an unusual amount of material has survived. At first she decided to publish some of them in The Liberal, the review that Leigh Hunt, Byron, and Shelley had founded,—the last piece of literary business Percy accomplished before he died. As she wrote, “[T]hey will do good to the work & that would best please him—Then when I am rich enough I will make an edition of all he has written—& his works thus appearing at intervals will keep him alive in the minds of his admirers” (12 Jan. 1823; MWS, Letters I, 306–7). Then the Liberal went bust in 1823, and so she turned to make Posthumous Poems (1824) instead. When she got back the precious press copies (Ollier went bankrupt in 1823), she sent them back to press in 1824. They have disappeared, all but one leaf which had a poem in PBS’s hand on the back, because they were in her hand, though corrected by PBS, and it was the norm to leave them with the printers, where they were usually destroyed. She had to hold back Peter Bell the Third and To the Lord Chancellor in 1824 as they were libellous; the publisher (Leigh Hunt’s brother) would have gone to prison (and he had already been in prison twice). But she published them when she could: in the second collected edition of Shelley’s poetry, and then publishing Defence of Poetry in Shelley’s prose, both in 1839.
Her transcriptions from Shelley’s draft notebooks must have been a more difficult task than her amanuensis work when he was alive, but sometimes she had made her press copy from what must have been pretty rough intermediate drafts (like Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills). You can fault her on detail – errors, some censorship of indelicate words, suppression of a few poems which were personally distressing to her. But her taste had been trained by Shelley, and her ear had become attuned to his poetry through long familiarity with it. This comes out in many ways—for instance, in choosing whether to reinstate or to drop canceled words according to which made a metrically regular line. As for the large number of fragments included, she was acting in accordance with what Shelley himself believed: that a single line could be a poem in itself, and that all poems were fragments of one large poem to which all poets contribute. His epigraph to Prometheus Unbound, taken from a fragment of Aeschylus, is an example. So, I would say, yes, that her editing can often be called a posthumous collaboration, though the concept can’t be applied across the board to everything. I wouldn’t want to defend her truncating of “Charles the First”—cutting out almost all Archy’s speeches, or her leaving out most of the “Magic Plant” section of “Fragments of an Unfinished Drama,” for instance. You can only regret that Mary was forced by the prudery of the times to alter, say, The Banquet of Plato to make it seem, for the initiated, not to be about love between men. But Percy himself did not think that it could be published either; moreover, she did not silently censor. She said in her introduction that she had to omit some of it “perforce” because of its excessive “license”—that is, she was bowing to pressure; it is not what she would have chosen to have done.
Crook pointing out the difficulties of reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hand.
In your lecture you spoke about how editorial mistakes are easily fallen into due to Shelley’s handwriting, workings, and reworkings. As an editor of Percy Bysshe Shelley, what is it like to follow in Mary’s footsteps by encountering such difficulties in the manuscripts?
Or, to rephrase, what has it been like, for it is not now as it hath been of yore. The first time I cracked a word that both Mary and Rossetti had given up on I was very pleased with myself (if you want to know, it was “storm extinguished”; Geoffrey Matthews had previously got it too, but I didn’t know that then). The more errors she made, the more room there was for me to strut and crow and triumph. Later, the truth of the old saying came home to me: we editors are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, with Mary being in this case the first giant. My overwhelming emotion is now pride (that I have been allowed to sit on her shoulders for a brief spell) and admiration (of her). She must have worked with a kind of white heat to make the fair copies that she then selected for Posthumous Poems (only a year, by my reckoning). She went back to the notebooks to check the proofs, and picked up on some of her errors, but it is still a very short time. I have had what she did not have—time; time to think, and worry away at individual words that baffled me. One Shelley editor, Locock, said that sometimes the word comes to you when you are away from the notebook and you see the shape in your mind’s eye. I’ve found that to be true. It has its downside. I remember once, having binged on manuscript work, looking at a landscape painting and seeing the brushstrokes in the foreground, depicting grass, form words in Shelley’s handwriting that I couldn’t quite read. At such points it is time to take a rest. But it is also very easy for one’s eye to get “out”; if I have a rest for, say, six months, it takes time to get my eye “in” again. I can only imagine that after Percy’s death Mary’s eye was continually “in,” and that she saw his handwriting in her mind’s eye all the time.
How far do you embrace or disregard Mary’s editorial decisions, and follow your own judgements? How do Mary’s editorial decisions inform your own?
Mary made editorial decisions to leave certain fragments unpublished; obviously, a modern editor editing a complete edition of Shelley’s poetry can’t abide by those decisions. In the case of straightforward errors, one corrects them, as she would have done had she seen them. But I take it that we are talking here of cases where Percy left two uncanceled alternatives or two canceled alternatives and where the answer isn’t clear cut. If you are trying to edit a reading text, and not make a diplomatic transcript, in which everything is recorded, including pips from the apple that PBS was eating at the time and which lodged in the paper (yes, seriously), then you have to make decisions. For instance, in a poem called “The Woodman and the Nightingale,” (a good example of a title of Mary’s own that can’t really be bettered) there is a lovely line about the blind love of the moth for the star. The line describes the moth as either, “Unconscious, as some human lovers are” or “Unconscious even as wiser lovers are”. They both are good lines. Mary chose “as some human,” but I agree with Carlene Adamson that “even as wiser” is in some ways “equally interesting, if not superior”—and it also appears to be later. (Adamson is the excellent editor and transcriber of the Garland Press volume of the particular draft notebook that contains this work, and the apple pips.) The editors of the Longman edition also agree. But then I encountered the “Ginevra” draft. In Mary’s edition, the traumatized Ginevra staggers out of the church, with the marriage vows that have bound her to a loveless husband ringing in her brain: “with a jarring din | Deafening the lost intelligence within.” That “lost intelligence” is a wonderful phrase; the bewilderment of Ginevra’s brain is perfectly united to the traditional conceit of the individual human as a microcosm; a little world ruled by an “intelligence.” But the phrase is canceled in the original. There are two alternative replacements: “listening spirit” and “musical spirit”; neither makes for a harmonious line. I feel obliged to choose one of them, and guess that, because he wants us to feel Ginevra’s jangled brain, Percy actually roughened up his harmonious line to create a jarring one. But I still like “lost intelligence”; certainly, in choosing it, Mary’s editorial intelligence was not lost, but fully functioning. On the other hand, there is the example from The Triumph of Life that I used in my paper, where I think that Mary chose rightly in preferring “vampire-bats before the glare | Of the tropic sun” to “vampire-bats before the glare | Of the pale sun”. In short, Mary’s decisions in these cases are always to be taken into account, even if she is not the final arbiter. I have resisted the temptation to alter her readings in favor of a viable alternative just for the sake of being different.