Kirstin Mills (Macquarie University) reflects on her Shelley Conference paper: ‘Journeying through the Landscapes of the Mind: the Shelleys, Space, and the Psychological Sciences’. Mills discusses the significance of Mary Shelley’s travel writings after the death of her husband, before looking at what we can learn from Mary’s writings on psychological trauma.
Engraving of Byron’s Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, by Edward Francis Finden (1833). Mary and Percy stayed with Byron at the Villa Diodati in 1816 and later wrote of their travels around lake Geneva in A History of a Six Weeks Tour.
How does Mary Shelley’s travel writing shed light on our overall understanding of the Shelleys?
The close collaboration between Percy and Mary Shelley is coming increasingly (and deservedly) under critical attention. Scholars have historically privileged Percy’s influence over the young Mary—the visionary poet over his young mistress. However, such an approach is fostered less by any demonstrable evidence within their work, or personality traits revealed by their biographies, and more by outmoded conservative and, frankly, misogynistic views about the possibilities of literary genius residing within the brain of a young woman. In both Mary’s and Percy’s writings about their shared travels and the literary inspirations they afforded them, we can glimpse something more of the interwoven collaborative spirit they shared—a spirit that flowed in both directions—as well as the strength and distinctive character of their individual voices.
The Shelleys published their first volume of travel writing, A History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817), together, and throughout both Mary’s and Percy’s individual pieces within this document is woven a persistent thread of the other’s presence, voice, and mutual influence. We cannot read this document without the spectres of both authors hovering close by. Particularly interesting for me, however, is that this collaborative spirit is also present in Mary’s writing—both personal and published—after Percy’s death, but not in the ways that we might at first think. Rather than recording Percy’s lasting influence over Mary, Mary’s journals and publications reveal the powerful extent to which Mary herself created and controlled this relationship, often according to her overlapping personal and professional agendas. For example, on the one hand, her published travel writing, Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), consciously continues and echoes Percy’s voice (and a sense of his intellectual influence) in order to retain a sense of his presence about her after his death. However, it also deliberately remoulds Percy’s voice and recasts their relationship in a way that accords with Mary’s grief and emotional trauma. Her writings not only narrate memories that Percy is, of course, unable to contradict, but, more importantly, they also co-opt his voice, creating the illusion of his continued ghostly presence and communication with her. Mary thereby writes Percy’s personality and their relationship through the lens of her own nostalgia, longing, and depression, as well as her desire to heal the void opened within her at the loss of her husband and children.
While her evocation of Percy fulfilled this personal objective, it also served a professional agenda. The published travel writings consciously and paradoxically frame these intensely private, personal recollections for a public audience: Shelley writes both for herself and for her readers, thereby blurring the line between personal and pecuniary agendas. Mary Shelley was acutely aware of the political and intellectual contexts surrounding her husband’s life and death, and her published travel writings, haunted by their intensely personal details, would likely stoke public interest in their historically scandalous relationship. This renewed public interest in Percy, Mary and their relationship could in turn boost the sales of her work (her travel writing was published to raise money for a friend). Moreover, and particularly significant in the still burgeoning field of Mary Shelley studies, Mary’s careful evocation of Percy also reshaped and consolidated his reputation and influence as a poet and thinker. This helped reignite interest in his own works, which Mary Shelley was hard at work editing and publishing in the decades after his death. Indeed, much of Percy Shelley’s revived significance can be traced to Mary Shelley’s important scholarly—but no less personal and emotional—work during these years. In these ways, Mary Shelley’s travel writing is important to consider not only for the insights it offers us into her own skill, power, and influence as a writer, but also for the light it sheds on the collaborative spirit shared initially by the Shelleys, and maintained by Mary after Percy’s death.
‘On the Rhine’ by J.M.W Turner (1840s). This faint pencil and chalk drawing depicts a view from the Rhine, which Mary Shelley may well have seen during her travels in Germany.
In your paper you suggested that, in her travel writing, Mary attempts to heal her own suffering by constructing a psychological space between the real, sublime settings around her and the imaginary, inner landscape of her own mind. Do you think we should read Mary’s travel writing through a fictional rather than an autobiographical lens? How far is Mary’s self-writing influenced by eighteenth-century gothic, sentimental, and epistolary fiction?
To a certain extent, all autobiography is fictional because it incorporates the author’s own bias, the distorting lens of memory over time, and an awareness of the intended audience of the work. Each of these elements influences the presentation of information, including the careful selection of inclusions and omissions. Mary Shelley’s travel writing, letters, and journals are no different. In part to fulfil the aforementioned intertwined personal and professional agendas, these texts draw heavily and very consciously from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic, sentimental, and epistolary fiction.
When writing about the beautiful, summery, European landscapes of her travels, Mary Shelley consistently turned to the gothic. My research focuses on the way that Mary creates a liminal space between these outer landscapes and what she conceives of as an inner cognitive space within which she raises the ghosts of Percy and her dead children. For Mary, memory is both a haunting and a spiritual conjuring. On the one hand, these ghosts are described through the evocation of well-worn gothic tropes; Mary’s depression and mental space are figured as tombs, graves, ghosts, rotting and death. On the other hand, as Mary travels beyond the confines of England into the vast spaces of the Italian lakes and mountains, she weaves these ghosts into a description of landscape and spectrality that draws on traditional eighteenth-century theories of sublime nature. The earliest gothic novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe, drew heavily on the theories of the sublime to evoke an atmosphere of the supernatural, and it is a tradition that Mary also turns to in her own fiction, particularly Frankenstein. Her travel writing draws liberally on her own practised use of the gothic and the sublime, turning it towards her own cognitive exploration. Her treatment of these tropes within her travel writing thus sheds new light on her earlier works, and for a better understanding, her earlier works should be recalled, like hovering spectres, when reading her travel writing.
The sense of the personal, the traumatic, and particularly the extent to which Mary explores her grief within her travel writing draw heavily on the sentimental. (One review at the time thought there was a little too much sentimentality, and not enough travel.) Like the gothic, sentimental fiction plays into Mary’s dual personal and professional purpose, providing a roadmap for privileging and navigating her turbulent emotional trauma (for both readers and herself as writer) while exploiting public interest in the scandals and circumstances surrounding her life with Percy, and Percy’s death. Both the gothic and the sentimental play into her strong evocation of the ghost of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose own travel writings provide an important model for Shelley’s work, adding yet another voice to the palimpsest of spectres haunting Mary’s mind and its mapping across the landscapes of her travel writing. Likewise, Mary draws consciously on the epistolary form, with its associations of the personal and private opened up for public consumption, and particularly its evocation of Percy’s and Mary’s collaborative travel writing, the History of a Six Week’s Tour, which becomes yet another spectral text woven into the rich emotional and cognitive fabric of Mary’s later writing.
Mary Shelley’s travel writing and self-writings are therefore at once private and public, autobiographical and fictional, and the skill with which she constructs her narrative– interweaving elements from other genres and earlier writers such as her mother and husband–makes delineating the boundaries between these categories and voices impossible.
‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ by John Opie (1797)
Mental health issues have come increasingly to the fore in the news and mainstream culture in recent years. What can we learn from Mary’s experience of psychological trauma and how we might speak about such issues?
The recent attention through traditional and social media on the importance of mental health (and what we might call a crisis of mental health in our society) is long overdue. This issue is incredibly important, since it will likely affect all of us in different ways at some point in our lives, and its impact upon the individual and society can be devastating. However, this turn towards acknowledging mental health issues can also create the impression that they are relatively recent phenomena. It is easy to look back at romanticised versions of the past and overlook the fact that people often went through many of the same mental and emotional experiences and traumas that we experience today. Mary Shelley’s writing–which is raw and frank, but also hauntingly beautiful in its description of her depression, trauma, and emotional suffering–reminds us that these issues are not transient or exclusive to the twenty-first century and will not disappear if we turn a blind eye to them.
Shelley’s writings teach us many useful things about psychological trauma, depression, and how to voice, approach, and potentially even manage such issues. Firstly, we might learn from how open and honest Mary was about her emotional suffering and its impact on her mental and bodily health, as well as its impact upon her work (and the toll her work, in turn, had on her mental health). She wrote freely about these issues in her journals, in letters to friends, and in her published travel writing, unabashedly discussing the mental and emotional pain she was enduring. With the recently popular call to recognise the impact of mental health in the workplace, to encourage those suffering to speak openly about their experiences and seek help, and to foster supportive workplace, family and social environments, we can learn from Mary Shelley’s frank honesty and desire to express and communicate her emotional experiences.
Importantly, we can also learn from Mary Shelley’s advocacy of the patient’s autonomy within the medical profession, of the patient’s voice and experiences being taken seriously, and of the patient being involved in their own healing. These issues are becoming increasingly noticed in our own approaches to mental health. We are beginning to recognise that the balance between medical authority and patient needs to be corrected, and that personal experiences of mental health conditions need to be given credence and legitimacy in order to tailor individual approaches to healing. In short, mental health is not a “one size fits all” issue, and the individual’s voice and perspective can be a powerful tool in diagnosis and treatment.
We might also learn from Mary Shelley’s approach to healing, which she undertook through travelling and writing. Travelling offered her a literal and metaphorical expansion of her worldview beyond the confines of her daily life, as well as a chance to interact with nature, through which she felt connected to something larger and more profound than herself. Writing provided a means to express her emotions and counteract depression with creative energy. For many of us, our daily lives are increasingly disconnected from both nature and creativity, and tipping the balance back towards these crucial elements can sometimes help to restore the balance of mental and emotional health. This is one of the main reasons that Mary Shelley’s travel writing resonates with me so well; because I know that when I have not spent enough time outdoors–the more wild the landscape, the better–or when I haven’t honored my creative side enough, my mind begins to feel cluttered, suffocated, and distracted. When I feel the grips of depression sneaking up on me, a sense of movement, particularly a drive or a hike out into the countryside, is one of the best ways to gently shift my perspective and lift my spirits. If it sparks my creative drive and I am driven to write or paint, that is even better. While it may not work for everyone, I find that for me, Mary Shelley was definitely onto something with her approach to working through her own mental anguish.
It is also important to note, however, that while Mary Shelley used travel and writing to explore and work through her depression, she did not suggest that it was a foolproof cure (or necessarily a cure at all), or that it would work for anyone but herself. In fact, though she found these activities useful and helpful, they did not eradicate her issues. Mary Shelley’s journey is intensely personal, and it is in this light that her approach to mental health and healing should be considered. Her writing offers a refreshing voice from the past that reveals one woman’s way of exploring, expressing, and working through her own psychological trauma. Her approach to depression and mental health is honest, empathetic, and freely expressed, and in this sense, sets an important example for us all, reminding us to pay closer attention to these issues within our own personal and public lives.