New exhibition. 'Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family'

1 December 2010

Shelley's Ghost book jacketThe Bodleian Libraries’ Winter exhibition opens to the public this Friday, 3 December. It is organised in partnership with The New York Public Library and is dedicated to one of the most renowned literary families in Britain: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), his wife Mary Shelley (1797-1851), and Mary’s parents, William Godwin (1756-1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).

The story of the exhibition spans three generations: from Godwin’s and Wollstonecraft’s months as lovers and their brief marriage between 1796 and 1797; through the eight years Shelley and Mary spent together from their elopement in 1814 to Shelley’s sudden death in 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday; to the lives of the Shelleys’ only surviving child, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley. The story is often tragic, but also one of remarkable creative achievement. It is told with manuscripts, rare books and personal relics from the family archive now in the Bodleian, together with selected treasures from another great collection – the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library.

Richard Ovenden, Associate Director and Keeper of the Special Collections at the Bodleian said, “This is a unique opportunity to bring together treasures from the great Shelley collections in the Bodleian Libraries and The New York Public Library. We are excited that the Exhibition will travel to New York after closing in Oxford and enable even more people to learn about this extraordinary literary family.”

  • The exhibition includes the original handwritten draft of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s own words with additions and corrections written in by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley
  •  Shelley’s spy glass which was with him on the Don Juan on the day he drowned, 8th July, 1822
  • Shelley’s gold and coral baby rattle
  • A portrait thought to be of Mary Shelley in her later years, recently donated to the Bodleian Libraries

While the manuscripts, journals and letters in the exhibition reveal the family’s literary genius, the exhibition also looks behind their public reputation to their private lives through a series of personal items: from Shelley’s golden baby-rattle to his watch and seals, and the guitar which he gave to his friend Jane Williams with the poem ‘With a Guitar. To Jane’; a necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair; Mary Shelley’s travelling dressing-case containing some of her most personal possessions, shown for the first time in public; a portrait thought to be of Mary Shelley in her later years, here also first displayed; and a locket containing Shelley’s and Mary’s hair.

Other highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft’s final tragic notes to her husband William Godwin, written shortly before the birth to their daughter Mary and her own subsequent death
  • the last letter of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, who committed suicide after he left her for Mary Godwin.
  • Shelley’s working notebooks, containing first drafts of some of his finest poems, and revealing the richness and variety of his intellectual life. He wrote in a very distinctive manner: often using more than one notebook at a time, starting from both ends of a notebook, and mixing snatches from several works together on the same page.
  • The fair-copy notebook of Shelley’s early poems known as ‘The Esdaile Notebook’, one of the greatest treasures of the Pforzheimer Collection.
  • the daily journal kept by William Godwin from 1788 to 1836, recently published online.
  • the journal kept by Percy and Mary Shelley on their tour of the Continent in 1814, and Mary Shelley’s anguished Journal of Sorrow which she began after Shelley’s death

The family itself used the archive to promote its achievements and shape its reputation. Godwin published a candid memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley spent years editing Shelley’s works. The manuscripts and relics were also preserved as tangible reminders of past lives. Sir Percy and Lady Shelley housed them reverently in a special ‘Shelley Sanctum’.

Stephen Hebron, curator of the exhibition, said: ‘This is a unique opportunity to bring together treasures from the great Shelley collections in the Bodleian Libraries and The New York Public Library. The manuscripts, letters, relics and portraits in Shelley’s Ghost bear witness to the extraordinary lives and literary achievements of the Shelleys and the Godwins.’

Elizabeth Denlinger of The New York Public Library said, ‘We are delighted to be able to participate in this transatlantic collaboration, and look forward to welcoming many of the Bodleian’s treasures at a sister exhibition, opening at the NYPL in February 2012.’

The Shelley family gave the first two parts of their family archive to the Bodleian in 1893-4 and 1946-61, whilst the final part -- known as the Abinger papers -- was bought by the Library in 2004 through a public appeal.

An online exhibition ( with the same title will be launched on 3 December 2010. It will feature all the items on display in the physical exhibition, most of them presented in digital format for the first time. The website is designed to cater for both the casual visitor with an interest in Shelley and his circle and those who want greater depth of information. Several items are accompanied by audio podcasts read by Oxford University student actors. The exhibition website has been made possible by a generous donation from Dr Leonard Polonsky to increase digital access to the Libraries’ collections. Twitter hashtag is #shelleysghost

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