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Pecksie and the Elf: Did the Shelleys Couple Romantically?  [*]

  • Nora Crook

…plus d’informations

  • Nora Crook
    Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

On the manuscript of Frankenstein are two comments by P. B. Shelley which have become infamous. Writing quickly, Mary Shelley had left off the first syllable of 'enigmatic' and ended up with 'igmmatic' (she was prone to double the letter 'm' while her husband had an ie/ei problem with words like 'viel' and 'thier'). Later she confused Roger Bacon with Francis Bacon. He scribbled 'o you pretty Pecksie' beside the first and 'no sweet Pecksie—twas friar Bacon the discoverer of gunpowder.'  [1] E. B. Murray described these corrections as 'endearing'. 'Pecksie', the name of the industrious bird in Mrs Sherwood's The History of the Robins, was P. B. Shelley's pet-name for Mary Shelley. Anne Mellor, however, disagreed: they 'demonstrate that he did not regard his wife altogether seriously as an author [. . .] her deference to his superior mind was intrinsic to the dynamics of their marriage, a marriage in which the husband played the dominant role'.  [2] An infantilizing experience it must have been for Mary Shelley to have had her petty errors corrected as if she was a child.

Whether, however, a young woman who at nineteen could read Tacitus in the original would have felt intimidated by this may be doubted, especially one who called her spouse her 'Sweet Elf'.  [3] Between Pecksie and Elf, in terms of diminution, there is, prima facie, little to choose, any more than there is between the protagonists in the Valentine's Day newspaper advertisements where Snuggle Bum pledges love to Fluffkins. Intimate pet-names are almost invariably embarrassing to read. We do not know enough about the contexts in which these arose, whether they pleased or annoyed at the time, whether 'Pecksie' and 'Elf' were pleasant banterings or counters in underground hostilities. It would seem wise to suspend judgement and use them as evidence neither of an unproblematically equal relationship nor of one in which Mary Shelley was subordinated.

This apparently trivial circumstance exemplifies a problem with the Shelleys. We know too much about them and not enough. So much evidence has been destroyed, yet enough remains for speculation and judgement. As a result, we let our imaginations piece out the whole for the part, and arrive at tenacious conceptions about their relationship which can neither be verified nor falsified. And this is particularly true of their relationship as lovers.

The title of this essay asks both whether the literary collaboration of the Shelleys could be said to be a Romantic one and whether they were passionate sentimental lovers. The second sense of 'coupling' is an apparently unpromising starting point for useful critical discussion. Not only does one risk straining the tolerance of those who are at best dubious about any sort of biographical criticism, but the subject has been thoroughly gone over in the past. There does not seem to be any general theory of creativity or of male-female dominance that could possibly emerge from such an examination. There is no necessary connection between the Shelleys sitting together at night, each with a little table and pen and ink,  [4] and their subsequent intimacies—or non-intimacies—and the separation of tittle-tattle about their sex lives from interpretation and evaluation of their work is arguably a truly valuable achievement of twentieth-century criticism. Now here I come with this catch-penny title, ready, as it were, to reverse these gains and send us all back to square one.

Yet given the importance attached by both Shelleys to 'love' as a principle which ought to rule the world, and to sexual relations as the outward and visible sign of this principle, the question 'Did they couple Romantically?' has more point for them than it might have for other couples. Moreover, there is a current debate about the Shelleys' collaboration, as the example of Pecksie and the Sweet Elf suggests: was it a partnership of equals, or a potentially deadly competition? Do they complement or subvert one another? Evidence about gendered patterns of dominance and subordination within the Shelley biographical and authorial record figure prominently in this debate, and these in turn are often dependent—sometimes to a degree that is not always obvious—on assumptions about their relationship as lovers. Furthermore, with some form of biographical criticism being no longer under quite the ban that obtained in the 1980s, it is worth while reminding ourselves of the excesses of what Graham Allen has called 'biographism'  [5] and, cautiously, its uses, though within the scope of an essay I can hope only to offer some representative examples.  [6]

Very crudely, there are three main narratives about the Shelleys' coupling as writers and as lovers: (a) P. B. Shelley was the victim; they met in passion but this passion cooled and he found Mary cold, possessive and unsympathetic (though still intellectually companionable); the theme of frustrated desire for the ideal in his poetry from Alastor onwards can be traced back to his dissatisfaction. He needed many women to sympathize with his chameleonic personality. (b) Mary Shelley was the victim, a sufferer from patriarchy. Schooled in dependency, in spite of her 'enlightened' upbringing, she thought she found in P. B. Shelley a young version of her father, with whom she was unconsciously in love, and was taken in with his self-pitying stories and self-fashioning as a genius. However, she became disillusioned with this egotistic and faithless bully who caused her to lose her children; her major writings encode records of suppressed resentment and hostility and a guilty compensatory idealisation after his death. (c) The Nice version: neither was a victim. Mary Shelley and P. B. Shelley had their difficult periods—they were both strong characters—but their relationship was a symbiotic one and the tension creative. Of the three, I own up to a leaning towards the Nice version, while acknowledging its blandness and tendency to evasiveness; no doubt there is a certain amount of the self-serving in this inclination, justifying as it does my virtually equal commitment to the scholarly editing of both authors.

Narrative (a) was dominant until about 1970, but is far from obsolete. Insinuations about the Shelleys' domestic compatibility entered the public domain from at least 1878, with Trelawny's Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, in which Trelawny painted a picture of Mary Shelley as a jealous and peevish wife. One could push the date back even further, to the moment when P. B. Shelley published Epipsychidion, in which the genre of allegorized biography allows him to figure Mary Shelley under the disguise of a 'cold chaste Moon' and to plead for reader sympathy while simultaneously claiming that only the initiated could possibly understand what he means. And unless one treats Epipsychidion purely as a formal exercise in panegyric, an imitation blending Dante's Vita Nuova with the Song of Solomon in which we may discard all reference to a real-life situation, one surely has to accept this as an account of how Shelley intended a select public to see his marriage.

Among twentieth-century Shelley biographers, Kenneth Neill Cameron's views have probably been the most influential in consolidating the view of the poet as a full-blooded male unfortunately attached to an undersexed wife. Here he paraphrases the relevant passage of Epipsychidion:

At first, she [the Moon-woman] appeared to be a true soul-mate, but then he found that although she was affectionate ("soft"), she was sexually unresponsive; [. . .] Nor was she ever really deeply stirred by anything, emotional or intellectual, but viewed all with a Godwinian calm.  [7]

The 'cold chaste' image of Mary Shelley is supported by, for instance, Claire Clairmont's record that she thought it indecent to bathe naked in a stream on the way to Pontarlier, despite Shelley's protestations that she would be sheltered from every eye (though with the driver hanging about in the background her reluctance was not unreasonable). In old age, Clairmont also told Edward Silsbee that 'Mary was cold' and that she, Claire, was needed to supply the 'caressing' that Shelley needed.  [8] Mary Shelley's fastidiousness (if not exactly coldness) may be seen in her tendency to euphemize when editing, altering 'breast' to 'heart' in not only her husband's posthumous papers but also Byron's when acting as his amanuensis. Her translation of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche turns an explicit reference to Psyche's loss of virginity into a vague reference to Cupid having spent the night with her.  [9]

Cameron's diagnosis went further, however; his purpose was to show that the view of Mary Shelley in Epipsychidion was omnipresent. Even the affirmative tribute to her in the Dedication to Laon and Cythna for Cameron virtually excludes any hint of a passionate relationship. In a still widely circulated essay he discusses the portrait of Mary Shelley in the Dedication, of which the following lines are an excerpt:

How beautiful and calm and free thou wert

In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain, [. . .]
And through thine eyes, even in thy soul I see
A lamp of vestal fire burning internally.

ll. 57-9, 98-9

Cameron wrote:

Mary is not hailed as a young and passionate bride: she is praised for her moral courage and intelligence, her 'young wisdom,' her companionableness, the 'paleness' of her 'thoughtful cheek,' her 'ample forehead,' her 'gentle speech,' the 'vestal fire' in her soul. One gets the impression of a rather quietly intellectual young woman [. . .] interested in ideas but never really shaken by them or by her emotions in such a way as to change her whole being.  [10]

She is also called 'free', but presumably Cameron would have read that as meaning intellectually free of vulgar prejudice rather than sexually liberated.

There is a hint of 'Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses' in Cameron's criticism. Nor did he reflect on the context into which Laon and Cythna was released in late 1817. The poem celebrated an act of brother-sister incest. P. B. Shelley was already notorious as a scandalously immoral man. He had been deprived of the children of his first marriage. Although he and Mary Godwin had married in December 1816, he was widely believed to be living 'in sin' with her (and he was not overly keen to disabuse the world of this). His purpose in the Dedication was to stress the purity, sublime simplicity and moral superiority of his domestic life while presenting himself and his partner as a radical couple, intellectual heirs of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. The terms in which he praises Mary Shelley are exactly fitted to this purpose, and it would have been impolitic for him to have written in any other way.

Moreover, 'vestal', the word which Cameron emphasizes to such effect, had for the Shelleys connotations other than those which it obviously had for him, as does 'Godwinian calm'. Those intimate with Godwin's Essay on Sepulchres (which both Shelleys were) could hardly have missed the graceful allusion in the 'Dedication' to the following passage, in which moral courage and intelligence are not uncoupled from passion, and where chastity (meaning purity of mind) and calm are identified with the quenchless ardour of hidden fires:

Vesta, the emblem of chastity, was also the Goddess of fire [. . .] By this emblem it is signified to us in the most expressive manner, that chastity, a heaven-born resolution, and the sublime pursuit of a determined purpose, is not 'as dull fools suppose,' a frigid and languid state of thought, but has in it a fervour and enthusiasm, a heat unallied to fumes and obscurity, more admirable and divine than any other of which an intellectual being is susceptible [. . .] The hottest fire is [. . .] that which is close pent up in the recesses of the hearts, and much oftener causes the bosom to glow, than the eye to send forth sparkles of fire.  [11]

It is not to my purpose, however, to demolish the portrait of Mary that Cameron and others have put forward. (Attempts to substitute a slightly raunchy Mary Shelley do not quite work.)  [12] Rather, he and they have been rather too eager to back their 'impression' and to let it determine interpretations of the poetry, which, while held to be hopelessly reductionist in some quarters, are still extremely influential, particularly at undergraduate level.

My example here is 'Julian and Maddalo', which contains a certain amount of mystified biography. P. B. Shelley let it be known that the eponymous protagonists were 'ideal portraits' of Byron and himself. The maniac's soliloquy is widely interpreted, in a reading consolidated by the work of Newman Ivey White, Cameron and others, as deriving from P. B. Shelley's troubled domestic life after the deaths of their children Clara and William in 1818 and 1819 respectively. (That it was troubled is not in dispute.) Mary Shelley is identified with (or in the more tactful version is said to have some relationship with) the scornful lady in the poem whose desertion has driven the maniac mad.

According to this scenario, Mary became a split figure after the deaths of their two children. Sometimes sunk into an apathy of grief, she would at others turn on her husband like a fury, and it is this furious persona of Mary who lies behind the scornful lady. The lady, according to the maniac, shrank in horror from the memory of 'the deep pollution' of his 'loathed embrace' and wished 'in many a broad, bare word' that he had torn out 'the nerves of manhood by their bleeding root' rather than mingled, to put it politely, their 'hearts' (ll. 422-7). Critics flinch from supposing that Mary Shelley actually said such things; this is only what the maniac says his lady said (and he is mad). But the lady made him feel like that. The implication is that this must have some relationship to what the real-life Shelley had been made to feel by an angry Mary Shelley, who thus becomes somewhat worse than merely frigid. Shelley's complaint to the Gisbornes in March 1820, Mary 'feels no more remorse in torturing me than in torturing her own mind' can obviously be adduced in support, the more tellingly since this occurred in a letter that surfaced only in 1981, well after the above interpretation of the maniac's soliloquy was in place.  [13] And of course this reading can be turned on its head, illustrating P. B.'s malignity in blaming his wife when she was the victim and when the deaths of the children were—at least in the case of Clara—largely his fault.

'Julian and Maddalo' has been identified with verses that Mary Shelley said were hidden by P. B. Shelley 'from fear of wounding me' during their stay in Naples.  [14] The poem was obviously composed and revised over a long period of time, even if begun at Este near Venice, as Shelley claimed. A partial transcription in Mary Shelley's hand survives, but this does not contain the portion relating to the maniac's soliloquy.  [15] So perhaps Shelley showed her part of the poem, but only the innocuous bits.

However, in context, Mary Shelley is clearly designating 'Stanzas, Written in Dejection, Near Naples' as among the 'hidden' verses, and there is no need to suppose that she is referring to any others, nor is there any evidence that 'Julian and Maddalo' was 'hidden' from her at all. There is a brief but fairly clear allusion to the Maniac's soliloquy in her Valperga,  [16] which indicates familiarity with it while P. B. Shelley was alive, certainly during 1821. Moreover, there was once a complete fair copy of 'Julian and Maddalo' in the 'Harvard' notebook used by both Shelleys for transcribing 'keeping copies' of Shelley's poems during the latter's lifetime. As Mary Shelley wrote the contents list in which it figures, she must have known about it, and indeed Donald Reiman believes that it was removed by Mary Shelley herself after the poet's death to serve as press copy for her edition of Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824).  [17] In this publication 'Julian and Maddalo' appeared for the first time and was given pride of place, which is odd if she thought that it contained a disguised account of her cruelty to her husband. We must suppose either that she was too blind to see the application to herself or thought that nobody except herself would see it. Or, more likely, the castrating lady is not derived from Mary Shelley at all.  [18]

Space forbids me to develop a full argument here, but challenged to say what events might lie behind the maniac's story if not furious rows with Mary Shelley, or what Mary Shelley might have thought it referred to if not to herself, I would cautiously reply that there is a far stronger case to be made for interpreting 'Julian and Maddalo' as a 'Tintern Abbey'-type five-year retrospective. Shelley reviews (from the standpoint of 1818-20) his period of 'madness' in the winter of 1813, but in what he would have called an 'ideal' manner—i.e. stripped of the detail which might identify an individual and leaving only the bare emotions: inner torments of self-pity, resentment and extreme misery. The event which in his private letters he reverts to self-justifyingly time and again is his desertion of Harriet Shelley; he speaks of his first marriage as a period of unspeakable misery. (That Shelley was prepared to denigrate Harriet's character in order to justify his own conduct is generally accepted now, though it was not by Shelleyite Victorians.) He had written in a copy of Queen Mab presented to Mary Godwin in 1814 'Count Slobendorf was about to marry a woman who, attracted solely by his fortune, proved her selfishness by deserting him in prison'—a veiled hit at Harriet Shelley, as Newman Ivey White and others have recognized.  [19] The maniac is 'deserted in prison'—the prison house of his own madness and the more benign prison of a madhouse cell—and if we object that prisons do not contain pianos, we might remember that Leigh Hunt, the dedicatee of the poem, had his prison cell fixed up with a piano, as well as floral wallpaper.  [20] The debate between Julian and Maddalo concerning free-will and necessity is of course of central importance—and is not rendered irrelevant by the maniac's soliloquy—if we consider it as an urgent, not an abstract philosophical problem, and one which comes to a head in actual life-choices such as whether one has free will when falling in love, or how, having made a mistake in uniting oneself to another, one summons up the will to overcome despair and unbind oneself from the union.

Anti-biographists of course, will not have been among my hypothetical challengers, and will smile to see efforts going into either supporting or refuting positions which from their point of view are methodologically unsound and reductive; I confess that at times I myself have been tempted to become a formalist and embrace the reading which sees 'Julian and Maddalo' as primarily inspired by the life of Tasso—or rather, not Tasso exactly, but 'The Poet', a construct arising from the detritus of Shelley's abandoned play on Tasso.  [21] The poem thus becomes primarily about the problems of writing poetry. Life enters into it only so far as 'Julian and Maddalo' engages in an intertextual argument with Byron, whose 'Lament of Tasso' had appeared in 1817.

However, being a both/and sort of critic of a historicist-textual-evidential tendency, not an either/or one, my purpose is to find some point de repère which synthesizes the formalist, the biographical and the textual-evidential. Undoubtedly, Tasso lies behind the figure of the poetic maniac. But there is really no essential conflict between the maniac being based on the life experiences of both Tasso and Shelley, given the conventions of the 'ideal portrait' and Shelley's characteristic habit of regarding the present generation as 'types' or 'antitypes' of prototypes drawn from previous generations; or, to use the words of his own late 'Fragments of an Unfinished Drama':

Youth: It may be

 That nature moulds in life several copies
 Of the same lot—

Lady: So that the sufferers

 May feel another's sorrow in their own—

Youth: And find in friendship what they lost in love?  [22]

Shelley, according to this viewpoint, is a 'type' of Tasso (or perhaps his antitype, in that he, Shelley, opposes authority in a way that Tasso was only able to do imperfectly). The poem is addressed to persons who may at various points in their lives sympathetically identify themselves with a mad poet; Shelley offers the maniac's speech as a 'comment for the text of every heart'.

When we turn to Narrative (b), we find that interpretation also depends on both speculation about the Shelley's intimate lives, and sound biographic evidence. There are certainly cases where it can be shown that P. B. Shelley attempted to bend his partner's will to his own. For instance, he did attempt to share her sexually with his friend Hogg in the winter and spring of 1814-15—to treat her as a kind of domestic commonwealth, a microcosm of his great plan of transforming the world. Thanks, again, to Marion Kingston Stocking's examination of the Silsbee Collection, we have known since 1995 (what was previously a matter of suspicion only) that Mary's first reaction to the proposal was far from willing, but was in fact one of acute distress: she came to Claire Clairmont's room 'crying bitterly saying Shelley wants her to sleep with Hogg—that he said Beaumont & Fletcher had one mistress'.  [23] She was obviously too eager to please P. B. to reject the proposal outright. And his opportunistic adducement of Beaumont and Fletcher casts her as the common Muse of two authors, not as an author in her own right. While it would appear that in the end her revulsion won out and that she never did become Hogg's lover, her letters of early 1815 do show her attempting to persuade herself that she loved him.  [24]

But again we encounter over-interpretation, none the less excessive for taking Mary Shelley's side rather than P. B.'s. Here, for instance, is the often acute William Veeder, perhaps the critic who has mounted the most thorough-going account of the Shelleys' relationship as a murderous guerilla war and Frankenstein as a lethal weapon aimed at P. B.:

Mary learns about male will from reading such missive missiles as P. B.'s entry in their common journal on December 19, 1814.

 Hear of a woman—supposed to be the daughter of
 the Duke of Montrose—who has the head of a hog.

The date of the entry signals the drama behind the scenes. By December of 1814, Mary's strange relationship with Jefferson Hogg has begun [. . .] Although he has encouraged the relationship, P. B. in his journal entry of December 19 reflects his ambivalence. He is putting down for Mary to read: woman is pig. And, with an inescapable play upon 'Hogg,' he is calling a male rival [...] a swine and is converting him into a woman!  [25]

Well, but. . . it is worth noting how the absence of any political or societal context from this narrative helps Veeder's argument. The entry is presented as if it is a grotesque fantasy. And so it was, but it was not confined to P. B., nor to the male part of the population—it was a temporary mass delusion that afflicted the fashionable world in the winter of 1814-15. According to Captain Gronow, 'everybody' in London succumbed to the belief in the ridiculous story that a pig-faced 'daughter of a great lady' was residing in Grosvenor Square. There was a sighting of an enormous snout protruding from under a poke bonnet in a carriage; caricaturists had a field day.  [26] In view of this, it seems unlikely that P. B.'s journal entry had much to do with male will or covert jealousy. The really significant words are surely 'the Duke of Montrose'. If one is going to give conjecture free rein, how much more likely it is that he should seize on a detail which gave a literal force to his conviction that the aristocracy, not the multitude, was 'swinish', that the rich and powerful as a class were outwardly revealing themselves to be literally what radicals like himself had long recognized them to be morally—monstrous.

Another attempt to vindicate Mary Shelley against P. B. Shelley is found in the widespread impression (though not in Veeder)  [27] that the philoprogenitive poet kept his wife in a more or less continuous state of child-bearing and child-rearing, thus stunting her career as a writer. However, if we look at the record of Mary Shelley's pregnancies, we find an interesting pattern. She lives with P. B. Shelley for ninety-four months. During this period she is pregnant for approximately forty months. Her first child (an unnamed girl born prematurely) dies in February 1815; in April 1815 she becomes pregnant again (with William, born January 1816). When William is nearly a year old, she again becomes pregnant, this time with a girl, Clara, born September 1817. When her 'chicks' are reduced to one with Clara's death in September 1818, she becomes pregnant in February 1819 with Percy Florence. William dies (June 1819); she now has no children until Percy Florence is born (November 1819). Percy Florence remains an only child until she becomes pregnant in the early spring of 1822 (and miscarries in June).

Not only did she never have more than two children at any one time but she appears, with one exception, to have tried to maintain that number at two and to space them out at least a year apart. When a child dies, it is replaced a few months later—with the exception of the two-year interval 1820-21. That interval is occupied by her researching and writing her lengthy historical novel Valperga. Only when Valperga has been shipped off to find a publisher does she become pregnant again. This argues access to means of controlling her fertility, and, indeed, P. B. Shelley was certainly aware of female contraceptive methods.  [28] And if he was aware it is unlikely, given this pattern of pregnancies and the Shelleys' friendship with progressive doctors such as William Lawrence, that she was ignorant. She admonished the perpetually-pregnant Marianne Hunt, in a context warning her against ruining her health with child-bearing, that 'a woman is not a field to be continually employed in either bringing forth or enlarging grain',  [29] and she seems to have practiced what she preached. While she may have written instead of having children, she does not appear to have had children instead of writing. She starts a story, 'Hate' and a life of Louvet de Couvray when expecting her first child. Frankenstein is conceived when William is six months old. She thoroughly revises it for publication while pregnant with Clara; she writes Matilda while pregnant with Percy Florence. In this she was certainly aided by the fact that P. B. Shelley had enough money after 1815 to pay for the nursemaids and spacious rented accommodation that enabled her to combine the roles of author and mother.

The idea that P. B., either by design or fecklessness, consigned his wife to pregnancy after pregnancy, has, like the 'Pecksie' marginalia, been used to support the view that he wished to control and even appropriate her authorship of Frankenstein.  [30] Not that it is the only evidence used. Much has been made of the fact that Mary Shelley gave P. B. (when very tired after Clara's birth) 'carte blanche' to emend the proofs as he liked.  [31] The editors of the Broadview Frankenstein went so far as to say that 'Percy assumed total authority for the proofing [. . .] she was entirely cut out of the production process'.  [32] When Charles E. Robinson and I reviewed the evidence, however, we came independently to a very different conclusion. Robinson found corrections in each of their hands on the MS where the ink has run together—a sign of simultaneous working—and evidence of her being involved at every major stage.  [33] The notorious 'carte-blanche' would have been given for only one set of the first proof sheets (i.e. of 32 pages); there were the 'revises' still to come. Journal and letter evidence shows that the subsequent proofs and revises were delivered to P. B. Shelley in London in such a way that he was always able to take them down to Marlow (where Mary Shelley was based). Whenever there is a great flurry of proof correction, the Shelleys have usually just been together at Marlow.

Mary Shelley's Introduction to the 1831 revised Frankenstein is also taken to indicate her late husband's mastery extending beyond the grave. It has been read as evidencing her anxiety of authorship and wishing to disclaim responsibility for her hideous idea; she presents herself almost as if magnetized by the superior brains of P. B. Shelley and Byron, sleepwalking into invention. I read it as far more craftily rhetorically determined. She begins with a conventional diminutio, or modesty formula, becoming increasingly and more overtly bold as she proceeds. So far from timorously disclaiming responsibility for her 'hideous progeny', she is claiming divine inspiration, like the other great Romantics, and paralleling P. B. Shelley's self-identification with Archimedes ('Give me a place to stand and I will move the world'—one of the epigraphs of Queen Mab). When the great idea of Frankenstein breaks in upon her she represents herself as exclaiming 'I have found it!', the English translation of Archimedes' legendary cry 'Eureka!' when he made his great discovery of the principle which bears his name. One may find in this adoption of the words of the scientist of the ancient world emulation or complementarity—certainly a Romantic aspiration akin to Prometheanism—but not, I think, meekness and self-doubt.

This still leaves in the air the question of whether any commentary on the Shelleys' love-life should be declared out of bounds. Is the evidence too contentious to be of any use? Although the tendency of this essay has so far been in this direction, that is not in fact my position. I believe that we can, if we exercise tact and care, derive from the Shelleys' writings, both published and unpublished, what, at least, they valued in sexual experience. In particular, they value 'an intensity of vision akin to the moments of sublimity connected with the reverie state when the distinction between the individual self and the external universe is annihilated'.  [34] This post-coital trance-like state or out-of-the body sensation, accompanied by an feeling of delight and self-forgetfulness, Auden's 'ordinary swoon' of lovers, is not necessarily, for the Romantics, produced by sexual intercourse alone. The reverie state comes unexpectedly and may arise from a beautiful landscape, music, a sudden removal from normal mundane routine. It may be induced by a sense of an 'outside' world of pain and danger from which the reverie provides a means of escape into an assurance that this unsatisfactory world is not the only possible one. Thus the dynamics of reverie (including the reveries of lovers) interact with the Romantic concern with the imaginative refashioning and transforming of the world.

We may begin with a late journal entry of August 1840 in which Mary Shelley writes of a mystical experience at Lake Como. It had been preceded by a tranquil summer evening some days before when in company with her son and his friend they listened to the tinkling bells, watched the moonbeams on the water and listened (significantly) to a glorious recital of Manzoni's 'Ode on Napoleon'. Now it is an even more beautiful evening; the roar of a distant waterfall, the fiume latte, can be heard and she experiences an 'extatic trance' as she watchs the 'majestic tracery & dazzling hues' of the setting sun, which fill her soul with 'impassioned yearnings':

The recollection of such moments when the soul is rapt—& carried away byond this world & its mortal hopes and fears, remains brighter, purer, more attractive in the memory than even the remembrance of the bliss of Pandemian Love, in its dearest form [. . .]  [35]

We may point to autoeroticism in this passage; Shelley indicates that she finds more pleasure in recollecting the ecstasy of the soul in solitary reverie than the pleasure of sexual (Pandemian) love—presumably with Shelley. Or we may ponder on the 'impassioned yearnings' and be happy for her, that in her situation she could find pleasure. Poor Mary Shelley! She was going home, as she expected, to 'lonely desolation'. Let us not feel too smug. In our generation's pursuit of 'good sex' we have forgotten how to be transported by the irradiation of the setting sun and the sound of a waterfall. Let us also note that she speaks of the 'Pandemian' love that she had known as 'bliss' and the happiest state she could imagine except for such reverie. She is not so much opposing her exalted soul-rapture to the (base) erotic as yearning for an eternal reunion with Shelley and hoping that her experience—mediated through the senses—offers a true adumbration of it.

Such a passage evokes the mood and even echoes the language of Wollstonecraft's famous Swedish evening reverie which closes with her walk by the margin of a lake and recollection of the lost pleasure of Pandemian love:

The cow's bell has ceased to tinkle the herds to rest; [. . .] The waters murmur and fall with more than mortal music, and spirits of peace walk abroad to calm the agitated breast. Eternity is in these moments; worldly cares melt into the airy stuff that dreams are made of; and reveries, mild and enchanting as the first hopes of love or the recollection of lost enjoyment, carry the hapless wight into futurity, who, in bustling life, has vainly strove to throw off the grief which lies heavy at the heart.  [36]

P. B. Shelley alluded to this passage during a period after the return from the Continental elopement in 1814, when he moved from one hideaway to the next in London, dodging bailiffs and enjoying stolen trysts with Mary Godwin. One trysting place, the Cross Keys, seems to have had a special significance for them both. Mary wrote in her journal for 30 October: 'In the evening Shelley & I go to an inn in St. John Street to sleep—those that love cannot seperate—Shelley could not have gone away without me again'.  [37] P. B. Shelley's letter of November 2 declared:

the remembrance & expectations of such sweet moments as we experienced last night consoles strengthens & redeems me from despondency. There is eternity in these moments—they contain the true elixir of immortal life.  [38]

The 'moments' on that particular evening may have simply consisted of talk, kisses and eating—they were both penniless and extremely hungry; the landlord of the Cross Keys had refused to send up their dinner but they had managed to obtain cakes.  [39] But what is significant is P. B. Shelley's turning Wollstonecraft's solitary erotic reverie into a mutual one.

This interlude at the Cross Keys, as Mary Shelley told Maria Gisborne,  [40] lay behind certain scenes in her novel Lodore (1835) where a pair of lovers (husband and wife) are holed up in an inn in Brixton for two days without any money. On the first evening Ethel and Villiers sit together in the dusk of their room and 'dr[i]nk life from one another's gaze' until 'Night came'. The next day (the landlady having refused to send up their dinner) Ethel nets a purse while Villiers reads 'some scenes' of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida to her. As so often in Mary Shelley's works we are meant to bring the context of an epigraph or allusion to mind, and to consider how much of it is applicable to the situation in the story and how far it is not. And through the voice of Shakespeare I think Mary Shelley hints at far more than she will venture to spell out. Both Shelleys thought surprisingly highly of this Shakespearean play, from Victorian times to the present regarded as a problem comedy and one of Shakespeare's nastiest and most cynical. We may be quite sure that they read it selectively, 'converting grovelling substance' to 'ambrosial food' in the way that the Shelleys both did in their reading; it is only a 'few scenes' that are read. The narrator—whom we need have no hesitation in identifying with Mary Shelley's own voice here—comments

The profound philosophy, and intense passion, of this drama, adorned by the most magnificent poetry that can even be found in the pages of this prince of poets, caused each to hang attentive and delighted upon their occupation. As it grew dark, Villiers stirred up the fire, and still went on;  [41]

Villiers gets as far as these lines, which refer to the still-faithful Cressida: 'She was beloved—she loved;—she is, and doth'. At which point the light becomes too dim for reading and the couple sit in the dark together. 'Edward drew her nearer to him; and as his arm encircled her waist, she placed her sweet head on his bosom, and they remained in silent reverie'.  [42] Not, I think, that Mary Shelley means us to see this interlude as an extended euphemism for sexual intercourse. Rather, she has created an atmosphere in which danger, hunger, tenderness, a couple in love, darkness, fire, passionate poetry, physical contact and reverie converge in a room containing a bed—and left the rest to our imaginations.

Parties annexes