Percy Shelley and the Not-So Dead Margaret Nicholson

“Soft, my dearest angel, stay
Oh! You suck my soul away:
Suck on, suck on, I glow, I glow!
Tides of maddening passion roll,
And streams of rapture drown my soul.
Now give me one more billing kiss,
Let your lips now repeat the bliss,
Endless kisses steal my breath,
No life can equal such a death.”

-Percy Shelley

Well, I do believe the meaning of that poem is quite clear! ūüėČ

This piece appears in The Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a collection of poetry written by Percy Shelley and Jefferson Hogg, and published in 1810.

As a lighthearted hoax, the two men pretended the book had actually been written by Margaret Nicholson, herself, and discovered after her death.

In truth, the former maid to nobility was still quite alive, residing in Bethlem Hospital after attempting to assassinate King George III with a dessert knife.

Ms. Nicholson insisted she was a virgin, and the mother of Lords Mansfield and Loughborough who both happened to be older than herself.

The failed murder attempt caught the attention of the young Shelley who was beginning to espouse his antiwar and antimonarchical views.

“Monarchs of earth ! thine is the baleful deed.
Thine are the crimes for which thy subjects bleed.
Ah ! when will come the sacred fated time,
When man unsullied by his leaders’ crime.
Despising wealth, ambition, pomp, and pride,
Will stretch him fearless by his foemen’s side ?
Ah! when Avill come the time, when o’er the plain
No more shall death and desolation reign ?
When will the sun smile on the bloodless field,
And the stern warrior’s arm the sickle wield ?
Not whilst some King, in cold ambition’s dreams,
Plans for the field of death his plodding schemes ;
Not whilst for private pique the public fall,
And one frail mortal’s mandate governs all.”

The first printing of the book was only 250 copies. While it did sell out, it was not reprinted until 1877.

Percy Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822

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Regency Artist: Amelia Curran

While I was reading the great biography, “Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein” by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, I noticed these words¬†beside a picture of Claire Clairmont:¬† ” The only known portrait of Mary Shelley’s stepsister.¬† It was painted in 1819 by Amelia Curran.”

Naturally, I had to learn more about Ms. Curran.

Amelia was born in Ireland in the year 1775.  Not much is known about her life, but when she was in her twenties she traveled to Italy to study painting.  There she befriended the radical  Percy and Mary Shelley.

In 1812, Amelia accompanied Percy back to Ireland¬†where he campaigned against the British government’s injustices.

Three of her paintings of Percy now hang in London’s National¬†Portrait Gallery and are noted for capturing his strangely beautiful androgynous features.

Amelia completed this portrait of Mary and Percy’s son, William, not long before he succumbed to illness in Rome.¬† He was only three years-old.¬† It is the only known portrait of him to exist.

In 1821, whilst living in Naples, Amelia converted to Catholicism and excelled in copying portraits of Renaissance Madonnas.   Presumably, she never married, and died quietly in 1847.  She is buried in the Church of St. Isadore in Rome.

Famous Victorian Obituaries

I thought the following obituaries of famous persons from the Regency and later Victorian era would be historically interesting as a demonstration of just how cruel Victorian society could be.

Of Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797) author of¬† AVindication¬†of the Rights of Woman, and A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,¬† who died¬†a few days after giving birth, the anti-Jacoban Review mocked,¬† “She died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women.”

On William Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s husband, most famous for his book, Political Justice which called for the end of marriage in its then current form which he denounced as slavery for¬† women as they lost all bodily and monetary rights to their spouse; as well as calling for an end to government, and instead envisioned an ideal society where reasonable people would act for the good of all:

“In weighing well his merits with his moral imperfections, it is melancholy to discover how far the latter preponderated, and we are led to the very painful though certain conclusion, that it might have been better for mankind had he never existed.”- The Gentleman’s Magazine

John Bull magazine wrote upon the news of poet Percy Shelley’s death,¬† “The author of that abominable and blasphemous book called Queen Mab¬† was lately drowned.”

And here are snippets from The Death of Edgar Allen Poe from the New York Tribune in 1849:¬†¬† “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…..

Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler. You could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantage of this poor boy, his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudice against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellant cynicism while his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility. And what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”

The¬† New York Tribune did, however at least¬†go on to praise his work and declare of the Raven,¬† “”it is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conceptions, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”

John Polidori and The Vampyre

 On a frigid June evening in 1816,  Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Claire Clairmont, and Doctor John Polidori huddled together in their summerhouse on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.    With a  thunderstorm raging outside, Byron  passed the time by reading out loud from Das Gespensterbuch (The Ghost Book). Upon finishing, he challenged each occupant to write a ghost story.  Mary Godwin would go on to pen, Frankenstein.  

John Polidori would pen the first English vampire tale, The Vampyre.

¬†The darkly handsome physician had always been ambivalent towards the medical profession.¬†¬† Sensitive and insecure, Polidori had been bullied as a child and turned to poetry for solace.¬† Now he wished to win Byron’s respect.¬†¬† Unfortunately,¬†the infamous poet¬†never missed out on a chance to mock Polidori’s literary ambitions.

The day after the challenge was announced, Polidori wrote in his journal, “The ghost-stories begun by all but me.”¬†

Byron began a piece featuring a mysterious aristocrat named, Augustus Darvell, who made the narrator of the story promise to bury him after he died, but to tell no one of where.   More at home with poetry than prose, Byron soon abandoned his ghost story.

Mary Godwin Shelley later recollected, “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole.”

Polidori abandoned that story and at some point¬†turned his attention towards, The Vampyre.¬† Leaving behind the hideous features of Nosferatu, Polidori modeled his vampire into a sauve, sexually-attractive gentleman.¬† Naming the vampire, Lord Ruthven, (pronounced with a silent “th”) was hardly coincidental.¬† Byron’s spurned lover, Caroline Lamb, had used the same¬†name in her own¬†novel, Glenarvon,¬†a fictionalized account of their affair.¬†

  Polidori cast himself as the innocent Aubrey who dies in a failed attempt to save his sister from the clutches of Lord Ruthven.

Evil triumphed.

The Vampyre first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on April 1, 1819.¬†¬† The story had reached the magazine editors along with a note regarding the circumstances of which it had come about during the summer of 1816.¬†¬† The letter also claimed Byron as its author.¬† After Byron denied authorship, Polidori came forth, explaining in a letter to the magazine editor, “I beg leave to state, that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale, in its present form, to Lord Byron.¬† The fact is, that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron’s, its development is mine. . .”

Although Byron continued to deny authorship, and stated he disliked the whole subject of vampires and had no interest in writing about them, many readers still believed the famous poet was the author of the tale.¬† Byron’s suspected involvement in writing the tale, helped spur huge sales.¬†¬† Polidori’s fragile ego was smashed once again.¬† To make matters worse, the book had been registered by the book publisher, which meant that Polidori lost the copyright.¬† The Vampyre became a bestseller.¬†¬† Within two years, the novel was translated into German, French, Spanish, and Swedish. Polidori received a token payment of thirty pounds.

Polidori continued his literary pursuits.  In 1819 he published an unsuccessful play entitled, Ximenes.   This was followed by Ernestus Berchtold: The Modern Oedipus, a seamy tale involving the supernatural and incest.  Only 199 copies were sold.

 By 1821, Polidori was back living with his family in London, and deeply in debt.

On August 24th, 1821, John Polidori committed suicide.  It was a month before his twenty-sixth birthday.

Mary Shelley And The Night That Birthed Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816 a cold spell swept across Europe and North America.   The unusual chill caused snowfall in July and unparalleled thunderstorms.   Pamphlets were passed around predicting the end of the world.

During June of that year,¬† five of the most famous persons in the world gathered¬†together in¬†a summerhouse in Villa Diodati, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.¬† “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”*- Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, ethereal Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (eighteen years-old and pregnant with Byron’s child), and her stepsister, Mary Godwin (mistress to the married Shelley).

Mary Godwin (later Shelley)¬†was born on August 30, 1797 to the radical¬†political philosopher William Godwin, and¬† founding¬†feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (authoress of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”).¬†¬† Mr. Godwin never got over the death of¬† his wife who died due to complications during childbirth.¬† He taught young Mary to spell her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone.

Although both Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been disciples of the free love movement, he was outraged when his own daughter began a love affair with the married poet and refused to speak with her.

Mary¬†had spent her childhood haunted by the idea that she’d murdered her mother and¬† was determined to prove her consequent life worthy.¬†¬† It had not been easy growing up the child of famed revolutionaries.¬†¬† Now,¬† practically disowned by the father she adored, and in the¬†company of¬† the¬†poetic geniuses, Byron and Percy,¬†Mary felt an even greater need to prove herself.

On June 16, 1816, as candles flickered and lightning illuminated the room, Byron read from Fantasmagoriana,  a volume of German shudder stories translated into French.  Upon finishing, he challenged everyone in the room to write a ghost story.  This was just the incitement Mary needed.

Mary wrote, “I busied myself to think of a story,- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.¬† One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.”¬†¬†

However, Mary was unable to think of an idea until June 22nd.¬†¬† On that evening, the conversation turned to, “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”¬† They discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin who had, “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”

Mary began imagining a corpse re-animated.¬†¬†¬† Past midnight, she found herself unable to sleep.¬† “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.”¬†¬† Her eyes closed, she saw, “a pale student of unhallowed arts….kneeling beside the thing he had put together.¬† I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Mary opened her eyes, but she was not able to dismiss the “hideous phantom”.¬† She later recalled thinking, “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.”¬† A few moments later she realized,¬† “I have found it!”

The next morning, Mary announced she had thought of a story.¬† Along with the dream, she brought with her¬† a lifetime spent devouring the works of Goethe, Dante, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis.

In writing, Frankenstein ; or, The Modern  Prometheus, she would further utilize the theory of vitalism which held that a life force separated living things from  non-living things.  Some believed in a connection between vitalism (or elan vital) and electricity.  In 1803,  Giovanni Aldini had claimed to make dead bodies sit up and raise their arms by applying electricity. 

Mary’s first words were, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”¬†( This opening spoken by Dr. Victor Frankenstein would later become the opening of chapter 4 in the 1818 edition and chapter 5 in the revised 1831 version).

Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secrets of creating life.  After gathering human parts from charnel houses, he infuses the spark of life into the being.  However, Frankenstein is immediately horrified at the ugliness of his own creation.    He casts the Monster out into the unfeeling world.  This Monster- sensitive and tender- seeks understanding from Man but is constantly spurned until he chooses suicide.

The Monster cries out,”I shall die.¬†¬† I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched.”

As Mary began penning what at first was only intended to be a short story, she could have no idea that she was creating one of the most enduring characters ever invented.   The  unnamed Monster, rejected by his own father, (as Mary had been rejected by hers) would outlive all of the five men and women gathered together in that villa on the shores of lake Geneva.

*quote by Lady Caroline Lamb- lover to Lord Byron

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