Priscilla Wakefield: On Economy, Education and Women’s Place in Society

Surfing 18th-century databases, library catalogues, taking notes and indulging in sessions of brainstorming has been my main occupation during this summer. Searching for a PhD project has proven an activity as frustrating as interesting. Granted, I have not found that one perfect original idea yet, but I have learnt a lot about other things in the process. Among many others, I have discovered the author and thinker Priscilla Wakefield. The following is a brief account of her life and works.

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A hard working, creative, perseverant, strong minded, nice old lady.

Priscilla Wakefield, née Bell (1751 Tottenham-1832) is known nowadays for her work on economics, botany and children’s literature. Wakefield is considered by most scholars a feminist, given that her work on economics is concerned with women’s economic survival.
She was the author of Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798), published by Joseph Johnson, the London bookseller who also published authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Anna Laetitia Barbauld. She also authored very successful publications for children on a variety of subjects: from natural history to travel. Her most popular work was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of a Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801).

Priscilla Wakefield, the feminist economist

Wakefield founded several charities, especially devoted to the care of women and children. One of these developed into the first savings bank of England. These saving banks, which she called “frugality banks” were founded with the objective to encourage the habit of moderation into the poor. Wakefield considered that : “it is not sufficient to stimulate the poor to industry, unless they can be persuaded to adopt habits of frugality” [i]. She sought to substitute the Friendly Society banks, because in the society’s meetings it was customary to purchase a drink, which goes against the whole idea of economising.

Her publication, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798),examines the ways in which women negotiate their role as productive elements of society and advocates women’s access to traditionally male professions, as well as a reform in education so women can become productive and autonomous citizens, the first step towards an equal society.

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Oil Painting by Francis Wheatley. The Wakefields with Priscilla’s sister Katherine Bell, circa 1774.

Priscilla Wakefield, the author

In her preface to An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796), Wakefield claims that: “Botany is a branch of Natural History that possesses many advantages; it contributes to health of body and cheerfulness of disposition” [ii]. She also denounces that science “has been confined to the circle of the learned […] a difficulty that deterred many, particularly the female sex” [idem], making allusion to the use of Latin in science. In the book, it is precisely a young woman, Felicia, who writes to her sister Constance. Using this pretext, Wakefield introduces her young readers to botany in a very accessible and understandable manner. Wakefield understood that in order to become a member of society, able to stand by themselves, -intellectually, if not politically or socially,- women needed to be educated,-because knowledge is power.  This book was extremely successful: it was translated into French and re-edited eleven times. Another of her reflections on the natural world is An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters (1816).

The most successful of her books was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801), which includes a chapter on Catalonia, with a trip to Barcelona and Montserrat. It follows the voyages of Mr Seymour and his companions through Europe, with descriptions of every interesting detail, with a wide focus, from architecture to the landscape and plenty of anecdotes. It is really fascinating.

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Included in An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796)

Wakefield’s niece, Elizabeth Fry, became a prison reformer. She is the face on the £5 note. She also opened a school for nurses, a team of whom travelled with Florence Nightingale to Crimea to assist wounded soldiers.


 

Read more

Sources

[i] The Reports of the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. 
[ii] An Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, with Illustrative Engravings. 

 

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Newstead Abbey: Home of Byron

The first time I came across Newstead Abbey was when I received my second-hand copy of Leslie Marchand‘s “Byron: A Portrait”. In the middle of the biography, as usual, there is a section with pictures and portraits, one of them, of a beautiful building, with a footnote that read “Newstead Priory, Nottinghamshire”. I didn’t know how, or when, but I knew that I would, eventually, visit it. Several years after, last month, I finally stood in front of it, and I was even able to wander its rooms! The following is a brief account of the history of Newstead Abbey and Byron.

First of all, Newstead Abbey was never an Abbey. As Marchand noted, it was a Priory. So, what is the difference between the two? Well, an abbey is a catholic convent managed by an abbess or an abbot, whereas a priory is managed by a prior or a prioress -a lower rank than abbess or abbot-, and it is a subsidiary of an abbey. That being clarified, let us get into some historical background. Newstead was founded by Henry II in 1163 as an Augustinian Priory, and dissolved 400 years later by another Henry (VIII) in 1539 during the English Reformation. The king granted the building to Sir John Byron, who had to demolish the church, but was given permission to keep the façade, which turned into the iconic image we now know.

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Notably, the Madonna that you see on top was the only religious icon to survive.

Now, Sir John Byron left the state to his son, also John, who left it to his son, named, in a creative strike, also John. This third John, who was an MP and a Royalist commander, was granted the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale for the first time in 1643. Flash forward to 1798, when, -after a Richard and two more Williams- William Byron (The Wicked Lord), uncle of our Byron‘s father , dies. George Gordon, fatherless and a student at Harrow at the time, inherits the title and the state and becomes Lord Byron the sixth. Marchand explains that the news caused Byron much embarrassment in school and that at one point he burst into tears in class. After all, he was ten years old.

When Byron, accompanied by his mother and her maid, arrived at Newstead, he was confronted with a reality far from what he probably had expected. The Wicked Lord had sold most of the contents of the house, including structural parts of the building. The result was that Newstead was in ruins when it became Byron‘s. However, the poet decided to move there and invest in repairing part of it, enough to make it habitable.

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Bust of the man himself. It can be found next to Caroline Lamb’s. I don’t know who thought that was a good idea.

In a letter from November 2nd, 1808, Byron writes to his mother about the repairs at Newstead:

I am furnishing the house more for you than for myself, and I shall establish you in it before I sail for India […] I am now fitting the green drawing room, the red (as a bedroom) and the rooms over as sleeping rooms, they will be soon completed, at least I hope so.

Indeed, if you book a tour of the house, you will be able to visit the aforementioned rooms, which contain the furniture that Byron himself used, including his bed in Cambridge, his writing table, and even his coffee machine and his famous cranium-cup (see below). There are also most of the most well-known paintings of the poet and his relatives, a couple of busts (see above), several first editions of  his works and other curiosities, such as the helmet he was to wear in Greece, his jacket (which is very beautiful, so much that I would totally wear it every day), his ring, his fencing and boxing equipment or his shoes and pistols.

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The gardens are another of the elements of the state. They are divided into sixteen zones and occupy the enormous extension behind the house and next to the Garden Lake. Although there has always been gardening activity in Newstead, each family added a new zone, with new kinds of flora. As for the Byrons, they were responsible for the Great Garden and the ornamental ponds, canals, waterfalls and cascades. There is a field between the Garden Lake and the house, where Byron planted an oak in 1798, the protagonist of his poem To an Oak at Newstead, written ten years later. The oak became a tourist attraction after Byron’s death. The tree had to be cut down in 1915, and its remains are now an ivy-covered stump. In 1988, the Earl of Lytton planted another oak next to the original one to commemorate Byron‘s 200th anniversary. Another curiosity is that behind the façade of the church there is a monument, placed where Byron thought the altar would have been. This monument is the tomb of his dog, Boatswain, and it was intended to eventually become the poet’s resting place as well. Sadly, Byron‘s wish was not fulfilled, and he is buried in the family vault in Hucknall.

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Pilgrimage to Boatswain’s tomb.

Due to money issues, Byron had to sell Newstead in 1818. It was purchased by Thomas Wildman, who devoted time and money to the restoration of the place. After his death, William Frederick Webb bought it, and it was during that time when his friend Dr Livingstone spent time in the state in the 1860s. When Webb died, he left it to his children, and eventually his grandchild, Charles Ian Fraser, sold it to Julien Cahn, who gave it to the Nottingham Corporation in 1931 and became Sir Julien Cahn.

A final anecdote: the remains of the first Byrons can be found in the house’s gift shop. For real.

If you are interested in visiting the house and/or gardens, you can book a private tour in Newstead Abbey’s official website.


Sources

  • Lansdown, Richard. A New Selection: Byron’s Letters and Journals. Oxford: OUP. 2015.
  • Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. London: Random House. 1993.
  • “Newstead Abbey: Historic House and Gardens. A Tour of the House” Nottingham City Council.
  • “Newstead Abbey: A Tour of the Garden” Nottingham City Council.

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets

When Goodreads recommended me Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets , I was taken aback by both its title and its cover. It looked like the kind of badly written, cheap novel I do not like reading nor being seen with. However, fighting against my first impression, I decided to read some of my Goodreads’ friends’ reviews. They were extremely positive, and coming from people with what I believe is a good taste in literature, and a high critical spirit. So, what is this book about? Why was it recommended to me in the first place? The summary reads as follows:

In the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, three poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—come to prominence, famous and infamous, for their vivid personalities, and their glamorous, shocking, and sometimes tragic lives. In this electrifying novel, those lives are explored through the eyes of the women who knew and loved them—intensely, scandalously.

Four women from widely different backgrounds are linked by a sensational fate. Mary Shelley: the gifted daughter of gifted parents, for whom passion leads to exile, loss, and a unique fame. Lady Caroline Lamb: born to fabulous wealth and aristocratic position, who risks everything for the ultimate love affair. Fanny Brawne: her quiet, middle-class girlhood is transformed—and immortalized—by a disturbing encounter with genius. Augusta Leigh: the unassuming poor relation who finds herself flouting the greatest of all taboos.

I know, right? At this point I was torn between wishful joy at having found that novel on the Romantics which gave voice to the female side of the set and years of disappointments that translated into cynical skepticism. Encouraged by its positive reviews, I decided to give this 536 pages long novel a chance. And girl, was it worth it.

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Do not be fooled by the terrible cover! It’s actually very good.

Passion is a wonderfully written (and I mean, really, really well written), extremely detailed and well documented fictionalised biography of the lives of Mary W. Shelley, Fanny Brawne, Augusta Leigh and Caroline Lamb, not without the appearance of other women of the set such as Claire Clairmont, or Annabella Milbanke. The novel begins with Mary Wollstonecraft, pregnant with her first child, and ends after Byron’s death. It covers, in detail, the childhood, youth and mature age of all of the aforementioned women, as well as their relationships with the men in their lives. Much in the style of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent fictionalisation of the French Revolution A Place of Greater Safety, the novel combines monologues with playwriting, letters and prose narration, which gives the author the change to offer a different perspective into the action or into certain characters.

If you know little about the Romantics but are curious to learn more, this is the book for you. If you know a lot about the Romantics and want to spend your leisure reading time with a novel about them, this is the book for you. If you expect to find a biographically accurate fictionalisation of your favourite characters that will not make you cringe, this is the book for you. 

Visiting Chatsworth House

During my recent trip to Sheffield I could not miss the chance to visit the nearby Chatsworth House, known for being the real life Pemberley (Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright, 2005). The following is a brief account of my visit, featuring my friends Begoña and Jana, who came along with me to see me at the conference and with whom I visited Sheffield, Chatsworth House and Newstead Abbey. Some practical information to begin with: the entry ticket to the house and gardens was £18, and the return ticket for the bus from Sheffield to Chatsworth £5. You take the bus from Sheffield bus station, and it leaves you at the doors of Chatsworth. The landscape is breathtaking.

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Chatsworth House. A view from the lake. All images in this post belong to me.

Chatsworth House, a little History

Chatsworth House (Derbyshire) has been the seat of the Cavendish dinasty since the 16th century. Nowadays, and since the 17th century, it belongs to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The official page of the House offers information as far as to the 16th century and up until the present time.

In the 16th century, Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, who it is said grew up to become the second most powerful woman in England, -after Queen Elizabeth-,  convinced her second husband, William Cavendish, to move into Desbyshire, buy Chatsworth manor (1549) and begin building what was to become the stately home we now know. Queen Mary of Scots stayed as a prisoner in the house in different occasions between 1569-84, by order of Queen Elizabeth.

After Elizabeth Talbot died, her son William Cavendish became the heir of the family fortune. He was the first to become Earl of Devonshire.The fourth earl, another William, was one of the members of the Immortal Seven and a leader of the Whig party. He became the first Duke of Devonshire.

In 1774, the 5th duke of Devonshire, yet another William Cavendish, married Georgiana Spencer, who is now well known for being the protagonist of the film The Duchess (2008). Georgiana was a very active and social woman who filled the house with visitors and guests and gave it a new life.

During the Second World War Chatsworth was the home of the Penrhos College, an all-female boarding school from Wales. The house was not to be opened to visitors again until 1949. In 1941 the 11th duke married Deborah Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters (if you don’t know them, I strongly encourage you to look them up. The stuff of novels!).

The Chatsworth Gardens

We did not do any tour on the gardens, we simply sat down in awe and enjoyed the exceptional sun of a nice evening next to the lake. However, everything we saw was well cared for, carefully arranged and very clean. The gardens contrast with an overdecorated inside of the house, which cannot hold any more flower arrangements or people would not be able to get in. The visit is made more dynamic by a route, which guides the visitor through several stories, all dedicated to different periods of the history of the house and its inhabitants.

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There were ducks and ducklings swimming there!

Over all, taking the time to go to Chatsworth was a great idea, and I enjoyed the visit very much. It is a place full of history, not overcrowded, and surrounded by a picturesque, beautiful scenery that makes leaving very hard. If you have a chance to visit it, please take at least half an hour to sit down in the grass, close your eyes and listen to the birds, ducks, cows, sheep and the occasional pheasant.

 

Lifecycles: BSECS Postgrad conference in Barcelona

After arriving home from Sheffield, I barely had time to put my bags down. At 7am the next morning I was on my way to UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), my university, where I was to deliver a talk at the BSECS postgraduate conference. This year’s BSECS postgrad was organised by UAB PhD Alex Prunean and BSECS postgraduate representatives Jessica Clement and Jack Orchard. The theme was “lifecycles” and it gathered a quite varied and international group of postgraduate and early career scholars working on different fields within the study of the Eighteenth-Century: from Art History to Musicology, with a wide representation from the Literary field.

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Conference poster.

It was a very illuminating and positive experience in which I had the chance to meet a lot of young academics, learn about different areas of study, and get inspiration and advice for my own upcoming PhD. I also am very grateful to see that the studies on the Eighteenth Century remain alive and well, with enthusiast young blood with new ideas and new perspectives, doing great work. Moreover, I was happy to see the more experienced members of the BSECS engage with young people such as myself, open to hearing our points of view and giving us voices. Overall, it had a great couple of days, felt very comfortable with the group and with my own presentation and left with a feeling of wanting more.

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And here you have me discussing gender and performance in Dacre’s Zofloya

If you missed this year’s BSECS postgrad and wish to know what was discussed, Jack Orchard liveblogged part of the event and you can read that in Storify.

Thank you for having me, and I hope to see all of you soon!

Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil conference

Two weeks ago I had the chance to participate in the conference Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil at Sheffield University.  The experience, my first in the conference world, proved to be an excellent one. I had the most wonderful time, I learnt so much and I was left with a very positive feeling and a reassurance that Romanticism is the career I want to pursue and devote my life to.

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Mappin Building, where the talks took place.

The organisation (Maddie and Angela, along with other members of the Sheffield University staff) was not only hard-working and professional, they were also incredibly kind and welcoming, and made me feel at home. They crafted an exceptional few days: a great number of talks, great food for the breaks and even extra academic activities in the afternoon! Outstanding job. Thank you very much for your dedication, and thank you very much for having me!

The keynote speakers were excellent. Jane Stabler, Michael O’Neill and Jerrold Hogle gave very interesting, engaging plenary lectures. They also proved to be very generous individuals. They were with us at all times, introducing themselves to everybody, offering their help and experience to people ranging from professors to MA candidates like myself, with no exception.

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Professor Hogle’s plenary lecture at Mappin Hall: on Romanticism and the Gothic.

About the talks themselves, there were so many and I regret not owning a time-turner. The ones I did attend were quite different from each other: from Frankenstein and alchemy to Jane Austen’s Emma. They even had space for me discussing Dacre’s Zofloya! And for scientific talks as well: there were two panels on scientific matters, and one on ecoRomanticism.

I learnt so many different things and enjoyed every second of it. There is a strange, wonderful feeling in being in a room full of people who care so much about the same things you care about. Never in my life had I laughed, together with the rest of the room, at Romantic references and anecdotes! It made me feel like I was among friends.

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Blurry proof that I was there. Thank you to everybody who came and listened to me, I am grateful! And thank you to Dr. Andrew McInnes and Dr. Bill Hughes for your questions!

I look forward to meeting again all the academics I got to know this year in Sheffield. Even though I am shy by nature, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody, and I will always remember and I appreciate the gesture. Thank you to the organisers for having me, and thank you to Sheffield for being my home for a few days!

Young Romantics, by Daisy Hay. Best of.

Last month I read Daisy Hay’s biography of the Romantics, one of the most recent accounts of the lives of the Romantic circle. This book had been in my to-read list for six years, since its publication in 2010, and I finally decided it was time for it. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (Bloomsbury, 2010) explores “the interlinked lives of a group of writers, all of whom were characterised by their youth, by their idealism, and by a particular passionate engagement with politics, art, and the romance of intellectual adventure.” (xvi). Hay’s work differs from other Romantic biographies I have read in four main points. First, its scope is not limited to Byron and Shelley or their immediate circle, it dedicates a considerable space and well-researched attention to other personalities such as Leigh Hunt and his extended family, the Novellos, Jane and Edward Williams, John Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Hazzlit, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, John Cam Hobhouse,  Thomas Love Peacock, or Edward John Trelawny. This allows the author to consider the so-called second Romantic generation not as a “tightly coherent group of individuals” (xiv), but as group of people who draw inspiration from one another and found solace in their company, dismantling the idea that the Romantic writer’s creativity relies on isolation. It is refreshing and interesting to read a biography with this thesis, and not only does it make the book more engaging, but it also contributes to the field of research with an original approach. Thirdly, Hay devotes the same amount of consideration to the men as to the women. Not only does she discuss at length celebrated authors such as Mary W. Shelley, she also considers the life and works of women usually relegated to the shadows of the men in their lives, such as Bess Kent, who was not only the sister in law of Leigh Hunt but an author herself; Marianne Hunt; Claire Clairmont, Maria Gisborne, Mary Cowden Clark, or Jane Williams. Moreover, Hay also examines these women not only as individuals and in their own merits, but also in interaction with each other, demonstrating that emotional and intellectual ties and conflicts were not exclusive to the Romantic men. A final divergence from other biographies is that Hay does not finish her narrative when Shelley and Byron die. She continues her narrative until the latest member of the coterie is gone, so the reader gets to know Claire Clairmont and Edward J. Trelawny in their old age. Especially interesting is the approach to Claire Clairmont’s later years. Being the last surviving, she is able to review her life and her relationships with the perspective of time: “Claire idealised neither the individual nor the group, but instead presented a more complicated version of a  shared history” (304). All in all, Daisy Hay offers a well-written, well researched, detailed account of the lives of several members of the Romantic coterie and explores with an acute insight how companionship, love, admiration, conflict and quarrels were at the core of the intellectual and artistic development of the Romantic circle.

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The covers of the different editions (at least three) are a thing of beauty.

Best of: curiosities and personal favourites

My paperback edition of Young Romantics is filled with a rainbow of sticky bookmarks, so this best-of promises to be long. I will, however, select the absolute favourites. Let us start at the beginning, with Leigh Hunt, incarcerated for two years at Surrey Gaol, accused of libel due to his radical publications in The Examiner. It is certainly curious, to the modern reader, that Hunt was allowed to live in the house of the master of the prison -a common practice amongst gentleman criminals charged with offences such as Hunt’s, Hay tells us-. He was, moreover, permitted to decorate his rooms and to receive visitors: “I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds…” (5), bookcases, flowers and a pianoforte completed the picture. I found it significant, and particularly revealing of Hunt’s emotional comfort strategies that when he left prison he decorated his studio in the same way his gaol headquarters were. An amusing anecdote involves Marianne Hunt and her letters to her husband, who she missed very much: “fancy were you would  like to have me most, and you will know that I’ve dreamt of , &c., &c., &c.!!!” (18). With three exclamations points, no less. It is no surprise that after Marianne came to live in the prison’s room with him, she immediately fell pregnant (Hunt himself acted as midwife months later on that birth).

But enough of the Hunts, let us now see what the Shelleys were up to: In one of my favourite footnotes of all time, Hay quotes Miranda Seymour and suggests that Mary and Percy’s first sexual encounter (this is getting monothematic) may have taken place in St Pancras churchyard, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave being “presiding over their union […] conveniently shaded by willows” (36). I… will cherish this theory forever as a conversation opener at any party I might attend in the future.

The Novellos were a family of (11 children!) musicians. One of the Novello daughters, Clare, became one of the most celebrated sopranos of her time. Vincent Novello, the father, was one of the founders of the London Philharmonic Society, the objective of which was to bring music to the masses. The Novellos believed in treating their children as equals, which created an harmonious, happy household in which poets and journalists found themselves at peace. Hay mentions one particular party at the Novello’s in which Vincent Novello would play the piano, Hunt would sing, and Keats would play an unnamed instrument: “leaning against the instrument, one foot raised on his knee and the smoothed back between his hands” (113) while Shelley and Lamb listened. It’s a Romantics as musical band AU dream come true.

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Painting by Edward Petre Novello, oil on canvas, circa 1830. Tag yourself.

Byron was not the only one interested in the movements of independence struggle in Greece. Mary W. Shelley is said to have followed the developments of Mavrocordato’s battle with much interest: “she was thrilled that yet another Mediterranean country had thrown off the yoke of imperial rule” (212). In fact, her second novel, Valperga, is set in Renaissance Italy and explores, using parallels between the past and the present, the nationalist revolutions of the 1820s. Mary claimed that “Italy needed to rise out of political letargy in order to achieve its independence.” I was ignorant of Mary’s interest and involvement in politics and national independence movements, and I think it is a very interesting point I’d like to read more scholars engaging with in the future.

The group decided to perform Othello at Byron‘s palazzo. To nobody’s surprise, Byron wanted to play Iago.

When, after Percy’s death, Mary W. Shelley returned to London, she found herself famous. The Lyceum Theatre had staged a production of Frankenstein and Mary went to see it. The staging made the novel popular again, and with it, Mary as well. Her new status provided her with a little money and a certain respect and attention in the literary circles.

Hay writes that one of the Novello daughters, Mary Victoria Novello (who would later become Mary Crowden Clarke), thirteen-years old, had a crush on Mary W. Shelley. Mary W. S. brought her a necklace of coral beds and a copy of Frankenstein, and Mary Victoria expressed her admiration by writing a pen-portrait of the author (288).

Jane Shelley, wife of the only surviving child of Mary and Percy is described as having “transformed the reputations of Shelley and Mary through the sheer force of her personality” (302). Jane created a shrine for her deceased in-laws and made the bodies of Mary’s parents -William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft be disinterred and brought to where Mary was buried. When the vicar refused to allow her move them, she stood with the coffins outside of the cemetery until he relented.

Edward John Trelawny, best known for having an incredible imagination and lying more than he talked, left detailed instructions about his burial wishes. He had his ashes be buried next to Percy Shelley’s in Rome’s protestant cemetery. On his headstone, he had had inscribed four lines of Shelley’s poetry on friendship. This would not be surprising if it weren’t for the fact that Trelawny had known Shelley for less than a year and there is no evidence that in that time Trelawny was crowned with the honour of being the poet’s BFF.

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Image from Trelawny’s wikipedia page. The cane belongs to his biographer.