Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

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An Opening in a Holland House Dinner Book

image of an open manuscript book

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: British Library, London.

Description: This opening occurs in the first of the dinner books kept at Holland House, Kensington, in which Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland, 1771-1845) recorded who dined at the house between 1799 and 1845. The coterie that gathered at this Jacobean mansion, then on the outskirts of west London, kept alive the flame of Charles James Fox, the uncle of Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (Lord Holland, 1749-1806). The group continued Fox’s desire for reform, especially his fight for the emancipation of slaves and Catholics, his opposition to European wars, and his support of global freedom movements. The international dimension of these concerns meant the house was a kind of alternative foreign office for liberal culture and politics, receiving European authors and politicians who it was hoped would spread Foxite principles aboard. The centre of exchange for this group was the dining room, in which Lady Holland played the chatelaine, entertaining the leading cultural figures of Romantic culture. Her eight assiduously kept dinner books, which Leslie Mitchell neatly describes as ‘catalogues of talent’, document forty-five years of the salon. (Mitchell, 35)

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The Commonplace Book of Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma

Image of an open manuscript book with a red cover

Contributor: Diego Saglia and Francesca Sandrini

Location: Salone delle Feste, tavolo 3; Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma.

Description: This object, a commonplace book, speaks to a number of questions: What did a European female ruler from the Romantic period read? And how did she respond to the works? And was this reading also a creative, ‘writerly’ act?

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) to her death in 1847, was a keen reader who kept several diaries, akin both to English commonplace books and the French practice of extraits et mélanges. There she transcribed longer and shorter extracts from the books she read, as well as her own observations and reflections. This commonplace book in our exhibition is the most significant and representative of them. This kind of artefact was in fact a relatively common phenomenon among women (and men) of the middle and upper classes all around Europe; yet, this specific example offers insights into a woman whose life blended public and private aspects, officialdom and intimacy, in peculiar and significant ways. Mixing reading and writing, reception and creation, Marie Louise’s commonplace book may be argued to be ultimately a vehicle for authoring both one’s own book and, in turn, one’s own Romantic self.

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Transcript of Poems, by John Keats

Image of the handwritten title page of a book, reading "Poems by John Keats"

Contributor: Deidre Lynch

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Description: Though its title page, imaged here, identifies this as the book Romanticists know as Keats’s debut volume, and though the pages following this one contain, in the identical order and layout, each line of verse that Poems, by John Keats contained in 1817, this is not that book, not exactly. This handwritten transcription of Poems was created in 1828, seven years after Keats’s death. It was commissioned by the poet’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who presented it to his sister, the juvenile fiction author Isabella Jane Towers, as a birthday gift. (A notice on the page facing the book’s half-title commemorates Clarke’s gift.) As a consequence of this arrangement this book has, as this title page informs us, both an author –John Keats– and a writer, J. C. Stephens (likely a professional scrivener), whose name is referenced at the foot of the page, along with Towers’s.

The value of Clarke’s gift appears to have derived as much from the labours of that writer’s pen as from the literary content the pen conveyed. For Towers did not require this transcription as a reading copy: a (printed) copy of Poems with her ownership signature can be found at Keats House in Hampstead. Why then was this book created? It is hard to say. What we can say is that its existence challenges some of our usual assumptions about Romantic-period books and European book-culture.

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A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Description: This is a copy of the 1822 edition of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes in its original board covers, containing an account of an ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Five hundred copies of the Guide were printed, selling for 5/- (25p) each. This copy is of a size that could be carried on a tour. Wordsworth’s Guide was deeply influenced by his travels in Europe, in particular his experience in 1790, when he (then twenty years old) walked through France to the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. The history of this account of the ascent of Scafell Pike suggests in addition how Rousseau’s influential depictions of the Alps affected how the landscape of the Lakes was experienced.

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Robert Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock’ Edition (1786)

Frontispiece of Burns's Kilmarnock Edition

Contributor: Gerard Carruthers

Location: University of Glasgow Library

Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’ debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of the only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one surviving copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.

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