The Harvard Shelley Notebook

The Harvard Shelley Notebook

Contributor: Tim Sommer

Location: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Description: This manuscript notebook contains fair copies of several poems Shelley wrote during his time in Italy between late 1819 and the summer of 1820.  It provides fascinating evidence of the process of creative labour and of the different stages of composition a text undergoes before transitioning into the medium of print, and of collaboration between the Shelleys. But it also sheds light on the nineteenth-century canonization of British Romantic writers through both the dispersal and the collection of their material remains, telling the story of the considerable part that North American enthusiasm played in the process. 

The dates indicated below several of the texts contained in this manuscript volume suggest that Shelley used the notebook between late 1819 and the summer of 1820, when he and his wife Mary were living first in Florence and then in Pisa (see Reiman xviii–xxviii on the dating and contents of the volume). Bound in vellum, the notebook in its present state is composed of 51 leaves. Many leaves were either cut or torn out after the poems were copied, however. The first surviving leaf is paginated “47” and features the opening stanzas of “The Sensitive Plant.” A two-page manuscript table of contents in Mary Shelley’s hand – covering the verso of the final page and the rear pastedown (the latter pictured above) – shows that the first two quires of the notebook originally contained fair copies of the longer poems Julian and Maddalo and The Mask of Anarchy. Some of the material missing from the notebook eventually found its way into European and North American collections (Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York). Most of the poems represented in the volume are in Shelley’s holograph, with some copied material in his wife’s handwriting. With a few exceptions, the texts that appear in the notebook were published as part of Prometheus Unbound […] with Other Poems in 1820 or included in Mary’s edition of Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) and the four-volume Poetical Works (1839) (the more overtly political material that features in the notebook had been excluded from the 1824 book).

Like literary manuscripts and author notebooks, more generally, this object is revealing because it provides evidence of the process of creative labour and of the different stages of composition a text undergoes before transitioning into the medium of print. Several of the leaves removed at a later stage were likely used directly as press copy for the printer. The notebook also offers insights into the collaboration between the Shelleys (on which, more generally, see Mercer). As her handwritten index demonstrates, Mary Shelley handled the notebook at several points during her husband’s lifetime, and she drew on it during the 1820s and 1830s in her role as Shelley’s “privileged mediator” (Wolfson 193) and editor of his posthumous writings.

In addition to such textual and philological interest, however, what makes this notebook an intriguing object is the history of its provenance, which opens a window into the nineteenth-century canonization of Romantic writers and the sacralization of their material remains. At some point after Mary Shelley’s editorial use of the notebook, it ended up in the hands of Claire Clairmont (1798–1879), Mary’s stepsister and the mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra. Clairmont spent the final decade of her life in Florence, treasuring the Shelley material in her possession. By that point, Shelley had become recognized as a major writer and inspired the followership of devoted admirers. One of them was Captain Edward Augustus Silsbee (1826–1900), an American seaman and merchant. A Shelley enthusiast and ardent collector in pursuit of literary relics (see Pascoe 1–21), Silsbee paid regular lengthy visits to Clairmont and her niece Pauline (1825–1891) in Florence during the 1870s. He started a relationship with Pauline to increase his chances of obtaining access to the manuscripts and indeed managed to acquire the notebook before Claire Clairmont passed away. Silsbee temporarily deposited it at Harvard University in 1877 (see Cameron 910–13, Reiman xiv–xvi, and Hebron and Denlinger 168–74), where George Edward Woodberry, a young admirer – and later editor – of Shelley got a glimpse of both Silsbee and the notebook:

I recall the way in which he handled the volume, carefully, fluttering the leaves as he picked out some of the more characteristic pages of the script, passing over others quickly, as if he felt a trust in his hands, and a privacy not to be lost sight of – something precious and intimate and inviolable – the sense of which long lingered in me. After a while I held in my own hands myself what was to me a sacred relic. I can still feel the thrill in my fingers, as they moved over lines where Shelley’s hand had hovered, while I listened to the accompaniment of Silsbee’s impetuous enthusiasm […]. (Woodberry 19)

The “Shelleymad” Silsbee (ibid.) donated the notebook to Harvard a decade later (the provenance and date are recorded twice on the rear pastedown) along with another, smaller account book which contains fair copies of earlier poems whose composition predates the Shelleys leaving England in the spring of 1818 (MS. Eng. 258.3).

The story of Silsbee’s transatlantic Shelley mission inspired what is arguably the nineteenth century’s greatest manuscript-themed fiction, Henry James’s novella The Aspern Papers (1888), which turns Silsbee into the narrator-protagonist of a tragic tale about literary hero worship (see Stocking on the links between fact and fiction). After hearing about the Silsbee–Clairmont connection, James drafted the outlines of the novella in one of his own notebooks, which today is also at Harvard. The story, he wrote, revolves around a “Shelley fanatic” who “cherished the idea of getting hold of” unique manuscript relics and was consumed with the desire to “put his hand on the documents” in question (James 33). The ultimate irony of James’s text, of course, is that the protagonist’s obsession with the relics of the author he venerates ultimately leads to their material destruction. In the gendered dynamics of the story, it is the female gatekeeper who ultimately retains control over the manuscripts in her keeping.

A different fate was in store for the actual Shelley papers owned by the Clairmonts. Silsbee handed his two notebooks over to Harvard for permanent safekeeping, moving the manuscripts from the Clairmonts’ Florence drawing room to Harvard’s Cambridge reading room and from the amateur custodianship of Shelley’s female admirers to the professional attention of male relic worshippers like Woodberry, who in the late nineteenth century were beginning to study Romantic writers in the framework of the modern research university and of literary studies as a modern academic discipline. The bulk of the material remaining in Claire Clairmont’s possession at the time of her death was sold by her niece to Silsbee’s rival, Harry Buxton Forman (1842–1917) – another Shelley maniac and one of the poet’s late-nineteenth-century English editors. When Forman’s library – including his Shelleyana – was sold at auction in New York in 1920, many of the manuscripts formerly in his possession were bought up by American private collectors. Several of these private collections subsequently became institutions open to the public (among them the Huntington Library in San Marino and the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia).

The history of the private and institutional ownership of the notebook and the history of its material survival are thus emblematic of the development of modern manuscript collecting since the second half of the nineteenth century. More specifically, this history testifies to an extended early American interest in British Romantic primary sources and material objects – an interest that has resulted in the physical dispersal of such material, which today is spread across institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. During the Gilded Age, American collectors acquired modern literary manuscripts alongside a wide range of European heritage artefacts, which included rare books, prints, paintings, and sculptures. The collecting of wealthy industrialists and financiers, among them Silsbee’s contemporaries Henry E. Huntington and John Pierpont Morgan, formed part of a larger transfer of economic and geopolitical power. It was as much about individual ambition as it was about putting the United States at large on the global cultural map. In addition to buying up and relocating manuscript material, such efforts also comprised an interest in European literary heritage sites. American support was key, for instance, in the campaign to purchase and restore the Keats–Shelley House in Rome and turn it into a public museum at the beginning of the twentieth century. Shelley in this context offered himself as a collecting target because of his European associations. An object produced by an English poet in an Italian setting bought by an American collector and deposited in a New England institution modelled on the old British universities, the Harvard Shelley notebook and its institutional afterlife encapsulate a century of European and transatlantic cultural history.

Date: 1819–1820 and later

Creator: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Subject: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Edward Augustus Silsbee

Object type: manuscript

Physical format: ink on paper, vellum; 21 x 15.5 cm

Media rights: Public domain

Publisher: Harvard College Library Digital Imaging Group, 2011:

Catalogue number: MS Eng 258.2

Related objects: The Notebook Shared by the Shelleys, 1814–1818; Shelley’s Inkstand; The Shelley Memorial


Hebron, Stephen, and Elizabeth C. Denlinger. Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010.

James, Henry. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Mercer, Anna. “Rethinking the Shelleys’ Collaborations in Manuscript.” Keats-Shelley Review 31.1 (2017): 49–65.

Pascoe, Judith. The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Reiman, Donald H. “Introduction.” The Harvard Shelley Poetic Manuscripts. Ed. Donald H. Reiman. New York and London: Garland, 1991. xiii–xl.

Stocking, Marion K. “Miss Tina and Miss Plin: The Papers Behind The Aspern Papers.” The Evidence of the Imagination: Studies of Interactions Between Life and Art in English Romantic Literature. Ed. Donald H. Reiman, Michael C. Jaye, and Betty T. Bennett. New York: New York University Press, 1978. 372–84.

Wolfson, Susan J. “Mary Shelley, Editor.” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Ed. Esther Schor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 193–210.

Woodberry, George Edward. “Postscript.” The Shelley Notebook in the Harvard College Library. Ed. George Edward Woodberry. Cambridge, MA: John Barnard Associates, 1929. 19–23.