The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: Library of Congress, Washington D.C., United States of America

Description: This is the inside cover of a notebook jointly owned by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS), and Claire Clairmont. It was used by this close-knit group of writers from 1814-18, and is now held in the Library of Congress. The notebook accompanied the Shelleys and Claire on their 1816 travels through Europe, and contains material in all three of their hands, some of which pertains to the composition and publication of MWS’s first novel Frankenstein.

The notebook was acquired by MWS in 1814, as is evident from the inscription: ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin | May 16th | 1814’ (see image above). The 16-year-old MWS uses her maiden name, and continues: ‘Shall I write a poem on receiving a | cordial shake of the hand at parting from | an esteemed and excellent person | [?alas] I cannot write poetry’. This musing has been explained as describing MWS’s feelings on her early relationship with PBS, and there is evidence for this interpretation in the notebook itself. Someone (not one of the Shelleys themselves, or Claire) has written in pencil on the manuscript: ‘Mary’s – believed to refer to Shelley – their meeting’.  We do not know who added this commentary – but it stands as an example of the mythology that surrounds the Shelleys. Whoever encountered and potentially owned the book sought to untangle what these words might mean in direct relation to the Shelleys as lovers – and subsequently added their own holograph to the page.

There are 68 pages in the notebook. It includes PBS’s review of Frankenstein and his On the Game Laws, MWS’s translation of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ from Apuleius, and more of her Latin exercises on Virgil’s Aeneid. There are also some Latin exercises and an Italian transcription by Claire.

Small and heavily worn, the book features only one blank page. The review of Frankenstein by PBS is not placed chronologically in the book, showing that the Shelleys would have picked up spare bits of paper here and there where they could. The review was written into this notebook used by both authors, indicating that MWS may have overseen its composition, and thus reducing the possibility that the Shelleys were completely at odds with each other regarding the content and purpose of Frankenstein. The placement of the review of Frankenstein in particular, in a shared workspace, suggests a less conflicted working relationship between the Shelleys than has been argued by scholars such as Anne K. Mellor.

Date: 1814-18

Creator: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Claire Clairmont, anonymous hand

Subject: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Frankenstein

Media rights: Library of Congress no longer holds copyright. Image reproduced from scan made by the author.

Object type: manuscript

Format: ink on paper

Language: English, Italian, Latin

Location: Library of Congress

Collection record: MSS. 13, 290 – the Shelleys’ 1814-18 notebook