Fact and fiction in a biography of Shelley

“This featherlight meringue of a book would likely be mouldering at the bottom of history’s compost heap if not for its connection to the most famous bird in 20th-century literature,” wrote Tim Martin in the Daily Telegraph of Ariel: A Shelley Romance by Andre Maurois. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10651185/The-Alphabet-Library-A-is-for-Ariel-by-Andre-Maurois.html  The reference to the famous bird is to Penguin, the book imprint, because Ariel: A Shelley Romance was the first Penguin book to be published. Although the book is disturbing and “featherlight,” I think that Martin is wrong. But it’s a disturbing book.

percy-bysshe

It’s disturbing because of how it unashamedly mixes fact and fiction. Richard Holmes, who wrote a “serious” but no doubt readable biography of Shelley, describes it as “narrated in a clipped, flippant, risqué style of unparalleled brilliance.” He goes on “Syncopating between fact and fiction, inventing dialogue, sentimentalising love scenes, colouring up landscapes, it traces….” But what is fact and what is fiction, and does it matter?

I came to the book via another book. In the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard two 15-year-old girls in 1940 exchange books, and one gives the other Ariel: A Shelley Romance. (In retrospect I recognise is as a bold and risqué choice.) I’ve long wanted to read a biography of Shelley, and I’ve been unsure what to read. I looked up Ariel: A Shelley Romance and discovered that it was written by Andre Maurois, of whom I knew nothing more than his name, and was the first Penguin book. That it was mentioned by Howard and was the first Penguin was enough for me: I got the book and have now read it.

Maurois published the book in French in 1923, and Holmes writes: “This remarkable little book almost succeeded in destroying Shelley’s reputation as a serious writer and poet for 50 years.” That sentence perturbs me: if the book “almost succeeded in destroying Shelley’s reputation,” it actually failed and how could something that didn’t happen last 50 years; and how exactly did it almost succeed? On reflection, I see that it is because it says so little about his poetry or his other writings. For example, I waited for mention of the Mask of Anarchy, Shelley’s great poem written after the Peterloo Massacre, but neither the massacre nor the poem were mentioned. But here are some quotes anyway:

And that slaughter to the Nation

Shall steam up like inspiration,

Eloquent, oracular;

A volcano heard afar.

 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many – they are few.”

 

(As I read those lines I think of Bloody Sunday and Sharpeville.)

 

The poem was banned for 30 years.

 

And Shelley’s reputation during his lifetime and long afterwards was such that people shunned him. He was an atheist; it’s hard for us to understand in this age of atheism that it was a terrible thing to be an atheist, akin to being a paedophile these days. Shelley’s friend Byron was utterly debauched and a monster whereas Shelley was deeply moral, but Byron was a Christian (at least in name). Byron was the first rock star (and perhaps the only ever rock star poet), and his poems were bestsellers while few read Shelley. Shelley was also against marriage, for what we subsequently called “free love,” and made the case for suicide. Ironically, he married the two women by whom he had children (one, Mary Shelley, after she’d already born him two children), and the suicides of Harriet, his first wife, and Fanny, a sister-in-law who loved him, caused him great grief.

 

Maurois is following in the path set by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians—be sure to tell a good story of a life even if you must be cavalier with the facts. Ariel: A Shelley Romance is to be read as one story of Shelley’s life, and it is a story that is more concerned to create a “a feel” of Shelley rather than a flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all biography; and note that I write “a feel” not “the feel.” Hence the title of the book.

 

If I were to be able to find 50 people who knew Shelley well and ask them to tell me about him I would hear 50 stories. Some like his father would tell of a monster; others like Mary his wife would tell of the kindest, sweetest, most moral and talented man who ever lived. Probably the most unreliable version of all would come from Shelley himself: I don’t mean here to single out Shelley but rather to argue that autobiographies are the most distorted stories of all. We all invent a story of our lives. So is it wrong for Maurois to tell his version? I think not, so long as we recognise it to be one story.

 

And can a biographer ever arrive at a “true account”? He or she can be scrupulous with facts, attribute all references to the subject, and be cautious in the extreme and transparent with any speculation. But will such an account be more “true” than a story told by a gifted storyteller? The answer must be yes, but it will still be a partial story of a life that depends heavily on selection and arrangement of facts. The result can be dull, as I reflected in my blog on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/reflections-on-the-difficulty-of-writing-biographies-after-reading-claire-tomalins-biography-of-dickens/

 

What I do conclude is that I must read another biography of Shelley, probably the one by Holmes.

 

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2 thoughts on “Fact and fiction in a biography of Shelley

  1. Thanks for the Ariel: Shelley Romance link which I’ll check. I read n recommend Holmes’ Shelley. Used it as a rough guide in Italy….was left with horror at Shelley/Byron competition, which when applied to boats, contributed to Shelley’s drowning. I’d be interested in seeing any review you do of Holmes.

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    • Thanks for the suggestion. I read the first volume of Holmes’s biography of Coleridge many years ago but have read his other biographies. I’ll add it to my “to read” list, which is growing faster than my “read” list–one strong argument for immortality, which otherwise I’m strongly against.

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