January 10, 2014

Mary Shelley’s unpublished letters reveal plumed headdress, humor, sappy stuff about her kid


MaryShelleyNora Crook, who is an expert on the Romantic period and professor emerita at Anglia Ruskin University, recently found thirteen unpublished letters from Mary Shelley. While she was researching another writer in Essex, Crook stumbled on the largest collection of Shelley’s letters discovered in decades, and which, in Crook’s words, give readers a glimpse of Shelley’s “charming, wheedling side.”

The letters are dated from 1831 to 1849, beginning nine years after Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, passed away and ending a few years before her own death. Addressed to her late husband’s friend Horace Smith and Smith’s daughter Eliza, they bore Shelley’s personal seal.

The letters had been catalogued in the Essex Record Office as “Letter from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,” and Crook happened upon them during a search for a 19th-century novelist (whom Shelley mentions in one of the letters about her father). No one had made a connection between Shelley and Essex, but it seems the letters ended up with Smith’s youngest daughter, who married into Essex’s Round family. The letters turned up in the Round family papers.

They give us a sense that the author of Frankenstein was as capable of being a little shallow, and often funny. And on the eve of William IV’s coronation, she calls a hairdresser at 3 AM. She enjoys the coronation from beneath a plumed headdress: “The whole thing was wondrously splendid—Diamonds & cloth of gold grew common to the eye.”

She declares herself “mortified” her son wasn’t taller. She also writes some sappy mom stuff: “He is getting all that we could wish – he is getting very liberal – & has so much character & talent – though still shy – that I have every hope for his future happiness.”

“What is nice is that Mary Shelley’s personality emerges,” Crook remarked in the Guardian. “We see her as very loyal to the Smith family, very grateful and very attentive to Eliza—I don’t think that friendship has ever been fully documented.”



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.