Tag Archive: Percy Bysshe Shelley

While big-name museums tend to house the most famous works — and, usually, they’re famous for good reason — I love the lesser-known places for the up-close access you get. Sure, it was fabulous seeing artifacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb when the tour came to the Franklin Institute, but you can see comparable finds in just as good condition at The Oriental Institute in Chicago, where you can stare as long as you want, or even take a picture (as you can see).

On one of our pilgrimages to places connected to people we admire, Hubby and I trekked to the Bournemouth area in southern England to visit Mary Shelley’s grave and a minor museum called The Shelley Rooms. It was one of those places where you walk in, you have the place practically to yourself, and an old guy who’s holding down the fort comes over and talks to you fondly about his favorite topic. (At this point, I always wish my grandfather had done that kind of thing.)

The Shelley Rooms, once the home of the Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, housed a small collection of memorabilia, once belonging to a friend of the family. The item I remember most vividly is a generous lock of the poet’s hair, taken when his flowing childhood locks were cropped for good. Talk about a personal effect! Considering that he was cremated, this is about as close to the man (physically) as you can get.

The experience was moving — more moving than seeing Mary’s grave, and I’m generally more an admirer of hers than his. (In fact, Mary makes a short appearance in my book For the Love of Lila, advising the heroine not to forsake love for liberation.)

From what little I can glean on the Web, The Shelley Rooms have been sold and are now part of a doctor’s office. (“Despair!”) So for an alternative Shelley experience, check out Vincent Price’s reading of his poem “Ozymandias” here.

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Like the “monster” within its pages, the book Frankenstein had a legendary birth. Bored during a rainy summer visit to Geneva, Switzerland, Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, the notorious Lord Byron, and their physician friend John Polidori, held a private contest to see who could write the best creepy story. Nineteen-year-old Mary ended up penning the world’s first science-fiction novel.

Mary Shelley, as painted in a miniature by Reginald Easton

When I first heard about that fateful summer, probably when I was in middle school, Mary’s life sounded like a teenage dream: her precocious success, her romantic marriage, her uber-creative social circle … (Only at a more-mature age did I focus on the tragedies of her young widowhood and the losses of three of her four children!)

Mary’s summer in Geneva is explored, kind of clumsily, in the Ken Russell cult film Gothic, which shows the literary friends indulging in opium-induced orgies. The movie is pure fiction, but some biographical details of the smart, young free-thinkers involved do hint that they walked a fine line between creative and craven.

My own fascination with that legendary summer spurred the idea for For the Love of Lila, in which a Regency-period writer travels to Paris to emulate her free-thinking older cousin. Lila has been shielded from the sordid side of her black-sheep cousin’s life, so when she reaches the City of Light, she gets more than she bargained for.

Because Lila lives out my teenage fantasy — experiencing both peaks and valleys — her story is close to my heart. If you’ve ever dreamed of a living creative-cum-craven lifestyle, I hope you’ll enjoy it, too. ; )

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