‘Percy’s birthday. A divine day; sunny and cloudless; somewhat cold in the evening. It would be pleasant enough living in Pisa if one had a carriage and could escape from one’s house to the country without mingling with the inhabitants.’ This is Mary Shelley, who died 160 years ago today, writing in her diary while still a young woman and living in Italy with one of Britain’s most revered poets. Though not a great read, her diaries do provide insight into the literary couple’s life.
Mary was born in London, in 1757, into a highly cultured family - her father was a liberal philosopher, and her mother, who died while giving birth, was a celebrated writer. She was educated privately, but, soon after meeting the young poet Percy Shelley in 1814, eloped to France with him, if only for a few weeks. Back in London, the two lived together, and then, in 1816 after the death of Shelley’s first wife, they married. Two years later, Mary’s novel Frankenstein was published. It was an immediate success.
The same year, the Shelleys moved to Italy, where they lived in various locations. They had three children, two of whom did not survive infancy. Percy himself died in a boating accident in 1822, and Mary returned to England with her only surviving son. She did not remarry, but carried on with her writing, promoting Shelley’s works, and looking after her father and son. She died on 1 February 1851. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia and Kirjasto.
Although Mary Shelley wrote a few other novels, none were as successful as Frankenstein, which, nearly 200 years later, is considered a classic of the Gothic genre. She also wrote many short stories, and kept a diary. A good description of her original diaries, five of them, can be found in Rosalie Glynn Grylls’s biography, Mary Shelley (Oxford University Press, 1938) much of which is available online at Googlebooks.
The first of Mary Shelley’s diaries to be published was one written jointly with Percy in 1814. Its account of their wanderings on the Continent was later put into more of a narrative form by Mary and published in 1817 by T Hookham - History of a six weeks’ tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland - see Internet Archive.
In the 1880s came The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Mrs Florence Marshall (also freely available online at Internet Archive). This contained substantial extracts from Mary’s diaries, and was published by Richard Bentley in two volumes. There have been many other editions, more recently, for example, in 1987, Clarendon Press published two volumes of The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, as edited by Paula R Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert.
Mary Shelley’s diaries are not the most enthralling of reads, but they are considered an important source of information not only about her own life but about her more famous poet husband. Here are a few extracts, the first dating from her teenage elopement to France with Percy.
14 August 1814
‘At four in the morning we depart from Troyes, and proceed in the new vehicle to Vandeuvres. The village remains still ruined by the war. We rest at Vandeuvres two hours, but walk in a wood belonging to a neighbouring chateau, and sleep under its shade. The moss was so soft; the murmur of the wind in the leaves was sweeter than Aeolian music we forgot that we were in France or in the world for a time.’
12 August 1816
‘Write my story and translate. Shelley goes to the town, and afterwards goes out in the boat with Lord Byron. After dinner I go out a little in the boat, and then Shelley goes up to Diodati. I translate in the evening, and read Le Vieux de la Montagne, and write. Shelley, in coming down, is attacked by a dog, which delays him; we send up for him, and Lord Byron comes down; in the meantime Shelley returns.’
9 March 1819
‘Shelley and I go to the Villa Borghese. Drive about Rome. Visit the Pantheon. Visit it again by moonlight, and see the yellow rays fall through the roof upon the floor of the temple. Visit the Coliseum.’
12 November 1820
‘Percy’s birthday. A divine day; sunny and cloudless; somewhat cold in the evening. It would be pleasant enough living in Pisa if one had a carriage and could escape from one’s house to the country without mingling with the inhabitants, but the Pisans and the Scolari, in short, the whole population, are such that it would sound strange to an English person if I attempted to express what I feel concerning them crawling and crab-like through their sapping streets. Read Corinne. Write.’
13 November 1820
‘Finish Corinne. Write. My eyes keep me from all study; this is very provoking.’
14 November 1820
‘Write. Read Homer, Targione, and Spanish. A rainy day. Shelley reads Calderon.’
23 November 1820
‘Write. Read Greek and Spanish. Medwin ill. Play at chess.’
24 November 1820
‘Read Greek, Villani, and Spanish with M. . . . Pacchiani in the evening. A rainy and cloudy day.’
1 December 1820
‘Read Greek, Don Quixote, Calderon, and Villani. Pacchiani comes in the evening. Visit La Viviani. Walk. Sgricci is introduced. Go to a funzione on the death of a student.’
2 December 1820
‘Write an Italian letter to Hunt. Read Oedipus, Don Quixote, and Calderon. Pacchiani and a Greek prince call Prince Mavrocordato.’