Editorial: Welcome to PROTA 9 - the last PROTA of the year. (November's 'Pan' will be a book review extravaganza). In this issue, we focus on the great Regency author MARY SHELLEY; too often overshadowed by her even more famous poet husband, Percy Bysshe. First up is a Q&A with freelance artist and sculptor, BRYAN MOORE, who recently completed, in bronze, a noteworthy bust of the author on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the original publication of Mary's seminal novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Following this is an equally fascinating second, with Shelley scholar and President of Music Canada, GRAHAM HENDERSON. We end with a double-length review of FIONA SAMPSON's recent biography on Mary. Our fate is sealed where 'er the leaves may fall...
Creator of the Mary Shelley bronze bust on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein
MA: What originally inspired your choice of subject for sculpting?
BRYAN MOORE: My choices for the author bronze bust series were always authors whose work that I particularly enjoyed, starting with Lovecraft, Poe, Stoker and of course Mary Shelley. Horror fiction would be nowhere today if it weren't for her Herculean efforts in realizing one of the most daring and original works of all time.
MA: How have you found the fundraising journey?
BM: Make no mistake, it's hard work and you can easily stop being an artist and become a full time salesman, but that goes part and parcel in the world of freelance art. My entire career has always been an exercise in selling in one form or another and while it's much easier to sell today with the advent of social media, it's also harder as many other artists are competing for the same dollars that you are. We all have to make our way through life and it's always a struggle no matter who you are or for how long you've been doing your art.
MA: The fundraising aside, what else did you find the biggest challenge in creating the bust?
BM: Time and scheduling. There's never enough of it. Also, nailing down a donor location. I get told 'no' far more often than I get told 'yes.' I also have to hear the endless (and quite useless) opinions of others. I tune it out and my attorney handles the rest.
MA: What reliable pictorial sources for the bust’s creation did you have to hand?
BM: With Mary Shelley, primarily one portrait by Richard Rothwell, which is the most recognizable image that comes to most folks' mind when they think of Mary Shelley. I also had the good fortune to track down the owner of the Camillo Pistrucci bust of Mary Shelley which was actually done in her lifetime. The owner graciously shot turnaround photographs for me of all the angles of the bust, thereby affording me a great opportunity to envison sides of her that were previously left to the imagination; her profile and the back of that mysterious Regency era hairstyle of hers. I'm very lucky to have had such astounding reference at my disposal. The hardest part was not to simply copy Pistrucci or Rothwell's work as those portraits are only another artist's impressions and not actual photographs. Did I nail Mary Shelley's likeness? I hope so but it's really up to the average viewer of my sculpture to comment on that. Time will tell.
MA: Your website reveals other bust-subjects with a link to the 'horror' genre. Is there something uniquely advantageous to creating the bust of a subject rather than by a painting or some other medium? If so, what do you think it is?
BM: As an artist, I could run with my personal passion and sculpt whoever I wanted, but this is a business for me and what is adventageous economically is what I go with most of the time now. I've often found that if an author that I'd like to sculpt is on a t-shirt or a coffee cup or some part of pop culture, then the project will quite likely fund. If it's not, then I don't do it. At this point in my career, there's very little glamour in spending six months of my precious time to end up broke, so I try and go with subjects that I think will fund. It's funny, my next bust is Rod Serling but I'm finding that when I ask anyone under 30 what they think, they have no idea who I'm talking about. I'm clearly a man of my time and who I might like isn't what millenials might like. Seems celebrating literary icons might be a generational thing now. I'd probably make more money if I sculpted a bust of Lady Gaga. Who knows?
MA: I was particularly pleased you chose Mary since a) busts of women still aren’t anywhere near as common as those for men and b) her own story isn’t really well known outside academic biography. What unforeseen outcomes – personal and / or professional - have you experienced since its completion?
BM: None at all with the exception of social media "likes" versus people throwing actual hard cash at it. I thought that the feminist and womens studies audience might rally around it en masse as I felt that it was celebrating a very brave, pioneering, female author, but they didn't, possibly because a man was sculpting her and not a woman. What matters at the end of the day is that there's an audience out there for everything and it's your job as an artist to find it and turn it into cash so that you can realize the work. I always chuckle when I hear artists out there claim that they don't do it for the money. That's true when you first pick up a paintbrush or a hunk of clay and do it because you genuinely love doing it, but if you want to be a professional artist, a solid business sense goes hand in hand with that success and it's very hard for a lot of artists to make that work for them. So many other artist pals often ask me for the "secret of my success.“ So, here it is:
Never stop selling until the lights are off on the midway and the ferris wheel stops turning. Never stop selling. Be enough of a carny to never stop until you turn the tip from the midway and into the tent and take the dime out of their pocket and put it into yours. Never stop seeing everyone as a walking twenty dollar bill. If you do, you don't deserve the money that others were smart enough to reach out and grab. Never stop selling. The lights on the midway are NEVER off. That may sound harsh to some, but the reality is that if you aren't a hard hustler in the world of art, you probably aren't cut out to be a professional artist.
I'd like to thank Bryan for the giving of his time.
Check out BRYAN MOORE's work here:
GRAHAM HENDERSON is President and CEO of Music Canada, a trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators. Graham serves on the Boards of the Keats-Shelley Association of America, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the International Federation of Phonographic Industries, The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. He an officer of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Intellectual Property Commission and acts as Copyright Rapporteur. Graham is widely recognized as a thought leader for the creative sector. He is a prominent champion of creator’s rights to be fairly compensated, most notably through the 2012 passage of landmark copyright reform legislation by the Parliament of Canada. Graham is also an outspoken champion of music education in Canada and has written and spoken widely on the transformative power of music.
MA: What was it about Percy Bysshe Shelley, specifically, that first connected with you and what were the circumstances under which this occurred?
GRAHAM HENDERSON: My very first connection with Shelley was a poem my father gave to memorize. I would have been 10 or 11. It was part of a little binder of typewritten poetry that he had selected. If we were able to recite a poem without a mistake he would give us 50 cents. The Shelley poem he selected was 'Arethusa.' What astonished me then, and astonishes me to this day, was Shelley’s extraordinary mastery of the lyric – enjambment in particular. After that, I can’t say I thought much about Shelley until I encountered him again as part of Kenneth Graham’s “Introduction to English Literature” class at the University of Guelph (Ontario). Perhaps it was the seed sown by my father so many years before that made me susceptible to Shelley. Whatever it was, I plunged in pretty quickly. Without question what appealed to me then was Shelley’s politics. I loved that he was so radical, such a rebel. I also liked the idea that I was studying a poet who for decades had been treated with disdain by the university establishment. This was the Seventies, and Shelley was still living in the shadow of the stern and flawed judgements of Arnold, Eliot and others. It was like I was fighting for an underdog – I identified with him.
MA: I’ve long found it difficult to reconcile the privilege by which Shelley and his contemporaries lived with the revolutionary politics of their beliefs. (For me, the proof they were doing more than merely rebelling against daddy is in the quality of their subsequent work). This may be because there are no obvious modern-day equivalents. Or are there?
GH: Unlike many of his privileged contemporaries, I think PBS demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to “walking the walk”. A student of the classical Greeks through and through, he think he knew that words meant little if your actions don’t match. I think he took his poetry seriously – he attempted to undergo the sort of personal imaginative revolution which he believed was necessary for the world to become a better place. In other words he was not a hypocrite. Not sure you can say that about many political revolutionaries. As for contemporaries, surely the best modern example of this Shelleyan spirit was the great Paul Foot. Both would have been viewed by their contemporaries as class traitors – which is to me a badge of honour.
MA: What did you think of Fiona Sampson’s recent biography on Mary Shelley?
GH: I think Sampson’s book is a great disappointment in much the same way as was Haifaa al Mansour’s movie version of Mary’s life. In each case, almost everyone around Mary is denigrated in an effort to get Mary up on impossibly high pedestal. Biography becomes a sort of zero sum game. In order to, as she says, "find the girl that wrote Frankenstein," she apparently believes she must ferociously attack everyone around Mary. It feels like the sort of angry, adversarial tone which characterizes social media trolling is insinuating itself into mainstream biography. I always thought what made Mary so special was the fact that she was surrounded by brilliant engaged minds and that she matched them all. Let’s briefly take Sampson’s attack on Claire Claremont for example. Here’s what she writes: "[Claire Clairmont] isn't as gifted or as intelligent as Mary; but these are never the qualities that lever literary men into bed. Jane-Clara-Clary-Claire is much the more typical poet's girlfriend. She is no writerly rival but a nice little singer; her dark curls are obviously pretty; and she has no interests (or indeed pregnancy) of her own to get in the way of her continual availability....Claire...has no compunction about acting out, or at least acting up."
The tone of this is shockingly condescending – written by a man it would be roundly condemned as nothing short of sexist. As for Percy, well, it is pretty obvious that she considers him to be a monster – and not only that, but she has almost no appreciation for the political dimension of his poetry (despite having undertaken Faber’s selection of Shelley’s verse). She writes, "I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist." This is called “telegraphing your punch.” It is also betraying your bias. Before a word has been said about Mary, Sampson places Percy in the trash bin of historically irrelevant writers. He is discarded as a bad, dated poet.
In her interview with Andrew Marr, Sampson sums up Percy's character with these words: "he obviously liked the ladies, he was apparently a social revolutionary, he was part of a communitarian community." The words "obviously" and "apparently" were freighted with sarcasm and disdain when Sampson used them. Sampson went on to dismiss him as having no "political responsibility" and embracing revolutionary ideas solely for "personal and emotional" reasons. It as if this aspect of his character was somehow inauthentic, incidental and unimportant. This is Sampson's judgement of one of the great political thinkers of his or any era. The great Percy Shelley scholar Timothy Webb once remarked that "politics was probably the dominating concern" of his life. Another great Shelleyan, Terrence Hoagwood, believed that Percy was the greatest English political philosopher of his time. For Pete's sake, this is what Karl Marx had to say:
“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36. Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29 because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”
During the aforementioned interview, Marr says this: “Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most disreputable, disgraceful people I have ever come across on the page. I had no idea how awful he was. Almost everybody, certainly every woman, that comes into contact with him either dies or kills herself or is totally destroyed....The only thing that matters to him is Percy Bysshe Shelley."
Sampson does not say one word about this ridiculous characterization (all of which is based on Sampson’s biography), but she chuckles with evident satisfaction.The most irresponsible thing that Sampson does is to engage in armchair psychological analysis – with the patient having been in the grave for 200 years. Even James Bieri who was a psychologist stayed away from this. For example, Shelley, she suggests, “resembles a type of highly gifted young man who receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but remains high-functioning because manifesting only on the manic end of the spectrum”.
As Professor John Mullan wrote in the New Statesman, “Those who like their biography to be austerely reliable will flinch at the frequent introduction of some piece of psychological guesswork with “it’s hard not to feel”, “it’s hard not to suspect”, “one can’t help feeling”, or “it is easy to imagine”.
I personally think Mary would roll in her grave were she to discover her friends and loved ones attacked in her name in such an ad hominem manner. At one point Sampson makes it clear that her biography of Mary is designed for the “MeToo” era. To make this work she needed to invent a super villain and she does so with gusto. This is not measured advocacy, it is advocacy with an axe. There is one extremely curious thing about this biography by the way – she has almost nothing but good things to say about Byron – even defending his decision to send little Allegra to a convent where she died. Go figure. I think Lynn McDowell in her review in The Herald summed it up nicely:
“Biography is meant to be an objective art. Stick to the verifiable facts; maintain an authoritative tone; don’t invite conjecture and definitely don’t play armchair psychologist. Fiona Sampson, a prize-winning poet and editor, has eschewed all four rules as she seeks to get inside the head of Mary Shelley, so intent on seeing everything solely from her subject’s perspective that she becomes almost enthusiastic about attributing blame for what happens.”
MA: I have my own issues with the biography (reviewed below), but I do think her perspective on Mary’s treatment by her contemporaries, at least, is spot-on. What biographies on either Shelley would you recommend?
GH: My favourite full length biography of Percy is now James Bieri’s – though Richard Holmes was my go to for many, many years. I would also recommend Paul Foot’s 'Red Shelley' – it was breathtaking to read – a magnificent effort to reclaim the radical Shelley for our modern age. Then, of course there is 'The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical' by Kenneth Neill Cameron. The great Shelley scholar Neil Fraistat told me that he was “in awe of that book” – and with good reason. There is also a more recent book by Jacqueline Mulhallen: 'Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary.' It is extremely approachable and enjoyable. As for Mary, I think Anne Mellor’s remains the essential biography.
MA: What are your favourite PBS poems - and / or pieces of prose - and why?
GH: My favourite poems are the political poems: 'Prometheus Unbound' in particular. I also think 'Julian and Maddalo' is hugely underrated. From his prose, the 'Defense of Poetry.' And of course, his letters, they just sparkle with wit and erudition.
MA: For someone interested who may never have read PBS, or may be daunted by the prospect, which of his works might act as a good introduction?
GH: A perfect gateway drug to the works of Shelley is 'Ozymandias.' Here you see the exquisite lyricism for which he is so justly famous, but you also get (packed into a single sonnet), most of his politic philosophy. I would also suggest 'To Wordsworth,' 'England in 1819,' 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,' 'Ode to the West Wind,' and, of course, 'Arethusa.'
Many thanks to Graham for sparing his time.
To learn more, visit www.grahamhenderson.ca
The Real Percy Bysshe Shelley on Facebook
In Search Of Mary Shelley – The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson,
It is an occupational hazard for any biographer, faced with a subject who kept either a meagre or incomplete archive, as how best to fill the gaps. I know. One way is to delineate place in its historical context in which these gaps reside. Another is simply to confess the gaps in the text and move on. The first is clearly the preferable option. Then again, it isn't entirely satisfactory either. You ask yourself; what direct effect did these have on the subject? If none seem apparent, based on subsequent research, the biographical gap remains. This is an issue with the opening chapters. Neither of Mary's famous social revolutionary parents – William Godwin (known then for An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793)) nor Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)) are known to have left such relevant, personal reminiscences, certainly regarding their second daughter’s early years. Sampson, understandably, compensates. That compensation, however, reads as too assumption-heavy. The first two chapters are the issue. The first posits the possible scenario around little Mary Godwin’s birth: ‘this must be the scene Mary (Wollstonecraft) imagines as she sends a message for (her husband) William (Godwin) to come and meet his baby.’ Also, ‘what does William feel at this point?...I think he is hovering.’ (p.20). The second about the circumstances of their moving and her early years: ‘For she and Godwin can only approve of such child-centred books,’ and ‘it would be nice to think,’ etc. (p.32). There are other examples. Since subsequent chapters enlighten through academic skill and empathy with the subject, this surmising jars.
Fortunately, as we reach the growing Mary Godwin’s own journals and work, the biography comes into its own. A profile of the subject swiftly emerges; a woman considerate, compassionate, independent, but publicly shy. In social contexts at least, she harbours a modesty and coolness as 'a devout but nearly silent listener,' she later confesses to holding her back professionally. It is during her impressionable early womanhood - from seventeen to the age of twenty-five - that she meets and falls in love with the simpatico poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She appears well aware of his failings, (including the casual affairs and seeming lack of concern for basic domestic upkeep), tolerating them to an extraordinary degree; presumably since she so admires what he represents, sharing - through her parentage - his dissenting beliefs.
Now released in paperback, Sampson’s latest biography offers valuable re-evaluation of a writer, less in her husband’s shadow than that of her most famous creation. To its credit, it also reveals the callous disregard Mary experienced, once successful, of her husband’s (so-called) friends and contemporaries. Often claiming penury through excessive travel and, no doubt, gambling, the biography reveals how these rich men’s sons drained her of her own modest earnings for all they were worth to help sustain their formerly pampered lifestyles. Promises of future publication were just as easily disregarded once made.
Among the guilty of Mary’s fair-weather friends are Thomas Medwin, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Hobbs, Jane Williams and Edward Trelawney. (Trelawney at least offered Mary initial support and is by far the most interesting personality of this group). Later in life, Mary would reflect on what she observed of them: ‘violent without any sense of Justice – selfish in the extreme – talking without knowledge – rude, envious and insolent.’ (p. 244) A twentieth century parallel of such a relationship might be seen in that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; in that, despite the parallel talent of the wife, the husband is the one feted by the patriarchal establishment, virtually at her expense, while left to casually cheat upon her with other women, under its protection.
PB Shelley is drawn as one whose idealism finds difficulty shoehorning itself into domestic life. His regular touring absences also suggest an instinctive avoidance of confrontation, with the inevitable consequence of occasional, eccentric outbursts. While Sampson often refers to him as ‘a dreamer,' it is a dearth in empathy by which he is painted; perhaps the very thing he rebelled against in his Tory grandee father, Sir Timothy. What isn't even glimpsed here, however, is the firebrand radical of Oxford so clearly rendered in Heathcote Williams's celebratory prose poem of 2012. Sampson by contrast, portrays an absconding figure who appears to cynically manipulate his own high ideals soon after tying-the-knot in this, his second marriage. This 'normalizes' him, certainly, but it also feels overly partial.
Occasionally, he also comes over as Byron at his worst, although there is an irony here. Byron himself comes out of his relationship with Mary rather well. Admiring the MS of Frankenstein, and not questioning its authorship, he acts as patron for her as well as for Percy, sending and receiving publisher-related correspondence to John Murray (his own publisher) and others. After Percy’s tragic early death, he continues to advise and trust Mary as proofreader of his own new work, without – surprisingly – inevitable recourse to the bedroom. Clearly, he held more than just a candle for Percy and his oeuvre and his constancy here is admirable. If nothing else, Byron was no flippant, transient dandy and this instance is a further example of how he held fast to certain principles throughout his own short life.
While the preponderance of biographer surmising takes up the first two chapters, Sampson subsequently unites the seeming contradictions in Mary’s character; from ‘the icily furious intellectual to pint-sized blonde in a fit of giggles’ portrayed in Richard Rothwell’s famous portrait of 1839, to she who believes ‘self-denial…disappointment, and self-control, are a part of our (self) education.’ (p.235). I was left wondering to what extent Mary was less a victim of her husband, than a victim of her own high level of trust and expectation. By the end, I felt I knew as much of Mary as a single biography could be expected to deliver. It is, however, a pity that Sampson didn't draw upon other existing sources to offer a fuller, less partial portrait of her husband.