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Mary Shelley, Editor

Mary's achievements as the first editor of Shelley’s poetry and prose

‘The ungrateful world did not feel his loss, and the gap it made seemed to close as quickly over his memory as the murderous sea above his living frame.’

Mary Shelley, preface to Shelley’s Posthumous Poems, 1824

Mary Shelley gathered together all the manuscripts of Shelley she could find. She was determined that the poet’s name should be better known, and in 1824 published his Posthumous Poems. She intended to follow this with an edition of his prose, but Sir Timothy Shelley threatened to withdraw her allowance if she did so. He wanted an end to the notoriety his son had attached to the family name, and demanded that no further editions, nor any account of Shelley’s life, be published.

It was not until the late 1830s that Sir Timothy, then approaching ninety, finally relented. In December 1838 Mary agreed to sell the copyright of Shelley’s writings to the publisher Edward Moxon, and to edit the poems. In 1839 she produced a four-volume edition of Shelley’s poetry, with long biographical introductions. Her two-volume edition of his prose was published the following year.

The completion of these editions was an heroic achievement. The work was emotionally demanding, and the manuscripts themselves were a huge challenge. Mary told Moxon, ‘you cannot imagine how confusing & tantalizing is the turning over Manuscript books – full of scraps of finished or unfinished poems – half illegible’. She compared the work to cracking a code: ‘The M.S. … consisted of fragments of paper which in the hands of an indifferent person would never have been deciphered – the labour of putting it together was immense.’

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Bodleian Libraries

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