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Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family

Explore how the reputation of a great literary family was shaped by the selective release and suppression of manuscripts and documents into the public domain, and gain an insight into the real lives of a family that was blessed with genius but marred by tragedy.

This exhibition tells the story of a remarkable literary family: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their daughter Mary, and Mary’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the course of their lives each of these writers accumulated an archive of letters, notebooks and literary papers. After their death, surviving family members pored over their manuscripts, publishing some and withholding others in an attempt to promote their achievement and shape their reputation.

The manuscripts were also preserved as tangible reminders of past lives. The Shelleys’ son and daughter-in-law, Sir Percy Florence and Jane, Lady Shelley, housed them in a special ‘Shelley Sanctum' alongside treasured family relics such as portraits, personal possessions and locks of hair. Only a favoured few were allowed into the sanctum, or granted access to the precious papers.

Long after their deaths, memories of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley remained vivid. It was Shelley's presence, above all, that haunted the imagination like a ghost. Mary Shelley remembered him, she once wrote, ‘with a clearness that mocks reality, interfering even by its force with the functions of life'.

Object details

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Explore exhibition themes, biographies, the complete Frankenstein notebooks, the exhibition video, an interactive family tree, the exhibition floorplan, and our Shelley in Oxford walking trail.

Bodleian Libraries

Broad Street