Despite his isolation from events in Britain during his Italian exile, Shelley never lost interest in the politics of his country, and was determined to contribute to reform through publication. In late 1819, when he began to write A Philosophical View of Reform, the situation in England was unstable. ‘I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics’, he told John and Maria Gisborne on 6 November.
In A Philosophical View of Reform Shelley advocated gradual change rather than revolution, and that individual and institutional reform went hand in hand. The mass of the population, he argued, was encouraged towards change by the cultured minority – the poets, prophets and philosophers – who improved social institutions for their benefit.
A Philosophical View of Reform was never published in Shelley’s lifetime, perhaps because he failed to find a publisher, and remained unfinished. On 19 December 1819 he told his usual publisher Charles Ollier that he intended A Philosophical View of Reform ‘to be an instructive and readable book, appealing from the passions to the reason of men’, but that he would not complete it ‘this season’. On 26 May 1820 he asked Leigh Hunt: ‘Do you know any bookseller who wd publish for me an octavo volume entitled "A philosophical View of Reform". It is boldly but temperately written – & I think readable – It is intended for a kind of standard book for the philosophical reformers’. Sometime before 1839 Mary Shelley made a transcript of the essay with a view to future publication, but A Philosophical View of Reform was not published until 1920, from Shelley’s fair copy manuscript shown here.
Mary Shelley; (bequest, 1851) Sir Percy and Lady Shelley; (bequest, 1889) Lady Shelley; (gift, 1894) the Rev. Stopford Brooke; (bequest, 1916) Maud Brooke (later Mrs. Rolleston); (Sotheby’s, 4 April 1921, lot 729) A.S.W. Rosenbach.
Shelley and his Circle, vi, pp. 945-1066; Shelley Letters, ii, nos. 528, 540, 568.