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The Abinger collection

The history of the Abinger collection at the Bodleian Library

In 2004 the Abinger collection was bought by the Bodleian Library after successful fund-raising by an international campaign. The purchase was enabled by major donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and from the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, and by generous gifts from many other institutional and individual donors. After over a century apart, the three divided parts of the Shelley family archive were at last reunited and the Abinger catalogue completed in 2010.

The Abinger collection is the residual part of the Shelley family papers from Boscombe Manor (near Bournemouth, Dorset), the home of Sir Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889) and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley (1820-1899). Sir Percy had inherited the archive from his mother, Mary Shelley (1797-1851). She was the central figure in its formation, for alongside her own papers she had accumulated those of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and her parents, William Godwin (1756-1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). She also added further papers from other members of the Shelley and Godwin circles, including returned letters, through her editorial and biographical researches on her husband and father.

At Mary's death in 1851, her daughter-in-law Lady Shelley took the lead in caring for and augmenting the family papers. She established within Boscombe Manor a shrine-like 'Sanctum' to house and display the collection for just a few favoured visitors. She published her own editions of Shelley Memorials (1859) and Shelley and Mary (1882), authorized works by a few favoured biographers and editors, but discouraged others. Further secondary papers of Sir Percy and Lady Shelley were added to the archive.

After Sir Percy's death in 1889, Lady Shelley began to disperse the collection, especially the Shelleys' literary papers. At Oxford she endowed the Shelley Memorial at University College (1893) and gave selected notebooks, letters and relics to the Bodleian Library (1893 and 1894). By her bequest, most of Shelley's other working notebooks, with further relics and papers, passed in 1899 to her husband's cousin, John Courtown Edward Shelley, who later changed his name to Sir John Shelley-Rolls (1871-1951). Sir John gave the notebooks to the Bodleian in 1946, and also bequeathed the rest (received 1961).

The Abinger collection comprised the residue of the Boscombe collection not already allocated by Lady Shelley: the mass of William Godwin papers and Mary Wollstonecraft's letters; the Shelleys' incoming correspondence; and three major treasures, Godwin's 32-volume journal, the 5-volume journal of Mary (with Percy) Shelley, and the surviving fragments of the draft and fair-copy manuscripts of Frankenstein. Lady Shelley bequeathed her houses and their unspecified contents to her two eldest grandsons (by adoption), Shelley Scarlett and Robert Scarlett. These were the children of her niece, Bessie Florence Scarlett (née Gibson), whom she and Sir Percy had adopted. Bessie had married Leopold Scarlett, in whose family lay the barony of Abinger. Leopold died in 1888 before he could inherit the title, but Shelley Scarlett and Robert Scarlett became respectively the 5th and 6th Barons Abinger, both childless. Their deaths in 1917 and 1927 provided some leakages of Shelley items such as printed books onto the market, but the papers passed en masse to their brother Hugh, the 7th Baron Abinger.

Hugh's son James took a serious interest in the papers when he inherited them as 8th Baron Abinger in 1943. He arranged them in folders, allowed them to be microfilmed by Duke University Library in 1948 and 1952, and took them to New York in 1954 for exhibition and second microfilming at the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. He authorized a new edition of the Shelleys' journal (2 vols., Oxford University Press, 1987), and deposited most of the collection on long-term loan at the Bodleian for the use of scholars: the papers were deposited in nine batches between 1974 and 1993. However, the 8th Baron also sold some papers (notably William Godwin's letters from Coleridge and Lamb), retained others, and lent a few items to other institutions such as the former Shelley Museum at Boscombe.

Lord Abinger's son James succeeded him as 9th Baron in 2002. He decided to put the papers on the market, but gave first refusal to the Bodleian Library, which thereupon launched the international campaign to save them. After their successful purchase in 2004, the papers have been rearranged and catalogued by library staff, whilst meanwhile they have continued to attract much attention from researchers and visitors. The Abinger catalogue was completed in 2010 with the aid of a grant from the John R. Murray Charitable Trust.

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