Notes on Mary’s attraction to Byron (by Ernest Lovell, 1953)

The complex social and sexual relationships between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron have long fascinated (titillated?) biographers and critics. On an obscure web page – part of an old University of Pennsylvania course site – I found what strikes me as a classic attempt to describe their goings-on.  Written in 1953 for The Keats-Shelley Journal, Ernest Lovell’s essay is not necessarily the most accurate scholarly account (it was written long before the flood of contemporary research), but I find it quite interesting as a period piece –  an analysis written after the absorption of Freudian ideas by the Academy but before the contemporary wave of scholarship that incorporates a wider variety of critical voices (feminist, post-feminist, post-modern, anti-post-modern, etc.)  The entire article is long (7 double-column pages plus 2 pages of end notes), but it could be an enjoyable read for anyone wants to know more about the early 19th century soap opera, “Who is your father?!:  Life with Byron and the Shelleys.”
(Query:  Does anyone remember if the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre ever did a series on these proto-hippies?)

As a teaser, here’s one paragraph from Lovell’s paper:

Although the chief basis of Mary’s attraction to Byron was unquestionably an emotional one, highly complicated by Godwin’s emotional inadequacy as a father, by Shelley’s boyishness, immaturity, or inadequate masculinity (nothing is revealed more clearly by the novels than this), and by Mary’s jealousy of Claire and extraordinary dependent nature – there were also certain more intellectual sympathies shared by Mary and Byron but not by Shelley, which may be briefly noted here. Perhaps the most important quality of Byron’s mind which would serve to draw Mary to him was his highly developed sense of actuality, his ability to see the world clearly, marred with all its imperfections, and yet to accept things generally as they are. Mary, almost as if composing a deliberate reply to Shelley’s idealizing propensities, writes in her Journal, February 25, 1822, “. . . let me, in my fellow creature, love that which is, – and not fix my affection on a fair form endued with imaginary attributes” (pp. 169-170). From this fundamental kinship of mind flowed other shared points of view: a common opposition to any ideas implying the perfectability of man and a lack of sympathy for such related ideas as a denial of predestination or of the positive existence of matter and of evil. In both Mary and Byron, consequently, there was an almost total absence of any passionate, Shelleyan desire to reform the world. (See Mary’s important Journal entry, pp, 204-206, on her “Lukewarmness in ‘the good cause’ and on her feelings toward ‘the Radicals – they are full of repulsion to me.’”) Mary was no more a genuine radical than Byron was, and with him disapproved equally of Shelley’s religion (one recalls Mary’s church-going habits), his Godwinian ideas of property rights, and his conviction of the meaningless nature of the marriage ceremony. Although the violence of Trelawny’s charges against Mary does her injustice, and the difficulty of being married to such a genius as Shelley should not be underestimated, one may recall Shelley’s remark upon another fundamental difference between them, which would also draw her to the social world of Byron. “Poor Mary,” he is reported to have said, when Trelawney found him one day beside a pool in his woodland study, “hers is a sad fate. . . . She can’t bear solitude, nor I society – the quick coupled with the dead” (Wolfe, II, 196). It was the world of the imagination in conflict with the world of actuality, and Byron, as she saw him, was on the side of actuality and the world of men. As she seems to have told Moore, “In Lord Byron, the real was never forgotten in the fanciful” (Moore, Life of Byron, I, 550).

From: “Byron and Mary Shelley,” by Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., Keats-Shelley Journal, No. 2 (January 1953)


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