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Mary as a Writer and Editor

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On Shelley’s death, Mary was faced with the task of raising their surviving child, Percy Florence, on her own. She earned her living by the pen, as her parents had done before her, through a variety of literary pursuits: biographies, short stories, encyclopedia articles, book reviews, and five more novels, the most notable an apocalyptic account of the destruction of mankind, The Last Man (1826).

Mary also edited Shelley’s work, although she was much hampered by Sir Timothy Shelley, who wanted his son’s iconoclasm to be forgotten. Among the pieces, shown here, is her transcription of a poetry fragment from 1816, which she would publish as “To William Shelley.” The neatness of the transcription contradicts what Mary went through when editing this, and other poems; she found herself reliving old tragedies, which made the work exhausting.

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley was published in the summer of 1824. In an introduction, Mary recalled her husband’s love of nature and solitude, his fragile health, his goodness, and his intellectual brilliance. She next intended to publish an edition of his prose, but Sir Timothy threatened to withdraw her allowance if she did. It was not until the late 1830s that Shelley’s father, then approaching 90, relented. In December 1838, Mary agreed to sell the copyright of Shelley’s writings to the publisher Edward Moxon for £500, and to edit the poems in preparation for an edition of the complete works.

Mary produced a four-volume edition of Shelley’s poetry, with long biographical introductions, in 1839. Her two-volume edition of the prose, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, was published later that year (with an 1840 title page). Mary felt bound to work within the prejudices of the time, but in her copy of Shelley’s prose she interleaved blank pages on which she wrote parts of the original text. On the page shown here, Mary restored passages and wording — concerned with homosexual love — from Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium.