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James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Youth's Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816 & Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822

Monday, March 5, 2007 - 04:29
James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Youth's Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. 457pp. $69.50 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-87413-870-1).
James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 441pp. $69.50 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-87413-893-0).

Reviewed by
Stephen C. Behrendt
University of Nebraska

James Bieri's new two-volume biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley appeared in 2004-05 with relatively little fanfare, perhaps because it was published by a less prominent press than one might expect for so major a biography. A flurry of comments in October 2005, though, on the on-line discussion list of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, has focused attention at last on this important new study. As well it should. For Bieri's biography, which will surely be the definitive study of Shelley's life and work for many years to come, advances and enriches the state of contemporary Shelley studies in remarkable ways.

Any new biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley has two principal twentieth-century forebears with which to contend, Newman Ivey White's magisterial 1949 Shelley and Richard Holmes' 1975 Shelley: The Pursuit. The first rescued Shelley from the inaccuracies and editorial suppressions of earlier chroniclers, including Shelley's own contemporaries who outlived him and who constructed in their own memoirs a variety of (often self-serving) myths about the poet and his life. Despite its excellence, though, Shelley is dated; much has changed in the intervening years with regard to both the ways in which we assess lives of the young Romantics and the state of the documentary evidence upon which revisionist biographical studies now proceed. Shelley scholarship has grown exponentially since White's two volumes appeared, with the discovery and publication of many additional Shelley circle documents (including newly discovered materials like those in the Scrope Davies trunk) as well as with the more sophisticated scholarly and bibliographical studies of the lives and works of the Shelley circle than those to which White had access more than half a century ago. Holmes' more recent Shelley: The Pursuit is properly regarded by many as less than reliable, as "skewed" or "partisan" in its ideological reading of Shelley's life and works and often careless in its scholarship.

Bieri's new biography reflects what is best about these two earlier studies—a firm grounding in the documentary evidence and a generally accessible prose style. But it goes beyond both in the sensitivity of its reading of the complexities of Shelley's life and of the ways in which Shelley's entire life-experience informs and elucidates his writings in prose and poetry alike. The author, who was trained and then taught in clinical psychology at Harvard, Columbia, CUNY, and finally the University of Texas, brings to his task as biographer both this professional, clinical background and his extensive and obviously passionate interest in his subject, the result of which is a biography whose differences from its predecessors are major and significant, both in methodology and in results. These two volumes represent the culmination of literally decades of research, both on the primary documents associated with Shelley and his circle and on the physical environments connected to them, both in Britain and on the Continent. Shelley emerges in this new reading as a man who was, almost from the start, impulsive, hot-blooded, occasionally insensitive, easily angered and slow to forget injuries—but also sentimental, compassionate, generous, and unstinting in his service to causes (and people) in which (or whom) he believed. He appears here as what he must have appeared to his contemporaries: very much a "mixed bag" whose foibles and failures, like his virtues and accomplishments, often seem larger than life.

Bieri's biography manages to meld the immediately personal circumstances of Shelley's life and lifestyle with the demanding requirements of rigorously detailed and documented scholarly biography without succumbing to the pitfalls involved in either. That is, it neither trivializes nor sensationalizes its subject, Shelley's life, but rather it presents it full and wholly, in remarkably straightforward and objective fashion, which process has the cumulative effect of dignifying that life, even as it leaves many of us shaking our heads—sometimes in dismay, sometimes in wonder—at that remarkable young Romantic. In both volumes, Bieri presents an astounding amount of documentary detail—something not unexpected from the discoverer of Timothy Shelley's illegitimate son (Percy Bysshe Shelley's elder half-brother)—that demonstrates that everything he says is firmly grounded in hard evidence gathered from a variety of sources, published and unpublished. Indeed, one is struck immediately by just how very much detail these volumes contain, and by the remarkable intellectual discipline with which it is marshaled. Even when we may disagree with Bieri's opinions and conclusions—for instance about who is ultimately the most responsible for the estrangement between Percy and Mary, or about the circumstances of their "family life" and the privations to which their children were subjected as a result—we cannot dispute the sheer effort that informs the biography, and the commitment to presenting the full record in detail rather than merely describing it.

The finished biography is a long one, spanning two large volumes, which unfortunately makes it also prohibitively expensive for most readers, scholarly or otherwise. But this length is justified by Bieri's careful detailing of the biographical and historical facts of the life of Shelley and his family. Indeed, the book was originally longer, owing primarily to the even more extensive readings of individual poems and prose works than the published version contains, readings that were pruned (or cut entirely) in the interests of economy. So there is less sense here of a critical biography than some may wish, and this has troubled some readers who would have preferred more extensive interpretive commentary. Bieri has recognized, though, that his task is first and foremost that of the biographer: "literary criticism" (i.e. extended close readings of individual works) never "takes over" from the obligations of biography. Even so, Bieri's readings of individual works, however brief, illuminate and reinforce his analysis of Shelley's life by tracing the presence of biographically significant materials in the literary works. The result is the sort of "whole" portrait that refuses to separate the literary artist from the temporal man. This seems particularly fitting, since it approximates the way that Shelley preferred to look at his own contemporaries and precursors.

The scholarship that informs these two volumes is daunting, and the facility with which Bieri handles the wealth of material upon which he draws is admirable. As one expects of an authoritative biographer, Bieri has seemingly consulted and digested all the standard published sources of Shelley's public and private writings as well as those of his associates. He has added to this his own extensive first-hand examination of all the relevant manuscript materials and has in the process brought to bear many items that have not previously been considered. This is the first biographical study, for instance, to present any of the few extant letters by Shelley's mother and to say anything really substantial about her own early life and the clearly significant role she played in the formation of her son's personality and life-habits.

Given the extensive professional experience the author brings to his task, Bieri's psychoanalytically-oriented study is never heavy-handed, and while there is perhaps some tendency to over-rationalize Shelley's behavior (especially toward women), Bieri is generally straightforward about how and why he has reached the conclusions he has. He is forthright, for example, about what he regards as possible sources and manifestations of Shelley's psychological eccentricities (e.g., his comments throughout on the sources and consequences of what he calls Shelley's "persecutory feelings" which occasionally "border on the delusional"). But he does not as a result portray in Shelley a man who is merely the sum of his phobias, manias, and psychoses but instead a complex person whose biographical and artistic complexities can be approached through interpretive vehicles like psycho-criticism.

Because of the complexities of Shelley's emotional and intellectual life—not to mention his physical, day-to-day one—at any give point one must necessarily be looking at and thinking about multiple chronological and intellectual perspectives. These overlaid perspectives are for the most part handled adroitly. The first volume takes Shelley's life through 1816, following the summer he and his extended family spent together with Byron's party in Switzerland. The early portion of this first volume offers the best and fullest account to date of Shelley's childhood and youth and the way his experiences in those years inform his later life and works. Bieri offers a superb examination of Shelley's time at Eton, for example, a period whose formative significance has never before been so fully or so insightfully detailed.

The second volume traces the balance of Shelley's life and artistic career, including the increasingly painful relations between Percy and Mary that resulted from his many infatuations and involvements with other women. If Bieri's account of these interpersonal matters seems occasionally to paint Shelley as more of a "victim" than he actually was, that may be the inevitable result of the biographer's close relationship with his subject (or patient), a trap into which many biographers have fallen and which, to his credit, Bieri implicitly appears to work hard to avoid. Of particular value in the second volume is Bieri's discussion of new evidence about Shelley's relationships with many of those who came into his life in its final half-decade, including the mysterious daughter the Shelleys adopted in Naples. Throughout both volumes Bieri also provides a historically and culturally perceptive discussion of Shelley's working knowledge of, and participation in, radical and oppositional politics, including socio-economic ideology. In other words, to repeat a point made earlier, Shelley is presented entire and in a compelling variety of personal, historical, and cultural contexts.

One caveat needs stating here, and it has to do entirely with the production values involved in this biography. Given their high price, it seems entirely reasonable to wish that the books themselves had been made more physically attractive, both as aesthetic objects and—more important—as books meant for reading. The University of Delaware Press selected, for instance, a disappointing typeface that produces an overly crowded page that really does try a reader's eyes—and patience. Moreover, one finds more than the usual number of uncorrected typographical errors, and while a fair number of these are probably inevitable in any book(s), the misspelling of "renown" in the second volume's subtitle, on both the title page and the dust jacket, seems particularly egregious.

The hallmark of any important work—in whatever genre—is that it stimulates discussion and in the process both creates and reinforces community. There is no doubt that Bieri's new biography will accomplish these dual purposes, both for Percy Bysshe Shelley and for the international community of scholars, readers, and thinkers for whom he and his readers remain vital and timely. For this, as for so much else in his biography, we owe James Bieri a considerable debt of appreciation and gratitude.