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Susan Cabell Djabri, with Annabelle F. Hughes and Jeremy Knight, The Shelleys of Field Place: The Story of the Family and their Estates & The Letters of Bysshe and Timothy Shelley and Other Documents from Horsham Museum & the West Sussex Record Office

Monday, January 15, 2001 - 03:58
Susan Cabell Djabri, with Annabelle F. Hughes and Jeremy Knight, The Shelleys of Field Place. The Story of the Family and their Estates. Horsham, West Sussex: Horsham Museum Society for Horsham, Museum, 2000. iv + 200pp., illus: 23 b&w (maps, tables, etc.) + 1 color. £10. (Pbk; ISBN: 1-902484-08-8).
The Letters of Bysshe and Timothy Shelley and Other Documents from Horsham Museum & the West Sussex Record Office. Transcribed and annotated by Susan C. Djabri and Jeremy Knight. Horsham, West Sussex. Horsham Museum Society for Horsham Museum, 2000. ii + 186pp., illus: 14 b&w + 1 color. £10. (Pbk; ISBN: 1-902484-09-6).

Reviewed by
Nora Crook
Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

First, a brief preamble on the context of the production of the books under review. Horsham in Sussex, over the two past centuries, has been mostly luke-warm about its most famous son, but Shelley's bicentennial year (1992) and the growth of the British heritage enterprise business provided an occasion for a public shift. The dramatic and original Shelley Fountain (1996) now graces the Horsham Arts Centre; exhibitions have been mounted, including one on Mary Shelley (1997), complete with a small laboratory within which a fearsome Creature realistically heaved its bosom. Visitors can follow a Shelley trail, while in the last decade the attractive little local museum has nurtured its own archive and has built up, through bequests and local sponsorship, an impressive Shelley book collection, probably the largest open to the public in the UK outside universities and the British Library. Scholars are welcomed. Items may be studied with three working days' notice; a few printed holdings are unique, such as a copy of Medwin's 1847 Life of Shelley containing Richard Garnett's own transcription of Medwin's autograph corrections.

Key figures in the development of the Museum towards the status of a Shelley study centre include the energetic curator Jeremy Knight, the independent scholar Susan C. Djabri, and other members of the Horsham Museum Society. The Museum has issued occasional substantial desk-top Shelleyan publications, labours of love and supererogation, transcribed, composed, and compiled in the teeth of budget constraints and sold at very reasonable prices to support future developments. They are not generally on sale, but may be obtained from Horsham Museum Society, 9 The Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex RH12 1HE, UK. Items include Shelley Family Plays (1992), Horsham's Forgotten Son, Thomas Medwin (1995) and a Catalogue of the Shelley Library at Horsham Museum (1999). All merit a place in a Shelley library. The second, in particular, draws on material concerning Shelley's cousin and first memoirist that were totally unknown to Ernest Lovell Jr., Medwin's 1962 biographer, who upon enquiry was told by the curator at the time that nothing of any Shelley interest was in the Horsham collections! Medwin, incidentally, emerges from this examination as more of a scapegrace than he appeared to be before.

The two books under review are, if anything, richer in their interest for Shelleyans than the above. A great deal of work has gone into their preparation. The authors draw on and/or place in the public domain selected material from the Museum's archive of 25,000 documents and from archives in the West Sussex Record Office (WSRO). These documents, even where previously known about (and many are new discoveries), have been little studied or assimilated into Shelley biography to date. (Among scholars who have recognised their significance is James Bieri, the discoverer of Timothy Shelley's illegitimate son, Shelley's half-brother, and to whose help and advice the authors pay tribute.) Useful catalogues of the Shelleyan material in the Horsham Museum and WSRO have been appended to Letters. Researches have been extensive, but not exhaustive; the editors do not rule out the possibility that undetected Shelleyan material might still be bundled up with unrelated documents (Letters, 3). Indeed, one result of publication is that a few more previously unknown, privately-owned Shelley family letters have already come to light.

The Shelleys of Field Place is both a history of the Shelley family in Horsham and a retelling of the familiar story of the relationship of the poet with his father from a West Sussex perspective. "It would be interesting to know the full history of Sir Bysshe Shelley's acquisition of land and money," wrote Donald Reiman in 1979, and the authors have taken up his challenge. The Letters of Bysshe and Timothy Shelley and Other Documents is an edition of transcriptions, arranged and linked with an informative, tactful, well-annotated interpretative commentary. Both books are written in an easy, lucid style, enlivened by touches of humour, and embellished with photocopied reproductions of maps, title pages, contemporary prints, handwriting samples etc. Each is free-standing and makes sense in itself, which means that there is some repetition and overlap between the two. The Shelleys of Field Place aims at a more general readership than The Letters. But neither duplicates the other; each contains new or unfamiliar material and each forces a fresh assessment of matters one had previously considered settled.

The documents directly concerning Shelley are few in number but very interesting; the rest, cumulatively, adjust with small but significant strokes the existing picture of his family and the context of his early life. There are many small nuggets, as, for instance, the address of Shelley's lawyer, Tahourdin; anyone who has ever wondered whether Shelley's mother was a Pilfold or a Pilford (one finds both spellings in Shelley biographies, often in the same book) now can rest assured that Pilfold it is; however, "Pilford" is not a virus introduced by some twentieth-century mistranscriber but was around in the eighteenth century too. In The Shelleys of Field Place a little-known letter from Shelley's mother, first printed in 1942, is reprinted. Apparently the three-year old Shelley was known as "Happy P." and relished partridge with bread sauce every other day. What a sad disappointment it must have been to his mother when this game little feeder grew up, turned vegetarian, and started talking of murdered chickens.

More importantly, the authors produce evidence which challenges received ideas that have been introduced into the biographical record and endlessly repeated. Many of these concern the acquisition of money and status. For instance, the Field Place Shelleys in the eighteenth century were not the junior branch, but as well-established an old county family as one might meet in a summer's day, and a very desirable family to ally oneself with too. They owned even more land than has been generally supposed—enough to forget about some of it on occasion. Shelley was later able to alienate a portion of it from his inheritance, and thus secure an annual income of £1,000, only because that portion had been inadvertently left out of the 1792 entail. The authors suggest that this happened because it had previously provided maintenance for Shelley's insane but by then deceased great-great-uncle John. (We also learn the names of Shelley's certifiably mad ancestors.)

Shelley's grandfather, Sir Bysshe, a pungent and ribald character who straddles both books, seems to have rendered no particular services to the Duke of Norfolk that might have earned him his baronetcy (1806), and was probably awarded it merely as head of the family. He did not have money to squander on Castle Goring, which appears not to have been a mere folie de grandeur, but an architecturally interesting hybrid Anglo-Italianate mansion. The tradition that he eloped with both his wives (thus setting a pattern for his grandson) turns out to have little substance. He certainly contracted a clandestine marriage, but half the marriages in London were then "clandestine"; he was probably doing the fashionable thing. In 1792 we find the veteran engaging in a virility contest with his newly-wedded son, Timothy, having got his own mistress with child to see whose brood mare would drop a colt first. (The metaphor is Sir Bysshe's; he lost by a few days, the winning colt being Timothy's Percy, ever the fiery particle.)

It was Shelley's father Timothy who was the political animal. Making himself useful to the Duke of Norfolk, he bribed and finagled and defeated the candidate of Lady Irwin of Hills (who was up to the same tricks). The documents published in Letters offer a wonderful insight into how "Old Corruption" actually worked, with its creation of "faggots" (bogus householders) and giving of venison feasts. A key player was T. C. Medwin, Thomas Medwin's lawyer father, who acted as Timothy's election agent, but who in 1811 became a bitter enemy, partly as a result of their differences over how to treat the rebellious young Shelley after his expulsion from Oxford. An extraordinarily vehement 1813 letter from T. C. Medwin offers Shelley his insider's legal expertise and implores him to resist the temptation to give up his commanding position as "Tenant in Tail Male" in return for an immediate income. "Rather" he meaningfully urges, "endure many difficulties . . . then you will be in a position to vindicate your own Rights, & reward or punish those who have deserved or may merit your Attention either way" (Letters, 112). Many have noted Shelley's grasp of legal affairs; some credit for that is surely due to Cousin Medwin. Yet Sir Tim was later to be kind to members of the Medwin family. Djabri and Knight suggest that he mellowed into a benign old gentleman, mean-spirited only to Mary Shelley and his grandson Percy Florence. And that's probably true too. "The tragedy is that everyone has his own good reasons," as Octave says in La règle du jeu.

Other highlights of the volumes include: an 1816 letter from Geneva, probably from St John Aubyn, painting a picture of a scientifically-clued up Anglo-Swiss community and mentioning Byron and the Shelley party; a newly rediscovered 1822 letter by Mary Shelley to Marianne Hunt, previously known only in Florence Marshall's 1889 transcript; more details of the financial and other difficulties faced by Shelley's son, Percy Florence, when he came into his inheritance (1844). Shelley's renunciation of his share in the personal fortune of Sir Tim cost his own son very dear. We catch glimpses of Mary Shelley's continuing friendship with the Beauclerks, after Aubrey Beauclerk, the man whom she hoped to marry but renounced under pressure, had married another. We find that John, Shelley's little brother, with whom he had played at parachutes in 1811, seems to have grown up with something of a pick-and-mix attitude to politics. In 1849 he stood for Parliament "on Liberal Principles" while opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws, proposing to relieve "the agricultural distress" by taxing imported corn—a policy which had put the Hungry into the "Hungry Forties." (Mary and Sir Percy, by contrast, favoured repeal.)

Inevitably, as the publications try to satisfy several possible readerships, there are passages, particularly in The Shelleys, more of interest to local historians than to literary students. Yet who can pre-assign limits to the significance that might be derived from even dry rent-rolls? At the least, such facts can enhance the pleasure of any serious literary pilgrim in search of "Shelley's Sussex," and it is right that they should be placed in the public domain. If one niggles at times about points where the editors use old-fashioned or rather eccentric presentation conventions (such as round brackets for editorial insertions), they explain what they are doing and it does not in the end impede comprehension. Proof-reading of the main body of the text has been thorough and typos are few; attention to detail inspires confidence that the transcriptions have been carefully carried out. In short, the authors are very much to be congratulated on these informative productions, which successfully mediate between local antiquarian research and academia.