Claire Tomalin, Young Bysshe (1980, 2005)

Young Bysshe is an extract from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Shelley, republished for Penguin’s 70th birthday. In my 2010 resolutions, I’d vowed to not overload my handbag (with agendas, multiple notebooks and a few huge paperbacks just in case I finish one on my morning commute to have something interesting to read on the evening one!), so these 50+ pages were a good choice. Not that I’ll select my books entirely by the number of pages in 2010, don’t worry!

I’m not really familiar with British classic poetry, and Shelley doesn’t evoke any famous line in my mind. That’s the advantage of being a foreigner. I’ve been bludgeoned to death at school with Balzac and Zola, so you won’t make me take Les Miserables anytime soon, but at least I approach Shelley with a fresh eye – and a blank slate, or a sinful ignorance, depending on your own education in classics. The closest I’ve approached Shelley was through Mary Shelley, when I read her biography by Muriel Spark.

But this little book actually covers the years before and until Shelley meets Mary, and its first marriage with Harriet Westbrook. Claire Tomalin is very good at making famous people what they used to be: just people, before anyone noticed they were good at writing.

I had read her biography of Jane Austen, and this short overview of Shelley’s childhood and young adulthood are just as lively as the Austen book. Percy Bysshe Shelley was not really a poet and not really a romantic during the earliest part of his life. He was mostly a radical, preoccupied with political reforms, free thinking and revolution. This extract makes him very much a 18th century thinker, and not so much a 19th century romantic, so I’m left to guess how such a dramatic turn might have come. But Shelley’s life didn’t lack drama, I’m quite sure he enjoyed it tremendously, and from all this restlessness, I get the image of a joyful puppy ready for any adventure.

Young Shelley was all about liberty, and as a result he seems to have moved around a lot and known few limits. How much different that would have been if he’d lived nowadays! Imagine a young guy expelled out of school, convicted of plagiarism, eloping with a 16 year old girl to Scotland to get married, refusing to talk to his family. That would have driven any school or social counselor crazy. It got me thinking about social control, and that is something Shelley would have liked, I’m sure!


2 thoughts on “Claire Tomalin, Young Bysshe (1980, 2005)

  1. What a tantalizing way to hook readers in to longer works! I think Tomalin is a very good biographer and you make this one sound fascinating even though I’m not all that interested in Shelley!

    • Yes; it was very efficient in making me look forward to the longer book! And the Penguin birthday edition makes a collection of very pretty booklets with extra attention to cover design.

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