The exhibition Shelley’s Ghost at the Bodleian Library is a rare opportunity to see the manuscripts and mementos of the most remarkable family of radical writers.

The exhibition Shelley’s Ghost at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, celebrates the most remarkable family of radical writers: William Godwin, author of Political Justice, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, their daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of – among other radical poems – The Mask of Anarchy. These writers challenged the ruling class and presented alternative ways of looking at the world – and they suffered for their politics and the independent way they chose to live their lives.

This is a rare opportunity to see wonderful manuscripts, some only acquired by the Bodleian in 2004. On display is Shelley’s essay On the Existing State of Things which he wrote ‘for Assisting to Maintain in Prison Mr. Peter Finnerty, Imprisoned for a Libel’ and which was only discovered in 2006. There are a number of Shelley’s manuscript notebooks, letters, pages from Godwin’s diary which has recently been made available online by the Library, and an early draft of Frankenstein.

There are also mementos – locks of hair, Mary Shelley’s dressing case, Shelley’s spyglass. These were kept in a ‘shrine’ by their daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley, who helped to establish a bowdlerised version of the Shelleys’ life and believed she communicated with the dead through automatic writing. The title of the exhibition appears to have been inspired by her rather ghoulish ideas and a remark by Mary Shelley about the part her memories of Shelley played in her life after his death.

The subtitle is Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family and it is the literary and family aspects which are emphasised rather than the historical or political context. There is therefore little to show the political importance of their literary work, and a locket or a child’s rattle is given equal weight with the manuscripts and printed books. But the image had been reshaped before this exhibition. William St Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys: the biography of a family (1989) made the relationships clear and showed the influence they had on succeeding generations.

The exhibition is a joint venture by the Bodleian and the New York Public Library, which has lent items, and will visit New York in 2012.


Exhibition: Shelley’s Ghost, Bodleian Library, Oxford, 3rd December – 27th March, Admission Free.