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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, July 8, 2011

Nothing of him that doth fade...

On July 8 1822 the 29-year-old Shelley set off from Livorno with his friend Edward Williams, and their boat boy Charles Vivian, to return home to Lerici. The boat, Shelley's pride and joy, turned out to be badly designed and they did not survive the storm that overtook them on the way. Here are ten fantastic books that explain why he is still a living force 189 years later.

1. Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial)

Not just a great biography of Shelley but a landmark in the history of biography, rescuing its subject both from the sickly sentimentality of the Victorian era that succeeded him, and the rubbishing of F R Leavis. This showed a rash and ruthless, even a sexy Shelley, who combined the glamour of Byron with the sensitivity of Keats. A young man writing about a young man, it is a poignant account; not so much a Life, as Holmes claimed, as a haunting.

2. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography by James Bieri (Johns Hopkins)

Wonderful as Holmes's biography is, Bieri's crisp and authoritative take, published in 2004, brings the best of modern scholarship to bear on this brief but hectic life. Bieri fills out the detail, sees certain elements from a refreshing new angle and includes new information to intrigue the enthusiast. Not as sweepingly Romantic as the Holmes but worthy to sit beside it on the shelf.

3. Red Shelley by Paul Foot (Bookmarks)

The Victorians tended to ignore Shelley's passionate radicalism, vegetarianism and feminism in favour of his swooning love poetry. The unforgettable Paul Foot here makes a spirited case for the revolutionary poet as socialist figurehead. Excellent, tub-thumping stuff, right down to the great title and iconic cover with red star and dishevelled poet seemingly heading a mob march.

4. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed Roger Ingpen, 2 vols

These are rare; I had to haunt Hay-on-Wye for years before finding copies (pre-internet). Fresh and unmediated, here's the unadulterated voice, from the cheeky 11-year-old who signs off, 'Now I end. I am not / Your obedient servant, / P. B. Shelley' to the almost unbearably poignant last letters of a man still in the thick of things and full of literary plans. The letters describing his travels in Italy are superb, as are the ones charting the always difficult relationship with Byron. When writing about his own work he is modest, fateful, almost sad. There are no great theories of poetry a la Keats, no 'I think I will be among the English poets at my death' - and all the better for that, in my view. Give me Shelley describing a night in Venice with Byron over Keats chirupping about sparrows in Hampstead any day.

5. Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself by Ann Wroe (Cape)

A thoroughly original and brilliant book examining the rich textures of the poet's work and linking them to the life in fresh and surprising ways. Few scholars make such ingenious connections, or demonstrate so well how clever he was, how well-read in Greek and Roman classics, in French political theory, in history and Italian poetry (he remains one of the finest translators of Dante). A giddily exciting intellectual odyssey.

6. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family by William St Clair (Faber)

Another biography, but with a clever twist - St Clair shows how the story of Shelley and Mary didn't begin with them, but with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. St Clair shows how the younger generation consciously took up the baton of the dead author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (however, their relationship with the very living Godwin was a source of constant strife). The scholarly St Clair is not above having a little mischief at the expense of the youthful pair, but he also writes movingly about the failures and tragedies that dogged this supremely gifted family.

7. Shelley's Boat by Julian Roach (Harbour Press)

The story of Shelley's last days, a mixture of eerie foreshadowing and sheer bad luck, superlatively told. Shelley was obsessed with the sea, boats and water, and at many times in his writing he seems to be foreseeing his own death. In one of his last letters to his adored Jane, Edward's wife, he wrote hauntingly: 'How are you today and how is Williams? Tell him that I dreamed of nothing but sailing, and fishing up coral.' But was his death inevitable? Tracing the events that led up to the tragedy, Roach's elegant detective work grips.

8. The Strange Death of a Romantic by Jim Williams (Scribner)

Shelley's life has inspired numerous novels, few as ingenious as this one, which slyly purports to answer the question: 'Who murdered Percy Shelley?' A century after the drowning, a young doctor comes to the coast where Shelley lived, where a group of languid expats drink, flirt, and play literary games, writing witty pastiches that suggest solutions to the mystery. But then, of course, there's a real murder... A clever thriller, well worth tracking down.

9. Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (Oxford)

Shelley's (possible) lover and Mary's step-sister is a fascinating and tragic character in her own right, living on til 1879, long after her fellow adventurers were dead. The attempts of the Shelley scholar, Edward Silsbee, to extract her cache of Shelley letters, was transmuted by Henry James into his novella 'The Aspern Papers'. Here Shelley's Constantia takes centre stage, but remains ever enigmatic: 'In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie, / even though the sounds which were they voice, which burn / Between thy lips are laid to sleep... / Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet, / Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!'

10. Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle by Janet Todd (Profile)

Just so it's not all cheerleading, here's the scholar Janet Todd ripping into Shelley as a heartless manipulator of vulnerable women. Todd takes as evidence the sad life of Mary Wollstonecraft's first child, Fanny Imlay, born in Paris during the French Revolution and written about with such joy and pride in Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden, a key Romantic text. Mary Shelley's half-sister was just not glamorous enough for the philandering poet she adored. Todd overstates her case in a screechy, indignant book, but it is never less than gripping, even when you want to throw it at the wall.

RIP Shelley.
'Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange'.

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