The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Reading the romantics

What do Folger staff read in their spare time?  Not necessarily Shakespeare!  I’ve recently finished a wonderful book by Daisy Hay called The Young Romantics, published in the spring of 2010 and now available in hardback, paperback, or on a Kindle near you.  Hay has an amazing grasp of the lives of the second-generation Romantics—Shelley, Keats, Byron, Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Claremont, Leigh Hunt—and a host of others in their expanding circle.  Hay smoothly brings their stories to life in a riveting narrative that reads like fiction and includes incest, adultery, illegitimacy, imprisonment—except it’s all real!

Reading about these folks made me want to go back and see what’s at the Folger relating to the Romantics, and there’s much more than you might expect. 

The Lambs, of course—Charles and Mary—who were good London friends and wrote their Tales from Shakespeare for children. They along with Charles Cowden Clarke, a Shakespeare editor, and William Hazlitt, artist and essayist, visited Leigh Hunt, the journalist, when he was imprisoned in 1813 for his radical views.  The Folger has draft manuscripts of some of Hazlitt’s essays on Shakespeare, as well as Cowden Clarke’s copy of his essays on Shakespeare-characters that he gave to Dickens, and many editions of Lambs’ Tales.

Here is an extract of Hazlitt’s essay “On Shakespear and Milton”:

T.b.18, page 37
opening of Hazlitt's essay "On Shakespear and Milton" (pg 37)

And here is the tiny volume of the Lambs’ Midsummer Night’s Dream , which just happened to be published in 1811 by Mary Shelley’s unsympathetic stepmother, Mary Jane Godwin.

Lambs' Midsummer Night's Dream

When we get to the principals themselves there’s more.  The Folger has a letter from Mary Shelley to the actress Fanny Kemble years after Percy Shelley’s death, asking if she should send his autograph to some people from New York.

Shelley's letter, pg 1
Shelley's letter, page 2

Byron is well-represented in early printings of his tragedies, Sardanapalus and Werner, and in the various manuscript poetical miscellanies where his verses were collected by admiring fans.  One of these fans was Horatia Nelson, illegitimate daughter of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton, who copied chunks of Byron into her collection around 1817, as indicated by her signature and date inside the front cover.

inscription in the front of Horatia Nelson's commonplace book


I could go on, but you get the idea.  When Mary (accompanied by her step-sister Claire) eloped with the still-married Shelley in 1814, the girls were sixteen and he was twenty-one.  The flight to Europe couldn’t last because they ran out of money, but Hay tells us that as they made their way on various small boats back through Germany and Holland, “they filled the hours by reading Shakespeare and Wollstonecraft, and by writing of their adventures in their diaries” (33).  Now there’s a “romantic” trip!

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