Ariel by Andre Maurois

Translated by Ella D’Arcy

Published 1924   chapter 15

Some one rushing upstairs recalled rapid footsteps heard long ago on an Oxford staircase.

‘No one but Shelley ever ran upstairs like that!’

The room-door opened, and there Shelley stood, hatless, with shirt-collar wide open, wild-looking, intellectual, always the image of some heavenly spirit come down to earth by mistake…

Hogg looked at him with the admiration, affection and irony of former days…. Shelley, full of animation and joy, walked about the room, opened books, put questions to which he never waited the answers…. He talked far into the night, and the men in the chambers next to Hogg knocked furiously on the walls to warn him that the high and piercing voice of his visitor prevented them from sleeping.

observations: After reading Lynn Shepherd’s marvellous A Treacherous Likeness, a novel dealing with what could just about be described as his family life, I decided to read a biography of the poet Shelley, and this one came to hand. Maurois was a distinguished Frenchman of letters, but it is possible this book would now be forgotten were it not for the chance of one important feature: it was the first ever Penguin Book, no 1 in the series in 1935, presumably giving a note of culture and seriousness to the list alongside the Agatha Christies.

It is described on the title page as ‘A Shelley Romance’ and it certainly shows us how much biography has changed over the past 90 years, as it is an uncomfortable melange of facts, and dramatic and presumably made-up dialogue, with no footnotes or references, although many actual letters are quoted at length. Modern writers are quite willing to attribute words and motives to historical figures, but they are usually careful to be clear about what is what. Lynn Shepherd’s book is a model in that respect, and quite honestly you come away from Maurois with a suspicion that you can understand more from the avowed novel than from this mishmash.

However the story can never be less than riveting: from Shelley’s answer to a master at Eton (‘Please Sir, I’m raising the devil’) through his friendships with the fairly awful Hogg, and then Byron, the two wives and their sisters, the suicides, the lost children – and dead before he was 30. Even if he hadn’t written the poetry he would be worth reading about. Both books make him sound very like the Mozart of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, who died a year before Shelley was born.

Maurois has a portentous tone which somehow seems very French to British eyes: ‘It is rare that pretty women show a taste for dangerous ideas’ and ‘there is no-one more tenacious than a woman tired of her virtue’ are sample ideas. His interest in Mary Shelley in her own right, as author of Frankenstein, is zero.

One irreverent thought from both books is that Shelley (presumably because that’s how he wanted it) was never alone, even with his wives: there were sisters and friends in the households at all times, on their honeymoon, and even at an elopement. It is very hard for modern readers to understand. (There were, of course, specific possible reasons why the sisters were brought along, but even so…)

A Treacherous Likeness was on the blog earlier this week. Byron features in these entries. The excellent A Penguin a Week blog has of course featured this book.

The picture is a portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint.


  1. Moira - What an excellent choice after the Shepherd. And I didn't realise this was the first Penguin. How interesting! As I mentioned in my other comment, this was such a fascinating group of people. It's one of those cases where I think truth is more appealing - lurid even, dare I say?? - than fiction. Great stuff.

    1. Thanks Margot - yes, the story defies belief, both because of the melodramatic nature of their lives, and because of the concentration of talent in a small group of people. Endlessly fascinating...

  2. What a compelling picture: I was thinking about Shelley recently when I saw an equally compelling picture of Mary Wollstonecraft. Thanks for the post.

    1. Compelling is exactly the right word Sarah, you just want to know more about them. I think Mary Wollstonecraft is perhaps the most intriguing of them all - what a life. I loved Claire Tomalin's biography of her.


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