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In Defence of Harriet Shelley

4.8 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 32 pages
  • Publisher: FQ Books (July 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003VS0XPK
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.1 x 11 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,254,167 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Before reading this brilliant essay you must be familiar with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a 19th century English poet and perhaps, nowadays, most famous for being married to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. His most famous bit of poetry in modern times is: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Before reading this essay, read a short online biography about Mr. Shelley so that you can follow along with some knowledge of the basics. Twain's essay is actually a long review of a biography of Shelley by Edward Dowden: Life of Shelley, a book that is extremely dismissive of Harriet Shelley, Percy Shelley's first wife - the one he left pregnant and with a child at home so that he could run away to Europe with Mary.

In no way is Twain's essay fair towards Percy Shelley - it does not try to be and I do not think that it should be. It's hard to defend a man who leaves his pregnant wife for a teenage girl. Twain rips this section of the biography apart bit by bit. Twain's sarcastic bite is on full display here - commentary that is very often laugh out loud funny and very tender towards Harriet Shelley.
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This is Mark Twain's review of a then-popular book which (apparently) eulogized and excused Shelley's abandonment of his first wife, Harriett. It's a good example of Twain's critical writing, and in some ways of his moralizing, but not as sharply incisive as his better-known criticism; fans of Twain's invective should start somewhere else (I'd recommend his essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences," a critique of the Leatherstocking books).

Only recommended for Twain scholars, not general readers.
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Like many satirists who take aim at the powerful, whether individuals, institutions, or societal conventions, Twain had a streak of gallantry towards the defenseless. That gallantry takes front and center in this review of Dowden's famous biography of Shelley, in which Shelley's biographer defended his hero's abandonment of his first wife by painting her as a greedy shrew who, to put it in contemporary terms, wasn't good enough for him.

While Twain generally admired Shelley as an individual, he makes it clear that he considered Shelley's behavior towards his first wife indefensible and that Dowden's attempted defense of that behavior to be absolutely reprehensible. He carefully dissects each of Dowden's charges and even more so, Dowden's skill at using weighted language and speculation to condemn her while pretending to be neutral.

Strongly recommended not just for Twain's admirers but for anybody studying rhetoric, political writing, or debate technique.
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Dear Mr. Twain,

For some reason I've never been passionate about you. I know why your works are great. I really liked Pudd'nhead Wilson, and I think any attempt to infrinage upon The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is misguided, misinformed (aka stupid and dumb). Yet, despite this I've never really warmed to you. Maybe it's because I saw you as more of a guy author.

I read your defense of H.Shelley because I remembered one of my profs referring to it.

Mr Twain, I love you now. I really do.

I enjoy Frankenstein, and I like Mary Shelley. I like Shelley's poetry, but as someone who has read the journals of Mary Shelley and Claire Claremont, there is something werid about Percy.

This is a wonderful essay in defense of a wronged woman who usually gets bypassed or left by the side in both Mary and Percy's biographies. It is a very sympathic essay. It is brillant.
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Thanks Mr. Twain! An important addition for anyone studying the life of Shelley. I hope Dowden read it at the time.
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