Exciting Mary Shelley discovery in Essex

Published: 6 January 2014 at 13:32

Anglia Ruskin Professor stumbles upon 13 unpublished letters by Frankenstein author

A treasure trove of previously unpublished letters written by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, has been stumbled upon in Chelmsford.

Professor Nora Crook of Anglia Ruskin University was searching for an obscure author called Miss Crumpe when she made the discovery, details of which have been published in the latest edition of the Keats-Shelley Journal.

While searching online for “Miss Crumpe”, she found herself in Seax, the online catalogue of Essex Record Office’s archives, and was led to 13 letters written by Mary Shelley to Horace Smith and his daughter Eliza between 1831 and 1849.

Smith was a stockbroker, author, wit, and friend of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband.  After Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822, Smith and his family befriended the grieving Mary.

A number of Mary Shelley letters have surfaced over the last 25 years, but a sizeable cache like this is rare.  Horace Smith had a habit of destroying letters, and no one expected that any letters sent to him by Mary Shelley would ever turn up, let alone so many.  

Crook, Emerita Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin and a renowned Shelley scholar, said:

“It is through one of Smith’s daughters that the letters came to the Essex Record Office.  No one would have thought to look there for letters from Mary Shelley to Smith, as Smith had no immediate connection with Essex.
“However, his youngest daughter married into the Round family from Birch near Colchester, and was the mother of J Horace Round, a famous Victorian historian who translated the portion of the Domesday Book covering Essex.  The letters, which Smith probably kept because they involved interesting cases of literary censorship, are in the Round family papers.”

In one bunch of letters Mary Shelley asks Smith, on behalf of a firm of publishers, if he will use the censor’s scissors on a manuscript of an author, Edward Trelawny, because some episodes are too shocking and must be removed.  Trelawny has reluctantly agreed to cuts as long as a man does it, not a woman, and Smith agreed.

In another she begs him to let her publish some letters in which Percy Bysshe Shelley had expressed hostile views about religion, and which Smith had previously refused to release. Smith agreed again. 

There are also a number of amusing details, like a glimpse of the author of Frankenstein summoning a hairdresser at 3am so she could look her best for William IV’s coronation the following morning.

Professor Crook is no stranger to Shelley discoveries involving censorship. Last February she was at the centre of a group of scholars who verified the genuineness of a newly found hand-corrected copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Laon and Cythna. The corrections were expurgations made to avoid prosecution for blasphemy.

She added:

“If it hadn’t been for the Essex Record Office’s excellent archivists, I certainly would never have stumbled across the letters.  You can work out how the letters came to the Essex Record Office with a bit of sleuthing, but to get to them in the first place you need a lucky break.
“Mary Shelley was on my mind at the time, although I had no thoughts of finding any letters. I had an idea that an anonymous review of a book by Miss Crumpe might be by Mary Shelley.
“It wasn’t, but the search took me to Seax and a snippet from a letter in which Mary Shelley jokes that her father is ‘half in love’ with Miss Crumpe.  Once there, I knew immediately that the phrase had to come from an unpublished letter—and there turned out to be more.  Of course I then had to see them and the Essex Record Office staff couldn’t have been more helpful.”

The letters can be found on the Seax website http://seax.essexcc.gov.uk/ by using the reference d/drh c102.