English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

05 June 2014

Reading Shelley’s Ashes and Byron’s Hair

By guest blogger Julian Walker

The ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, contained within a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

Ten years of being a reader have not blunted my delight in handling important editions of major literary works; the delight is even more noticeable when handling manuscripts. It is widely recognised that there is a particular kind of excitement when handling manuscripts by the major figures of the past - a letter written by Shelley to Byron, a notebook kept by Jane Austen, a draft made by H G Wells. But what exactly is the nature of that physical contact, and how does it affect our reading of the words? What happens when the ink and paper as ‘thing’ meets the words as ‘literature’?

As part of the research for the Discovering Literature website published by the British Library I recently examined a letter written by Byron to his publisher, John Murray, (Ashley 4753) from February 1824, two months before Byron’s death. The letter shows the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection; on the outside of the letter are the words, ‘Zante 25 February 1824 Received from our quarantine officer, resealed and forwarded by your very obedient servant, Samuel Carff.’ The object that proposes the desirable thrill of touching what Byron touched simultaneously presents the concept of contagion by disease, which both counters and mirrors that thrill. 

DL Ash 4753

Byron's letter to John Murray showing the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection (Ashley MS 4753).

Two other volumes take this idea forward, Ashley Ms 4752 and Ashley Ms 5022. The first contains letters to Murray from Byron, to Byron from Claire Clairmont (his onetime lover, and step-sister of Mary Shelley), to Claire Clairmont from Edward Trelawny, witness to Shelley’s cremation and perennial supporter to the Byron/Shelley circle, and from Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, to the Countess of Blessington. It also contains a lock of the hair of Byron, a lock of Claire Clairmont’s hair, and a lock of hair from their daughter, Allegra.

Byrons hair
A lock of Byron's hair (Ashley MS 4752)

C clairmont and allegras hair
Locks of hair from Byron's daughter Allegra, and Allegra's mother Claire (Clara Mary Jane) Clairmont (Ashley MS 4752)

The second volume contains letters from Mary Shelley to her friend Maria Gisborne, from Trelawny to Claire Clairmont, and a deed of conveyance, together with various certifying documents. What the documents certify is that the enclosures in Ashley 5022 contain a lock of the hair and some of the ashes of Percy Shelley, and a lock of the hair of Mary Shelley.

Hair of PB Shelley

A lock of P B Shelley's hair, enclosed in a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)


Shelley hair cartouche
Mary Shelley's hair is contained in the same manuscript as that of her husband. Her lock of hair appears beneath that of P B Shelley (Ashley MS 5022).

How are we to read these items, in the context of the elaborately finished volumes in which they lie together with handwritten documents?

After their deaths parts of the bodies of Byron and Shelley were separated, used as symbols, even sold. The lock of Byron’s hair was given by Augusta Leigh as a gift in recognition of help, while Claire Clairmont’s niece Paola sold Shelley’s hair in 1879. Byron’s larynx and lungs were removed from his corpse for interment in Greece, with the claim that these signified how the poet had ‘used his breath and voice for Greece’, according to Pietro Capsali, one of his comrades-in-arms in the Greek War of Independence. Byron feared this happening, asking, ‘Let not my body be hacked …’

Despite Fournier’s celebrated painting of the funeral of Shelley, his face and hands were unidentifiable after ten days in the water, a circumstance that perhaps intensified the value of his heart and skull. According to one of Trelawny’s accounts (there were several, with contradictions) Byron, present at Shelley’s cremation, had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull. Byron’s corpse, minus the lungs and larynx, was transported to Britain for burial, while the separated ashes and other remains of Shelley’s corpse lie in a number of sites; Mary was presented by Trelawny with Shelley’s heart, or its ashes, which she kept for the rest of her life preserved in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, itself now in the Bodleian Library. Are these keepsakes, mementoes, attempts to preserve the physical in order to retain the past, objects to concentrate mourning, ways of acknowledging or of cheating death?

The hair, instantly recognisable as such, allows the projection of some kind of animation onto the personas of the people. These are things which ‘have been alive’, and therefore serve as proof of the people’s ‘aliveness’ - they make the person real rather than just a name in a book. The ashes of Shelley animate the myth of Shelley, so strongly energised by his mysterious death and the myths that sprang from it. Locks of Byron’s hair became as desirable as the single lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair evidently was to him (he stole it from a reliquary in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1816). But if the hair animates Byron the person, is this anything to do with the poetry – can it in fact divert our attention from Byron the body of work towards Byron the person? Does the myth of Shelley, so real on seeing the ashes, detract from the Shelley corpus. Even the available English words show how difficult it is to avoid mixing the two aspects.

We may not now touch the living people, but we can touch the things they touched with so great an effect – the manuscripts of The Masque of Anarchy or Don Juan. We cannot touch the hair or ashes, but we can touch the volumes in which they lie, and we can touch the glass bubbles holding the hair and ashes. Within the context of relics the number of links in the chain of contact between saint and supplicant, reader and genius, is largely irrelevant, provided the individual links can be known. Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones. Pilgrims kiss reliquaries, with the same effect as would be gained from kissing the relics themselves. Bede, writing in the eighth century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. Maybe it cured people, maybe it made them very much worse, but in providing an exact mirror to germ theory (the concept of infection by germs rather than poisoned air), it proposes that contagion and healing walk side by side.



The first page of Shelley's draft of 'The Masque of Anarchy' (Ashley MS 4086)

Just as healing and contagion cancel each other, and merge in the process of inoculation, Byron’s and Shelley’s bodies – their lives – merge into their work. Byron is the superlative Byronic hero, acknowledging in the preface to Childe Harold Canto 4 the minimal difference between himself and his hero – ‘slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person’; Trelawny’s retelling of the cremation of Shelley’s body, 36 years after the event, has the drowned body as ‘entire’, tying in with Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Shelley the poet as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Our physical contact, at one remove, with their bodies simultaneously obstructs, mirrors and merges with our engagement with their work.

Byron Childe Harold
Byron's manuscript for Childe Harold, (Egerton MS 2027)

One last thought - a meeting in 1816 between four of the people whose body parts are mentioned above – Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire Clairmont was pregnant with the fifth, Allegra) - produced a famous story in which a whole extraordinary being is made up of disparate body parts: Frankenstein.

Ashley MS 5022 and Ashley MS 4752 can both be seen on the Discovering Literature website, alongwith other important literary manuscripts, including a letter from Shelley to Byron, praising his Don Juan, Leigh Hunt’s account of the death and cremation of Shelley, and parts of the manuscript of Byron’s Childe Harold.


This is the third in our Discovering Literature blog series, introducing the British Library's new website for Romantic and Victorian literature. Read our previous blogs here.


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