A fragment of Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s unpublished autobiography, My Life, has been found amongst the papers left by Alex’s uncle, Alan Hogg. In this section, T.J. Hogg describes a tea-party involving Jane Williams and Mary Shelley some time in 1823 …
… it was amongst the more embarrassing events of my adult life, if not quite on a par with the days of the unfortunate misunderstandings with Harriet, first in York and then so close to the end of her sad life. Jane and I were by now on intimate terms but as Jane was still officially grieving for the loss of Edward, we had kept our relationship secret from our closest friends, even from Mary who had been the unwitting matchmaker.
Jane, in turn, was completely unaware that I had once aspired to partake of Mary’s bed in the days when we shared a house at 13, Arabella Rd. Although Mary was no longer my dormouse and I was no longer her Prince Alexy, there was still an element of unfinished business between us, especially now that she was a widow, albeit one that was prematurely aged by grief. I did what I could to ensure that the three of us were never alone in private conversation but that day soon came unbidden. Not long after her return to England in 1823, Mary called unexpectedly at Jane’s home one afternoon and found not just Jane, strumming idly on her guitar, but also your humble friend in residence.
“Mr Hogg! I did not expect to find you here!” she said on entering the drawing-room. I struggled in vain to find a suitable explanation for my presence. Jane was rather less circumspect.
“Dearest Mary! I owe you the most heartfelt of thanks. It was so kind of you to put me in touch with Mr Hogg. I would have known almost no one in England otherwise. Jefferson and I have …”
I recall that Jane looked across at me, as if for my blessing, and I must have blushed deeply. But she carried on anyway.
“We have become the closest of friends,” she said, reaching for my cold hand, “and we owe it all to you!”
Mary looked at each of us in turn and tried to force some sort of smile but I was not deceived. She never truly forgave me for stealing Jane from her. Her coldness towards us in later years is a source of the deepest regret.
In an effort to change the subject, I asked Mary if she had made much progress in sorting through the mountain of papers and unpublished work that Bysshe had left.
“It will take me ten years or more, I suspect,” she replied. “But I have a pamphlet with me which I believe you may have seen before, Mr Hogg.”
From her portmanteau, Mary pulled out a grubby booklet and handed it to me.
“Ah, yes, the Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,” I said. “This is the publication for which Bysshe and I should have been sent down, not that mild-mannered piece on atheism. This polemic is truly seditious!”
“Indeed!” Mary responded. “I cannot put this in his Collected Works. It can never be published again. Just look at those first few lines!”
I turned over the introductory pages, skimming past the dedication to Harriet W—b—k, and recited the opening section; indeed, I might have done so from memory as Bysshe and I had laboured over every word of it in his rooms at Univ:
DESTRUCTION marks thee! o’er the blood-stain’d heath
Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death;
Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.
The sternly wise, the mildly good, have sped
To the unfruitful mansions of the dead.
Whilst fell Ambition o’er the wasted plain
Triumphant guides his car …
“Ah, the triumphal car,” I chuckled. “Wasn’t that in his final unfinished poem, the Triumph of Life?”
“Yes, indeed, but in a less incendiary form.”
“Little had changed. He was still at heart a revolutionary.”
“I have found something even more extraordinary,” Mary went on. “Some poems Bysshe wrote in Middle English!”
“What, like Chaucer, you mean?”
“No, it’s intended to be a more Northerly dialect, I think. It’s full of alliteration. There’s a dream-vision thing called Pearl and an Arthurian tale. There’s no title to it but I think it should be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
“Was there a Green Knight?”
“Who’s to say? There are a few echoes of poor John Keats’s poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Anyway, I’ve found some old parchment and I’m writing the whole lot out neatly.”
From her portmanteau she retrieved the oldest notebook I have ever seen, neatly stitched together and inscribed with monastic rigour. With my limited knowledge of medieval script, I could barely make out the opening words:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez
Alongside the text were a few drawings in Shelley’s inimitable, slightly childish style and Mary explained that she had inked them in and added strong colours. I could not but admire the craftsmanship.
“Do you think you could help me get it published somewhere as if it really were medieval?” Mary enquired.
“That is surely impossible!”
But this was a challenge I could hardly resist. Ever since the Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson forgery of our first term at Univ and the invention of John Brown, the “translator” of Prince Alexy, I have loved a good hoax. Mary too had passed off Frankenstein as the work of the polar explorer, Robert Walton. This would be a more arduous venture but, succeed or fail, highly diverting. If Thomas Chatterton, a schoolboy with little poetic experience, could successfully pass himself off as a medieval poet for a while, surely Shelley, with our support, could do better still?
We needed an intermediary figure, a John Brown or a Robert Walton. Another plain English name seemed expedient. It was not long before Mary and I had invented one Richard Price, a denizen, like me, of the Middle Temple, called to the bar in 1823 and the unlikely ‘discoverer’ of our mildewy manuscript (a “Temple-haunting martlet”, as Mary called him, forgetting that she had once applied the same soubriquet to me). Mary continued with her transcription and we started to look for a gullible publisher. Various communications went via the fictional Mr Price’s pigeon hole at the Middle Temple and I picked up any correspondence there. On the very few occasions when meetings were unavoidable, I pleaded an inability to leave the confines of the Middle Temple and met visitors in a room starved of natural light. I even took to wearing a hairpiece that covered my own middle temple. Had my visitors encountered me at a social gathering that same evening, I doubt whether they would have recognised me again.
Before long, the very persuasive Mr Price had managed to talk his way into a job as Editor of a new edition of Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry, which covered the 11th through to the 16th century. This, we decided, was the perfect medium for Price’s exciting new discovery. We tested the water with a small section of Shelley’s cod-medieval masterpiece in the 1824 edition of Warton, complete with an Introduction by Price that Mary and I laboured long and hard over.
By this date, Mary had found her true vocation as a literary editor, perhaps the greatest the world has yet soon. After her husband’s untimely demise, she had been the custodian of a million scraps of paper, each crammed with spidery scrawlings overlaid with amendments, additions and furious deletions. She took these unreadable fragments and pieced them together like one of John Spilsbury’s jigsaw-dissected maps to create the Collected Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a literary Monster conjured from wisps and ether. If that manipulation of manuscripts was her true life’s work and her greatest act of procreation, our medieval jest was but a transient divigation. Mary’s calligraphic skills were unsurpassed and she loved to construct the illuminated letters at the commencement of each stanza or fit.
Mary took great delight in the many arts of forgery; I recall that she was also instrumental in the counterfeiting of a passport for an acquaintance who wished to travel abroad. Each piece of parchment was aged with alchemical care to the point where it was susceptible to disintegration. The ink was faded almost, but not quite, to the point of illegibility. Warton’s History was Mary’s style-guide and furnished my partner in crime with many examples of the lettering, punctuation and other orthographic features to be found in an authentic early-fifteenth century manuscript.
Within London’s literary circles where everyone knows everyone, a few questions were asked in the years that followed. Who is this Richard Price? A barrister at the Middle Temple? Well, I’ve never heard of him! As the mutterings multiplied, we decided to kill off our unmarried and childless Mr Price in 1833 (a convenient bout of dropsy), leaving the rest of the Gawain-manuscript (as we called it) in the hands of his unsuspecting publishers. It remained one of the many secrets I shared with Mary. We determined to stay silent about our imposture and, whichever one of us should survive the longer, that personage should be responsible for correcting the historical record. Since Mary’s untimely decease in 1851 I have postponed that confession. But my duty will be fulfilled when the secret is revealed with the publication of these memoirs shortly after my own death.
As I saw little of Shelley in the last five years of his life, I have no idea when he found time to compose these extraordinary poems. Such was Shelley’s ability to work on many pieces at once, evenMary had been unaware of her husband’s experimentation. He had evidently begun to practise his Middle English skills with short experiments called Patience and Cleanness. We considered discarding these awkward pastiches but Mary enjoyed her calligraphic labours so much that they were included in the final collection. There was a longer poem called Pearl which, I confess, I never quite understood.
But it was the extraordinary narrative of Sir Gawain and the fearsome Green Knight which captivated us. In planning our deception, the problem was not that Shelley’s poetry was unconvincing; it was rather that it was too compelling. No writer of the period, not even Chaucer, could have created a story of such depth and complexity, such masterly control of its readers’ expectations, such surprise. One or two early readers compared Gawain to Frankenstein, especially in the way the central character must set out across unknown, wintry lands in search of a murderous, hideous, unnamed monster. But no one went so far as to suggest that the same author or authors might be responsible for both works. Yet, to me, numerous aspects were unmistakeably Shelleyan, especially the wife-sharing machinations.
After much debate, we also declined to give the author of these poems a name. Mary convinced me that the lack of an appellation made all her monsters more frightening and extraordinary.
So far our jeux d’esprit has still not been rumbled! I can only attribute that fact to Shelley’s astonishing invention of his own Middle English dialect. Some say it has a little in common with Langland’s Piers Plowman but this invented language is more courtly and Frenchified. No matter that the dialect exists in no other document – it has its own ring of alliterative authenticity. We had succeeded where young Chatterton had ultimately failed. I feel sure that, once the truth is known, the public’s appreciation of Shelley’s genius will be still further magnified.
On another visit, on which I was accompanied by Jane herself, I enquired whether Mary had found any time to work on a second novel of her own, following the astonishing success of Frankenstein?
“Why, yes, as it happens, despite all my editorial duties,” she said. “Do you remember our trip to the Sibyl’s cave near Naples, Jane? Of course you do. It has given me the idea for something. What if we had found some prophetic writings there? A vision of life in the twenty-first century after some terrible catastrophe has struck. A great flood or a plague of some kind. I am calling it The Last Man.”
“The Last Man in Europe?” I suggested.
“Not just Europe. It is about the only man left in the whole world and how desolate such a creature would be. Somewhat like Frankenstein’s monster after he has been spurned. Although it is set two centuries hence, it is really about Bysshe and me and Byron and all our poor friends.”
“Not another novel about Shelley,” I sighed.
“Well, his ridiculous father won’t let me write a biography, so this will have to suffice. In my modest way I am trying to finish the Triumph of Life. What about you, Jefferson? Will you put Bysshe in another piece of fiction?”
I indicated that I had absolutely no intention of writing another novel.
“Another novel?” Jane shrieked. “I didn’t know you had written a novel at all, Jefferson!”
“Oh, it is nothing,” I insisted.
“Mr Hogg is the author of The Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff,” Mary divulged. “Did he not tell you that?”
“He did nothing of the sort. Jefferson!”
I could not but feel a little pride so I told her something of Prince Alexy and the “translation” by John Brown, Esq. Mary was good enough to confess that much of her own Frankenstein was inspired by my earlier novelistic bagatelle, from the St Petersburg opening through to the murderous embrace of the protagonist and his ghastly alter ego.
“I wish you would write another book. For me!” Jane shrieked. “I shan’t stay friends with you unless you do!”
Perhaps she said these words in jest; I am not sure. It was one of many challenges she issued in the days before we married. To prove I was no stick-in-the-mud, I had to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe, all on my own. It took me two hundred and nine days and, believe me, I counted off every single hour of my lonely exile. I suspect I was even more of a stick-in-the-mud when I returned unbloodied from my knightly quest.
So perhaps it was all Mary’s fault that Jane also challenged me to write a prophetic novel like Mary’s, set in the twenty-first century.
“But I know nothing about the twenty-first century!” I remonstrated at first.
“You knew nothing of Russian princes either,” Jane insisted. “Imagine it is one of our distant descendants. I am sure his life will be much like your own. You don’t have to publish it or even put your name to it – just write. We can put it in a drawer for our grandchildren to find after we are gone …”
If I wanted to make my home with Jane, I had little choice but to accept the challenge. It was not quite as severe an ordeal as Gawain’s, after all. In the weeks that followed, prior to embarkation from Dover, Mary and I passed our time in the terra incognita of the 21st century. We exchanged ideas of how our distant descendants would live and die, what contraptions they would have, where they would eat and drink. I decided on a setting that might change relatively little in 200 years, the Oxford that I had known as a callow young man, but it was still an undertaking that would stretch my imagination beyond its natural capabilities. Mary’s Last Man was, in this author’s humble opinion, her true masterpiece but my paltry effort was never destined for publication. Like these memoirs, it will remain locked in a drawer until after I have departed this vale of tears.
I picked up my pen early in my continental expedition and tried to begin the process of writing. I stared at a blank page for many days. You will not believe me when I tell you that the first line came to me in a dream one night as I too sojourned on the shores of Lake Geneva:
“I have fifty days to live …”