Category Archives: shelley

Bicentenary of Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford


On 25 March 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg were publicly expelled from University College, Oxford. On the following morning, after breakfast, they took their places on the outside of a London-bound coach. After only two terms as a first-year undergraduate, Shelley had been sent down.


Their offence was ‘contumaciously refusing to answer questions … and also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism.’ This was the anonymous pamphlet which Shelley had privately printed a few weeks earlier and put on sale at sixpence a copy in a shop-window on Oxford High Street. A passing don spotted the pamphlet and immediately ordered the stock to be burnt. Shelley had also sent copies out to individuals – ‘every bishop in the kingdom’, head of Oxford Colleges, and other dignitaries – with letters under false names, inviting their response.

The reception from recipients was not rapturous. ‘A sixth enormous lie’, reported one of Shelley’s targets, ‘consisted in his saying [under the alias of Charles Meyton], that he had himself visited Palestine … and that neither angels nor martyrs should ever convince him, contrary to the evidence of his senses, that it had ever been a fertile land.’ The pamphlet, shockingly, contradicted the Anglican Church’s 39 Articles (‘There is but one living and true God …’), which Shelley and Hogg had signed only a few months earlier in the University’s matriculation register, on becoming members of the University.

On the 200th anniversary of the expulsion, visitors to the Shelley’s Ghost website can see many fascinating items relating to Shelley’s time at Oxford and to his subsequent career as poet and unacknowledged world-legislator. The final page of The Necessity of Atheism is shown with its provocative ‘Q.E.D.’, concluding the proof of God’s non-existence. With a letter identified only in 2008, Shelley sends a copy to William Godwin, his future father-in-law, under the alias Jennyngs Stukeley. Another of his Oxford letters discusses ‘the Spirit of Love, the harmonised intelligence of infinite Creation’ – not to be confused with God. The draft manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also on show, with echoes of Shelley’s anarchic behaviour at Oxford – chemical experiments, wrong-coloured pantaloons.

Image credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
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Shelley’s Ghost is also open to visit at the Bodleian Library for just two more days until 5pm on Sunday 27 March 2011.


The idea behind the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition

Stephen Hebron, Exhibition Curator

After fifteen years of producing literary exhibitions (on, among others, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson and Dante) I was delighted to be asked by the Bodleian to curate Shelley’s Ghost. I remembered the great exhibition at the Bodleian, Shelley’s Guitar, from 1992 (the bicentenary of the poet’s birth) but after the Library’s purchase of the Abinger papers in 2004 I could see an opportunity for an exhibition on the whole family: not just Shelley himself but Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and two less well-known but fascinating figures, Sir Percy and Jane, Lady Shelley. As well as the wonderful manuscripts, books and relics in the Bodleian, there was a chance to exhibit things that had never been seen before: the new portrait identified as Mary Shelley, and her travelling dressing-case. And the chance to work with The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at New York Public Library as well made the whole thing more attractive.

Behind the scenes of Shelley’s Ghost

Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family is the winter 2010 exhibition from the Bodleian Libraries in partnership with the New York Public Library. As well as the physical exhibition that you can walk around, Shelley’s Ghost is also supported by an online exhibition (http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) and an accompanying book of the same name.

The exhibition brings together manuscripts, letters and personal relics associated with one of our greatest literary families: Percy Bysshe Shelley; his wife, Mary Shelley; and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Exhibits include Shelley’s notebooks, Mary Shelley’s hand written draft of Frankenstein, the suicide letter of Shelley’s first wife, a necklace made of Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair and Godwin’s Political Justice.

An exhibition is all about celebrating and sharing treasures, literary treasures in this case, and telling their stories. What you often don’t hear is the story of how an exhibition is conceived and created, and the stories of the people that make it happen.

This blog tells those stories and aims to provide a snapshot of life behind the scenes of a major exhibition.