A scandalous inscription by Percy Shelley during an Alpine tour with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron in 1816 has been rediscovered in a bequest of books to Trinity College.
200 years ago on 23 July, in the register of Chamonix’s Hôtel de Londres, the poet and political agitator declared himself ‘lover of humanity’, ‘democrat’, and – most outrageous of all at the time – ‘atheist.’
Shelley wrote, in Greek, that he was coming from England and going to ‘L‘Enfer’ – hell. Such atheistic declarations, which Shelley made throughout his Alpine tour, accompanied by his wife Mary and Lord Byron, would have been scandalous at the time, when religion permeated English society.
Dr Ross Wilson, Fellow and Lecturer in English at Trinity, said:
This is the most complete and flamboyant of the many such declarations Shelley made as a rebellious young poet. It is also, as far as we know, the only such inscription to survive. Shelley’s Greek is not very good but you get the clear sense he cared little what others thought and relished the scandal.
That summer was malevolent in more ways than one. A massive volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies in 1815 had changed weather patterns around the world, contributing to food shortages and riots in some places.
To endure the incessant rain and dark skies in the Alps during the ‘Summer that Never Was’, Shelley’s party competed to write the scariest ghost story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was one outcome. Her husband conceived one of his most famous works, Mont Blanc, which explores human beings’ place in the universe and confronts the notion of religious certainty.
Dr Wilson said:
Shelley’s visitors’ book entry was meant to be offensive, and many subsequent visitors, including his relatives, Sir John and Lady Shelley, found it so. No-one knows by whom or why, but the leaf had been removed from the visitors’ book by late summer 1825, three years after Shelley had drowned in the Bay of Spezia.
The leaf from the hotel register was found pasted into Shelley’s copy of his poem, The Revolt of Islam, which addresses revolutionary politics and the tempestuous history of the nineteenth century through an elaborate mythological narrative. This rare book, a first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the page from the hotel visitors’ book, are on public view in the Wren Library.