LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Thomas Medwin:
The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley


Family History
Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix

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Thomas Medwin’s 1847 Life of Shelley was the first full-length biography to appear. The poet was Medwin’s younger first cousin; they were neighbors and schoolmates who remained close until Medwin, having damaged his professional prospects, enlisted in 1813. He spent five years as an officer in India before rejoining Shelley as part of the circle of English writers at Pisa in October of 1820. His biography is thus an important source of information about Shelley’s earliest and latest years; for the intervening period Medwin relies on the previously-published memoirs of Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Thomas De Quincey, the prefaces and notes to Shelley’s works by Mary Shelley, and Thomas Moore’s life of Byron. The second of Medwin’s two volumes is given entirely to Shelley’s last months.
The textual history of the Life of Shelley is complex. Medwin had few personal letters to work with, having lost some and lent others to Edward John Trelawny. In addition to his journals he reworked material from his earlier publications, the Conversations of Lord Byron (1824), his review of Moore’s Byron published in the Literary Gazette (1831), and the articles published in the Athenaeum (1832-33) reissued as the Shelley Papers (1833). While there was no second edition, Medwin revised the Life at least twice and one of the later versions was edited and published by H. B. Forman in 1913. That edition contains new material but also (though Forman fails to specify them) excisions from the 1847 publication, including a long section concerned with Byron.
The Life of Shelley is in fact an olio of matter composed at different periods for various purposes with copious filler added; like his book, Medwin’s life had, by 1847, become an affair of rags and patches. His Conversations had been savaged by Hobhouse and other associates of Byron; since its publication Medwin had married a Swedish countess in 1824 and then abandoned her and his children after losing much of her fortune speculating in the art market. He had been unexpectedly disinherited by his wealthy father in 1829 and forced to earn his living by literature, never an easy thing for an impoverished gentleman to manage. Medwin spent most of his life living as a voluntary exile on the Continent, returning occasionally to England to cultivate his literary projects.
He was living under distressed circumstances when his biographical books and articles appeared. There is no doubt they were written with a lofty intention, and the case of Shelley anyway, to vindicate the poet’s much-abused character. But there is also no question that Medwin was converting his former friendships into ready money. We may be grateful that he did so, but it is understandable that other members of the Byron-Shelley circle took a dim view of his motives. Mary Shelley regarded Medwin’s request for money in exchange for complying with her request that he suppress his biography as an attempt at blackmail. Fanny Brawne, who Medwin knew in Heidelberg, may have been less than fully forthcoming in what she revealed about John Keats. Medwin was in bad odor with respectable people as the result of the attacks on his character by Hobhouse and others.
He was thus in a position to write feelingly when recounting the social ostracism suffered by Byron and Shelley. His own difficulties as a writer stem less from the fact that he was “less than a gentleman” than from the fact that he was too much of one: he was an amateur poet, an amateur painter, an amateur sportsman, an amateur art-collector, an amateur critic, an amateur classicist—one might add, an amateur biographer. One can deplore his lack of genius and occasional lack of accuracy (he relies too much on his memory) but one can generally rely on his honesty. It was that, after all, which threatened those who attempted to dismiss him as a liar, a ruffian or an adventurer.
But Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Jane Williams had little to fear from a biographer who is nothing if not circumspect about women’s reputations. One might attribute Medwin’s reticence to a desire to depict Shelley as “eternal child” or to lessons learned from the response to his Conversations of Byron. More likely it simply reflects what Medwin had always claimed: the gossip and loose talk in the Conversations were indeed Byron’s utterances and not his own; writing as himself Medwin was not inclined to mock others’ frailties. The exceptions to this are his personal attacks on Moore and Hobhouse, yet even there he attempts to attack his assailants using Byron’s words rather than his own.
The Life of Shelley is a woefully-printed book. Medwin was careless about names, dates, and quotations to begin with, and the text abounds with garbled words, unclosed quotation marks, and odd paragraphing. There is no index, no running heads, no chapter divisions, no table of contents. While Medwin took some care over his first volume, the second is so digressive and badly stitched together that the sequence of events becomes difficult to follow.
The Life appeared to mixed reviews. By 1847 Shelley was hardly a pariah (though Medwin writes as though he were) and several journals seized the occasion to write favorably of him. Medwin’s book was puffed by the magazines in which he published. The stinging remarks in the Westminster Review, however, are not entirely unfair:
Two curious rambling volumes, in which all that is really new and worth telling about Shelley relates principally to his early life, and bears about the same proportion to the irrelevant twaddle that the oft-quoted grain of wheat does to the bushel of chaff. Quotations from the clever paper entitled ‘Shelley at Oxford,’ scraps of poetry with opinions thereon, and vituperations of Byron, Moore, Hobhouse, Southey, and others, make up the bulk of the book. We certainly looked for something much more to the purpose from the pen of one who claims to be the sole possessor of “data absolutely requisite for tracing Shelley’s genius from its first germs up to its maturity, and forming an impartial judgment of his character.” 48 (January 1848): 568
While The Life of Shelley is an execrable example of nineteenth-century “book-making,” it does contain the “data” Medwin claimed. It is also an invaluable source for Medwin’s own life which, despite the efforts of Ernest J. Lovell in Captain Medwin (1962) remains something of a puzzle itself.

David Hill Radcliffe