Shelley letters saved from car boot sale

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The Independent Culture

Letters written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, detailing his bitter opposition to Christianity and the Church, have been discovered hidden in a trunk in the suburban semi-detached home of two elderly brothers.

Letters written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, detailing his bitter opposition to Christianity have been discovered hidden in a trunk in the suburban semi-detached home of two elderly brothers.

Difficult to decipher, written at speed and containing unusually long sentences, the correspondence casts fresh light on the development of the poet's philosophy and prose style while still an undergraduate.

The letters were due to be sold at a car-boot sale after the brothers' death and experts believe they only narrowly escaped being destroyed. They will now be sold at auction at Christie's on 8 June, when they are expected to fetch up to £30,000. It is thought the documents were inherited and forgotten about. They were dis- covered at Christmas among a collection of books and Victorian and Edwardian ephemera at the late brothers' home in Norbury, south-west London.

Crispin Jackson, a Christie's book expert, was asked to examine the contents of the house, described as "something from Steptoe and Son" by the two bachelors' neighbour and carer who had inherited it.

After a long day unearthing rare works and writings by Arnold Bennett, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and H G Wells, Mr Jackson happened across the four signed letters from Shelley at the bottom of a Victorian trunk. There were also four missives written by the poet's friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg. They formed part of a triangular correspondence between 1810-11 with the pottery scion Ralph Wedgwood, 26 years the young firebrands' senior. In them, the students expound their respective theories of creation, universal language and religion to the older man.

The letters formed the basis for their contribution to the pamphlet "The Necessity of Atheism" which scandalised 19th century Britain when it was circulated among bishops and academics. It resulted in Shelley being sent down from University College, Oxford when he refused to answer questions over his role in its authorship.

Also among the house's treasures was a first edition of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, dated 1891.

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