Paperbacks: Being Shelley, by Anne Wroe

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The Independent Culture

Wroe's choice of biographical subjects enables her to exercise imaginative power while steering clear of fictitious filigree. Her previous, highly impressive book concerned Pontius Pilate, a figure of great significance of whom almost nothing is known.

Now she has moved on to one of the most closely studied figures of the early 19th century, but still finds something new to say by concentrating on Shelley the poet rather than Shelley the man. It is hard to think of many other major writers whose lives are as indivisible from their output. Writing "Ode to Liberty", Shelley described himself as rapt beyond "night & day & time & space... Breathless and blind with speed". In dazzling, impressionistic prose, Wroe conveys this hurtling literary comet and provides telling details of the fallible human behind the soaring verse. Shelley was an aristocratic revolutionary who simply ignored a bill for £1,192 from an interior designer for furnishing his house in Marlowe. Occasionally, the transcendental poet and mundane reality collide with amusing effect. We learn that while Shelley was contemplating "the mind of man and the universe" in Switzerland, he was forced to flee from a coach when his driver extolled Alpine butter at inordinate length. Wroe's revelatory work demonstrates that Richard Holmes's marvellous biography Shelley: The Pursuit was far from being the last word.

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