Shelley's Boat by Julian Roach

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The Independent Culture

Roach has a great depth of knowledge, but isn't hidebound by it. He doesn't fall into the trap of championing either Shelley or Mary, but creates a complex picture of their relationship and their mutual flaws. Shelley the gentle ascetic, the "ineffectual angel", is rejected in favour of a far darker and sexier figure, though it does seem a bit ridiculous to suggest that "Shelley was no less priapic than Byron but... he had never gone out of his way to create a public character built on his own erection..." Priapic?

The count-down to the tragedy began when Shelley, Mary and Claire Clairmont, with their friends Edward and Jane Williams, moved to an isolated village in a bay of unearthly beauty near Viareggio. Mary, in particular, seemed to be living in a Gothic novel: "The beauty of the woods made me weep and shudder," she wrote. In this godforsaken spot, she nearly bled to death after a miscarriage; she was saved by Shelley and the prompt application of ice. Roach, ever alert to dramatic irony, notes: "It worked. Mary was to live another 30 years. Shelley was to live another 23 days."

Roach makes the story new again by taking the facts and shaking them. Given the isolation and poverty of the village, and the sultry heat of summer 1822, where did Shelley get the ice, he wonders. Roach suggests it was kept in the hills by fishermen to help preserve their catch. Likewise, the frankincense that was sprinkled on the poet's pyre - it must have come from a local Catholic church, another rich irony considering Shelley's pagan deliverance to the flames and lifelong atheism. And isn't it just a little bit strange that Trelawny was given permission to cremate the body where it lay? (Excuse me, signor, I'd just like to burn my mate on your beach... )

Roach also seems to know a thing or two about boats and attempts to shed light on conditions aboard the Ariel on the fatal afternoon of 7 July 1822. He peers into the sea-fog, explains the significance of the famous "gaff topsails", apportions a great deal of blame to the naval man, Edward Williams, and has an intriguing theory about what happened to the ballast, two and a half tons of pig iron, during the boat's refit: "In a little, poverty-stricken maritime community... a lump of pig iron is a thing both useful and attractive."

At least Shelley was spared one final indignity. His body didn't come apart after its time at sea and in its temporary grave. Poor Williams wasn't so lucky. "He was put in the furnace in lumps."