Category Archives: History

Not Just Elizabeth

Todays blog celebrates one of the many authors that we know the name of but few facts about. Despite a family wealth in the slave trade she was an abolitionist, she was a major supporter of child labor rights… and the first in her English-descended family to be born in the United Kingdom in over 200 years. Today’s blog honors one Elizabeth Barrett (later Elizabeth Barrett Browning)… poet, lover and worldwide literary influencer. 

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Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6th, 1806 in Durham, England. As the first Barrett to be born outside of Jamaica since 1655, her birth was the cause for much celebration. Her family’s wealth had come from sugar plantations in the island country, meaning that her family did benefit from slave labour in running their grand plantations. Elizabeth was the eldest of twelve children, all but one of which would live to adulthood. Elizabeth’s childhood was fairly sweet and standard – full of family picnics, home theatricals and pony rides. However, unlike some other children (and definitely little girls) of the time, Elizabeth fixated on books and began writing, even as a four year old child. She was intensely studious, learning the Greek language by the age of ten and writing her own Homeric epic poem by eleven. Since both of her parents encouraged, published and saved her work, Elizabeth Barrett has one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English-speaking writer.

barrett4A young illness affecting her spine and movement led to Elizabeth being given (and then continuously taking) laudanum, morphine and opium as a child for pain. Being addicted to these somewhat serious drugs and taking them throughout her lifetime is generally acknowledged to both have helped and hindered her in life. Her constant frail health was negatively affected by these chemicals, but they also may have contributed to her originality and imagination when writing her poetry.

Barretts late teens and twenties were fraught with trauma and tragedy. Her mother passed away in 1828, and her grandmother just a few years later. After moving to the Devonshire coast to aid her frail health (by this time she had possibly contracted tuberculosis), Elizabeth endured the loss of two of her brothers. One caught a sickness visiting the family plantations in Jamaica, and the other, her favorite brother, sadly drowned in a sailing accident while visiting her in Torquay. The guilt of this tragedy stayed with Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

barrett5In 1841 Elizabeth’s life seemed to begin to turn itself around. She was struck with a few years of intense creativity, which led to the publication of several of her greatest works. Her 1842 poem “The Cry of the Children” published in a Blackwoods magazine helped bring about child labor law reform. In 1844 she published not one but two volumes of poetry, which were immediate successes. She was suddenly a household name. It was her poetry that inspired one Robert Browning to write to her and tell her of his love for her writing. They met and instantly became ardent devotees of the other. Both Browning and Barrett’s works improved (despite their work already being popular with the public). After meeting Browning, Barrett published her most famous works Aurora Leigh and Sonnets from the Portuguese. The marriage between Browning and Barrett was carried out in secrecy, and once found out Barretts father disinherited her (as he funnily enough did to all his children who married). They made their permanent residence in Italy, where they raised their son, Pen, and befriended many influential writers and artists of the day.

On this what would be her 214th birthday, we honor this timeless writer – one who inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Virginia Woolf alike. And we give you a parting few lines…

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Brothers to All

Quick! Think about the most famous pair of brothers you know of. What names came to mind? I bet for at least 50% (after all, we are all bibliophiles here, are we not?!) of us, the names that popped into our heads are most commonly associated with folk tales, fairy tales… or just “tales”, if some of them are a bit too… grim… for your taste!

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Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm were born just a year apart in Hanau – part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time and present day Germany. After Wilhelm was born in 1786, they would have three more surviving siblings (with one older). The family moved in 1791 to the countryside – a move which the two young boys were exceedingly fond of, loving everything about country life. Unfortunately the family was plunged into despair in 1796, when the family Patriarch, Philipp Grimm, died suddenly of pneumonia leaving the large family poverty stricken and struggling to make ends meet. The family was supported by their mother’s father and sister, and their grandfather made quite an influence on the boys’ lives. He constantly reminded them to be industrious and hard working. The boys were able to go away to school as teens, paid for by their aunt, where despite being looked upon as lower class by the rest of the students, they were able to graduate at the top of their classes. The two brothers remained very close throughout their schooling, despite having different temperaments – Jacob being more introverted and Wilhelm more playful and outgoing, though oftentimes ill. 

grimm1The two attended the University of Marburg together, where they tried to study law. I say “tried”, because here the brothers once again met adversity due to their reduced social status. Treated as outcasts, without the benefit of receiving financial aid or stipends as some of the wealthier students received (explain THAT one, if you can), the brothers once again turned to each other for comfort and worked hard in their studies. It was at the University of Marburg that the pair first became interested in medieval German literature and more simplistic, romantic ways of writing that the modern day seemed to have forgotten. This interest in folklore and poetry and traditional “German” culture influenced the brothers for the rest of their lives. They wished to see the unification of the over 200 principalities into a single, unified state, and spent much of their time with their inspiring law professor Friedrich von Savigny and his friends. It was through these romantics that the Grimm brothers were introduced to the literary beliefs of Johann Gottfried Herder – a German philosopher who felt that literature of the area should revert back to simplicity, and focus more on nature, humanity and beauty. The boys credited their devotion to their studies in Germanic literature and culture as a saving grace in a dark time – outcasts amongst their peers. Wilhelm himself wrote, “the ardor with which we studied Old German helped us overcome the spiritual depression of those days.”

grimm2The brothers did not immediately turn to transcribing Germanic folklore for the masses. As they were solely responsible, as the oldest boys (primarily Jacob) of the family, for their sibling and mother’s livelihood (because that’s what they needed… more stress), Jacob accepted a job in Paris as assistant to his once-professor (von Savigny). On his return to Marburg he gave this post up to take a job with the Hessian War Commission. Their circumstances remained dire – as it seemed almost impossible for Jacob to support them all on his own. Food was often scarce and the brothers suffered emotionally. In 1808, Jacob found a more appropriate (to his interests) job as the librarian to the King of Westphalia, and soon after went on to become the librarian in Kassel, where the two boys had attended their gymnasium (high school, for all intents and purposes). Jacob supported his siblings once their mother passed away, and he even paid for Wilhelm to receive medical attention that year to seek treatment for respiratory problems. After Wilhelm’s recovery, he joined his brother as a librarian in Kassel. 

The original title page and frontispiece of the first set of Grimm's folk tales. This frontispiece was illustrated by the brothers' younger brother, Emil.

The original title page and frontispiece of the first set of Grimm’s folk tales. This frontispiece was illustrated by the brothers’ younger brother, Emil.

It was around this time that the men began to collect folk tales from others. Initially they collected them in a haphazard manner – not realizing the great wonder they began to lay their hands on. They used their positions as librarians to accomplish their research, and began to publish in 1812. Their first volume of 86 folk tales, called Kinder- und Hausmärchen, was published when the brothers were merely 26 and 27 years old. They published several books and collections until 1830 – not only on Germanic folklore but of Danish and Irish folk tales, Norse mythology, and began work on a Dictionary. The brothers stayed quite busy and enjoyed their positions – their work becoming so well-known that they received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Marburg (along with their original diplomas), Berlin and Breslau. 

grimm4After being slighted for a job promotion, the brothers eventually moved to Göttingen where they became professors of German studies at the University (Jacob also as head librarian), and continued to write and publish works on Germanic folklore, mythology and country tales for a few years. The brothers moved to Berlin in their later years, working at the University of Berlin and also editing their German Dictionary, which would become one of their most prominent works. 

Because of the brothers Grimm, we have several tales written down today that might not have been, otherwise. To the brothers we can attribute (at least in transcribing) versions of Snow White, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin. One of the best qualities of their writing is that the brothers found a way to make the tales accessible and readable by adults (at first the stories contained their original graphic violence and sexual implications, which were slowly and painstakingly edited in a way to make the stories accessible to children), while retaining their folkloric qualities and symbolism. Though the brothers did not author the stories – but rather listened, read and researched them all until they were able to grow a collection of over 211 tales – they provided arguably the most extensive fount of Germanic folklore to date… and to them we are eternally grateful. 

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The Beginnings of Tavistock Books

For those of you who don’t know, we deal in many genres of antiquarian materials. However, one of our specialities – and even our shop’s name – come from a wildly famous author who we happen to adore… Mr. Charles Dickens. As the author is very often associated with the holiday season, we thought now might be a good time for a little Q&A with our President, Vic Zoschak Jr., on his love of Dickens and the beginnings of Tavistock Books. Enjoy!

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Tavistock House, London.

Q: Vic, could you take our recent followers on a mini journey as to our shop name? I remember getting the question of whether or not your last name was Tavistock!

tavistock2Yes, over the years, I’ve often been referred to as “Mr Tavistock”, but the name actually, rather than being my surname, has a [small] Dickens connection…  back in the late 80s, as I contemplated opening my own business, I cast about for a name that would reflect my firm’s interest in Dickens, but didn’t want to be too overt in that regard..  you know, nothing like “The Old Curiosity Book Shop”, or anything like that.  So, long story short, I settled on Tavistock, the name of Dickens house in the 1850s, which was situated on Tavistock Square.  

Q: So why Dickens? He is obviously a world-famous writer of course, but what about his writing spoke to you, and what made you want to name your store after his house?

Well, back in the mid-to-late 80s, while living in Sacramento, I was in a reading group that read, as one of our books, Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.  While I personally don’t consider that his best novel, what that reading did do was spark an interest in the author himself.  And in pursuit of knowing more about the man, I [luckily] happened across what I consider to be the best biography of Dickens, Edgar Johnson’s Tragedy And Triumph.  On reading that biography, I found Dickens to be a fascinating individual, a genius, which precipitated my dive into that gentle madness known as book collecting.  I collected Dickens from the mid-80s until I opened my shop in July 1997, at which point I used my personal collection to stock the Dickens’ Corner here at 1503 Webster Street.

Q: What is your favorite of the Dickens novels and why? Favorite character in any of them?

Favorite novel is Hard Times.  Many of Dickens’ novels required “32 pages of letterpress” every month, and so often, like in Pickwick Papers, there are literary diversions therein to fill up space….  I don’t see that in Hard Times.  It’s spare, it’s lean, it’s all about the facts.

As to characters, like many, I’m partial to Mr. Micawber, the lovable impecunious fellow from David Copperfield.

Q: Is it true that you refuse to watch Dickens-related cinema? Interesting choice! What are your thoughts behind that decision?

True.  Dickens’ words call up a mental image of each & every character he’s created.  I found that when I watched a film interpretation, my mental image of a given character, e.g., Nicholas Nickleby, engendered by Dickens’ prose was replaced by the individual cast by whatever director was filming whatever version of Dickens’ works.  In comparison, I found I preferred Dickens’ version.  FWIW, he would only allow images approved by him, and as such, they are truly Dickensian.  

Q: And last but not least… who was your favorite ghost in A Christmas Carol and why?

Ah, tough question Ms P!!  I think I’ll go with the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come”.   With these visions, Scrooge realizes his future can change.  That’s powerful stuff, knowing one can change one’s future.

And you know what, Ms P – it’s been a few years since I’ve read this popular novella. I think I’ll revisit it this season… it’s time.  

~ Happy Holidays ~

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Today we are Thankful for… William Blake!

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Copyright Learnodo-Newtonic!

Happy Thanksgiving to our fellow bibliophiles! We thought we’d start off this day of giving thanks for a world-famous English poet, artist and printmaker with a brief history of his early life. Despite the fact that this renaissance man was largely unrecognized for his talents in his time, today he is considered one of the foremost artisans of the Romantic Period. William Blake’s prophetic art and poetry are both moving and inspiring – and for that we honor him this Thanksgiving – which also happens to be his birthday!

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas PhillipsWilliam Blake was born on November 28th, 1757 in Soho, London. He was the third of seven children (though two of his siblings died in infancy). Though his family were English dissenters, it did not stop Blake from being baptized and having a thorough biblical education – knowledge which would prove to be quite inspirational in his work later in life. Blake’s artistic side surfaced when he began copying drawings of Greek antiquities given to him by his father. It was through these copies that Blake was first introduced to works by Michelangelo, Durer and Raphael. By the time Blake was ten he had completed his formal education and was able to be sent to a drawing school in The Strand – where he not only read and avidly studied the arts but also made his first foray into poetry.

blake6At the age of fifteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver in London and upon his completion of his apprenticeship became a professional engraver at twenty-one. The following year, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy where he studied over the years and submitted works for exhibition. Though he disagreed with the views held by the headmaster of the time and favored more classical art rather than the popular oil paintings of the age, Blake used the years to make friends in the art world and perfect his own skills. He printed and published his first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, around 1783, and opened up his print shop with fellow apprentice James Parker in 1784. Blake began to associate with radical thinkers of the time – scientists, philosophers and early feminist icons like Joseph Priestly and Mary Wollstonecraft. Blake spent the 80s experimenting with different kinds of printing, finally moving onto relief etching in 1788. Relief etching (also called illuminated printing) would be a medium Blake would continue to use in printing his works throughout his life. In this medium, color illustrations were able to be printed alongside text. Blake has become well-known for his illuminated printing, but throughout his life he was also known for his intaglio engraving – a more standard process of engraving at the time.

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All of these processes are wildly interesting, of course – but perhaps better explained by simply showing some of the most famous of Blake’s sketches and illustrations. His poetry and text almost always contain spectacular imagery and mythological symbolism, which were even further highlighted by his beautiful images. He was an artist, a free thinker, a poet, a radical, a spiritual man, and a devoted husband – among many other things! On this Thanksgiving, we’d like to bring recognition to him and wish him a happy birthday.

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From our 1922 holding of The Drawings and Engravings of William Blake, edited by Laurence Binyon and Geoffrey Holme. See it here!

From our 1922 holding of The Drawings and Engravings of William Blake, edited by Laurence Binyon and Geoffrey Holme. See it here!

For more information on William Blake, we recommend visiting our colleague John Windle’s William Blake Gallery where you can find blogs related to the author and various prints and books for sale both online and in person in San Francisco. We highly recommend a visit!

Happy Thanksgiving, bibliophiles!

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A Happy Halloween with Hill House

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As Halloween rapidly approaches, we thought – in honor of this holiday season – it might finally be the moment for a short blog dedicated to a favorite type of literary genre throughout this season – horror stories.   

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I recently finished The Haunting of Hill House, by Mrs. Shirley Jackson. This book, much dramatized in movies and tv and spoken about in literary ‘thriller’ circles (yes, they exist), is one of the most famous of Jackson’s works – one that has you in goosebumps from start to finish. And what, we asked ourselves, is so scary about it? (Warning: spoiler alerts below.)

Realism. Nowadays, it is easy to go to the movies and see a thriller with a screeching soundtrack and people that pop up in mirrors as you wash your face in the evening (my worst fear)… you know the drill. Even the exceedingly gore-filled SAW movies have a following. So what makes classic horror stories so frightening, even in a modern world where we are used to an unimaginable level of psycho made with special effects and computer geniuses?

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This 1st edition of Haunting of Hill House is offered by Peter Harrington here!

We might argue that it is a lack of such “effects” that sets these stories apart. While in high school, my best friend went to see a movie that came out called “The Strangers” (I have a point to this, I promise). This horror flick focused on a romantic couple who come to stay in a woodland cabin for a night (unfortunately directly after a refused marriage proposal, but that’s neither here nor there), where a group of teenagers (spoiler alert!) terrorize them throughout the night. In the morning (I DID say spoiler alert), the teenagers finally and gruesomely murder the couple in front of each other. Their reasoning to the couple? “Because you were home.” Now why did my close friend say it was the scariest movie she, as a horror film lover, had ever seen? Because there were no special effects. It was not that preposterous. It was simply people… terrorizing people. Personally, I would say The Haunting of Hill House has a similar vibe. It contains some ‘supernatural’ elements, absolutely. And perhaps it is the house terrorizing the characters. But at the same time, those elements could be being caused by the other characters – we aren’t ever truly sure. The story centers around four people arriving at a reportedly haunted house – with possibly the best description of a house I have ever read – to see what happens. (This still happens today… only we have tv crews that follow these nutters around while they scream in sinister night-vision.) As the foursome stay on in the Hill House, night after night more strange and creepy instances occur, with one character singled out pretty obviously. As it happens, this character is also quite clearly the most vulnerable and unstable of the group… not to mention the narrator. She gives the impression of being somewhat unreliable from the beginning, giving the audience very little understanding of what is truly going on, and of whether her discrepancies, misgivings and thoughts on the ‘hauntings’ are built up by her own abnormal nature.

Now, I don’t want to ruin the story for the rest of you. I just wanted to give you the slightest chill, given how close we are to (arguably) the best holiday in the entire world. Perhaps you will be inspired to read something spooky, something creepy. What would we recommend?

Well, you can’t go wrong with the classics. Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Stephen King… the possibilities are endless. Just don’t forget… the best horror stories are the ones that scare you – curl your toes – not from frightful voices and things that go bump in the night, but from a solid, well described tearing down of human nature.

Happy Halloween, bibliophiles!

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Turning Weary Wednesdays into Wise Wednesdays

We know that Wednesday is not everyone’s favorite day of the week. It is neither the beginning of the week, nor the end, and somehow always seems so far from the weekend! We would like to change your opinion for a soft second, however, to respect a civil rights world leader, lawyer, ethicist and philosopher on this particular Wednesday – his birthday – Mahatma Gandhi. In his honor we’d like to share some of his most well-known, well-loved and cherished quotes that give us pause in troubling times.

Rare studio photograph of Mahatma Gandhi taken in London England UK at the request of Lord Irwin 1931

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.

If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

The future depends on what you do today.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.

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After being born in India, Gandhi spent much of his life in South Africa, practicing law and raising his family. Upon his return to India at the age of 45, Gandhi began immediately to “stir the pot”, as it were. The ethicist believed in non-violent revolt, was an anti-colonialist (India was then still under Britain’s rule), and a religious pluralist. At the age of 51 he was elected leader of the Indian National Congress, where he led nationwide campaigns to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, end India’s practice of “untouchability”, and praise self-rule (end colonialism). Starting at this time he began living life in extreme modesty – eating simple vegetarian meals, fasting for health, political and meditative purposes, and wearing a traditional Indian dhoti as a mark of respect to the lower classes. He spent his life helping others, helping himself, and helping his country. He was assassinated at the age of 78 for being “too accommodating” in his dealings with other nations (mainly Pakistan, at that time).

His birthday, October 2nd, is celebrated in India as a national holiday – the International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi’s beliefs and opinions are ones that transcend time, if you’ll forgive our grand sentiments. Especially today, when violence sometimes seems to be one of our only constants, we could all take a page out of Gandhi’s book. Sleep, eat healthy, forgive, remain strong, listen, learn, and – most of all – love.

❤

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“Sometimes the Devil is a Gentleman” – The Life of Percy Shelley

“I curse thee! let a sufferer’s curse…

Clasp thee, his torturer, like remorse;’
Till thine Infinity shall be
A robe of envenomed agony;
And thine Omnipotence a crown of pain,
To cling like burning gold round thy dissolving brain.”
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Ahh, if only we all possessed the ability to curse our enemies in such a romantic tongue. Alas, we do not and we must leave that beautiful power to those who truly deserve it. On this day, we honor poet Percy Shelley – one of the most famed English Romantic poets and author of Prometheus Unbound - from which the above section was unabashedly taken.

Percy Shelley was born on the 4th of August, 1792 in a small village in West Sussex. He was the oldest of 7 children, and seemed to always run a bit wild! He left home to be educated formally at the age of 10, and at 12 enrolled in Eton. Unfortunately Shelley was heavily bullied at Eton College, and while such behavior is never requested it certainly seemed to help build Shelley’s inner imagination up and he began writing at a young age. At 18 he began his studies at University College, Oxford. Shelley excelled academically at the start, but after just a few months was expelled after writing a pamphlet promoting atheism with another student and refusing to confirm or deny his authorship in it (which in and of itself is kind of a confirmation, no?). Shelley’s life was nothing but static. He experienced bouts of grave financial difficulty (his parents being unamused, to say the least, of Shelley’s difficult nature), and had what were considered extremely radical notions for the times. He believed in free love and vegetarianism. For the turn of the 19th century those were novel ideas, to say the least!

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Shelley wrote to support himself after running away at 19 with a 16 year old girl that his parents had expressly forbidden him to see. The couple were happy for only a short period of time, however, as Shelley was quickly bored by Harriet and his conceptions of free love kept him from the marriage bed. Shelley was eventually able to boast a mentorship from one of his political and philosophical idols – William Godwin – where Shelley discovered both his own political radical ideology and Godwin’s daughter, Mary. Mary Godwin was the daughter of a powerful political and intellectual duo, being begot of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary turned Shelley’s world upside down and the two fell deeply in love, risking family disinheritance to be together. The two, along with Mary’s sister Jane, fled their homes and lived as vagabonds, traveling around England and Europe (often by foot) for over three years. By the time they returned, Shelley’s wife Harriet had had enough and had filed for divorce.

shelley4In the summer of 1816, Shelley befriended one of his first powerful and influential authors – Lord Byron. Percy and Mary spent a season with Byron in Switzerland – the summer ended up being one of the most important of Shelley’s life. Byron helped inspire the young radical, and Shelley wrote his romantic poem Hymn to Intellectual Beauty after an afternoon with Byron. It was during this summer, funnily enough, that Byron’s guests and friends were inspired to have a horror write-off. This writing competition of sorts was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Upon their return to England at the end of the year, it was discovered that Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had committed suicide. As unfortunate as the event was, it incited Shelley and Mary to finally marry. The two settled in a small hamlet in Buckinghamshire, where they befriended poets John Keats and Leigh Hunt – both of which would prove to be invaluable friends to Shelley in his last years. It was in these years that Shelley wrote and published a bulk of his most well-known works, including The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, the latter of which is widely considered to be his most beloved epic work.

Sadly, Shelley would not live to see his work widely recognized, as he died when his boat capsized in a storm just shy of his 30th birthday. As was the custom, Shelley was buried in the sand on the beach where he washed up for one month before being dug up and burned on a funeral pyre. It is said that his heart refused to burn – and that his friend Leigh Hunt retrieved it from the ashes and gifted it to Mary Shelley – who kept it in a writing case wrapped in silk for the rest of her days. Oh, what a terrifying thought!

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Shelley’s young works showed all the aspects of the talented writer that he was, if only he had been able to live longer and reach his full potential. But as Shelley once said, we must “fear not for the future, weep not for the past.” Well said.

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