Skeptics on Percy Shelley's Drowning

It has been 196 years since Percy Shelley drowned in the Bay of Lerici, and to mark the occasion, the Guardian UK has reposted an essay of Richard Holmes’ on Shelley’s drowning. The Keats-Shelley house in Rome forward it to my Twitter feed which is where I found it. I have a few problems with it. Not with the facts per se that Holmes puts forward--though he's a little fast and loose with those on occasion — but more with interpretation of what things we know from the historical record.


For example, Holmes says "Mary Shelley and Jane Edwards [were] still on the balcony at Casa Magnani staring out over the Bay of Lerici expecting the boats to come home." But he also lists this among the things we shouldn't believe, among the things that overly romanticize nature of Shelly's death story. There's no reason to do this. Is he suggesting that though their house looked over the water where their husbands were drowned, the women didn't stare forlornly into the distance hoping they would come back? That seems to me uselessly skeptical. 

Furthermore, though Edward Trelawney was a fabulist, there isn't any reason to think that he made up or spread the rumors of the pirates’ attack on Shelley’s boat the Don Juan as Holmes claims. There was after all a bag of cash on board, and it was after all the largest ship in the entire region belonging to an English milord who everyone in town knew to be wealthy. And there were pirates then who occasionally stole things. Rumors spread around that it might've been a pirate attack because it might have been a pirate attack. The possibility of the pirate attack doesn't "disappear upon inspection" as Holmes claims it does simply because there were still valuables among the wreckage. As Holmes says in the same piece, "the boat went down so quickly that Williams did not have time to kick off his boots." Surely then, it is conceivable that pirates rammed the boat, thinking to board and loot it, but found that it sank too quickly to grab anything. There’s no reason to call Trelawney a liar, even though he did sometimes stretch details.

When the article is not overly skeptical, which it is most of the time, it is sometimes overly romantic: the very crime with which Holmes charges others spreading around Shelley's death. For example, in his rendering, as the ship went down, "Shelley thrust a new copy of Keats's poems into his jacket pocket, so hard that it doubled-back and broke the spine." Homes thinks this because the covers have been bent back in the copy we found. But we must think for a moment: would a man about to drown in the ocean, or at least a man who can't swim about to fall into the ocean really grab a copy of poetry to take with him? Not likely. Even if Shelley valued Keats’ poems, and he did very much, he likely would not have had the presence of mind to take the volume with him rather than, say, a life preserver or a cask of wine or the bag of cash. No, it is just as likely that Shelley read the poems often and bent the covers so that they would fit in a trouser pocket on another occasion or that they were bent back while it was on Shelley’s person as he turned over and over in the tide. He was in the water for three weeks and his face was unrecognizable when they pull them out; it is very possible that the book was less recognizable than once might have been for the same reasons. 

Still Holmes does us a service reminding us of the details of Shelly's death. I also like that he raises the possibility of Shelley’s eventual self-sacrifice, giving the dinghy to the two shipmates rather than jumping aboard himself. It would be perfectly in keeping with his character.