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“Take me – one kiss – ”: The Active Silence in the Shelleys’ 1814 Love Letters.

Lucy Johnson is in her third year of an English PhD at the University of Chester.  Her thesis examines representations of the ‘metaleptic echo’ in the writing of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley.  She is also currently writing a YA fantasy novel with a feminist twist.

In October 1814, shortly after returning from their six week European ‘elopement tour’, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Mary Godwin, at the time) and Percy Bysshe Shelley were confronted by a crisis: PBS’s aristocratic reluctance to pay debts had led to court action, and the only way he could avoid arrest was by playing an erratic game of cat and mouse that saw him flitting around London with the bailiffs in hot pursuit. MWS and PBS were forced to snatch brief moments of each other’s company during this agonising separation, an experience documented in a unique series of passionate letters between the two from October to November.

It’s easy to be won over by the sheer romance of these letters, but as someone who has long been a self-confessed fanatic about the minutiae of writing, the significant comma or intriguing sentence break, what really drew my attention in this case was MWS’s idiosyncratic use of the dash in her letters to PBS. My interest was heightened when I noticed a pattern was beginning to materialise between the two writers, and in particular, how PBS seemed to be responding to MWS by echoing her dash.

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A section of MWS’s earliest surviving letter to PBS [credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford].

Some of MWS’s letters from this period have not been recovered, but the earliest extant one dates from 25 October, 1814. She writes:

For what a minute did I see you yesterday – is this the way my beloved that we are to live till the sixth [sic] in the morning I look for you and when I awake I turn to look on you – dearest Shelley you are solitary and uncomfortable why cannot I be with you to cheer you and to press you to my heart oh my love you have no friends why then should you be torn from the only one who has affection for you – But I shall see you tonight and that is the hope that I shall live on throughout the day – be happy dear Shelley and think of me! – why do I say this dearest and only one [sic] I know how tenderly you love me and how you repine at this absence from me – when shall we be free from fear of treachery? – [1]

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, posthumous miniature [credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford].

MWS uses the dash in place of a full stop; this is fairly characteristic of especially her early letters, but here what is most interesting about the dash is how distinctly active it is. It bridges a series of interrogatives with its refusal to accept finality, transumpting both PBS’s body and her own into the words that are separated by a silence that, here, MWS crucially activates. Furthermore, MWS is very much the originator of this use of the dash, with PBS acting as a responding voice in a form of textual echo. His own use of the dash is sporadic beforehand, intensifying as though in reflex as he begins to mimic the idiom of MWS’s structure. He links the dash explicitly to the act of writing as analogous to the physical absence of his relationship with MWS. Indeed, their physical estrangement from one another is metaphorized by PBS into his highest estimate of disaster, preceded significantly by a dash: ‘[…] I cannot read – or even write’, he tells her on the 25 October.[2] Here, what appears to be his seemingly unconscious echoing of the dash inhabits a crucial function in the literary construction of his identity via MWS’s own literary voice; PBS’s written self becomes willingly subsumed beneath MWS’s, a reflection of hers that moves into synchronicity with the pattern she establishes in her own letters. On 27 October, 1814, in a letter especially marked for its dashes, he writes:

— Know you my best Mary that I feel myself in your absence almost degraded to the level of the vulgar and impure. I feel their vacant stiff eyeballs fixed upon me – until I seem to have been infected with the loathsome meaning – to inhale a sickness that subdues me to languor. […] Praise my forbearance oh beloved one that I do not rashly fly to you – & at least secure a moments [sic] bliss – Wherefore should I delay – do you not long to meet me? All that is exalted & buoyant in my nature urges me towards you – reproaches me with cold delay – laughs at all fear & spurns to dream of prudence! Why am I not with you? – Alas we must not meet. [3]

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Percy Bysshe Shelley, after Amelia Curran [credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford].

Two things are taking place here; firstly, PBS frames his separation from MWS using language redolent of disease and decay (imagery that is typical of him) that culminates in PBS situating himself in stasis, ‘subdue[d] to languor’. It is only when his style begins to increasingly resemble MWS’s, his use of the dash beginning to repeatedly mimic hers, that he is able to invoke a metaphor for action that takes place specifically on the page. When he is aware that literal action is impossible, the dash as a token of active silence becomes a passport that enables PBS to transmute his state of stasis, possible only through his echoing of MWS’s own potent action-sign.

This silence is implicitly sexual, an erotised rewriting of bodily experiences that can only be enacted through a textual gap that stands in for physical contact in absence. Indeed, MWS and PBS can only fully ‘speak’ to one another through their mirroring of each other’s silences, and perhaps the most crucial thing about these silences is what they tell us about the way in which the Shelleys conceptualise writing as an act that creates meaning in the moment it begins to disintegrate. This is brilliantly (and for the Shelleys, characteristically) paradoxical; what informs us most about their shared view of language is the moment when language breaks down and becomes cripplingly insufficient, only capable of articulating its meaning through a signifier for the blank. The gap, silence, dash becomes a code to speak for what cannot be physically enacted, emblemising action where the writers know that action is impossible.

Kamilla Denman writes of perhaps the most famous wielder of the dash, Emily Dickinson, that she utilised it to ‘draw lines […] through the linguistic conventions of her society’, and both Shelleys are arguably anticipating this same act here. [4] Indeed, MWS’s rejection of conventional punctuation marks a trajectory of creative selfhood that refuses to be trammelled by the hesitating breath of comma or stifling full stop, and in which PBS finds a liberating capacity for expression that both closes down in its violent defiance and leaves tantalisingly open in its blank refusal of meaning. He ends this same letter: ‘Adieu remember love at vespers – before sleep. I do not omit my prayers’, the dash embodying a moment between two worlds where potentiality is poised on the brink. [5]

MWS’s response speaks for itself: ‘Take me – one kiss – well that is enough – tomorrow’. [6]


[1] Betty T. Bennett (ed.), The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Vol. 1, ’A Part of the Elect’ (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p.1.

[2] Frederick L. Jones (ed.), The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. 1, ‘Shelley in England’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 411.

[3] Jones, p. 412.

[4] Kamilla Denman, ‘Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation’, in The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 22-46.

[5] Jones, p. 413.

[6] Bennett, p. 3.


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