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Mary Shelley’s correspondence on the ‘Old Kings of Bohemia’

Mary Shelley’s correspondence on the ‘Old Kings of Bohemia’

Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein wrote to another author, Rose Stuart on the 14th October 1844 to ask whether Stuart was able to provide any information on the ‘Old Kings of Bohemia’.  This is one of two letters that Shelley wrote to Rose in the Manuscript Album at Newcastle University’s Special Collections.

Shelley continues to claim in the letter that she could not read German and, in a rather self-depreciating manner, states that she ‘know[s] nothing and live[s] the life of a recluse’. Shelley hoped that the information would help her understand better how Bohemia was governed. 

Like Shelley Rose Stuart was also a writer, she published under the pseudonym Arthur Dudley. Following her marriage to the French author Henri Blaze de Bury, Stuart ran a literary salon in Paris.  

Letters like these provide insight into the lives and thoughts of well-known figures.  The letters give a brief glimpse into the personal life and concerns of Shelley and her friendship with Rose Stuart.  

The letters were written toward the end of Shelley’s life – she died in 1851 – but at a time when she was still enjoying a successful writing career. Published in 1844, her last book, Rambles in Germany and Italy is an account of her travels across Europe with her son Percy Florence – a trip no doubt made difficult by her lack of German!

Reference: MSA/1/99, Letter from Mary Shelley to Rose Stuart (later Madam de Bury) concerning various queries on the history of Bohemia (1844), Manuscript Album, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The letter from Mary Shelley to Rose Stuart can be used as a starting point for research into Shelley’s work, themes and to investigate her contribution to the gothic genre from a unique perspective. You could start by asking whether there is a link between Shelley’s interest in Bohemia and her writing, thinking about culture or imagery of Bohemia and how these may link to some of the common tropes in 19th century gothic literature.  Remoteness, distance and strange surrounding are often common themes in the genre. It might be useful to investigate how far Frankenstein engages with these gothic motifs and how it may differ from other works. 

Frankenstein sees its fantastic element created in a scientific laboratory.  In the 1831 preface to the novel, Mary Shelley claims that ‘galvanism’ influenced her story. Named after its creator, galvanism was the attempt to animate the dead using electricity – the method by which Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life.  You may want to consider the impact of scientific thought and contemporary thinking on the genre, was Shelley doing something different with Frankenstein?

Considering Bohemia as a setting or influence on imagery, we know Bram Stoker's Dracula featured Eastern Europe prominently as a setting, but that was published more than 50 years after the letter from Shelley to Rose.  You may want to consider the developments in the genre between the publication of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula.

The nineteenth century is often referred to as the second wave of gothic literature, you may prefer to look further back at the Edwardian first wave of gothic literature.  Consider whether the imagery or culture of Bohemia was a prominent feature in these early gothic works and how the genre developed.

Selected background reading

For research into the origin and first wave of gothic literature: 

For research into the second wave of gothic literature:

For research into the Bohemian movement:

To look into the role of Bohemia in English Literature you could start with:

What can I find here in Special Collections?

We have early examples of the first wave of Edwardian Gothic Literature including:

From the second wave of Victorian Gothic Literature we have:

  • Several versions of Frankenstein including some interesting children’s versions of the Gothic novel as well as Shelley’s final travel book:
    Shelley, M.W, (1844) Rambles in Germany and Italy. London: E. Moxon. W914.3 SHERobert White Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.
  • Le Fanu, J.S, 1893. Uncle Silas: a take of Bartram-Haugh. London: Richard Bentley & Son. Britnell 823.8 LEF, Britnell Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. 

For those interested in how gothic motifs were popularised during the 19th Century we  have two editions of Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White  from 1861 and 1892

If you’re interested specifically in gothic literature, you may want to look at examples of penny dreadfuls:

Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin published work on the history of various supernatural and paranormal legends from around the world. For example, he describes the Franciscan Friar, Roger Bacon, who in the thirteenth century is said to have created a talking brass or ‘brazen’ head with all the ‘internal structure and organs’ of a human head:

Mary Shelley claimed that the work of Luigi Galvani influenced her work:

What can I find elsewhere?

For a more in depth look into the life and work of Mary Shelley and other writers of gothic fiction you can look for their personal papers. These archives can give a view of what authors were reading and influenced by, their relationships and interests.

If you’re interested generally in authors and works of the nineteenth century take a look at our resources for these collections:

  • The 19th Century Collection includes books published 1800-1899, is broad in subject coverage with English Literature being particularly well-represented.
  • Nineteenth Century Novels Collection contains approximately 1500 nineteenth-century novels consisting almost entirely of the works of lesser-known writers. Scottish writers are also well-represented in the collection.
  • The Whyte Archive form a literary archive which contains a large amount of correspondence. Robert Whyte’s letters date largely from the late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries and include correspondence with publishers, editors and literary agents as well as notable authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
  • The Ure Collection - an Anglo-Irish literature collection, with a particular emphasis on the work of W.B. Yeats, which was built-up by Peter Ure (Joseph Cowen Professor of English Language and Literature, 1960-1969).
  • The Spence Watson Collection - a collection of 500 volumes on the subject of English literature, consisting largely of the publications of literary societies such as the Shakespeare Society, the Spenser Society, the Ballad Society and the Chaucer Society.