In 1820 the Shelleys were living in Pisa, where Mary began writing Valperga around March 6. She was doing lots of research, including Machiavelli’s La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, where she learned more about Castruccio. But she also read Robinson Crusoe and Boswell’s Life of Johnson and some novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe, and her father’s fine novel Caleb Williams.
(Ivanhoe, a novel my mother taught in the 1950s to her students at Emerson Junior High School; Enid, Oklahoma; Ivanhoe, a 1952 movie I loved with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor; Ivanhoe, a story I read repeatedly as a lad in Classics Illustrated comic book form; Ivanhoe, a novel I finally got around to reading myself in 2014, my seventieth year to heaven.)
Oh, and Mary was also reading Cicero (in Latin) and studying Greek.
Sometimes, reading about Mary Shelley, reading her letters and journals (not all of which survive—some very interesting pages are missing, no doubt destroyed by her, perhaps by her son, later, to protect her already fragile (if not fractured) reputation), reading her novels and other work, I feel … lazy. By comparison.
I am not reading Roman authors in Latin. Nor am I studying Greek. I’m not researching and writing a thick novel about a medieval Italian. Last night, in fact (December 15, 2015), I read some of a Longmire mystery, watched an episode of Broadchurch, and had the light off before 9:30 (my custom, by the way).
But Mary Shelley was serious about an intellectual life (I am, too, I like to think—but her routines and accomplishments are a tad intimidating)—and later, after her husband had drowned, she wrote about how it was study that kept her sane. She would lose herself in books, in her writing. And … for a while … she would (kind of) forget.
She had taken to heart that line Macbeth sort of casually tosses off to Macduff, who’s just arrived at the castle—where there’s been some … bloodshed: Macbeth has just slain the sleeping king—but must pretend nothing is amiss.
The labour we delight in physics [medicates] pain. Doing work you love can alleviate your suffering. This was what Mary had learned from her numerous personal tragedies. It was a strategy she would employ for the rest of her life—following the advice of a murderer!