In the months following the publication of her penultimate novel, Lodore, in 1835, Mary had some health problems—and spent some time visiting friends. Encouraged by the sales of Lodore, her publisher, Charles Ollier, urged her to write another novel, and in early November, in a letter to a long-time family friend, Maria Gisborne, she wrote (after praising Maria for her long relationship with her husband, John), as I grow older I look upon fidelity as the first of human virtues—& am going to write a novel to display my opinion.[i]
But Mary was also engaged in a very time-consuming project at the time—a project to bring in some much needed money (Sir Timothy Shelley, Bysshe’s father, was still a bit of a Scrooge). In 1833, two years before the appearance of Lodore, she agreed to write a series of brief biographies for Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia. It was a massive undertaking, and before it was over, she had published (in two volumes) Lives of the Most Eminent literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835–37) and (in three volumes) Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Man of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1838–39).
Needless to say, these volumes are not easy to find—at least not in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was trying to read everything Mary had written. Now—I just this moment looked (March 27, 2017)—they are available online.[ii] Of course.
But back in early 2000, I had to use interlibrary loan, acquiring the volumes from the Ohio State Library, and in January that year I read them. I’ll confess I’d been dreading the prospect. They were the last of Mary’s works that I read—and the thought of volumes of encyclopedia entries about people I’d (mostly) never heard of was, well, deadly.