The Collection was the creation of the financier Carl H. Pforzheimer, Sr. (1879–1957), who took a special interest in the lives and works of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his contemporaries, including his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and such friends and fellow writers as Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Teresa Guiccioli, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, Horace Smith, and Edward John Trelawny.
Besides the books and manuscripts of the Shelley circle, the Collection offers a wide range of collateral materials such as, writings by other literary figures of the period, biographies, criticism, political and scientific treatises, grammars, dictionaries, almanacs, and business directories. In addition, the Collection brings together topical pamphlets, broadsides, and other ephemera related to issues of the day such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and the 1820 adultery trial of the Queen of England—events that prompted poems by both Shelley and Byron.
Because of its extensive Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley holdings, female writers have always been an important component of the Pforzheimer Collection. Books and manuscripts by many lesser-known women writers of the period can be found along witha number of key proto-feminist texts, as well as advice books, manuals on child-rearing, etiquette, and domestic economy. Political radicalism, British reaction to the French Revolution, European travel, and publishing history are some of the other subjects covered by the Collection.
The Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, Inc. donated the Shelley and His Circle Collection to The New York Public Library in 1986. Today, the Collection continues actively to acquire books and manuscripts relating to major and minor figures of the Romantic era, as well as works that illuminate the social, political, and cultural history of the age.
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