Romantic Interests: Shelley's Ghost appears in Oxford; Godwin's Juvenile Library gets Animated

By Charles Cuykendall Carter
December 3, 2010
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
The Shelleys, by Derek Marks

The Shelleys, by Derek Marks

Twelve treasures from the New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle will be featured in Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, a major exhibition which opens today at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Exploring the life, afterlife, kith and kin of the nineteenth-century radical poet (and Oxford expellee) Percy Bysshe Shelley, the exhibition integrates the unique Pforzheimer materials – some of which have never before been on public display in the UK – with the cream of the Bodleian’s own extensive collections of Shelley-related manuscripts, books, artworks and realia. Some of the exhibition’s highlights include, from the Bodleian, Shelley’s manuscript notebooks, and an early draft of Frankenstein, the first novel by his (arguably now more famous) second wife, Mary; among the Pforzheimer items are bookends to Shelley’s life with his first wife, Harriet: her engagement ring, and her suicide letter. Shelley’s Ghost will run in Oxford through March 2011; a version of the exhibition will appear at the NYPL in February of 2012.

To celebrate the Oxford opening, we hereby offer the inaugural Pforzheimer Collection blog posting. We hope this blog will function not only as a cabinet of curiosities through which readers can virtually access some of the Collection's most extraordinary and surprising materials, but also as a generator of research interest and patronage. Today we consider a book – only tangentially related to Shelley – whose back-story involves both Shelley’s mentor and father-in-law, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, and Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft [Godwin] Shelley.

Mounseer Nongtongpaw is a lavishly illustrated children’s book in verse which was first published in 1808 by William Godwin’s Juvenile Library firm. Based upon a popular late eighteenth-century comic song of the same name by the actor and songwriter Charles Dibdin, the story follows the character John Bull, a symbolic representation of the common Englishman (think "John Q. Public"), on his well-meaning but dunderheaded exploits on a trip to France. Bull never bothered to learn French, and his queries in English to various French characters all elicit the same response: “Monsieur, je n’entend pas,” ("Sir, I don’t understand you"). Bull’s own humorous misunderstanding is his belief that all of France is talking about a man named “Nongtongpaw.”  

From Mounseer Nongtongpaw: "A lady passed him, young and gay -- / He stood in fixed surprise ..."

The Juvenile Library version of Mounseer Nongtongpaw went unattributed - and largely unnoticed - for nearly two centuries. In 1980, folklore anthologists Iona and Peter Opie attributed Nongtongpaw to young Mary Godwin, who at the time of the book’s composition was only ten-and-a-half years old. Their evidence consisted of an excerpt, in an old autograph dealer's catalog, of a Godwin letter discussing his daughter's involvement in the adaptation of the Dibden song. Years later the original letter (now part of the Pforzheimer Collection) came into the possession of Mary Shelley biographer Emily W. Sunstein, who determined that Mary’s contribution was not as primary creator, but as the drafter of a preliminary sketch. Existing evidence suggests the final version may have been written by the theatrical author John Taylor (1757-1832). The book’s illustrator, William Mulready, and perhaps Godwin himself may also have been contributors. It is possible that all of the above, including Mary Godwin, had a hand in shaping the work as published.        

Mounseer Nongtongpaw (1808), the Pforzheimer Copy

Mounseer Nongtongpaw (1808), the Pforzheimer Copy

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the authorship of Mounseer Nongtongpaw, we at the Pforzheimer give the littlest contributor the benefit of the doubt and shelve the book under “Shelley, Mary.” Our copy of the first edition (fewer than a dozen are known to exist) is in very good condition for an early children’s book, stitched as issued, in the original printed yellow covers. Only two of the twelve illustrations are hand-colored, possibly by a former owner, “Reginald Graham,” whose name is inscribed in ink on the title-page in an early nineteenth-century hand.

Recently we commissioned a cartoon adaptation of Mounseer Nongtongpaw, narrated by the award-winning British actor Simon Jones, and animated by NYPL digital producer Jonathan Blanc. The video uses photographed images from the 1811 third edition of Nongtongpaw, the Pforzheimer's copy of which is disbound, but fully hand-colored.

Charles Cuykendall Carter, Bibliographer, The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle