Children as Subject and Object: Shelley v. Westbrook
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Before any of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s six children was born, he had already invested into his ideas of childhood a complicated schema of power and influence that both objectifies and subjectifies the child, fictive or actual. Shelley’s ideas about children and childhood included, as biographer James Bieri notes, Socrates’s doctrine that reminiscences from an earlier life were the basis of knowledge and prompted him to stop a young mother carrying her infant across the Magdalen Bridge, inquiring of the dumbfounded woman, “Will your baby tell us anything about pre-existence, Madam?” (Bieri 131). In A Vindictztion of the Vegetable Diet (1813), the child brings an “unerring wisdom” of dietary choices; in Shelley’s poetry, the child presents an impervious and cheerful confidence or becomes a tragic victim found amidst the debris of the world. The Shelley v. Westbrook custody trial following the suicide of Shelley’s wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, was a watershed event in the poet’s life, an event that deepened and exacerbated his view of himself as a father and sharpened his purposes for images of the child in his poetry and prose. Shelley objectifies children as symbols and subjectifies them as parts of himself, especially in the role of victim. His letters before and during the trial offer a perspective through which to view this effect in his writings. In the letters, Shelley warns their recipients to protest against the destructive moral forces of the world, including their legal agency in the Court of Chancery that ruled against him.
KeywordsBiographical Data Moral Stance Female Audience Watershed Event Legal Agency
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