Shelley’s Strategy for Publicly Distributing The Cenci

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Shelley actively manipulated authorial attribution in publicly promoting his drama The Cenci. In July, 1819, Shelley was living in Italy and writing The Cenci. At that time he wrote to his friend Thomas Peacock in London asking him to “procure its presentation at Covent Garden.” Covent Garden was a major London theatre. Shelley further specified:

I wish to preserve a complete incognito … this is essential, deeply essential to it’s {sic} success. After it had been acted & successfully (could I hope such a thing) I would own it if I pleased, & use the celebrity it might acquire to my own purposes.^

Shelley had 250 copies of The Cenci printed in Italy in late August or early September, 1819.^ He sent a box of these books to his bookseller in London with these instructions:

I request that you would have the kindness not to open the box, or, if by necessity it is opened, to abstain from observing yourself, or permitting others to observe, what it contains. I trust this confidently to you, it being of consequence. Meanwhile, I assure yourself that this work has no reference, direct or indirect, to politics, or religion, or personal satire, and that this precaution is merely literary.^

These books had as their title page, “The Cenci. A Tragedy in Five Acts. By Percy B. Shelley.”^ Anonymously authored works were common in early nineteenth-century Britain. Shelley intended that The Cenci be initially presented on stage without authorial attribution, then distributed as a book with authorship attributed to him.

The Cenci, as Shelley had it printed, included an effusive dedication to Leigh Hunt. Hunt, a poet and a journal editor, had written an article attacking the Prince Regent. Hunt spent two years in jail for that offense. Shelley concluded The Cenci’s dedication to Hunt with an invocation of political heroics:

In that patient and irreconcilable enmity with domestic and political tyranny and imposture, which the tenor of your life has illustrated, and which, had I health and talents should illustrate mine, let us, comforting each other in our task, live and die.

This dedication surely wasn’t part of the text that Shelley had Peacock offer to Covent Garden. If the play had been successful and celebrated, releasing it as a book with Shelley named as author and with his dedication to Hunt surely would have generated additional attention and a political sensation.

Shelley’s promotional gambit for The Cenci didn’t succeed. Covent Garden rejected The Cenci about the beginning of 1820.^ In March, 1820, Shelley wrote to his bookseller in London:

My friends here {in Italy} have great hopes that the Cenci will succeed as a publication. It was refused at Drury Lane, although expressly written for theatrical exhibition, on a plea of the story being too horrible. I believe it singularly fitted for the stage.^

In April, 1820, Shelley wrote to Hunt:

The very Theatre rejected it with expressions of the greatest insolence. I feel persuaded that they must have guessed at the author. But about all this I don’t care much.^

About a month later, Shelley began to urge with increasingly strident words his reluctant publisher to print a second edition of The Cenci.^ Shelley implored his publisher:

I learn that noth withs tanding {sic} the early & prompt sale of all but about a dozen copies of the Cenci, of the edition I sent from Italy, no other one has been printed agreeably to my request. I think this is very prejudicial to it, & entreat you to be good enough not to allow any delay to take place in printing a second edition. This play unless the Bookseller timidly yields to the cry of the bigots, is calculated to be popular. a second edition is the best answer to that cry.^

Shelley cared deeply about the reception of his work.^ Shelley, writing to his publisher about eight months later, ended his letter with the declaration, “The Cenci ought to have been popular.”^ Mary Shelley’s preface to The Cenci , written after Shelley’s death, observed:

Its failure {The Cenci’s failure} disappointed him, as it is the only one of his works from which he seems to have expected contemporary and popular success.

This comment downplays Shelley’s ambition across the range of his works, but it is more accurate than Shelley’s pose of not caring much about the reception of The Cenci. Shelley plotted a detailed strategy for attributing authorship of The Cenci and manipulating its public reception.

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