Ariel has been as popular with readers, young and old alike, as it has been controversial with scholars. Readers love the book’s exciting pace, Maurois’ vivid turns of phrase, and the sensational subject matter. Scholars resent the neglect of Shelley’s poetry, claiming that Maurois did not understand the poet or the man. Shelley scholars are especially vexed that the general perception of Shelley’s mind and motives has been distorted by the book’s caricature. Ariel, they contend, presents a silly dreamer who seems to build his life around tea parties and young girls, not the serious thinker and driven artist who was Shelley. Maurois admitted that his effort was not to study the poet but to portray emotional conflict.
Though not written specifically for young adults, this book has taken its place among juvenile biographies in part because many adults who are serious about history and literature have rejected it as childish and in part because of its genuine appeal to anyone excited by the idea of youthful rebellion. Though it sheds no new light on Shelley, Ariel offers amusement, entertainment, and many worthwhile in-sights into human nature, love, and youth.
Maurois sought to portray Shelley as a child who never grew up, an indulgent dreamer who wasted his powers constructing around each fond female in his life “one of those aërial worlds into which he loved to escape.” Determined, as Maurois explained in his memoirs, to bring...
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Ariel came at a turning point for children’s literature. The golden age of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and Peter Pan (1904) was giving way to a gilded age of books such as The Story of Doctor Doolittle (1920), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Ariel broadened the range of historical writings for young readers, and it inspired Laura Benét’s The Boy Shelley (1937), which examines the decade before the poet’s college experiences.
Ariel had a profound impact upon young adult literature. Its own youthful vitality made it the world’s most popular biography of Shelley, and that success inaugurated a succession of romanticized and fictionalized biographies for young readers. To Maurois’ chagrin, subsequent biographers took more and more liberties with the facts. Words unsaid and deeds undone found their way into juvenile biographies so that authors could control what readers saw in their subjects’ lives. Instead of being scrupulously cut from correspondence, dialogue was being invented outright. A great debate has raged ever since over this method of writing biography.
Ariel has opened many young readers’ eyes to poets and poetry. It has become a classic biography because it bridged the gap between young and old, past and future, fact and fantasy.