Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Ariel: The Life of Shelley is, in André Maurois’ own words, “not the literary study of a poet, but the picture of a human conflict.” This conflict is the eternal one between freedom and restraint: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s desires to think his own thoughts and to love whomever he wished clashed with the values and beliefs of his society. Maurois was trying to display the agony of a romantic soul torn between two loves. In the story of Shelley and his two wives, Maurois saw the central moral predicament that men and women face in the modern world.

Thus, the book naturally falls into two parts: The first treats Shelley’s youth and first marriage to Harriet Westbrook, and the second follows events from his elopement with Mary Godwin to the cremation of his drowned corpse on the shore of the Bay of Spezia. In all, there are thirty-seven chapters, each rendering some well-known episode in Shelley’s life. The progression is not merely chronological; the narrative is also impetuous, headstrong, and impossible to put down. Its very velocity gives some sense of the violent momentum of Shelley’s passionate and tragic life.

Maurois saw in this brief but torrid career an intense emotional drama driven by the battle between self and society, freedom and authority. He focuses on the friction that resulted from the conflict between Shelley’s untamable free spirit and the implacable customs and beliefs of British society. At Eton, for...

(The entire section is 467 words.)