Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Orphan Angel, chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for December, 1926, was published at the height of Elinor Wylie’s literary career. Blending the traditions of the historical romance and the picaresque novel, The Orphan Angel carries forward traditional genres with the creative premise of resurrecting Shelley in America.

Elinor Wylie throughout her adult life was preoccupied by the Romantic poet Shelley; by the 1920’s, when she was writing The Orphan Angel, her preoccupation could be considered an obsession. When young, she was drawn to Shelley’s poetry. A serious poet herself, Wylie looked to Shelley as a model for herself and to his poetry as a model for her own. Later, Wylie came to see her own life reflected in Shelley’s in a more personal way. Both poets experienced censure because of their marital arrangements. Just as Shelley abandoned his first wife Harriet to elope with the young Mary Godwin, Wylie left her young son and husband to live in Europe with a married man, Horace Wylie. In both cases, the poets eventually married the partners with whom they went off, but the difficulties of their personal relationships were always a concern. Both Harriet’s and Wylie’s first husbands were suicides. For long periods, the poets were estranged from their children. Yet both seemed to believe their actions and love relationships were based on truth and beauty and that, spiritually, their choices were valid. In The Orphan Angel, then, Wylie is bringing back to life the poet she idealized and is showing him to be an angelic figure, one committed to truth and beauty. Shelley, not the orphan Silver that David and Shiloh seek, is the “angel” of the title. In reviving Shelley from the water in Italy and bringing him to America, Wylie is situating Shelley in the land of freedom, where his temperament may have a more conducive environment; of course, in traveling the country, it is clear that Shiloh/Shelley runs into just as many, and many of the same kinds of, predicaments that faced him in Europe.