Ariel, the Life of Shelley

by André Maurois. Translated by Ella D’Arcy. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1924. 8vo. viii+336 pp. $2.50.
THE professional biographer always tends to resent the attempt to treat real and historical characters as central figures in a work which even suggests fiction or fantasy. The careful and systematic scholar labors so long at the investigation and testing of facts that he rebels against any manipulation, or even interpretation, not strictly warranted by documentary evidence. Yet, after all, this objection is not wholly just or reasonable. Biography that is worth anything must indeed be based on facts; but it always owes what is best in it, its glamour and its inspiration, to imaginative treatment. The soul cannot be mapped out and documented: it can only be grasped and portrayed by subtle processes of sympathy and understanding, which in the end relate the biographer closely to the creative artist. Therefore the value of a biography told in the form of a story really depends upon how it is done — as with any other work of art.
M. Maurois’s interpretation of Shelley is based upon thorough familiarity with all the existing authorities, and follows closely the accepted biographical sequence, simply giving the story and the characters a grace and vividness of movement which professional biography too often lacks. It fails perhaps slightly in two points: there is everywhere a suggestion of French turn and tone, while Shelley, for all his sympathy with French idealism, was as intensely English as Lamb; and further, there seems to me not quite enough intimation or sense of the unearthly, supreme, transfiguring quality of Shelley’s poetry, which should always temper and etherialize the strange tragi-comedy of his life.
But, after making these slight reserves, it should be recognized that the narrative thrills and throbs with all the magic that attaches to one of the most fascinating spirits that ever appeared in this mixed and troubled world. We have Shelley’s quick, intense, almost superhuman sensibility, his instant response to every fleeting emotion, of love, of hope, of aspiration, of despair. We have his immense, superb sincerity, the worship of what he takes to be truth, in whatever garb it presents itself. And in delightful combination with this, we have an unlimited faculty of self-deception, a wild and sudden enslavement to immediate impulse, coupled with an extraordinary ingenuity in making impulse appear to be reason. Finally, greatest of all, we have the ardor, which, if it does not atone for every aberration, at least leads us to forget them, the ardor which he himself defined as ‘the passion for reforming the world.’ In the beautiful phrase of Obermann, Shelley believed that ‘such as we are we might live in a better world,’ and he spent half his days in clothing his dreams of that better world with a pellucid glory, and the other half in a desperate aspiration toward finding that better world in this. The ideal Shelley shines everywhere in the pages of M. Maurois, and he ennobles our dull days by making us feel that the best thing in life is the undying effort to make it different.