This post originally appeared on Romantic Textualities – part of a collection ‘Teaching Mary Shelley’s Other Works’, curated by Daniel Cook and Catherine Redford.
Anna Mercer: Teaching Mary Shelley’s Lesser-Known Novels, Short Stories and Letters
Teaching a text by Mary Shelley that is not her notorious ‘hideous progeny’ Frankenstein offers the potential for students to begin to understand her wider concerns, both as a philosophical novelist and as a social commentator. Mary’s work post-Frankenstein sought to interact with the lofty verse and ‘beautiful idealisms of moral excellence’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Prometheus Unbound) produced by her husband, and with the works of her other contemporaries, as well as the texts by authors who preceded her.
Mary’s texts articulate her concerns with socio-political issues such as the role of women in society. For example, her two final novels Lodore and Falkner retrace ground pioneered by her mother Mary Wollstonecraft and other authors like Mary Hays; Mary Shelley transforms her lived experiences to inform the message of her fiction. Intriguingly, as Julie Carlson has described, Lodore and Falkner are ‘silver-fork novels’, imbued with a conservatism and conformity that potentially makes Mary’s work appear regressive when compared to the work of her mother. However, as Carlson continues, ‘Lodore and Falkner attempt to alter marital despotism from the inside’ (England’s First Family of Writers, 121). Such a covertly radical tone reveals Mary Shelley’s subtlety as a novelist. She was talented at producing complex and engaging narratives, which is one of the (many) reasons why her most famous work Frankenstein is regarded as a text open to numerous allegorical readings. Therefore, her iconic tale of the creator and his monstrous creation exists on many literature syllabuses as a valuable tool, often used to teach students how to appreciate multiple strands of critical interpretation at once.
However, as Carlson implies, the veiled intentions of Mary’s other works are just as captivating. Mary weaved allusions to her own life with speculative fiction (The Last Man) and historical fiction (Valperga and Perkin Warbeck). An interesting paradox to present students with is the question of how to tackle Mary’s work that is overtly based on lived experiences. How can we acknowledge the influence of memories, but avoid carrying out a reductive reading that sees the text as simply autobiographical?
It is also important to note that Mary’s most striking and memorable female characters appear in works other than Frankenstein. In Valperga, Mary’s second full-length novel composed in Italy between 1818 and 1821, Beatrice is a prophetess who is eventually imprisoned as a heretic. As a woman she bears the damage afflicted on her by others; becoming a tragic heroine, ultimately she loses her mind, and the painful nature of her victimhood is made explicit. In contrast, the entitlement of the male protagonist Castruccio in Valperga is deplorable. Mary Shelley’s interest in women and society is also notably explored in the character of Fanny Derham in Lodore, a beguiling figure of progressive, independent and complicated femininity.
All of the novels Mary saw published in her lifetime—except Frankenstein—appeared during her widowhood. Not long after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death in Italy in July 1822, Mary returned to England. She had already experienced life as ‘a part of the Elect’ (letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, 3 Oct 1824) and she was now alone and grieving. Moreover, writing was her livelihood. She wrote in September 1822 that ‘I hope to be able to support myself by my writings & mine own Shelley’s Mss’ (letter to Maria Gisborne, 20 Sep 1822). Percy’s father Sir Timothy Shelley, furious about his son’s radical writing and lifestyle, prevented her from publishing as much of her late husband’s work as she had initially hoped. After the appearance of Posthumous Poems (1824) he threatened to terminate any negotiations for support for Mary, and her only surviving child Percy Florence Shelley. She was forced to ‘promise not to bring dear S.’s name before the public again during Sir. T-’s life’ (letter to Leigh Hunt, 22 Aug 1824). However, by 1838 he had agreed to Mary publishing an edition of Percy’s works with Edward Moxon, but on the condition that there would be no memoir of Percy attached. These volumes were the Poetical Works and Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. Mary’s method of providing a context to the poems in Poetical Works and giving an indication of the character of their author was to ‘write a few notes appertaining to the history of the poems’ (letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, 11 Dec 1838). It is interesting to direct students to Mary’s later journals and letters, which reveal the grief at the loss of her intellectual partner and lover, her struggle to maintain herself when she is ‘torn to pieces by Memory’ (journal entry for 12 Feb 1839), and the consolation she found in writing.
Mary’s fiction often includes idealised representations of a Percy Shelley-type-figure, and many of the few poems that she wrote are elegies to her lost love. It is incorrect to assume that a flattering portrait was the only manner in which Mary depicted him; her portrayals of Percy are just one way of elucidating just how varied Mary’s corpus is. The short story ‘The Bride of Modern Italy’, which appeared in The London Magazine in April 1824, is a biting satire of Percy’s relationship with Teresa Viviani. Mocking all of those involved, this anonymously published story demonstrates how Mary’s experiences inspired her to create a broad range of narratives. Her tone is often clandestine; the heightened melodrama of her novella Matilda (also featuring a Percy Shelleyan figure, the poet Woodville) can be read as a critical portrait of an exceptionally flawed heroine (see Charles E. Robinson, ‘Mathilda as Dramatic Actress’). It might surprise students to reveal Mary, the infamous Gothic author, as a witty woman of letters, writing tongue-in-cheek prose.
Mary’s journals have an incredible value to students of both Shelleys, in her carefully documented reading lists and record of day-to-day activities. The activities noted in the journals include visits to the theatre, details of their travels, and mentions of other members of their literary circle(s) as well as the many times that Mary and Percy were writing, or reading aloud to one another. Even Percy Shelley contributes his own discursive entries to the book, and as mentioned above, Mary’s journal becomes radically different after his death. The journal is a document of the very literary life the Shelleys led, an existence committed to studying and travelling together. It is a crucial supplement to understanding the vast range of influences on their remarkable minds from 1814 onwards.