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Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, eds., Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley After 'Frankenstein' - Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth. Madison and London: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-8386-3684-5. Price: £39.50 ($49.50).

  • Rachel Woolley

…plus d’informations

  • Rachel Woolley
    University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

Entitling a volume Iconoclastic Departures raises high expectations in a reader, and awakens anticipation of originality, innovation and distinctiveness. There are, indeed, thoughtful, engaging, well-written essays included in this volume, but not enough to match either the suggestively radical nature of the book's title, or the high expectations it generates. The editors take advantage of such a timely occasion as the bicentenary of Mary Shelley's birth, to assess the state of Mary Shelley scholarship, identifying its current strengths in order to redress the past injustices that have so beleaguered Mary Shelley's literary reputation. In this, they are largely successful. The order of the essays demonstrates a strong thematic unity, and this gives a tangible method to their project: namely, re-evaluating Mary Shelley to prove that she wrote 'self-consciously, expertly and innovatively all her life' (p. 10). What has emerged, they argue, is a Mary Shelley who is a 'quiet radical ... immensely talented, fiercely intelligent, nonconformist' (p. 12). The collection is enhanced by the prominent attention it gives to the question of identity; and the contribution that feminist-psychoanalytic readings make to this should not go unacknowledged. The search for an identity of Mary Shelley as a successfully 'recovered' author dominates the collection and the sense of a women's literary canon, as well as Mary Shelley's place alongside influential male Romantics, pervades the selection.

The introduction surveys Mary Shelley criticism to date, militating against earlier criticism that has 'almost exclusively focused' on Mary Shelley's domestic ties, and attempts to read her life through her fiction (p. 9). Iconoclastic Departures defines its critical position by acknowledging that 'the family' has become 'an imperative sociopsychological context within which better to understand [Mary Shelley's] contributions to the many literary forms with which she worked' (p. 10). This seems less of a departure from early, and increasingly outdated, psycho-biographical criticism than the editors would suppose. The essays do transform the significance of the family in Mary Shelley's work, but there is still a marked tendency to include biographical information, and extrapolate from it considerable literary meaning. This creates a sense of modernising or refining (psycho-)biographical interpretation rather than departing from it. The most significant conjecture in this refining process is that Mary Shelley 'retained a resistant, resiliently radical attitude to many of the established orders of her day' (p. 10) and often this argument is convincingly articulated.

Divided into four parts, the themes of the volume suggest the continuing and encompassing revision of Mary Shelley's works, from Percy Shelley's contribution to Frankenstein, through to the later novels. Part I, 'Authorship Reconsidered', pursues the question of identity, exploring the relationship between authorship and editing, and the emergence of Mary Shelley as a writer. The benefit Mary Shelley derived from Percy Shelley's influence is frequently acknowledged in these essays, without eclipsing her own ability or agency. Furthermore, Mary Shelley's editing of her husband's posthumous works is not the defensive strategy argued by Mary Poovey in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). It is recast in more positive hues by Angela Jones, Sheila Ahlbrand and Gregory O'Dea as a conscious attempt to assert a public literary identity, to establish herself as writer, as Ahlbrand succinctly states: 'In the mythologising of Shelley, she mythologises herself' (p. 58). Jones also interprets Mary Shelley's construction of 'public-author/private writer' (p. 24) in History of a Six Weeks Tour as a way to critique what she terms 'masculinized Romantic Tourism' (p. 25). This text then becomes 'a kind of counterpublic discourse marshaled to revise practices of and assumptions about picturesque touring and aesthetics so prevalent in the early nineteenth century' (p. 26).

Gregory O'Dea's essay adds a further dimension to Part I's quest for authorial identity by turning to Mary Shelley's tales and locating them alongside Romantic poetic tales, like Byron's The Giaour , Wordworth's The Prelude and Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn (p. 64). In so doing, he exposes the aesthetic continuity between the narrative strategy of the prose tale and the poetic tale. Shelley's tales are 'striking experiments with the relationship between image and narrative' (p. 65), and O'Dea demonstrates for the reader that they are a combination of 'organic unity with inevitable fragmentation' working as 'an apt figure for Shelley's own artistic and ideological ambivalence' (p. 77).

O'Dea's conclusion that Mary Shelley is 'testing the soundness of Romantic idealism' (p. 78) attunes the reader to debate about Mary Shelley's more overt strategies for cultural critique in Part II of the collection, 'Myths Revised, Taboos Defied'. All the essays in this section seek to assert an agency that undermines the hegemony of patriarchy. This continues to promote Iconoclastic Departures's assessment of Mary Shelley as a writer profoundly critical of the social conventions of her age. In an enlightening essay, ' "The Meaning of the Tree": The Tale of Mirra in Mary Shelley's Mathilda', Judith Barbour explores the relationship between the Mirra myth and Mathilda in an attempt to explain the maternal/feminine role in the incest theme. Barbour also insightfully documents Mary Shelley's sources, from Wollstonecraft to Alfieri, Dante and Ovid to expose the lack of catharsis generated by the text's conclusion. This more general part of the essay balances the slightly strained, but detailed, mapping of the Mirra myth onto Mathilda. Ranita Chatterjee, too, explores the incest theme in Mathilda through gender and reads Mathilda as a 'subversion' of Freudian desire: 'the pattern of the daughter's desire from father to lover is directed by the daughter, not by the Father's Law' (p. 136). Both these essays draw heavily on psychoanalysis, and this is consistent of Part II's tone. The intellectual and aesthetic concerns of Mary Shelley's treatment of incest are accounted for in this section, but given the similar conclusions of the essays, the limited use and interest of psychoanalytic readings of Mathilda becomes apparent.

James Carson's ' "A Sigh of Many Hearts": History, Humanity, and Popular Culture in Valperga' opens Part III, 'Fictions as Cultural Provocation', with a marked change of critical perspective through his emphasis on ideology and genre. Carson begins by defining Valperga as a 'historical novel of sensibility' (p. 167), and asserts that the portrayals of the individual in the novel explore 'political ideals of self-government' (p. 168). In a well-structured essay he takes account of Mary Shelley's historical sources, the function of sentiment, and of political philosophy through Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's influence on Mary Shelley. He identifies something quintessentially modern in Valperga: the arrival of Foucauldian 'disciplinary institutions' in Castruccio's regime, which 'exert power over the masses by indiviualizing them' (p. 176). This gives his reading of the text an interesting emphasis on power, and its manifestations in the individual and in the crowd. In a well-written, impressively wide-ranging essay, Carson clearly argues that Mary Shelley's attitude to popular culture is more complex and ambivalent than the disdainful one promoted by Anne Mellor.

Paul A. Cantor's essay on The Last Man sustains the sense of Mary Shelley as highly political writer that Carson draws out so effectively. While Carson sees the classical republican thought in Valperga eliciting 'an admiration for public spirit in civic duties' (p. 175), Cantor reads the plague of The Last Man as bringing out 'the worst in humanity' (p. 194); and suggests a 'metaphorical link between the plague and the spirit of modern commerce'. Labelling The Last Man as 'strikingly modern', Cantor argues that Mary Shelley is critiquing the advent of the new capitalist world, but also reveals her conservative response to it: the 'old ideal of the English country estate' (p. 200). For the second time in this collection of essays, we see, too, Mary Shelley's cosmopolitan representations of Europe with Cantor describing the European journey as a 'version of the traditional aristocratic Grand Tour' (p. 204). This emphasis on the 'aesthetic spectacle' (p. 204) of Europe in the closing chapters of The Last Man, is an attempt to 'replace the old aristocracy of birth with a new aristocracy of talent' (p. 206). Cantor's analysis of The Last Man reinforces the prominence of Mary Shelley's political aesthetic in her writing, while acknowledging, as Carson does, the ambivalence caused by her conservatism.

A winning contribution to Iconoclastic Departures is Frederick S. Frank's updated bibliography. His short introduction takes issues with the way in which most non-Frankenstein fiction is seen as supplementary to her relationship with other Romantic figures, or as 'an index to her deviation from Romantic ideals' (p. 295). He attributes Mary Shelley's resurgence to new theoretical practices, and evidence of this can be seen in Iconoclastic Departures's own essays. The bibliography's divisions still point to the uneven focus of Mary Shelley scholarship: 'The Prose Canon', for example, is devoted entirely to her fiction. Any criticism on Mary Shelley's essays and reviews is catalogued in a general section alongside biographies, other bibliographies and critical studies. What becomes apparent from Frank's annotations is the extent to which critics are still relating Mary Shelley's non-Frankenstein fiction to Frankenstein. His perceptive, succinct summaries also demonstrate more recent critical trends, such as postmodernist interpretations of The Last Man or historicist preoccupations with Valperga or The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. Frank's bibliography provides a new survey of recent and more dated criticism of Mary Shelley, and its useful contribution to Mary Shelley scholarship accentuates the need, as he says himself (p. 343), for an updated comprehensive bibliography.

Perhaps a comparison between this selection of critical essays and its precursor, The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein, Fisch, Mellor, Schor, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), is inevitable. Both focus on Mary Shelley's writings outside Frankenstein to re-evaluate her status as a significant Romantic writer. Both achieve their aim; each collection includes essays spanning the spectrum of genres with which Mary Shelley experimented. The Other Mary Shelley demonstrated the need for greater critical attention to be given to her writings and the publication of the eight-volume Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley (London: Pickering & Chatto: 1996) suggests that this is now commonly accepted. Iconoclastic Departures, however, falls short of the standard set, and the scope reached, by The Other Mary Shelley. This bicentenary volume does not contain criticism on either Mary Shelley's mythical dramas, or her reviews and essays, and only limited attention is given to her travel-writing. Omitting comment on these leaves an impression of a rather unbalanced selection. Despite this, Iconoclastic Departures sets a decisive agenda for reinterpreting Mary Shelley's oeuvre and rises to this challenge. Its enthusiastic commitment to reappraising her work in the context of her intellectual capacity, and her political ideology and her social conscience consolidates this new 'other' Mary Shelley's central position in Romantic literature.