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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 6, mai 1997

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005750ar

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Article

'The god undeified': Mary Shelley's Valperga, Italy, and the Aesthetic of Desire

Daniel E. White

University of Pennsylvania


1

Valperga: or, The life and adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, the second novel by "The Author of `Frankenstein'," appeared in 1823 and remained until 1996 the only one of Mary Shelley's six novels never to be republished. [1] In Valperga Shelley offers a stark reading of the period from the failure of the French Revolution through 1821 as a mutually destructive polemic between a dominant political, social, and aesthetic masculine ideology and its feminine other, a polemic that significantly found its fittest expression and conclusion on Italian soil. As one of the most relentlessly pessimistic texts of the Romantic period, Valperga represents its moment of production as precluding the political and social conditions under which the author's ideology of organic reform and domestic values could be realized in contemporary history. [2] By first grounding the novel in the Italian context of its production, this paper offers a reading of Valperga as a critique of what Mary Shelley understood to be the implicit correlation between the aesthetic of desire central to her perception of masculine Romanticism and the political and social implications of gendered identity during the period.

2

Italy and the feminine are at once the terrain and subject of the novel. Conceived at Marlow in 1817 but researched and written in Italy between 1818 and 1821, Valperga, in three volumes, tells the story of Castruccio Castracani dei Antelminelli, the early fourteenth-century Lucchese Ghibelline who by virtue of his ruthless ambition, intellect, and military leadership became captain-general of Lucca in 1316 and prince in 1320. In the preface to the first volume Shelley offers two sources for the events of Castruccio's life, "Machiavelli's romance" La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca and Sismondi's Histoire des Républiques Italiennes de l'Âge Moyen. Her narrative interweaves the fictional stories of two tragic female characters, Euthanasia and Beatrice, with the nominally historical tale of Castruccio's simultaneous rise and fall from uncorrupted youth to political tyranny and spiritual destitution. [3] Critical assessments of Valperga, ranging from those of Percy Shelley, William Godwin, and contemporary reviewers to those of the present, have been prompt to note that the novel is less about Castruccio than the destructive effects of this ambitious and striving masculine paradigm of egotism—Percy Shelley called him a "little Napoleon" [4] —on the social spheres around him.

3

The novel participates in the larger European Romantic critique of the aesthetic values of masculine Romanticism without returning to eighteenth-century neo-classical poetic ideals. Recent historicist criticism of the period has found this aesthetic vein, critical of yet part of the Romantic movement, in the poetry and fiction of women as diverse as Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Mary Hays, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Tighe, Jane Taylor, Mary Shelley, Letitia Landon, and Felicia Hemans. Insofar as my argument continues the excavation of counter-Romanticisms from within the period, my interpretation of Valperga should be understood as a qualified response to the current challenge directed towards historicist forms of "anti-Romantic" criticism. [5] Such criticism does, as Seamus Perry has argued, rely on necessarily insufficient definitions of "the Romantic," and I would agree with him that "the new anti-Romanticism" is not so new at all—Perry traces the genre to Coleridge's development away from his own Hamlet-like self-absorption and extreme idealism. I would suggest, however, that Perry distinguishes too exclusively between "anti-Romanticism" in Jerome McGann's New Historicist wake and historical awareness such as his own that much literature of the Romantic period depended on some adversarial perception of "Romantic" aesthetics for its impetus. New Historicism in its less sophisticated forms has set up "History" as the shibboleth of authenticity and political (i.e., "liberal") good faith, but much critical work in the school deplored by Perry fits as well into the latter category of historically accurate criticism. I attempt such criticism in my reading of Valperga, a novel in which Mary Shelley explicitly and consciously crafts a plot driven by what she saw as the political and social correspondences of the dominant cultural images and values of her period as she defined them. I will argue not against "Romanticism," but for an understanding of Mary Shelley's perception of a specific Romantic aesthetic, which I will define as an aesthetic of desire, transmitted in her novelistic representation of its nature and consequences.

I. Italy and the Feminine: Über allen Gipfeln / Ist Ruh? [6]

4

The critique by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women writers of Romantic aesthetic representations of political and social power to some extent represents a continuity between women's writing and Victorian domestic ideology, [7] but here I would like to preface my reading of Shelley's novel with an analysis of her understanding of ideology in the context of Italian Romanticism. Italian Romanticism—a movement fashioned largely under the imperialist control of Napoleonic France and then the Austrian Empire—with its determined deflation of "Italy" as a paradise in the Northern European imagination, constitutes the backdrop for Shelley's portrayal of the relations between masculine and feminine positions in Valperga.

5

Her account of the mechanisms by which men and women become entangled in ideologies of gender was by no means uncomplicated; European political structures, social dynamics, class relations, and national geographies under the imperialist systems of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna become defined for and valued by the reading public according to correspondent sublime images of power and desire characteristic for Shelley of masculinist aesthetics. Valperga, then, should be understood as participating in both the English feminine Romantic criticism of masculine Romanticism's blindness to its own intoxication with sublime images of desire and power—its aesthetic of desire—and in the Italian Romantic response to the dynamics of imperialist domination. These two contexts led Shelley to represent in her second novel the images and ideals of sublimity and individual transcendent ambition central to her understanding of masculine Romanticism as correspondent to political and social dynamics against which much Romantic literature and many of its writers, both male and female, explicitly struggled.

6

Valperga represents in striking fashion the fate of Italy and the feminine as aesthetic and political expressions of masculine desire. Shelley's work, and Valperga in particular, offers a vigorous and often grim critique of her period's failure to resolve fundamental contradictions along lines of gender and international politics. Italy, in the consciousness of European travellers since the eighteenth century, has generally inhabited the location of the feminine other in which the foreign and dominant subject attempts to find his peace. What Shelley saw and expressed from a female Romantic perspective was the fragmentation of the feminine into a body or nation of contradictions—at once paradise and hell, beautiful and hideous, adored and loathed, desired and feared. In Valperga as well as Frankenstein this expression develops into the singular insight that such a catastrophe was in a sense the hideous progeny of a masculine and "Romantic" imagination inscribing its desires on the natural, creating its texts out of women, the poor, and the disenfranchised, as well as "geographical expressions," to borrow Metternich's phrase, such as Italy.

7

Thus in the subheading to this section, the interrogative inflection I have given the first two lines of Goethe's great lyric of 1780 is meant to suggest the distorted vision of a consciousness that could cross "every mountain-peak" of the Alps, from the Germanic north to the Italian south, and find a paradise of "peace" in either the largely unreformed Italy of 1780 or the war-torn, culturally-colonized, and politically-fragmented Italy of 1815-1821. If recent criticism has turned to women's writing to emphasize the absence of Ruh on the other side of the Alps of gender, so is it necessary to hear the various counter-imperialist tones of the "Romantic" in Italy.

8

Set next to the familiar topos of Italy as a locus amoenus, a bower of paradise and liberation, as the destination of escape to a home "o'er the southern moors," for instance, of Keats's lovers at the end of The Eve of St. Agnes (line 351), the following description of Italy as an abused and violated "Formosissima donna" from Giacomo Leopardi's All'Italia (1818) offers a stark and telling contrast:

Oimé quante ferite,

Che lividor, che sangue! oh qual ti veggio,

Formosissima donna! Io chiedo al cielo

E al mondo: dite dite;

Chi la ridusse a tale? [8]

While there is neither evidence nor likelihood that Shelley read Leopardi while she was in Italy, in many respects Valperga was a production of the same cultural climate in which authors such as Leopardi, Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Manzoni, Carlo Porta, and more radical writers such as Giovanni Berchet and Silvio Pellico, both associated with the patriotic Milanese newspaper Il Conciliatore (suppressed by the Austrian police in 1819), voiced opposition to past and present histories of foreign domination in Italy.

9

According to her journal, Shelley did read Foscolo's Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802) in June or July of 1822, [9] although it seems probable that by then she was already acquainted with his work. In her "Life" of this author written for The Cabinet Encyclopedia and published in 1835, she translates and quotes the following lines from Foscolo's epistolary novel: "... what can we expect except indigence and indignity ... And where shall I seek an asylum?—in Italy? Unhappy land! and can I behold those who have robbed, scorned, and sold us, and not weep with rage?" [10] In Valperga Shelley astutely traces the kinship between such "un-Romantic" representations of Italy from within the Italian context and the texts and subtexts of those female Romantic voices, her own included, associated with polemics of gender during the period.

10

Early in the novel Shelley accordingly orchestrates a rapid and dramatic deflation of any naive Romantic expectations evoked by the cultural signifier, Italy. The fifth chapter of the first volume finds her young hero, yet to become an anti-hero, crossing the "beautiful Alps, the boundaries of his native country," [11] to re-enter Italy from France. The path is treacherous, and as Castruccio advances he hears the cries for help of a man who has slipped over the edge of the precipice. Considering the generations of barbarians and aesthetes who had crossed these very boundaries through the ages, it would have been all too natural for Shelley's audience to assume that the unfortunate traveller was a foreigner. Castruccio indeed assumes the same, and having rescued the stranger,

soothed him with a gentle voice, and told him that now the worst part of the journey was over, and that they were about to descend by an easier path to the plain of Italy; "where," he said, "you will find a paradise that will cure all your evils."

The man looked at him with a mixture of wonder and what might have been construed into contempt, had his muscles, made rigid with cold and fear, yielded to the feeling of his mind. He replied drily, "I am an Italian." And Castruccio smiled to perceive, that these words were considered as a sufficient refutation to his assertion of the boasted charms of Italy.

I, 105-106

The passage deftly carries its reader across the symbolic Alps from one perspective into another, into the actual plain of Italy in which it is emphatically not a paradise to inhabit at once heaven and hell, to be an individual in a country of the imagination both ruled and defined from without. For Shelley, the same of course holds true for subjects inhabiting all such bodies of the imagination, be they geographical, political, or human.

11

Blackwood's recognized at once the novel's association of gender, aesthetics, and politics; the reviewer quipped, "... we are mortally sick of 'orange tinted skies,' 'dirges,' and 'Dante.' Another thing we are sick of, is this perpetual drumming at poor Buonaparte." [12] Shelley refuses to dissociate Valperga's narrative from its Italian context, finding in Italian history the terrain on which to represent the consequences of Romantic aesthetic and political conflicts—from Dante to Buonaparte—on both the gendered subjects and geographies of contemporary Europe.

II. Valperga and the Socialization of Romantic Subjects

12

It is interesting to note the ways in which negative characterizations of Valperga from the 1820s through the present have consistently evoked the very aesthetic criteria against which, in part, the novel was composed. For instance, one finds in the preface to the 1891 publication of Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Now First Collected, with an Introduction by Richard Garnett, LL.D, that Valperga "wants the fire of imagination which alone could have interpenetrated the mass and fused its diverse ingredients into a satisfying whole." [13] In other words, Valperga fails in the same fiery terms descriptive in Shelley's first novel of those masculine desires that led to the destruction of Victor and everyone around him. In Valperga, as in Frankenstein, the fire of excessive imaginative ambition is to a large extent the problem.

13

In this novel, Shelley conceives her characters along a range of masculine and feminine subject positions and proceeds to represent the drama of necessity, a tragedy, that she foresaw would ultimately leave the stage of the novel and, she feared, the stage of contemporary history empty. With its three protagonists Castruccio, Euthanasia, and the ardent prophetess Beatrice, along with a number of interesting minor figures such as the "military peasant" Guinigi and his son Arrigo, Wilhelmina of Bohemia and her appointed "papess" Magfreda, the witch Fior di Mandragola and her albino servant Bindo, Valperga plays out at length a drama of love and ambition within contemporary dynamics of gender and power.

14

The story of Castruccio's education and early desires depicts the propagation of male Romantic subjectivity. His masculine socialization begins at age eleven when his family is exiled from Lucca by the then-dominant Guelph party. A witness to the violence of civil discord and the misery of exile, young Castruccio

became inflamed with rage and desire of vengeance. It was by scenes such as these, that party spirit was generated, and became so strong in Italy. Children, while they were yet too young to feel their own disgrace, saw the misery of their parents, and took early vows of implacable hatred against their persecutors: these were remembered in after times; the wounds were never seared, but the fresh blood ever streaming kept alive the feelings of passion and anger which had given rise to the first blow.

I, 12

"Desire of vengeance" grows into doctrines of dominance and subordination; "implacable hatred" ensures the continuity of cyclical history alternating between tyranny and liberty, Ghibbeline and Guelph—Byron's endless "one page" of history in the fourth Canto (stanza 108) of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, or Percy Shelley's "struggling World, which slaves and tyrants win" of the first Act (577) of Prometheus Unbound. But while these poems position themselves against such histories, there is a facet of their aesthetics, Mary Shelley implies, by which their images of sublimity reinscribe values of individual ambition which sustain repetitive cycles of political and social power. In Valperga there can be no curses recalled, in that the point of its critique, as in Frankenstein, implicates the egotism of the Promethean poet, reformer, or scientist, whether bound and cursing or unbound and universally loving, in the reproduction of those values that have set cyclical history in motion, or for that matter prescribed the contents of history's one page. Ever-striving desire, the immer streben at the heart of the titanic Castruccio, corresponds to the fiery aesthetic that for Mary Shelley entangles the powerful figure of the Romantic artist in the relations of power he characteristically deplores.

15

Shelley thus locates egotism and ambition at the center of the figurative Romantic artist and appropriates the character of Castruccio in order to disclose affinities between this Machiavellian paradigm and the destructive powers of the Byronic ideal. [14] As Jean de Palacio notes, "Castruccio tombe en effet dans le péché le plus grave au regard de l'évangile shelleyen: celui de subordonner tout intérêt humain aux moyens égoïstes de parvenir ... Castruccio réunira en lui le lion et le renard." [15] Mellor has argued persuasively and in detail with respect to Frankenstein, although she largely ignores Valperga, that Shelley understood this subordination of all human, or rather domestic, interests to self-advancement in the public sphere as the necessary consequence of what she calls male Romantic ideology, "grounded as it is on a never-ending, perhaps never successful, effort to marry contraries, to unite the finite and the infinite." [16]

16

These are precisely the terms into which the young Castruccio develops, the aesthetic terms of Anglo-German Romanticism that Shelley translates into the imperialist terms of a Napoleonic vision. At age seventeen Castruccio

would throw his arms to the north, the south, the east, and the west, crying,—"There —there—there, and there, shall my fame reach!"—and then, in gay defiance, casting his eager glance towards heaven:—"and even there, if man may climb the slippery sides of the arched palace of eternal fame, there also will I be recorded."

I, 43

Years and pages later, having been exposed to the intrigues of the English court and the doctrines of Alberto Scoto and Benedetto Pepi, his "bad angels" as William Walling calls them, the consequences of Castruccio's education have become manifest:

It were curious to mark the changes that now operated in his character. Every success made him extend his views to something beyond; and every obstacle surmounted, made him still more impatient of those that presented themselves in succession. He became all in all to himself; his creed seemed to contain no article but the end and aim of his ambition; and that he swore before heaven to attain.

II, 171

Castruccio's early desire to transcend mortality and the finite by recording and deifying himself in the "arched palace of eternal fame" leads to the politically and socially destructive expressions of that egotistical emptiness Shelley found to be the risk of masculine Romantic desire—empty because unable to accept the human or domestic values of an alternative ideology on their own terms, those offered by Euthanasia.

17

In opposition to the inward turn of Castruccio's ambition—"He became all in all to himself"—Euthanasia presents an externally-directed ideology of domesticity and enlightened bourgeois politics. The formation of her character is first a page from the educational tenets of rationality for young women of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which Shelley found cause to reread in May of 1820 one month after beginning to write Valperga. Furthermore, her education embodies feminine ideals of sensibility, not just those of Rousseau —Shelley re-read Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) for the second time in February of 1820, having previously read it in 1815 and 1817—but ideals from both the context, and often-troubling subtexts, of the long tradition of educated female poets, novelists, and dramatists of sensibility extending back to Charlotte Smith and Hannah Cowley in the 1780s. Euthanasia becomes the ideal "Romantic" woman conceived from the bourgeois feminist perspective of the 1790s, a self-sufficient woman who can both feel and think, and whose feelings and thoughts lead her to an ideology of social renovation through universal love and gradual political reform through organic change. [17]

18

Early in the first volume Shelley strikes a dramatic balance in Euthanasia's "sweet looks, in which deep sensibility and lively thought were pictured, and a judgement and reason beyond her years" (I, 31). As a child she learned to love and to read Latin, and it is this humanistic education in sensibility and the enlightening classics that later culminates in expressions such as the following of the domestic affections extended to all humanity:

... to behold the heaven-pointing cypress with unbent spire sleep in the stirless air; these were sights and feelings which softened and exalted her thoughts; she felt bound in amity to all; doubly, immeasurably loving those dear to her, feeling an humanizing charity even to the evil.

II, 165

Of course the presence of the cypress in place of the myrtle or laurel foreshadows the inevitable failure of the individual in this subject position to survive under existing conditions, and it is in this representation of failed potential that Euthanasia embodies a critique of the existing order. As I discuss in the next section, Euthanasia's "amity to all" as the failed force that would domesticate the masculine sphere of public politics underscores the insufficiency of a world in which there is no place for Shelley's vision of the immeasurable love and humanizing charity of an educated woman, other than beyond the cypresses.

III. 'The god undeified'

19

While the colonization of the masculine by the feminine may be Euthanasia's image of a utopian future—her "hope of freedom for Italy, of revived learning and the reign of peace for all the world" (I, 30)—it is precisely this future that Valperga represents as closed-off. The historical impasse is an impersonal structure of social and political conditions that in some way makes barren, or worse, the two central human relationships in the novel. The domestic and personal bonds between Euthanasia and Castruccio and between Castruccio and Beatrice tragically fail to bear any fruit besides negation and destruction. A third kind of relationship does exist in one of the rare Romantic representations of exclusively female friendship, that between Euthanasia and Beatrice. [18] But as with Guinigi's agrarian paradise, this feminine enclave provides only a temporary and profoundly inconsequential respite before the inevitable emptiness of the conclusion.

20

The most salient aspect of Shelley's critique may have been a quiet but confident attempt to reverse fundamental "Romantic" notions of plenitude and emptiness together with a refusal to sacrifice the integrity of the feminine position. In her work the private sphere becomes the location of individual and historical fullness where desire is translated into domestic affection, while the public sphere on its own becomes a vacuum. But this may be as true for Shelley's work as it is for the genre of the novel as a whole in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Valperga, however, all conceived generic resolutions of public and private are rejected as sterile, as politically and personally qualifying, negating, or marginalizing the individual, male or female, in the feminine position. There is, as Betty Bennett notes, "no happy ending which one would expect of a popular romance." [19] Rather, with the death of all female heroines, along with the male "heroines" Guinigi and Arrigo, the stage of the novel's history is left empty but for public actions and events, themselves the hollow expressions of egotistical desire. For history to be full, Valperga implies, political and social conditions must be such that the private sphere can colonize the public without being fragmented and negated by a world that refuses to forego its longings and ambitions for aesthetic, social, or political thrones in the "arched palace of eternal fame." In Valperga, so long as boys continue to be educated into men who would rather be titans, women and feminized characters are forced to hold a number of equally untenable positions in relation to the imaginary deities of the dominant ideology.

21

In addition to the paths taken by Castruccio and Euthanasia, there is a disastrous composite form of socialization depicted by the prophetess Beatrice. The narrative of Beatrice before her fall depicts in full color the consequences of uncritically accepting the self-deifying expressions of the Romantic imagination. [20] It has been persuasively argued that Beatrice is an unflattering portrait of the Romantic poet of imagination whose flashing eyes and floating hair persuade her, or rather him, that he alone among all humanity has drunk the milk of paradise. Thus Jane Blumberg writes that Beatrice "is passion and creativity gone mad, the potential end result of the unrestrained and impractical Romantic imagination," while Joseph Lew states, "she becomes a Romantic poet." [21] But of course to call Beatrice a Romantic poet is to highlight the incongruity of a female "Romantic" poet when the adjective is taken to refer to a set of notions about the creative imagination inherited in varying degrees from eighteenth-century German aesthetic philosophy and associated with an implicitly masculine figure of the poet.

22

The early Beatrice, then, is a talented and creative woman who affirms for herself the novel's rendition of the dream-world inhabited by the Romantic imagination:

... she preaches, she prophesies, she sings extempore hymns, and entirely fulfilling the part of Donna Estatica, she passes many hours of each day in solitary meditation, or rather in dreams, to which her active imagination gives a reality and life which confirm her in her mistakes.

II, 43

This type of the Donna Estatica would have echoed for Shelley's readership the career of Staël's fictional improvisatrice in Corinne ou l'Italie (1807), which, according to Shelley's journal, she was reading in November of 1820, and for us prophetically anticipates the actual career of Letitia Landon. When the Donna Estatica in Valperga crosses from the masculine position of solitary and self-referential prophet/poet to that of the feminine object of Castruccio's desire, the impossibility of a female "Romantic" poet becomes manifest.

23

Just as the source of Beatrice's poetry was an imaginative self-deification, an illusion that she was the "Ancilla Dei, the chosen vessel into which God has poured a portion of his spirit" (II, 43), her renunciation of the position of prophetess for that of Castruccio's mistress involves a substitution of one false deity for another, Castruccio for herself. Before she goes to Castruccio to give herself to him for the first time, she removes the symbolic diadem from her forehead on which the words "Ancilla Dei" are written. He asks,

"Where is thy mark, prophetess? art thou no longer the Maiden of God?"

"I still have it," she replied, "but I have dismissed it from my brow; I will give it you; come, my lord, this evening at midnight to the secret entrance of the viscountess's palace."

II, 83

Beatrice transfers illusions of her own divinity onto her relationship with Castruccio, assuming their love to be divinely sanctioned. The constancy of the illusion lies in her persistent acceptance of the masculine as all in all, as divine. Although capable of sacrificing her own position of imaginative creativity to her adoration of Castruccio, she never grasps the theme to which Shelley repeatedly returns, that all attributions of divine creativity to human individuals, ourselves or others, mask the various faces of unrestrained ambition and power, and inevitably produce monstrous effects.

24

Thus Beatrice's insistence on the deification of the masculine, even after Castruccio has abandoned her, blinds her to the truth that at the heart of Castruccio is the mere desire for power, a desire based on lack that only requires her and the feminine world as objects of appropriation in its never-ending internalized quest for fulfillment. In a bold and unexpected turn the narrative brings Beatrice face-to-face with a nameless essence of human power, linking her to the character of the same name in Percy Shelley's tragedy, The Cenci.

25

For three years, Beatrice reveals, she was imprisoned in an "infernal house" ruled by an unnamed figure of evil who subjected her to sexual and psychological horrors unspeakable but to "the unhallowed ears of infidels": "What was he, who was the author and mechanist of these crimes? He bore a human name; they say that his lineage was human; yet could he be a man?" (III, 85). In that he is all too clearly a man, Beatrice's deification or demonization of him—the two are finally the same —leads to one of the clearest accounts of how Shelley conceived the relation between Romantic aesthetics and contemporary mechanisms of power:

There was something about him that might be called beautiful; but it was the beauty of the tiger, of lightning, of the cataract that destroys. Obedience waited on his slightest motion; for he made none, that did not command; his followers worshipped him, but it was as a savage might worship the god of evil. His slaves dared not murmur;—his eyes beamed with irresistible fire, his smile was as death.

III, 86-87

This representation of power encodes the terms of what Shelley perceived to be the dominant aesthetic of her culture—the tiger, the lightning, the cataract that destroys, eyes beaming with irresistible fire. [22] By both imagining itself as divine and defining the sublime in its own image, masculine power aesthetically reproduces its own illusions in the minds of those it seduces and dominates. Both Castruccio and the unnamed man futilely attempt to fill their lives with the power of gods or demons over humankind. Their illusions succeed only in reflecting themselves in minds such as Beatrice's, undisciplined and mortal minds that are subject to accepting masculine power's self-deifying aesthetic representations of itself:

Ever the dupe of her undisciplined thoughts, she cherished her reveries, believing that heavenly and intellectual, which was indebted for its force to earthly mixtures; and she resigned herself entire to her visionary joys, until she finally awoke to truth, fallen, and for ever lost.

II, 88

In Shelley's work, the immediate fate of all such seduced individuals is negation, the emptying of oneself into the deification or demonization of a void; as with Beatrice and her numerous kindred Romantic characters of female inspiration, the ultimate fate is generally death. [23]

26

The narrative of Euthanasia's love for Castruccio, however, depicts the gradual disenchantment of a female mind from the illusions imposed on it by a masculine world. Unlike Beatrice, Euthanasia finally refuses to accept the values of Castruccio's public sphere as aesthetic ideals. If the paradise projected by Beatrice for herself and Castruccio fails because of the imaginary gods and demons in which they both believe, Euthanasia's initial deification of Castruccio cannot survive in her mind alongside the political demands of her beliefs. She refuses to concede any substance or validity to the terms of public success and glory, rejecting the translations of honor, fame, and dominion into aesthetic achievements. "Romantic" notions of the beautiful and the sublime for Euthanasia are criteria that need to be evaluated in terms of the political consequences of the ideology that has produced them in its own image. In the development of Euthanasia's character Shelley suggests the formation of an alternative aesthetic in the image of an alternative ideology, one that comes to value peace and domestic affections over all forms of conquest, ultimately whether in the name of liberty or tyranny.

27

Euthanasia's initial love for Castruccio traps her in the same imaginary deification of the masculine as that which seduced Beatrice. Like the fallen prophetess, Euthanasia once "made a god of him she loved" (I, 189). In volume two the narrative voice reflects on Beatrice's predicament, defining the constraints of a form of love that excludes the political and external world from its purely personal demands and desires. This is the description of idolatrous love that the masculine world ultimately fails to keep kindled in the heart of Euthanasia:

Even as we idolize the object of our affections, do we idolize ourselves: if we separate him from his fellow mortals, so do we separate ourselves, and, glorying in belonging to him alone, feel lifted above all other sensations, all other joys and griefs, to one hallowed circle from which all but his idea is banished; we walk as if a mist or some more potent charm divided us from all but him; a sanctified victim which none but the priest set apart for that office could touch and not pollute, enshrined in a cloud of glory, made glorious through beauties not our own.

II, 87-88

The description intimates that a cloud of glory may be just that, a cloud, while no matter how sanctified and hallowed such a woman in love feels herself to be, she remains "a victim." Euthanasia's insistence on the validity of her own externally-directed ideal of a domestic world dooms her relationship with Castruccio, whose characteristic ambitions compel the very exclusion of the domestic from the world.

28

In other words, Euthanasia's conception of viable love does not separate individuals from political and social conditions external to their relationship. Having concluded the peace treaty between Florence and Lucca, Euthanasia makes it clear that the political terms of this treaty are also the personal conditions of the contract under which she offers Castruccio her love:

"Love you indeed I always must; but I know, for I have studied my own heart, that it would not unite itself to yours, if, instead of these thoughts of peace and concord, you were to scheme war and conquest."

"You measure your love in nice scales," replied Castruccio, reproachfully; "surely, if it were as deep as mine, it would be ruled alone by its own laws, and not by outward circumstances."

I, 239-40

In effect, Euthanasia comes to measure her love in political scales. Her initial deification of Castruccio sought a paradise in which "outward circumstances" would be immaterial, in which there would be nothing beyond the "hallowed circle" of their domestic sanctity. This paradise crumbles when her ideals are faced with a world beyond their personal relationship, with outward circumstances that show up all too clearly the imaginary and contradictory nature of a domestic sphere co-opted into imagining itself to be the entire world. In the words of Betty Bennett, "Their love relationship fails in political terms; a personal love would not suffice." [24]

29

The feminine figure in this domestic sphere of the masculine imagination would conceive the personal relationship as all in all, thus remaining as blind to the truths outside its doorsteps as Beatrice remains to the true human nature of power. Valperga's feminist statement in the character of Euthanasia is the insistence on seeing a feminine sphere of domesticity extending into the political world of outward circumstances. Thus Shelley juxtaposes Beatrice's blindness with Euthanasia's insight in the following exchange in which the latter tells the former that Castruccio has cast off "that which was [Euthanasia's] love." Beatrice asks, "What did he cast off?":

     "Why will you make me speak? He cast off humanity, honesty, honourable feeling, all that I prize."

     "Forms, forms,—mere forms, my mistaken Euthanasia. He remained, and was not that everything?"

III, 63-64

Euthanasia's disenchanted and thus feminist insight is of course that he is not everything: "`Believe me,' cried Euthanasia, `he has other affections. Glory and conquest are his mistresses, and he is a successful lover.'" (III, 65). His love becomes the egotistical expression not of a god, but of a man prescribed within an empty and destructive ideology.

30

If in the narrative of Beatrice's destruction we are meant to understand, as I have argued, the workings of a mechanism of power fueled by the unfillable lack at the center of Castruccio, the unnamed persecutor of Beatrice, and the masculine ideology they represent, it is precisely this understanding that Euthanasia gains from hearing that same narrative. The author states the effect unequivocally:

Her very person was sacred, since she had dedicated herself to him; but, the god undeified, the honours of the priestess fell to the dust. The story of Beatrice dissolved the charm; she looked on him now in the common light of day; the illusion and exaltation of love was dispelled for ever ... Her old feelings of duty, benevolence, and friendship returned; all was not now, as before, referred to love alone.

II, 192

In this common light of day there are no nightingales or skylarks, titans or tigers, cataracts or deep Romantic chasms; there is only an actual landscape inhabited by human individuals to whom one owes the benevolence and friendship one such as Euthanasia would offer willingly to a sibling, parent, or child.

31

But the will to power remains, and, Valperga maintains, so long as an aesthetic of desire successfully reproduces its correspondent values in undisciplined and receptive minds, political and social conditions will continue to preclude any tenable position for an uncompromised feminine subject, disenchanted or not. Material conditions inevitably bring Euthanasia into a stalemate, the position from which any movement whatsoever will contradict the ideological terms by which she lives. Rather than see the citizens of Florence destroyed, individuals to whom she owes benevolence and friendship, she chooses to join the conspiracy against Castruccio, thereby implicating herself in the system she opposes and setting in motion the chain of events that leads to her death.

32

Yet to condemn her for this act of complicity is in an important way to miss the point. Like The Cenci, Valperga turns to an Italian historical narrative to critique the idealism we associate with Prometheus Unbound. Neither Beatrice Cenci nor Euthanasia can summon a Demogorgon to pull the tyrannical figure of masculine power from his throne; both must do it themselves. The point in neither case is that they should not have done so, but that they could not have done otherwise. Euthanasia knew that she was compromising her position, that her act was treacherous in every sense of the word, but as in The Cenci it is significantly only the frowns of masculine figures of power that damn her for it. Castruccio's tellingly named deputy Vanni Mordecastelli tellingly exclaims, "I took her for an angel, and I find her a woman;—one of those frail, foolish creatures we all despise" (III, 231). Both Euthanasia and Beatrice Cenci are destroyed for stepping out of their subject positions when those positions become untenable and unbearable. "Like scorpions ringed with fire," both break their stalemates, the result of which can only be Euthanasia's tragic and foregone conclusion:

Earth felt no change when she died; and men forgot her ... Endless tears might well have been shed at her loss; yet for her none wept, save the piteous skies ... none moaned except the sea-birds that flapped their heavy wings above the ocean-cave wherein she lay;—and the muttering thunder alone tolled her passing bell, as she quitted a life, which for her had been replete with change and sorrow.

III, 262

IV. Conclusion

33

Earth feels no change, and thus the novel continues, or at least there continues to be ink on the page for a brief space following the death of Euthanasia. The "Conclusion" after the conclusion begins:

The private chronicles, from which the foregoing relation has been collected, end with the death of Euthanasia. It is therefore in public histories alone that we find an account of the last years of the life of Castruccio.

III, 263

In a brief staccato march through public history Valperga relates the events comprised in the remainder of Castruccio's life. The deaths of Beatrice, Euthanasia, Guinigi, and Arrigo have left the stage empty of the feminine; all that remains is the public world of dominance and subordination. With the disclosure that the novel has been culled from "private chronicles," the feminine becomes both the repository and the content of private history, the only history that for Shelley can ever be full. With the departure of the feminine from the stage, historical plenitude evaporates, leaving behind only the empty human forms of nothing to play out their cyclical struggles of ambition and desire.

34

Valperga, like Frankenstein, thus begs the question of Mary Shelley's status as a "Romantic" writer, but it also begs the question of the status of the term itself. Clearly she defined her authorial position during the period of her early productions at once by and against the cultural forces that came to constitute Romanticism. From a contemporary perspective this dialectical tension in her work between gendered contraries—between ambitious desire and domestic duty, public and private, political and personal, between culture and its critique—locates her work in the midst of that cultural process represented by today's critical reformulations of Romanticism itself.


 

Notes

[1]

Mary Shelley, Valperga, or, The life and adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, ed. Nora Crook (London: W. Pickering, 1996), Volume 3 of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, eds. Nora Crook and Pamela Clemit; Valperga, or, The life and adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, ed. Stuart Curran (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 1997).

[2]

My discussion of the value placed by Shelley on organic reform and domesticity is indebted to Anne Mellor's concept of "female Romantic ideology." For critical representations of "female Romantic ideologies" see Mellor's Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993) and "Why Women Didn't Like Romanticism: The View of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley," The Romantics and Us: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. Gene W. Ruoff (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Joseph W. Lew, "God's Sister: History and Ideology in Valperga," The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein, eds. Audrey A. Fisch et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). See as well Stuart Curran, "The I Altered," Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[3]

Readers unfamiliar with the novel are referred to the recent republication or the synopsis in William A. Walling's Mary Shelley (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972) 57-60. Also of particular interest is Percy Shelley's letter describing Valperga to his then-publisher, Charles Ollier, dated September 25, 1821. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) I, 352-54.

[4]

The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley II, 353.

[5]

See Seamus Perry's insightful "Coleridge, the Return to Nature, and the New Anti-Romanticism: An Essay in Polemic,"Romanticism on the Net 4 (November 1996): n. pag. Online. Internet. (1/5/97) <http://users.ox.ac.uk/~scat035/antirom.html>. For perspectives on counter-Romanticisms, see recent collections of essays: John Beer, ed., Questioning Romanticism (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995); Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley, eds., Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995); Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, eds., Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

[6]

"Over every mountain-peak / Is peace."

[7]

See Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[8]

Giacomo Leopardi, All'Italia (1818) 8-12.

Alas, such wounds,

What bruises, what blood! oh, in what state do I see you,

Most beautiful woman! I cry to heaven

And to the world: Say, say;

Who reduced her to this?

[9]

Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947) 180.

[10]

The Cabinet Encyclopedia, Volume 87: Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, Volume 2 (London, 1835) 358.

[11]

Mary Shelley, Valperga: or, The life and adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, 3 vols. (London, 1823) I, 102. References hereafter are given parenthetically in the text.

[12]

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 13 (March 1823): 284.

[13]

Mary Shelley, Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London, 1891) vii. Surprisingly, even Mellor in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1988) claims that Valperga does not "satisfactorily synthesize its mass of historical details, 'raked,' said Percy Shelley, 'out of fifty old books,' into a coherent narrative" (178). This line of Percy Shelley's is often, as here, quoted out of context both to indicate a deprecation of Valperga on his part and to represent the novel as an insufficient synthesis of its materials. What Percy Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock on November 8, 1820 was, "Mary is writing a novel, illustrative of the manners of the Middle Ages in Italy, which she has raked out of fifty old books. I promise myself success from it; and certainly, if what is wholly original will succeed, I shall not be disappointed" (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley II, 245). He meant to emphasize the extent of Mary Shelley's research.

[14]

I stress the importance of seeing Castruccio as a representative figure of male Romantic paradigms. Even recent critical treatments of Mary Shelley's works have fostered autobiographical readings that without fail serve to reduce her voice to the merely relative or derivative. To see Castruccio, for example, as a caricature of Percy Shelley or Byron, or Beatrice as Claire Clairmont and Euthanasia as whomever is in an important way to prescribe the limits of Mary Shelley's critique. For an extended statement of the case see Pamela Clemit, The Godwinian Novel: The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 141: "Despite [an] early recognition of Mary Shelley's intellectual commitment, twentieth-century critics have interpreted her relation with the Godwin circle largely in private terms. Mary Shelley's complex position as daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, then wife of Percy Shelley and friend of Byron, has lent itself to readings which posit a psychological frame of reference, excluding both the intellectual stimulus provided by the Godwin school and her independent revaluation of these concerns."

[15]

Jean de Palacio, Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre (Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1969) 205. "Castruccio falls indeed into the gravest sin with regards to the Shelleyan gospel: that of subordinating all human interest to egotistical means of achievement ... Castruccio will unite in himself the lion and the fox."

[16]

Mellor, "Why Women Didn't Like Romanticism," 284.

[17]

On the entrenchment of "conservative nostalgia for a Burkean model of a naturally evolving organic society" in the 1820s, see Clemit, 177; and Elie Halévy, The Liberal Awakening, 1815-1830, trans. E. I. Watkin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961) 128-32.

[18]

In this respect Valperga requires us to qualify otherwise accurate generalizations such as the following, from Mellor's Mary Shelley 205: "Shelley's heroines conceive of themselves solely in relational terms, as a daughter or a wife or a mother. Since older women are generally absent from her novels, these self-definitions are all based on a relationship with a man, a father or a husband. The female protagonists have neither sisters nor friends with whom they might develop a constructive and extra-familial concept of female identity. The ideal female, in Mary Shelley's view, is one whose life is shaped by service to her family." Valperga represents both a heroine who refuses to conceive of herself solely in relational terms and a friendship in which two females might develop such a concept of female identity. These ideal situations, however, are potentialities precluded by the political and social conditions of a masculine world. Thus we might say that in Valperga the ideal individual is a feminine subject whose life is shaped by service to her or his family only when the "familial" is extended to incorporate all humanity.

[19]

Betty T. Bennett, "The Political Philosophy of Mary Shelley's Historical Novels: Valperga and Perkin Warbeck," The Evidence of the Imagination: Studies of Interactions of Life and Art in English Romantic Literature, eds. Donald H. Reiman et al. (New York: New York University Press, 1978) 363.

[20]

On the character of Beatrice see Barbara Jane O'Sullivan, "Beatrice in Valperga: A New Cassandra," The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein, eds. Audrey A. Fisch et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[21]

Jane Blumberg, Mary Shelley's Early Novels: `This Child of Imagination and Misery' (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993) 99-100; Lew, "God's Sister: History and Ideology in Valperga" 171.

[22]

Compare this passage with the imagery of Percy Shelley's poems of 1819-1820, "On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci" and "A Vision of the Sea." These correspondences demonstrate an under-acknowledged degree of active and critical interplay between the writings of Mary and Percy.

[23]

See, for instance, Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets (1784-1800), Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales (1800), Germaine de Staël's Corinne (1807), Letitia Landon's The Improvisatrice (1824), Felicia Hemans's Records of Woman.

[24]

Bennett, "The Political Philosophy of Mary Shelley's Historical Novels: Valperga and Perkin Warbeck" 363.

Auteur : Daniel E. White
Titre : 'The god undeified': Mary Shelley's Valperga, Italy, and the Aesthetic of Desire
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 6, mai 1997
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005750ar
DOI : 10.7202/005750ar

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