This essay explores the representation of motherhood in Mary Shelley's second novel, Valperga. It argues that if the name of the hero Castruccio connotes castration, this is because the novel does indeed figure its numerous literal and figurative mothers as castrating females, and is fundamentally unable to imagine of offer a vision of complete manhood.
Early in Mary Shelley’s second novel, Valperga, Dianora, the mother of the hero Castruccio, dies; having been exiled from Lucca, “her weak frame was destroyed by hardship and disappointment” (Valperga 1: 15). Soon afterwards, Castruccio hears that it had been proclaimed in the streets of Florence “that all who wished to have news from the other world, should repair on the first of May to the bridge of Carraia or to the quay of the Arno” (1: 17). Additionally, “preparations were made to exhibit Hell, such as it had been described in a poem now writing by Dante Alighieri, a part of which had been read, and had given rise to the undertaking” (1: 17). Without telling his father, the fourteen-year-old Castruccio runs away to see this, an exploit which, the narrator says, showed “at once the manners of the age and country in which they lived, and the imagination and disposition of the boy” (1: 16).
To paint a picture of life in early Renaissance Italy, torn by the strife between the Guelphs and the Ghibelines, and to explore the intricacies of the complex character of Castruccio may indeed seem to be the primary aims of Valperga; moreover, the two to some extent go hand in hand throughout since so much of the temperament of Castruccio is, as in this episode, conditioned by the ideologies of his society. As her parents’ daughter, Mary Shelley might well have been expected to stress the extent of the social construction of the individual; moreover, the title page of Valperga gives no information about its writer other than to say that it is “by the author of ‘Frankenstein,’” which might well predispose us to expect here, too, the emphasis on nurturing and its effects which informs the earlier novel. In the case of Frankenstein, however—as with so many other Gothic novels—critics have been quick to argue that many of the relationships which are given prominence in the text are psychologically rather than socially configured. In Valperga, too, that may well be thought to be the case.
This is particularly so in the case of the suggestive but unexplored conjunction of the death of Castruccio’s mother and his desire to receive messages from the dead. And if the impulse to psychoanalyze is strong here, it is soon increased considerably by what happens next. The collapse of the bridge of Carraia makes the event a disaster before any “news from the other world” can be given; Castruccio is very frightened and runs away, but he is shortly relieved to recognize the servant of an old friend of his father, Antonio dei Adimari. From this servant, Marco, he learns that the Adimari family is staying in Florence. “The eyes of Castruccio sparkled with hope.—‘Euthanasia is here?’” (1: 24).
Though we may well observe the appropriateness of a desire for death to Castruccio’s current errand—especially in view of the close association in others of Mary Shelley’s works between motherhood and death—“Euthanasia” in fact turns out to be the magnificently resonant name of the novel’s heroine, the daughter of Antonio dei Adimari and the Countess of Valperga—a name which, as Castruccio’s lieutenant Vanni Mordecastelli later observes, “seemed to carry a divinity with it” (3: 227). Euthanasia volunteers to spend much of her time reading aloud to her old father, who has gone blind and who teaches her to understand and to profit by the material that she reads. But while Euthanasia’s education is enlightened, that of Castruccio is of a very different sort and, in the terms of the novel, may well be seen as seriously defective: he—a Ghibeline, as opposed to Euthanasia’s Guelph affiliation—“learned all chivalrous accompaniments under the tuition of his noble father” (1: 30). After the death of his father, he is exposed to two further influences: first he spends a year with the latter’s pacifist friend Guinigi, then he journeys to the court of Edward II, where he becomes a favourite first of the king and later of Gaveston, after the latter’s return from exile in Ireland.
Despite its loose structural ties to the general development of the narrative—made all the more obvious by the generally tight construction of the novel, with the careful building up to a climax at the end of each of the first two volumes—this episode clearly performs an important thematic function. This is particularly significant in relation to the burgeoning political development of Castruccio, which is one of the novel’s major concerns. We have already heard that the Venetians “were at the height of their glory, just before the aristocratical government was fixed, and the people were struggling for what they lost—liberty” (1: 59). The values encoded here resonate throughout the book: liberty is to be its watchword, and the community protected by Euthanasia at Valperga will develop virtually into a living symbol of it. Aristocracy and monarchy, on the other hand, are both, as later in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, seen as dangerous and corrupting; they will be the snares that eventually destroy Castruccio.
As well as contributing to this wider political perspective, however, the English section of the novel also focuses not only on what it means to be a political being, but on what, in particular, it means to be a man. Mary Shelley is relatively reticent about the homosexual relationship of Edward and Gaveston, though its notoriety would mean that she need have no fear of not being understood. Her own attitude to their sexuality is in fact unclear, but we can be left in no doubt that she condemns Edward and Gaveston on two grounds—firstly, because they subscribe to monarchical and aristocratic government, and secondly, because they behave in ways that she considers inappropriate to men. She refers to “the childish amusements of this monarch” and “the change from the spirited counsels of the late sovereign, to the puerile amusements and weak inaction of his own” (1: 69); with rather different emphasis, she also says that Gaveston “deigned to use the arts of courtesy to the king alone: even the queen failed in obtaining from him the respect due to her sex and dignity” (1: 69). Gaveston is not effeminate—in his Irish exile “he signalized himself by his victories over the rebels” (1: 72)—but equally, it seems, he is not a gentleman.
Castruccio, by contrast, is. The narrator writes that he had
a manliness of thought [...] the gaiety of his disposition led him to seek with ardour the common diversions of his age. He was bred as a young esquire in all those accomplishments which were deemed essential to a gentleman, and was expert in feats of horsemanship and arms, in the dance, and in other exercises peculiar to his country.1: 71
Prefiguring Castiglione’s courtier, Castruccio is both manly and gentleman-like. The insistence on the terms “manliness,” “esquire,” “gentleman” and “horsemanship” suggests that here, as in Frankenstein, gender roles are non-negotiable, and that failure to conform to them provokes unmitigated authorial scorn. We may, though, well feel that the masculinity of Castruccio’s character sits in rather uneasy tension with the castration at which his name appears to gesture, and we may also be prepared to detect a similar ambiguity in the text’s other cluster of discussions of manhood and childishness later in the novel.
Despite his significant difference from them, Castruccio allows himself to become the friend of both Edward and Gaveston (or “Gavaston,” as Mary Shelley spells it):
Edward was pleased to behold one, who by his foreign air, and the refinement of his manners, recalled the memory of his exiled favourite. He distinguished Castruccio among the crowd; and the youth, dazzled perhaps by royal favour, easily altered his prepossessions in favour of the barons, into love and pity for their oppressed sovereign.1: 73
Castruccio commits the grave mistake—which Euthanasia later is pointedly to avoid—of allowing his personal feelings to influence his political opinions: “not examining the merits of the case, he allowed himself to be entirely led away by the personal attachment that he bore to Edward and Piers” (1: 81)—a passage in which Mary Shelley has subtly indicated the growing degree of their intimacy by the switch to first names.
Eventually, however, Castruccio accidentally kills a man and has to flee from England precipitately. Returning to Italy, Castruccio hears from Scoto a creed which is Machiavellian avant la lettre (1: 96)—appropriately enough, since Mary Shelley cites as her principal source Machiavelli’s account of Castruccio (iii)—while Pepi, who knows that “few men are impartial, an emperor never” (1: 123), nevertheless hates Florence and its rallying-cry of “Liberty” so much that he not only supports the Ghibelines but also advocates slavery (1: 125). In this rabidly politicized atmosphere, Castruccio will find that the fundamental decisions of his career similarly concern the clashes between his own Ghibeline loyalties and the Guelph ones of Euthanasia. At the same time, however, another theme repeatedly traverses and structures the unfolding political developments, and that, as so often in Mary Shelley, is a focusing on motherhood and on the transmission of maternal inheritance.
After the suggestive resonances of Castruccio’s initial loss of his mother, his desire to speak with the dead and his subsequent visit to Euthanasia, the figure of the mother may seem largely to fade from the text. In fact, however, she surfaces in a variety of places, both expected and unexpected. When Edward first sees Gaveston again, “he flew to his arms with the affectionate transports with which a child might welcome the return of its absent mother” (1: 80). This is an image which plays on the naturalness of maternal affection as a striking counterpart to the “unnatural” love of the two men, but which may well be thought to be a double-edged sword, tainting maternal love by association as well as, more obviously, offering it as a foil. Later, when Castruccio has returned to Italy, he sees at the sack of Cremona “young mothers weeping over their unfortunate offspring, whose fathers lay rotting or starving in prison” (1: 147), and an emphasis on the suffering of mothers and their children will continue to be a keynote in the descriptions of the battles, sieges, and enforced exiles of the Guelph-Ghibeline hostilities.
This motif returns us to the events of the outset of the novel, where it was Castruccio’s own mother Dianora who was exiled and who died soon after of her grief. For Castruccio, the return to Italy is indeed fundamentally structured by the workings of memory:
The forgotten scenes of his youth thronged into his memory, and oppressed him with their numbers and life; the low voice of his mother sounded in his ears; the venerable form of Adimari stood before him, and it seemed to him as if the slender fingers of the infant Euthanasia pressed his hand. He turned suddenly round, and asked: “Does she still live there?”1: 174-5
When his companion understands him to mean the old Countess, Castruccio expands, “‘Aye, and her daughter Euthanasia?’ Many years had elapsed since he had pronounced that name; he felt his whole frame thrill to its musical sound” (1: 175). For Castruccio, Euthanasia remains a cherished goal; they quickly renew their relationship, and the first volume ends with the expectation of their imminent marriage and with Euthanasia’s plan that one day, when Lucca is peaceful, she will surrender the suzerainty of Valperga (2: 247).
The marriage, however, is never to take place, and the reasons for this prove again to be curiously interwoven with stories of mothers. When Castruccio and Euthanasia arrive in Florence, they are informed that “the Florentines [...] are celebrating the occurrence of a most favourable omen with which God and St. John have blest our city. Yesterday one of the lionesses, kept at the expence of the republic, brought forth five whelps” (2: 2). Castruccio mocks at such superstition, but Euthanasia says, “I own that it pleases me; how innocent, yet how active, must the imagination of that people be, who can find cause for universal joy in such an event!” (2: 3). Euthanasia, as always, respects and protects mothers, but Castruccio is unimpressed, and indeed resolves on the destruction of Florence in terms interestingly punctuated with images of motherhood and subjugated femaleness: “Nay, by the Virgin! I will not be backward in doing my part to tame the cubs of this wild lioness: if Florence ever can be mine, she shall” (2: 11).
It is with the introduction of the secondary heroine Beatrice, however, that questions of motherhood and of maternal inheritance come most strongly to the fore. She is introduced in notably ominous terms: when we first see her, she “formed a picture such as Guido has since imagined, when he painted a Virgin or an Ariadne, or which he copied from the life when he painted the unfortunate Beatrice Cenci” (2: 17-18). Beatrice is imaged variously as the Virgin Mary, archetype of virginal motherhood; as Ariadne, daughter of Minos, king of Crete, whose mother Pasiphaë copulated with a bull to produce the Minotaur, and whose sister Phaedra conceived an incestuous passion for her stepson Hippolytus; and as the woman who, we are thus reminded, is her namesake, the parricide Beatrice Cenci. This heady mixture of familial precedents feeds directly into what we learn of Beatrice’s own chequered ancestry. Though she calls her companion, the viscountess di Malvezzi, “Mother” (2: 23), her real mother, we discover, was the prophetess Wilhemina of Bohemia (no father is ever identified). Wilhelmina claimed that her own mother had been visited by the archangel Raphael, who informed her that her baby would be “the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in favour of the female sex; and that she was born twelve months after this heavenly annunciation” (2: 26)—a small detail, but one which effectively demotes Wilhelmina as mother if she can be thus vague about the most basic facts of human gestation. Suggestively, Joseph Lew compares Shelley’s Wilhelmina to the prophetess Joanna Southcott, who at the age of sixty-five convinced herself and a number of physicians that she was pregnant; Wilhelmina displays a similar indifference to the biological facts governing the processes of maternity (Lew 164).
Magfreda, to whom Wilhelmina has entrusted the care of her daughter Beatrice, worships the memory of her mistress and believes the birth of Beatrice was a divine conception (2: 33). Explaining that “no love can equal mine for the divinity, her mother” (2: 34), she recounts:
After its birth Wilhelmina never saw it. She always refused to visit the cottage, or to have it brought to her [...]. I have ever believed that this separation, whatever was the cause, shortened the life of my divine mistress; for she pined, and wept; and faded like a flower unwatered by the dews of heaven.2: 34
Perhaps Wilhelmina was indeed “unwatered by the dews of heaven,” for certainly we, unlike the doting Magfreda, are never given any cause to conclude that the baby was produced by immaculate conception. We never learn why Wilhelmina dissociates herself from it, but we have no reason to suppose her motives admirable, and she thus seems still further degraded as a mother. Magfreda, in striking contrast, appears to be instinctively maternal: when she takes Beatrice “the babe slept, cherished near my heart” (2: 36), and she becomes positively Madonna-like when she records that the only refuge she could find “was worse than a manger for the reception of my poor innocent” (2: 37).
Despite this early separation from her mother, Beatrice proves to be surprisingly influenced by her. Her first recorded words are, “Take me to mamma; lead me from this ugly place to mother” (2: 40). In fact, she has never set eyes on her mother—Magfreda has already told us that “After its birth Wilhelmina never saw it” (2: 34). Has Mary Shelley simply forgotten this, as, later in her career and, suggestively, in another moment focusing on mother-child relations, she will similarly err about the gender of Juliet’s baby in The Last Man? Or is this part of the characterization of Beatrice as someone defined primarily by her maternal inheritance? (Something which makes her a structural counterpart to Euthanasia, who also received Valperga from her mother.) This is certainly the way in which she subsequently develops: the Bishop of Ferrara tells Castruccio, “It seemed to me as if her mother’s soul had descended into her” (2: 42), and Beatrice preaches in the church of St Anna (2: 46), the mother of the Virgin Mary, whose divine birth that of her own mother was alleged to mimic.
Beatrice continues to be insistently associated with the iconography of maternity. When she successfully crosses the heated ploughshares (notable emblem in a text so concerned with the injustice of war), “mothers brought her their sick children” (2: 62), and when she watches over the ill, sleeping bishop she says that “he draws his breath as regularly as a sleeping infant who has sucked its fill, and his heart heaves slowly, but calmly” (2: 77). Unlike her own mother, Beatrice, even though she has never given birth herself, speaks as one instinctively attuned to infants who have sucked their fill.
Motherhood, however, and the maternal inheritance in particular, are also susceptible to less positive associations. The narrator sympathetically observes, “Poor Beatrice! She had inherited from her mother the most ardent imagination that ever animated a human soul” (2: 86). We may well remember at this point Mary Shelley’s own maternal inheritance and what a burden it must have been: Joseph Lew argues that “Just as clearly as in Frankenstein’s centrally located but buried account of the mother of Safie, we have encoded here an account of Shelley’s relationship to Wollstonecraft” (170), and Barbara Jane O’Sullivan remarks that “In the story of Beatrice and Wilhelmina we see the traumatic separation of mother and daughter which Mary Shelley knew so intimately, while in the obliteration of Wilhelmina’s life’s work we have a poignant reminder of how easy it is for women’s stories to become lost and devalued” (145). Mary Shelley’s personal experiences—this time the loss of so many of her own children—may again seem to come to the fore in an image which this novel shares in virtually identical form with The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. When Castruccio tells Beatrice he must leave her to go back to Lucca, “she was as a mother, who reads the death-warrant of her child on the physician’s brow, yet blindly trusting that she decyphers ill, will not destroy the last hope by a question” (Valperga 2: 95). Later, there is a similar moment when Beatrice recalls that “my poor mother, the lady Marchesana, watched me, as a child might watch a favourite bird fluttering in the agonies of death” (3: 75).
Beatrice has been brought to this pass by the strong element in her personality which is not maternal, but sexual. Initially Castruccio’s relationship to her seems to have the altruistic impulse of Monina in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. When we are told that he “would have devoted himself for her safety” (Valperga 2: 53), the language draws on the concept of self-devotion which is so crucial an element in Mary Shelley’s ideals. Soon, however, he finds himself dreaming of Beatrice alongside Euthanasia, his official love-interest; in his dream, suggestively, both are in danger (2: 55). Later she will again remind him of Euthanasia (2: 81), and maybe, too, he could be seen as responding to the suggestion implicit in the language of the Bishop, who says sadly that if Castruccio does indeed rescue Beatrice from her ordeal, “it will be rather a rape, than a flight” (2: 61). But Castruccio hardly needs to form ideas for himself, for Beatrice’s surrender is unconditional and absolute. Like Mary Shelley herself, she is heedless of the name of a “fallen woman”; she thinks of nothing but love—an abandonment for which she will later suffer, since, we are told, “in her days of extatic reverie she had sanctified and obeyed every impulse as of divine origin; and now she could not withstand the impressions she felt” (3: 119). Here we might virtually be hearing the story of Marianne Dashwood retold.
Her disillusionment when Castruccio leaves her is proportionate. She can think of nothing but the woman whom, she discovers, Castruccio prefers to her; told that she is called Euthanasia, she says, “Enough, I will remember that name in my prayers” (2: 96). Here, the literal meaning of Euthanasia’s name may again be brought into play. Certainly, Beatrice’s subsequent actions may well be thought to suggest a virtual death-wish since they are eventually to land her in the prisons of the Inquisition, and it is notable that the next time we meet Euthanasia it is in a tomb, where she lingers among the effigies of the Soldanieri family (2: 127). From now on, however, Euthanasia will in fact be increasingly associated not with death but with life, for as she joins battle with Castruccio it is repeatedly in the name of motherhood and of the family that she pleads.
This has already been established as a leitmotif of Euthanasia’s characterization. When she first felt love for Castruccio, it was described as a “birth of this new and powerful sentiment” (1: 189-90), and we were told that “Love seemed to have made her heart his chosen temple; and he linked all its beatings to that universal beauty which is his mother and his nurse” (1: 245). After the lengthy absence of Euthanasia while the novel concentrates instead on Beatrice, her reappearance in the narrative is prefaced by a recurrence of this theme as Pepi claims, “I have starved myself, exposed myself by my beggarly garb to the jeers and mocks of every buffoon and idiot, who had been weaned but a year from his mother’s milk” (2: 111). Pepi’s miserly self-denial is a parody of the self-devotion which, for Mary Shelley, offers the highest achievement of the human spirit, and for him mothers and their offspring are a thing for mockery and insult. For Euthanasia, however, they become the key to the philosophy by which she finds that she must live. When Castruccio expels the Guelphs from Lucca, she complains that he has not spared “women and infants, torn from all the comforts, all the necessaries of daily life” (2: 152) and declares that “methinks he had better have banished himself, than so many families, who now go as beggars through this world” (2: 153). For Euthanasia, in a telling contrast to the continuing blindness of Magfreda, the banishment “unveiled at once the idol that had dwelt in the shrine of her heart, shewed the falseness of her apotheosis, and forced her to use her faculties to dislodge him from the seat he had usurped” (2: 154).
Ironically, she has scarcely succeeded in dislodging him from the seat of her heart before she finds that he has conquered the literal seat of her power, her castle. In preparation for this climax to the second volume, we are carefully reminded of the political importance of the community protected by Euthanasia at Valperga. The narrator in her own voice opines that “however cruel an individual may be, no one is so remorseless as a ruler; for he loses even within himself the idea of his own individuality, and fancies that, in pampering his inclinations, and revenging his injuries, he is supporting the state” (1: 154). Almost immediately, Castruccio is additionally made to condemn himself out of his own mouth: “Far be it from me to plead for those childish notions, which would take the sword out of the hands of princes” (1: 156). He concedes that “it does surprize me, that any man should dare so to idolize himself, as to sacrifice human victims at the shrine of his pride, jealousy or revenge” (1: 156), but once alone with Euthanasia he cautions her: “you must not torture my meaning; the head of a state is no longer a private man, and he would act with shameful imbecility, if he submitted to his enemies because he dared not punish them” (2: 158). Euthanasia can no longer think of marriage, and strengthens herself in her decision by remembering her father (2: 163), just as later Bondelmonti will attempt to steel her to the conspiracy against Castruccio by exhorting her, “recollect all of noble, and wise, and courageous, that your excellent father taught you” (3: 193).
Valperga, though, is in fact the inheritance not of her father but of her mother, and its own status is by no means one of simple antithesis to the Machiavellian agenda of Castruccio: indeed O’Sullivan comments on the ambiguity inherent in its very name, which links it to “the Walpurgisnacht, or Night of the Witch” (149), which ironically serves to associate Euthanasia and the castle with their apparent polar opposite, the realm of the witch Fior di Mandragola. Early in their relationship, when they are still contemplating marriage, Castruccio teases her about Valperga:
Sometimes he laughed at the difference between her practice and her theory, and asked the youthful sovereign, why she did not erect her states into a republic?
She smiled; but then, collecting herself, answered seriously. “When I first inherited my mother’s power, I gave much consideration to this very question; not of forming a separate republic of my poor villages, but of incorporating them, as many nobles have done, and as doubtless the lords of Valperga will one day be obliged to do, with some neighbouring and more powerful republic.”2:246
A similar ambiguity bedevils her preparations for the siege. She wonders whether she is justified in holding out when this will cause bloodshed (2: 252). This is a question that will be answered resoundingly in the negative by the narrative voice of The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, but Euthanasia resolves not to falter; when she sees her men wounded, she prays, “spirit of my father, aid me!” (2: 265), and the adoption of masculine values implicit in this is further underlined by the fact that she has earlier told Castruccio, “you are not a man; your heart is stone” (2: 216), and also, like Castruccio in England, she finds herself disturbed by “the childish remonstrances of Lauretta” (2:264-5).
Ultimately, however, Euthanasia is forced to conclude that perhaps she should have listened to such childishness and that she was in error to do evil that good might come: in a striking image of bad nurturing which reminds us of the witchlike potential of her castle’s name, she tells herself, “my evil has borne its fitting fruit; its root in death, its produce poison” (2: 279). At least, though, she can still be resolute. In a telling recapitulation of the imagery of their joint trip to Florence, she tells Castruccio, “I had rather woo the lion in his den to be my husband, than become the bride of a conqueror” (2: 285), and she is rewarded when, recovering from a serious illness, “after a confinement of several months, she again crept forth, to see the sun of spring smile on his children, who laughingly welcomed his genial beams” (2: 287). The term “confinement” speaks strongly of childbirth, and in a sense Euthanasia the ever-young has indeed been reborn here as a child herself; experienced, she is still unspoiled and uncorrupted—in contrast with Beatrice, as we are made all the more aware of when volume 2 is concluded with a one-sentence paragraph made up of the abrupt, cliffhanger question: “Where during this time was the prophetess of Ferrara?” (2: 287).
We soon find out where Beatrice is, and her situation is very different from Euthanasia’s. Initially it was the similarity of the two women which was stressed, with Castruccio dreaming of both together; even towards the end they seem virtually to have blended into one for him as he says of Euthanasia that “I believed, that, if she died, like Dante’s Beatrice, she would plead for me before the throne of the Eternal, and that I should be saved by her” (3: 235). From the time of their actual meeting, though, it is the contrast which has been emphasized: “they were much unlike” (3: 59-60). Euthanasia has blonde hair (2: 181); Beatrice’s, in a classic antithesis, is black (2: 183). Moreover, when Euthanasia is taken to Beatrice in the Inquisition prison we are told that the prophetess is now prematurely aged, with grey in her hair (3: 38, 144, 150) even though she is still in her early twenties, while Euthanasia has a mind of “youthful kind” (3: 194) and seems never to grow older. Despite having so much the younger appearance, though, Euthanasia acts virtually as a mother to Beatrice, saying, “look, you are safe in my arms; I clasp them round you, do not fear!” (3: 24), and Beatrice later promises that she will continue to be “the good, obedient, child” (3: 112). But Beatrice also applies the term “Mother” to the witch, Fior di Mandragola (3: 130), whom Bindo says is “greater than any queen” (3: 126), but who has forfeited her true motherhood: “her children [were] torn from her” (3: 116).
We have been prepared for the restatement of the motherhood theme both by Bindo’s adventures with the witch, who calls Bindo “son” (3: 5) and lives in the territory of “Nature [...] the Mother” (3: 2), and by the descriptions of actual or imagined nurturing which follow: Bindo loved Euthanasia “as the lioness in the desert loves her whelps, who day by day feeds them in peace, but, when aroused by the hunters, will defend them to the last drop of her blood” (3: 6). Returning to her, he “watched by her sick chamber, as the savage mother of a wild brood tends upon her expiring young” (3: 9); finally, the recovered Euthanasia contemplates the Earth in winter, “lovely as a young mother nursing her only care, now as wild and forlorn as that mother if she be ruthlessly bereft of her infant” (3: 18-19). But these are not happy presages of what is to come any more than when we are told that “‘the mother of the months’ had many times waned, and again refilled her horn [...]. This is the season that man has ever chosen for the destruction of his fellow-creatures” (3: 108-9). Indeed the very identity of motherhood is implicitly destabilized in what O’Sullivan sees as the equivalence created between Euthanasia and Bindo, an equivalence which she phrases in ways which, in turn, play once again on the novel’s many formulations of childishness and its opposites: “Bindo’s personal defects are almost childlike, but in other ways he appears to be a monstrous reflection of what a self-critical nineteenth-century woman might see when she looked in the mirror” (O’Sullivan 149).
Euthanasia herself, however, continues to act as a good mother, and, simultaneously, to retain the innocence of a child: “my thoughts often sleep like young children nestled in their cradles, until music awakens them, and they open their starry eyes” (3: 59), and she feels neither hatred nor revenge, but “grief alone” (3: 69). Under her influence, Beatrice eventually breaks free from the false witch-mother, and “died, peacefully, and calmly as a child” (3: 162)—a bittersweet image that once again encodes memories of Mary Shelley’s own terrible experiences of infant death. Real mothers—Wilhelmina, the witch, and, we may deduce from the personal heartbreak that underscores this softly formed sentence, Mary Shelley herself—fail and are belittled, but the metaphorical maternity of Euthanasia continues triumphant. The point is made all the more forcefully by a clear contrast between her and her former lover: while Castruccio mourns the death of Arrigo, whom he had mentally designated as his successor (3: 173), Euthanasia during his siege of Florence “would perform offices that even wives and mothers shrunk from with disgust and fear” (3: 178-9), and “clos[es] the eyes of an unhappy woman, whose husband and children had fled from their mother and wife, in the fear of infection” (3: 179). Not only does Euthanasia succeed better than Castruccio: she also, very notably, succeeds better than the actual wives and mothers who, in these two passages, either shirk their tasks or are posthumously ostracized. Later, the siege of Florence will yield to yet another maternal failure when Francesco Bondelmonti is captured, put to the torture, and forced to appeal to his cousin for assistance because “my mother does not send my ransom” (3: 192).
It is as Euthanasia reaches this apotheosis of idealized motherhood that questions of appropriate gender roles resurface with renewed urgency in the novel. When Euthanasia refuses to join the conspiracy against Castruccio, and Bondelmonti tells her that she has thus sealed his death-warrant, she calls her cousin “unmanly” and adds, “how can I, a woman, turn aside the daggers of the conspirators?” (3: 186). The question of what a woman should do in the circumstances continues to echo through the episode and is soon given additional point by the reference to the lead conspirator Tripalda—the principal villain of the Gothic detention to which Beatrice had earlier been subjected—as “this self-named Brutus of a modern Italy” (3: 217). Here the reader can hardly fail to remember both Shakespeare’s Calpurnia, whose dreams proved so ineffectual an attempt to deter Caesar from going to the Capitol, and his Portia, who stabbed herself in the thigh as evidence that she could be trusted with a secret.
Interestingly, Bondelmonti replies to Euthanasia’s reproach with “As to what you say concerning my childish menace [...]” (3: 187). She has not in fact used the word childish—she has referred merely to being “unmanly” and to “I, a woman”—but he has obviously inferred it as a significant third term in the schema. Perhaps, as Mary Shelley herself seemed to do in her description of Edward II, he implicitly equates the idea of “unmanliness” with “childishness.” At all events, he carries on:
antient friendship, the reciprocal interchange of hospitality render his person dear to you, and your female softness, and perhaps weakness, would come in and of these feelings. You are free to go to Lucca; you may mix the voice of humanity with the bloody machinations of these men.3: 188
Here the gender associations become even more revealing. Femininity may equal softness “and perhaps weakness,” but it is also, it seems, synonymous with humanity, especially in opposition to “the bloody machinations of these men.” Euthanasia may seem virtually to make the same assumption when she says that she hopes to see Castruccio in exile on Ischia, “an extinguished volcano” (3: 206)—a suggestive image indeed of tamed phallic power. Even more devastating is her advice to her discovered fellow-conspirator Quartezzani: “This is childish; Ugo, collect yourself; you have a wife;—woman’s wit is ready; consult with her; she may devise some plan for your safety” (3: 239-40). The alternative to Ugo’s childishness is not, it seems, manhood—which never figures at all in Euthanasia’s thoughts—but womanhood. Manhood appears to have been eradicated from Euthanasia’s world, presumably by much the same processes as will extinguish Castruccio’s volcano.
Does Mary Shelley’s authorial voice endorse this view? Towards the end of the novel, we are offered persistently double visions of Euthanasia. Suggestively, those who respond most strongly to her motherliness are also those who work towards her undoing: Tripalda wants her to join the conspiracy only because he knows that “it would be pregnant with nothing but misery and suffering for her” (3: 217); Vanni, who informs Castruccio of her involvement in it, refers scathingly to “her with her Madonna face” (3: 230-1). These notably ambivalent figurings of motherhood are matched in the images applied to the final phase of Euthanasia’s existence: in Beatrice’s former dungeon she “slept, as peacefully and happily, as a babe rocked in its mother’s arms” (3: 243), but when she drowns she goes “to the barren bosom of the sea, which, as an evil step-mother, deceives and betrays all committed to her care” (3: 261-2). These two passages, moreover, sandwich the last of the text’s many references to Hamlet, Euthanasia’s exclamation “What a brave canopy has this earth” (3: 256). Hamlet himself is, of course, a very suitable referent for a novel interested primarily in the dilemmas faced by its characters; but in quoting his lines Euthanasia not only crosses gender but invokes the memory of the play as a whole and the guilt and unhappiness loaded onto the figure of the mother in it. Moreover, the narrator herself offers an assessment of her heroine which may well appear to be sharply double-edged when she refers to “the inner sanctuary of her heart, which throned self-approbation as its deity, and cared not for the false gods that usurp the pleasant groves and high places of the world” (3: 229). “Self-approbation” is, presumably, admirable only if the self which approves is thoroughly reliable.
Euthanasia herself has no doubts about the solidity and stability of the thinking self, as is illustrated in one of the most bizarre sections of the novel. While it would be inappropriate to term Valperga in any sense “realist,” it is, for the most part, concerned with events which are the material of history rather than of fantasy, and apart from a certain amount of coincidence and, perhaps, the highly-pitched virtue of Euthanasia, there is nothing in it which defies credibility; even the apparent powers of the witch are susceptible of a rational explanation. But when Beatrice tells Euthanasia what befell her before she was found in the prison of the Inquistion, the mood switches abruptly to the full-blown panoply of high Gothic:
I was haunted as by a prophecy, or rather a sense of evil, which I could neither define nor understand. Three evenings after [...] the cause of my mournful reveries suddenly flashed across me; it stalked on my recollection, as a terrific and gigantic shadow, and made me almost die with terror. The memory of a dream flashed across me. Again and again I have dreamed this dream, and always on the eve of some great misfortune. It is my genius, my daemon.3: 81-2
Dreams, daemons, the supernatural—here we seem to be definitively returned to the territory already so powerfully mapped out in Frankenstein. When Beatrice reveals her dream, it is the classic stuff of the Gothic: “at some distance a dreary, large, ruinous house, half like a castle, yet without a tower, dilapidated, and overgrown with moss, was dimly seen, islanded by the flood on which it cast a night-black shade [...] a bat above me wheeled around” (3: 82-3). Predictably enough, Beatrice soon finds herself in the actual location of her dream; she faints with horror, and wakes up in a room where she “first saw my wicked and powerful enemy: he leaned against the wall, observing me; his eyes had a kind of fascination in them [...]. I gazed on his face, which became illuminated by a proud triumphant, fiendlike smile” (3: 84-5). Beatrice faints again, and we never learn what happened next except that “I remained three years in this house; and what I saw, and what I endured, is a tale for the unhallowed ears of infidels, or for those who have lost humanity in the sight of blood, and not for so tender a heart as yours. It was the carnival of devils, when we miserable victims were dragged out to—Enough! Enough!” (3: 85-6). We do hear, though, that the events involved “detested love” of the “enemy,” who, when repulsed, turns instead to torturing Beatrice (3: 87). However, eventually the Guelphs lay siege to the castle, because “the many crimes of its possessor had drawn on him the hatred of the country round [...]. He was destroyed” (3: 88), and Beatrice escapes.
It is the stress of such events as these which have led Beatrice to her Paterin heresy, and, as a result, she tells her friend that “I do not like to pry into the secrets of my own heart” (3: 98-9); later, having told the witch how, in her dream, she had met herself, she echoes Victor Frankenstein by saying, “there is something mysterious in my nature, which I cannot fathom” (3: 132). Euthanasia, though, thinks otherwise:
I will tell you what the human mind is; and you shall learn to regulate its various powers. The human soul, dear girl, is a vast cave, in which many powers sit and live. First, Consciousness is a centinel at the entrance; and near him wait Joy and Sorrow, Love and Hate [...].
But beyond all this there is an inner cave, difficult of access, rude, strange, and dangerous. Few visit this, and it is often barren and empty...Sometimes it is lighted by an inborn light; and then the birds of night retreat, and the reptiles creep not from their holes. But, if this light do not exist, oh! then let those beware who would explore this cave. It is hence that bad men receive [...] excuses for their crimes [...]. This is the habitation of the madman [...].
But it is here also that Poetry and Imagination live; it is here that Heroism, and Self-sacrifice, and the highest virtues dwell, and here they find a lore far better than all the lessons of the world; and here dwells the sweet reward of all our toil, Content of Mind, who crowned with roses, and bearing a flower-wreathed sceptre, rules, instead of Conscience, those admitted to her happy dominion.3: 99-102
For Euthanasia, the dark cave of the subconscious contains, at its heart, nothing worse than flowers and roses; instead of having to be ruled by the dictates of Conscience, moreover, those with the appropriate “inborn light” need be guided only by “Content of Mind,” a concept very close to the importance placed on self-approbation which the narrator later identifies as the dominant element of Euthanasia’s morality.
The novel as a whole, though, will not allow a wholehearted endorsement of this cavalier dismissal of the power of the subconscious. Whatever flowers and roses may bloom at the heart of Euthanasia’s psyche, at the heart of Valperga itself lies a complex interweaving of mothering, guilt and death which is scarcely less dark than the house of torment of Beatrice’s dream. It is, indeed, only because Euthanasia is not an actual mother that she can be allowed this idealized version of the feminine psyche; real mothers fail, die, and kill, and even the metaphorical maternity of Euthanasia is associated with the psychic maiming of the men around her. Castruccio may be the official villain of the novel, but just as his name takes second place in the title to that of Valperga, the real guilt has been masochistically displaced from the hero and on to the castrating femininity which surrounds him.
The name may, perhaps, have been prompted in part by the emphasis laid on the “enthusiasm” of Euthanasia’s nature, but Joseph Lew shows that Mary Shelley would have been well aware of its meaning since she took it from Hume’s comment that “Absolute monarchy [...] is the easiest death, the true Euthanasia of the BRITISH constitution” (qtd. in Lew 162). Syndy McMillen Conger remarks that “hers is a ‘merciful death,’ as her name suggests” (93). Anne Mellor interestingly implies that Euthanasia’s name relates not to the death she promises others, but to her own: “Euthanasia’s death is [...] merciful, for in Shelley’s view, her life could only be that of the imprisoned, disillusioned, and perpetually suffering idealist” (210).
For comment on the reworking of the Milton’s daughters trope here, see Hill-Miller 130.
Daniel E. White argues that Euthanasia too encodes memories of Wollstonecraft: “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” (“‘The god undeified’”). See also Hill-Miller 130-1.
See also Ann M. Frank Wake 252-3.
Jane Dunn points out that Mary Shelley had also visited Castruccio’s own tomb while researching the novel (215).
- Conger, Syndy M. “Mary Shelley’s Women in Prison.” Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley After Frankenstein. Ed. Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O”Dea. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated UPs, 1997. 81-97.
- Dunn, Jane. Moon in Eclipse. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
- Hill-Miller, Katherine. “My Hideous Progeny”: Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-Daughter Relationship. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995.
- Lew, Joseph W. “God’s Sister: History and Ideology in Valperga.” The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. Ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor and Esther H. Schor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 159-181.
- Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Routledge, 1988.
- O’Sullivan, Barbara Jane. “Beatrice in Valperga: A New Cassandra.” The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. Ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor and Esther H. Schor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 140-158.
- Shelley, Mary. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. London: Coburn and Bentley, 1830.
- ———. Frankenstein. London: Lackington, Hughes, Mavor, and Jones, 1818.
- ———. Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. London: G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1823.
- Wake, Ann M. Frank. “Women in the Active Voice: Recovering Female History in Mary Shelley’s Valperga and Perkin Warbeck.” Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein. Ed. Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O’Dea. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated UPs, 1997. 235-59.
- White, Daniel E. ““The god undeified”: Mary Shelley’s Valperga, Italy, and the Aesthetic of Desire.” Romanticism on the Net 6 (May 1997) 30 July 2004 http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1997/v/n6/005750ar.html