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

  • Daniel E. White

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  • Daniel E. White
    University of Pennsylvania

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. 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" —on the social spheres around him. 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. 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. 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, 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 …

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