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The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck : Walter Scott in the Writings of Mary Shelley

  • Lidia Garbin

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  • Lidia Garbin
    University of Liverpool

Corps de l’article

The change of direction from 'Gothicism' in Frankenstein (1818) to 'historical romance' in the later novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) represents a shift in Mary Shelley's narrative from invented fantasy to genuine, though, of course, represented, history. Such a step distanced her from the literary domain which gave her fame with Frankenstein and consequently from the popular response which her masterpiece had attracted. Why did Mary Shelley deviate from Gothic writing? And, which is even more intriguing, what prompted her to dramatize the adventures of Perkin Warbeck? These are the questions which I shall be concerned with in this article.

From a purely political perspective, it is often maintained that the subject matter chosen by the historical novelist appeals to the reader because of its relevance to contemporary politics. The novelist's choice of a historical topic for a fiction is then seen as a kind of escapism: writers write about the past because they cannot write about the present. In the case of the greatest historical novelist of Romanticism, Sir Walter Scott, the recourse to past and often remote events represented a sort of retreat from the great social and political issues of his time. Scott's withdrawal from the present, however, was not absolute, because he was concerned to raise indirectly the main questions of his age, by relating events of the past which advanced parallel issues.  [1]

All her life, Mary Shelley, daughter of the two most famous radicals of the 1790s, wife and then widow of one of the most representative Romantic poets, was attracted by and involved in contemporary problems but especially after the death of P. B. Shelley her 'dormouse' nature, as she defined it, prevented her from taking an active part in the open political and social debate.  [2] A sort of rejection for the Radicals that she expressed later in her life may be a fundamental reason for her distance from the public arena:

But since I had lost Shelley I have no wish to ally myself to the Radicals - they are full of repulsion to me - violent without any sense of Justice - selfish in the extreme - talking without knowledge - rude, envious and insolent - I wish to have nothing to do with them.  [3]

Being far from the 'here and now', historical fiction became the means through which Mary Shelley could express her political anxiety and in this, as I shall try to demonstrate below, she found a mentor in Scott, despite Scott's quite different politics.

The view that Mary Shelley and Scott wanted to deliver was similar insofar as it derived from the general belief that the main purpose of historical fiction was to leave a moral legacy to successive generations. Both writers started from the assumption that, as Mary Shelley affirmed in her Preface to The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck , "Human nature in its leading features is the same in all ages."  [4] This statement curiously resembles Scott's assertion in the General Preface to the Waverley Novels (1829) that he had endeavoured to throw

the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; - those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day.  [5]

The idea that one can always get universal lessons out of the past derives from the belief that man's life is conditioned and guided by a set of essentially common circumstances. At the same time, though, Mary Shelley was well aware of man's inability to learn from the past. The narrator, who often enters the narrative of Perkin Warbeck, states this point clearly by laconically commenting that "the wise have taught, the good suffered for us; we are still the same."  [6] If we apply this Classical notion of a universal human nature to Scott's Romantic Waverley Novels and to Mary Shelley's Perkin Warbeck, a process of deduction allows us to transfer to the present the observations applied to a forgotten past, and the message of the historical novel becomes paradigmatic both of a universal condition and of the contemporary situation.

The second question I proposed at the beginning of this article now claims an answer. Why should Mary Shelley recall the adventures of the Yorkist pretender? Perkin Warbeck opens on the day which marked the end of the War of the Roses with the victory of the Lancastrians over the Yorkists at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, and ends after the execution in 1499 of Perkin Warbeck. Mary Shelley adopted the hypothesis according to which Perkin Warbeck was the true Richard, Duke of York, the youngest son of Edward IV, who had escaped his uncle's attempt to murder him, survived his brother and become the rightful heir to the throne of England. The author was aware that this theory was questionable and, according to many, far from the historical truth, but her immediate aim, as she stated in her Preface, was to impress "on my reader's mind ... that whether my hero was or was not an impostor, he was believed to be the true man by his contemporaries."  [7] From this statement it appears clear that Mary Shelley's conception of narrative 'art' was somewhat independent of the historical 'truth'. This of course gave her a certain freedom of interpretation. As far as Perkin Warbeck is concerned, however, her historical adaptation did not contribute to the success of the novel. If the reader had been left in some doubt as to Perkin's identity, as in Frankenstein where the duality of the creator/creature keeps the reader in suspense to the last, or as the Renaissance dramatist John Ford did in his own play on Perkin Warbeck, the novel would have probably received greater praise and a larger popular response.

The fictionalization of Perkin Warbeck as the true Richard of York, however, allowed Mary Shelley to attack both legitimate and usurped monarchy and absolutist power. Her use of history is similar to Scott's but, here, her political reading is the opposite of his. Although Mary Shelley's 'Richard' is made the rightful heir to the throne of England, his actions to obtain recognition as such by chivalric standards are viewed as illegitimate and fallacious. Mary Shelley's condemnation of usurped and legitimate monarchy derived from her view that both Henry VII and Richard failed in what they should have been able to achieve as leaders - namely, the realization of the common wealth. The positive image we are at first offered of Richard of York is subverted when his wife, Lady Katherine Gordon, who, in many critics' opinion, is a self-portrayal of the author, "aim[ed] at restricting the ambitious York to mere privacy" and realized "that power failed most when its end was good."  [8] At the core of Perkin Warbeck is a yearning for social and political reforms which derived from Mary Shelley's upbringing in a 'radical' environment. This hope for a better future is expressive of the author's commitment to a cause which had seen in P. B. Shelley and his circle its major exponents, and which viewed the suffering of the masses and the lower classes in the early nineteenth century as the result of a misgovernment caused by individual and oligarchic power.

There were other reasons behind Mary Shelley's shift in narrative path. One was the scarce success of The Last Man, published in 1826, which had not pleased the admirers of Frankenstein. As Bonnie R. Neumann reports, the Ladies' Monthly Museum urged Mary Shelley to write "on subjects less removed from nature and probability."  [9] A less commendable reason found its cause in more material needs. P. B. Shelley's unexpected death in 1822 left Mary emotionally exhausted and alone to cope with financial difficulties. Need for money, the feature which has caused so much harsh criticism against Scott since Thomas Carlyle's complaint that Scott had made a trade of literature, led Mary Shelley to consider what were the preferences of the nineteenth-century reading public.  [10] A predilection in contemporary taste for the kind of narrative offered by the Waverley Novels showed her the path to follow. Before Perkin Warbeck , Mary Shelley had already made an attempt at historical writing but Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823) is not completely historical. Valperga is set in the past, in fourteenth-century Italy at the time of the fights between Guelfs and Ghibellines, but it is not informed by the spirit of romance which characterizes Perkin Warbeck or Scott's medieval novels. Its main plot is concerned more with the personal stories of Euthanasia and Beatrice than with the struggle for power of the two opposed Italian factions.  [11]

When she treated historical subjects, Mary Shelley did not resort so directly to her own imagination as she had done in Frankenstein and in The Last Man. Perkin Warbeck is especially built out of material taken from previous works, mainly historical sources which she acknowledged in her Preface, like Bacon, Hall, and Holinshed.  [12] It is more instructive, however, to consider which sources she did not acknowledge. She did not mention John Ford's The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck (1634) though we know she had acquired a copy of this play in February 1828 and on which her narrative obviously depends, as the six chapter-tags she took from it testify.  [13] She did not refer to Shakespeare either, but thirty-one epigraphs to the chapters are taken from his work and several characters derive from or are modelled on correspondent Shakespearean characters.

Another unacknowledged source, and the most striking omission, is Sir Walter Scott himself, her literary precursor in the field of historical writing. There are no overt allusions to Scott and his work in Perkin Warbeck but the novel is indebted to him both for its conception and its style. The thesis that Mary Shelley resorted to Scott when writing Perkin Warbeck is supported by a letter she sent to the Scottish novelist on 25 May 1829, in which she asked him for any information on any works or manuscripts he may know on the historical Perkin Warbeck.  [14] There is no evidence that Scott answered her enquiry, and whether he did or not is not relevant to this discussion. What is of interest here is the tone of Mary Shelley's letter. She apologized to Scott for troubling him with her request: "It is almost impertinent to say how foolish it appears to me that I should intrude on your ground, or to compliment one all the world so highly appreciates."  [15] Mary Shelley's reference to her attempt at writing historical fiction as 'foolish' may be a way of parrying any comparison with Scott, for whose 'art' she expressed great admiration, but it also discloses her uneasiness and lack of assurance in handling historical material.

Mary Shelley's appreciation of Scott appears from her habit of reading his works regularly, a practice in which she was often joined by her husband.  [16] Given their distance from the politics of Scott, it seems odd that the 'radical' Mary and Percy Shelley read the Waverley Novels, often as soon as they were published and some even twice or three times, as Mary's entries in her journal record.  [17] The Shelleys showed great respect and affection for Sir Walter whom Mary styled as a 'liberal man'  [18] and 'an hypocondriacal Dandy'.  [19]

As far as Perkin Warbeck is concerned, the novel by Scott which most influenced it is Ivanhoe , which was also one of Mary Shelley's favourites. She read it twice. First, in June 1820 in two days and again in two days in December 1821.  [20] The most obvious analogy between Perkin Warbeck and Ivanhoe resides in their subtitle, 'a romance', which indicates at once what genre they belong to. Both novels are set in a remote past and relate the adventures of a young man who is dispossessed of what is his own by right. Both Ivanhoe and Perkin Warbeck focus on the conflict between political ambition and the aspirations of the human heart with a judgement of the ideals and paraphernalia of chivalry.

Muriel Spark has characterized the protagonist of this novel as "a mixture of Ivanhoe, Shelley, and Ford's Perkin Warbeck."  [21] Richard's chivalrous but naive nature is certainly modelled on the character of Ivanhoe but, to me, Muriel Spark's view of Richard as "a rebel fighting a reactionary cause" is only true in part.  [22] The historical Perkin Warbeck was indeed a fake and a rebel, but Mary Shelley's Richard, like Ivanhoe, is far from being a rebel. Richard and Ivanhoe fight against an established order which they do not recognize as the lawful one. Ivanhoe helps Richard the Lion-Heart to bring England back its rightful king and therefore goes against the establishment; Richard's claim to the throne inevitably leads him to play the insurrectionary. Like many of Scott's heroes, Richard is caught between two worlds, but whereas Scott's characters from Edward Waverley onwards, after hesitating between two factions finally choose one side, Richard's ambition prevents him from accepting a compromise and he dies. Richard is the representative of an obsolete chivalry who fails to realize that the age of chivalric heroes is dead, and, in this, he is clearly contrasted to the wily politician Henry VII.  [23]

Richard clearly shares some of Ivanhoe's features but the parallel between Perkin Warbeck and Ivanhoe is also supported by three characters who play the same role of correspondent characters in Scott's novel. Monina de Faro and Lady Katherine Gordon, the two main females of the novel, are visibly modelled on Scott's Rebecca and Rowena and therefore are often contrasted with one another:

Nothing beautiful could be so unlike as these two fair ones. Katherine was the incarnate image of loveliness, such as it might have been conceived by an angelic nature; ... Monina, - no, there was no evil in Monina; if too much self-devotion, too passionate an attachment to one dear idea, too enthusiastic an adoration of one exalted being, could be called aught but virtue.  [24]

Monina, "the humble daughter of a Moorish mariner", has many traits in common with Rebecca, the daughter of a Jew.  [25] She is endowed, like Rebecca, with "some little skill in surgery" which allows her to rescue Richard from death a few times, just as Rebecca often saves Ivanhoe's life.  [26] Both Monina and Rebecca are in love with the heroes and would risk their lives for their sakes, but the heroes love someone else and cannot marry them.  [27] If Monina is derived from Rebecca, Katherine must have something in common with Rowena. Like her predecessor, in fact, Katherine is "a girl of royal birth, bred in a palace, accustomed to a queen-like sovereignty over her father's numerous vassals in the Highlands."  [28]

The contrast between a fair woman and a dark woman has become a recurrent motif in literature and cinema. The dark woman is usually portrayed as sensual and passionate, the fair woman is, on the contrary, 'secure' and 'safe' and the one the hero eventually chooses. Scott's pairings of dark and bright heroes and heroines is well established. In Ivanhoe , the hero cannot have the dark heroine because she is a Jewess, therefore an outcast, and a union with her would be disruptive of the social order. In Perkin Warbeck there are no apparent motives for Richard's refusal of Monina. She is the passionate spirit who prompts the hero to action and to the fulfilment of his ambitions, in a way she represents the 'modern' woman. She distinguishes herself from Rebecca, however, in that her commitment to the cause of the White Rose shows a lack of the rationality which is one of the main distinctive features of Scott's Jewess.  [29]

The parallel between the two novels is confirmed by the character of Sir Robert Clifford and by a few episodes which recall correspondent scenes in Scott's novel. Like Brian de Bois Guilbert, Clifford nourishes an inexplicable hatred for the hero which is increased by the awareness that the woman he loves, or rather, desires, is in love with his rival.  [30] Two episodes of Perkin Warbeck in particular recall Ivanhoe . As I have anticipated, the role of Monina is that of Richard's deliver. The medical knowledge which she derived from some Spanish monks allows her to heal Richard's wounds as the 'balsam' that Rebecca received from Miriam allows her to heal the wounded Ivanhoe.  [31] The passage where Richard is met by Clym of the Lyn and his outlaws in the forest recalls the similar episode in Ivanhoe where Richard the Lion-Heart and Wamba are rescued by Robin Hood and his companions.  [32] This brief list of parallels brings further evidence to the hypothesis that Mary Shelley was undoubtedly using Scott, and in particular Ivanhoe as a model when she composed Perkin Warbeck.

Now that we have established the debt of Perkin Warbeck to Scott, a brief allusion to Shakespeare becomes necessary, almost compelling, for Scott's own novels and their immediate acclaim depend upon his use of Shakespearean allusion and scale. One form of intertextuality uncovers another. Shakespeare is a strong presence in Perkin Warbeck . Not only did Mary Shelley rely on his plays for the construction of the plot and the characters' portrayal, but she also made clear her allegiance to historical drama by a consistent use of chapter-tags taken from his works. She had not used this device before and will use it only in Lodore (1835) after. Did she derive this usage from Scott's famous chapter-tags? It is difficult to give a positive answer; the use of tags as mottoes for the chapters was also frequent among Gothic writers, with whom Mary Shelley was of course well acquainted. Mrs Radcliffe in particular made an extensive use of Shakespearean epigraphs.  [33] But only Scott had made a constant use of epigraphs, especially Shakespearean ones, in the Waverley Novels and it is instructive that in Perkin Warbeck thirty-one epigraphs out of fifty-eight are taken from Shakespeare.  [34]

This link with Shakespeare is supported by the fact that when Mary Shelley gave her critical judgement of Scott she did it, in line with most of her contemporaries, by linking Scott's name with that of Shakespeare.  [35] In her review of her father's Cloudesley: A Tale (1830), she expressed the belief that "a certain degree of obedience to rule and law is necessary for the completion and elevation of our nature and its productions."  [36] In her view,

Of all writers, Shakspeare, whom the ignorant have deemed irregular, is the closest follower of these laws, for he has always a scope and an aim, which, beyond every other writer, he fulfils.  [37]

Mary Shelley's judgement of Shakespeare is openly in accordance with the Romantics' idea of 'organic form' which she thought Scott had not achieved:

Sir Walter Scott has not attained this master art; his wonderful genius developes [sic] itself in individual characters and scenes, unsurpassed, except by Shakspeare, for energy and truth; but his wholes want keeping - often even due connexion.  [38]

Mary Shelley's criticism of Scott may be applied to Mary Shelley herself as a historical novelist: in Perkin Warbeck she did not reach Shakespeare's 'art' either for, as a whole, this novel also 'wants keeping'. However, she certainly got near to Scott's and Shakespeare's excellence in some character- and scene-portrayals.

It still remains to consider whether Mary Shelley made a 'radical' use of history in Perkin Warbeck . She resorted to historical material to enliven her narrative and make it attractive to her readers, but this behaviour is more conformist and 'commercial' than 'radical'. The political layer of the novel, with its attack on monarchy and chivalry, and the proposition of a doctrine of love as a possible answer to the problems of all ages, are certainly indicative of Mary Shelley's political and social beliefs. And in this sense, she probably portrayed herself in the character of Katherine Gordon, in particular in the last chapter, which Muriel Spark has viewed as Mary Shelley's own 'apologia'.  [39] But we cannot understand Perkin Warbeck unless we see that it stands in Scott's shadow and that Mary Shelley is deeply sympathetic to the tenor of Scott's works. Especially in her experimentalism, in this evident sympathy, and the consequent intertextual practice we see her relation to Scott and, through Scott, to Shakespeare.

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