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

  • Lidia Garbin

…plus d’informations

  • Lidia Garbin
    University of Liverpool

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. 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. 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: 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." This statement curiously resembles Scott's assertion in the General Preface to the Waverley Novels (1829) that he had endeavoured to throw 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." 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 …

Parties annexes