Mary Shelley's Rambles in Germany and Italy, the Celebrity Author, and the Undiscovered Country of the Human Heart[Notice]

  • Clarissa Campbell Orr

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  • Clarissa Campbell Orr
    Anglia Polytechnic University

In an essay for Leigh Hunt's periodical The Liberal, Mary Shelley used a review of the Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Villani, to reflect on authors who project their personalities into their writing. Their books, she said She cited examples of books which explored this subjective terra incognita, including Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and concluded her list with this tribute to her mother: "this I, this sensitive, imaginative, suffering, enthusiastic pronoun, spreads an inexpressible charm over Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters from Norway". Like her mother's book, Shelley's Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) demands to be read as a portrait of her personal landscape. But we must also look at the portrait in the context of the era in which it was painted and the kinds of self-portrait possible for authors, especially women authors, writing travel books. In this essay, I propose to look at Shelley's last book in relation to her parents, peers, and progeny—that is to say, in relation to her mother's Letters from Norway; to travel writing by her nearer predecessors and contemporaries, especially Lady Morgan, Frances Trollope, and Samuel Rogers; and to the strategies for self-promotion available to nineteenth-century authors of famous literary offspring. I shall conclude with some comments on the nature of Shelley's Romanticism and the character of English writing from the 1820s to the 1840s, when most of Shelley's work was published, which might suggest a framework for further study of Shelley and her contemporaries. Women writing travel books in the early nineteenth century had basically two choices. One was to write a useful guidebook, like Mariana Starke's Travels in Europe for the use of Travellers on the Continent (1820). A second was to follow what I would call the model of the celebrity author. Here Germaine de Staël's De L'Allemagne, and her novel Corinne, were seminal texts. I have discussed elsewhere how De Staël had shown women that to write on literature, the arts, and social morals was to write on topics that were both held to be a woman's province, but which also penetrated to the heart of civilisation and its constituent elements. Such writing was "philosophical", in the sense used in the Enlightenment, in quite comprehensive ways. It examined the role of the arts in society and interrogated the contribution made by the macrosphere of politics and the microsphere of the family. It examined manners and morals—what would today be called values and lifestyle, looking at how the characteristic social relations of a nation contributed toward nurturing its distinctive cultural productions. De Staël's description of Germany was also profoundly political: it was implicitly a manifesto of liberalism challenging the autocracy of the Napoleonic empire. The Coppet circle's cosmopolitan interests in other European cultures established the terms of debate for the articulation of nationalism and liberalism in the nineteenth century. Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters from Norway (1796) were profoundly philosophical in this Enlightened sense. Few writers visited northern Europe, and her visit to a land of small homesteads, fishing hamlets, and a handful of large towns enabled her to offer a series of sustained reflections on the nature of civilisation and the refinement of manners; on the progress of the human race in relation to the physical environment, and on the connection between ruling nations and their colonial dependencies. For a woman of modest means earning a living by her writing, she was well travelled, having worked in Ireland, and visited Portugal and France; while her relationship with the American Gilbert Imlay gave her a transatlantic perspective. When she visited Scandinavia, she …

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