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Mary Shelley, Valperga. Ed. Stuart Curran. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-5108817 (hbk) 0-19-510882-5 (pbk) Price: £29/$49.95 (hbk) £12.95/$16.95 (pbk).

  • Nora Crook

…plus d’informations

  • Nora Crook
    Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

Corps de l’article

No sooner was her mind released from the pressure of writing Frankenstein and seeing it through the press, than Mary Shelley was thinking of her next novel. This was to be Valperga, conceived (in the autumn and winter of 1817-1818) in the library at Albion House, Marlow, when the Shelleys were mentally preparing to depart for 'the Paradise of exiles, Italy'. It was not finished until late 1821, by which time she had learned to speak and read Italian fluently, had deeply immersed herself in the history and literature of the country, had lost two of her children and given birth to a lone survivor. She had listened to the songs of the contadini, had walked to the Buche delle Fate, strange hollow rocks on Monte San Giuliano, and visited old towns like Lucca and Vico Pisano. Semi-settled in what was then the sleepy city of Pisa, she had seen the Campo Santo and (we may infer) Orcagna's masterpiece, The Triumph of Death, in which a brooding Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, rides, falcon on fist, past three dead kings. During this period, Italy exploded with abortive rebellions in Piedmont and Naples.

All of these experiences and events may be found subsumed into her 'child of mighty slow growth'. In 1822 Mary Shelley shipped the completed Castruccio, Prince of Lucca to the desperately money-strapped Godwin for him to dispose of for his own benefit. He changed the name to Valperga (for the better, most will agree) and made cuts to improve saleability, as he thought, but he was able to sell the copyright only after several set-backs; the buyers were G. and W. B. Whittaker, a respectable, but not prestigious firm. Valperga , published in 1823, eight months before the widowed Mary Shelley returned to England, got favourable reviews overall, when one constrasts them to the vituperation which met The Last Man (1826), but the praise was often muted. The Edinburgh and the Quarterly ignored it and the most distinguished review was a hostile one: Lockhart in Blackwood's censured Beatrice's magnificent anathema and (a very recherché objection, this) accused Valperga of succumbing to a new fashion for writing displacement narratives about the recently dead Napoleon! Conversely, part of the reading public felt cheated by a long historical novel when they had expected a spine-chiller from 'The Author of Frankenstein'. One critic claimed to have thrown it aside in disappointment without venturing past the first volume. Sales fell; the print-run of 1000 copies was not exhausted and the remainder was bought up by Henry Colburn three years later. In 1837 Mary Shelley described Valperga as a book which had 'never had fair play, never having been properly published'.  [1]

It acquired some later academic admirers. F. L. Jones (1944) considered it her best novel, artistically speaking, and William A. Walling (1972) placed it above The Last Man. But it was not to be reprinted until the mid-70s, when Folcroft brought out a facsimile, to be followed by another from Woodstock Books (1994) and in 1996 by the first genuinely new edition (Pickering, edited by myself). But these are all hard-back library volumes. As recently as 1991, I was unable to do more than interest OUP World's Classics and Penguin in a paperback. The proposals were rejected, with regrets, as quite uneconomic.

What changed the climate? Suddenly, in 1997-98, the air has grown dark with Valpergas. We have two published paperback editions - Stuart Curran's, under review here, Tilottama Rajan's for Broadview (1998, not yet seen by me, but to be reviewed in the next issue of RoN) and, imminently, Michael Rossington's for OUP World's Classics. There could have been a fourth in the field: Sutton Books planned a 1997 publication until it was made aware of the situation and withdrew. One crucial element has, of course, been the enormous burgeoning over the past five years of studies in women's writing of the 'long eighteenth century', manifest, especially, in anthologies of women poets of the Romantic period. Another is the circumstance of Mary Shelley's bicentenary. Yet another is the trickle-down effect from the hardback versions; greater availability has resulted in monographs, conference papers, published articles - and interest. But one must also give credit to scholars like Betty T. Bennett and Marilyn Butler, who have used their international prestige to seize the hour and to champion Valperga as a genuine case of a bold, politically-engaged and very unlucky work, misunderstood in its own time and subsequently, with remarkable qualities that entitle it to a place in the canon.

Of such scholar-vindicators, Stuart Curran is among the most long-standing and illustrious, and, as an eminent Romantic Italianist it is fitting that he should have been first in this field.  [2] The timing of the edition suggests that work on it must have overlapped to a degree with the labour of co-organising the major American New York conference, 'Mary Shelley in her Times' (1997), and if, at points, the editing feels somewhat pinched, this would hardly be surprising, given the enormous contribution of Professor Curran to the honouring of Mary Shelley in her bicentenary year. Certainly the introduction reads like a considered response to constraints of space and, possibly, of time. Rather than attempting to cover thinly all the most interesting ways of approaching Valperga, Stuart Curran has judiciously chosen to home in on a select number of key areas, corroborating and amplifying Betty Bennett's pioneering work on the political ideology of the novel, developing some lines that have not previously received the attention that they deserve (the importance of Sismondi, for instance), and making some striking new observations.

He begins by considering the significance of Mary Shelley's self-styling as 'The Author of Frankenstein'. Too often this has been construed as a victim's reaction, an evasive ploy designed to circumvent Sir Timothy Shelley's attempt to suppress all public mention of P. B. Shelley with threats of cutting off his (decidedly mean) allowance to the Shelley widow and child. But Valperga was published well before Sir Tim intervened; this cannot have been the whole story. Curran convincingly argues that the sobriquet constituted in effect (whether its initial adoption was Mary Shelley's idea) an implicit but direct challenge to Scott, 'The Author of Waverley', concerning the form and purposes of the historical novel. Shortly before beginning Valperga, Mary Shelley had received a bundle of Scott novels, including the recently-published Ivanhoe, and the effect of this last has been frequently found in her similarly-contrasted heroines: blonde Rowena and dark Rebecca are matched by blonde Euthanasia and dark Beatrice. But what Curran notices are the symmetrical differences between Scott's duo and Mary Shelley's. Rowena and Rebecca engage in an unspoken erotic competition for Ivanhoe; Euthanasia refuses to be Beatrice's rival. Rowena crowns Ivanhoe; Euthanasia is discrowned by Castruccio. Moreover, Scott's heroines have no significant political role at all. For Curran, Mary Shelley is one of a minuscule number of women novelists of the period - Lady Morgan is another - with the 'temerity' to create a genuinely political heroine. He considers, however, that Lady Morgan's agenda is nationalist rather than feminist, and more limited than Mary Shelley's.

Turning to annotation and text-editing, we feel that we are in very good hands. Stuart Curran has tracked some of Mary Shelley's most important sources, notably Muratori's Dissertazioni (1765).  [3] Like Frankenstein, Valperga is comparatively free of the unidentified and recondite quotations which puzzle an editor of the later works, but instead there is much medieval Italian history to be clarified, including, of course, the notorious Guelfs and Ghibellines. Farinata degli Uberti, Uguccione della Faggiuola, Ugolino della Gherardesca, Obizzos and Galeazzos - they rise before the confused Anglophone in oblivion's host and demand unfussy, authoritative, deft yet ample identification. The annotation has all these qualities, and, additionally, tactfully brings out some of the themes that the personages and allusions announce or underline. Good examples of these include the notes on Dante and his political allegiances (p. 7 n. 3) on the prophecies of Merlin (p. 166 n. 8) and on usury (p. 214, n. 2).  [4]

Stuart Curran is a cautious amender, slow to tamper with the printed text despite its oddities, except where absolutely certain that a misprint (and there are quite a few) has occurred in the 1823 text. He has an eagle eye, and has spotted several cases of omitted inverted commas that had eluded mine; he has likewise noticed that Beatrice's prison 'in the Romagna' should 'in the Roman Compagna' (p. 384). Even if this slip derives from Mary Shelley herself (and she was capable of this kind of error on occasion while copying) it is one which, to judge from her corrections to Perkin Warbeck , she would have certainly corrected. His Italianism comes to the fore when judging whether to correct Italian spelling or not. On only one occasion would I dispute with him: the propriety of correcting the 1823 'Agiolo' to 'assiolo' (pp. 145, 250). A typesetter's substitution of 'g' for Mary Shelley's short-and-long 'ss' is in theory quite possible, but the Shelleys' spelling of the name of this 'little downy owl' was invariably 'aziolo' or 'aziola'. The 'g' is therefore a typesetter's error for Mary Shelley's very similar long-tailed z. The Shelleys were incorrect; the Italian word is undoubtedly 'assiolo', but it is an authentic case of a sturdy indefensible Anglo-Italianism, akin to 'Leghorn'. Even if the Shelleys were the only persons ever to have used it, they were responsible for giving it wide currency, and it is rather late in the day to put them right now. Moreover, the correction would erase a tiny record of what the Shelleys thought they heard. 'Assiolo' is not a literary or a dictionary term; it is a word that Mary Shelley would have picked up aurally, perhaps from the Tuscan servants when they brought the lights at dusk with a 'Felicissima sera, Signora'.  [5] Whether the spelling represents a contemporary regional pronunciation or results from the Shelleys' imperfect ear I dare not guess, but in a book which celebrates the oral culture of Tuscany, it is a cherishable error.

A transcription of the seventeen extant pages of randomly surviving draft of Valperga, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, is an appended bonus to this volume. These provide a tantalising and all too brief glimpse into Mary Shelley's process of composition. I have yet to read a close analysis of them, but their greater availability should prompt someone to attempt one (they suggest, for instance, that the Beatrice story might have taken shape after the first draft). It has to be said that the layout of this transcription, though done in the interests of greater readability, often renders it hard to make a reasonable stab at reconstructing the evolution of the text. This has affected, in particular, Mary Shelley's draft description of Castruccio's mature appearance (which later became the opening of vol. 3, ch. 8). She wrote all together on one line and then cancelled with a single stroke a phrase referring to Castruccio's cheek: 'more pale than—- Alfieri'. In this transcription, 'Alfieri' has been separated from the rest and read as 'a fri', and the dashes have not been transcribed at all. It seems clear from the MS, however, that she had an intention of applying to Castruccio an Alfieri quotation (represented by the dashes). Moreover, one can identify with reasonable certainty the quotation she had in mind. This is from Alfieri's self-portrait in the sonnet 'Sublime specchio di veraci detti', in which he describes himself as 'Pallido in volto, più che un re sul trono' ('More pale in countenance than a king on the throne').  [6] Mary Shelley's engagement with Alfieri is an significant subject in itself, but it is submerged at this stage of her career, and direct quotations are rare; all the more reason to retrieve this one.

The draft pages are important for another reason. Stuart Curran uses them in his consideration of the extent of Godwin's interventions, a vexed issue. Mary Shelley gave Godwin leave to use his own discretion in making Valperga saleable. His letter to her upon the book's publication shows that he made cuts to the novel; one of these, he said, was a 'long detail' after the death of Beatrice of battles fought by Castruccio.  [7] He also declared that though he had taken 'great liberties', his changes were almost wholly confined to excisions (i.e. not rewriting or major interpolations). The question is, should we take Godwin at his word? Could it be that, in fact, a sizeable portion of Valperga was rewritten by him? Does the surviving draft tell us anything relevant? Curran points out that the matter cannot be authoritatively settled, but throws his weight behind the view that Godwin's emendations were not radical. He concurs with Bennett's 1978 assessment of the draft pages: differences between its text and corresponding passages in the published novel provide no clear or even indicative evidence of Godwin's revising hand and are in any case stylistic. He points out that the pages 'appear to be initial drafts corrected by the author to create an intermediate state of the text'. (I think that they are actually corrected 'rough transcript' - Mary Shelley's term - of the initial drafts, but that's a detail.) The crucial point Curran makes is that the pages represent a stage where the draft had still a long way to go before it fell into Godwin's hands, during which period any amount of correction could have been made by Mary Shelley herself.  [8] Differences between draft and published text 'could be taken to reveal Mary Shelley's subsequent revisions just as easily as those of her father'. More easily than, in my view, but perhaps Curran is right to be cautious, here.

More tendentiously, Curran suggests that the absence of any record of objections on Mary Shelley's part to Godwin's interventions points to her acceptance of them, and it would seem to follow that, if so, they could not have been major. He notes that Godwin certainly did not make Valperga into a short novel, for it is, in fact, rather long; moreover, each volume is 'shaped to create formal balances' across the work. But any letter of remonstrance to Godwin would almost certainly have been destroyed (almost no written communication from Mary Shelley to her father has survived) and a verbal objection lost in the ether. Valperga might, in theory, originally have been a very long novel, like The Last Man or Perkin Warbeck, Godwin could still have cut drastically, losing some of Mary Shelley's formal structure while preserving most of it.

However, support for Curran's position can be found from another source. Godwin's record in his diary of the tally of his reading and correction of the (lost) fair-copy/press copy MS of Valperga shows that the manuscript was divided into three volumes (like the book) and that they were all between 300-320 pages. Although this is manuscript, not print, it does prove that Valperga was not inordinately long; in fact the figure of c.300 indicates that Mary Shelley had presented her MS in a thoroughly professional way; if you were her publisher, what you saw was what you got: a manuscript which would eventually print up into approximately equally-sized volumes, each being c.300 pages. Godwin's diary evidence also shows that, while the first two volumes are somewhat shorter than their corresponding MS equivalents, Volume III is much shorter (by 35 pages), and in Volume III there is a chronological gap of about three years in the narrative shortly after the death of Beatrice (see p. 392), exactly where Godwin said that the 'long detail' had been placed and where he made his major cut. So, although I cannot quite accept all of Stuart Curran's reasonings, I rejoice to concur with his conclusion: it is likely that Godwin told the truth. We really can regard the novel as Mary Shelley's!

Overall, Curran's introduction and editing of this handsomely produced and strongly- bound volume are enthusiastic, suggestive and erudite, an encouragement to those currently co-labouring in the revaluation of this rich work. One hopes that this will not be the last of his valuable contributions to this endeavour.

Romantic Circles Review

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