Writing and Melancholia: Saving the Self in Mary Shelley's 'The Mourner'[Notice]

  • Kerry Ellen McKeever

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  • Kerry Ellen McKeever
    University of Idaho

To date, like the rest of her short fiction, Mary Shelley's compelling short story, 'The Mourner' (1829), has received scant critical attention, perhaps because, as Anne Mellor suggests, it belongs to what she considers to be Shelley's period of more traditional writing. More likely, however, the text has not received extensive consideration for the same reason that critics have ignored much of her other work: that is, their general unavailability. In recent years, more of Shelley's corpus has been made accessible, thanks to the efforts of editors such as Charles Robinson, who has edited Shelley's short stories. But attention to Shelley's literature has been thwarted, as Robinson suggests, by the very critics who sought recognition for her while 'confess[ing] the inferiority of her work; or, at most, select[ing] one or two other novels, stories, or essays by which to prove that her first novel was no mere accident'. This unfortunate tactic tends to make all of Mary Shelley's works subservient to Frankenstein. Moreover, apologists for Shelley, notes Robinson, have 'criticized her for lacking a sense of humor, for failing to construct plots or develop characters properly, and for writing with no nobler purpose than providing for herself and her son Percy Florence between her widowhood in 1822 and her son's coming into the Shelley estate in 1844' (Stories xii). Such appraisal was not likely to inspire others to look more closely at Shelley's stories and novels than had other dismissive critics. It does not help as well that Mary Shelley was fascinated with certain themes which she investigated repeatedly. Again, the tendency has been for critics to locate an uber text to which they relate all other investigations of a particular theme. For example, at first glance, 'The Mourner' appears to revert to the motif of a daughter's abandonment explored by Shelley in her novel Mathilda. While the plot of 'The Mourner' forgoes the theme of incest probed in Mathilda, written ten years earlier, as we would expect of a story published in a giftbook such as The Keepsake, Shelley returns to the theme of a woman who loses her mother early in life, is abandoned by her father and later reunited with him, but forfeits him through death. Usually, critics append a note about 'The Mourner' to a discussion of Mathilda, thereby suggesting that 'The Mourner' is merely a repetition, and a less thorough one at that, of Mathilda's themes. The critics who do spend significant time analyzing Shelley's work predominantly turn immediately to the biographical implications of the theme of the orphaned woman as it reflects Shelley's personal history. Equally inviting is the well established critical hermeneutic which often employs Shelley's fiction to support ideological claims about her domestic feminism on the one hand and her subversive politics on the other. While we can learn much from these readings, they often inadvertently subsume Shelley's works under biological and ideological approaches which have become the staple of Mary Shelley criticism. For example, Emily Sunstein suggests that Shelley, who was being pressured by Trelawny to provide biographical information about Percy Shelley despite Sir Timothy Shelley's admonition to Mary never to do so, 'duly killed herself off that summer in ... "The Mourner"' as a reflection of her desire to be left out of Trelawny's biography. Kate Ferguson Ellis, contending that Shelley was indeed the radical child of radical parents, proposes that the theme of 'The Mourner' is Shelley's critique of '... the ideal of perfect daughterhood against which [Ellen or Mary Shelley] is measured, an ideal that pre-figures one of perfect wife-and-motherhood in which no …

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