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About this book

Graham Allen provides both an introduction to and review of the critical responses to Mary Shelley's major fictions, from the Romantic period to the present day, while also pushing debates forward. The book moves beyond Frankenstein, presenting new readings of other texts such as Matilda, Valperga, The Last Man and Lodore.

Table of Contents


Mary Shelley lived a dramatic and extraordinarily ‘readable’ life, and lived it amongst some of the most remarkable writers and thinkers of her age. It is little wonder that biography has played such a significant role in the academic and the popular response to her work. Biography, however, has also served to mis-shape and misrepresent Shelley’s place within her famous radical circle and within Romanticism in general. During the nineteenth and then the twentieth century, debates about her role in the ‘life’ of P. B. Shelley came to obscure her achievements as a writer. They also helped to produce a depoliticized and domesticated image of Shelley as a devoted if, in some versions, unworthy ‘wife’ to P. B. Shelley. This image increasingly served a narrative account of her writings which marks out her first novel, Frankenstein, as the product less of her own genius than of the inspiring influence of those (P. B. Shelley, Byron) around her, and also presents us with a steady decline in literary achievement after the premature deaths of those canonical male poets.
Graham Allen

1. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus

Shelley’s Frankenstein is something of a monster. Fred Botting discusses at length the manner in which the novel seems to reflect, or mirror back, criticism’s hopeless desire to determine a single, closed, interpretatively finalized reading.55 Chris Baldick argues that it is precisely because Frankenstein can be read in so many different ways that it has created what he calls a ‘modern myth.’56 The novel itself is multiple, having been published in 1818.1823 and 1831 with significant revisions and alterations along the way.57 Unlike the other chapters in this study, I do not intend to comment on all the different interpretations Shelley’s most famous novel has inspired. This analysis of Frankenstein focuses on the words ‘friend’ and ‘friendship.’58 It presents a new reading of Frankenstein on the basis of an examination of the various contexts which inform that important concept. What this new reading allows is a contextualization of Frankenstein which also establishes some of the fundamental ideas which influenced Shelley’s early thought and which she responded to in such a dramatic fictional way. Reading Frankenstein in this manner will allow me to establish important features of Shelley’s response to her literary, philosophical and political environment which, as the rest of the study will go on to demonstrate, she continued to develop and consolidate throughout the rest of her writing life.
Graham Allen

2. Matilda

Shelley’s Matilda has become one of the most widely read and studied of her fictional works. Although written in 1819, Matilda was not published until Elizabeth Nitchie’s edition in 1959.82 The story behind that one hundred and forty year hiatus is an inevitable part of any reader’s engagement with Matilda. The text concerns the incestuous desire of a father for his daughter, his suicide after confessing that desire and then the daughter’s melancholic movement towards a wished-for death. Shelley sent Matilda, in the care of her friend Maria Gisborne, to her father in 1820. Godwin pronounced the story ‘disgusting and detestable’, lamented the lack of ‘a preface to prepare the minds of the readers, and to prevent them from being tormented by the apprehension from moment to moment of the fall of the heroine’, and seems to have refused to return the manuscript to his daughter after deciding not to send it to the publishers.83 These facts, alone, are enough to start most readers wondering about Shelley’s motivation in writing the text and in addressing it, as it were, to Godwin. Matilda is such a popular text today because it appears to confirm the rebellious, gender-conscious critique of male Romanticism many readers have argued exists more implicitly within Frankenstein.84 It has also become something of a test-case against which contemporary critics have debated the positive and negative dimensions of psycho-biographical forms of critical reading.85
Graham Allen

3. Valperga: Or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca

After Frankenstein and the unpublished Matilda, Shelley turned towards historical forms and subjects. The three main novels which chronologically succeed Frankenstein are, in different ways, all historical in their subject-matter. Two of these, Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), are historical novels in the obvious sense of the term; The Last Man (1826), set in the last years of the twenty-first century, is a novel which could be said to deliver a future history. It is clear, however, that historical forms and questions, along with the opportunities the developing mode of historical fiction offered Shelley as an author, present an unavoidable context for any serious account of her career as a novelist in the 1820s. The subject of history and its influence upon individuals and societies allows Shelley to expand and ultimately confirm her ‘realist’ vision of human existence and to sustain the dialogue with her immediate circle which we have already seen operating in her first two major fictional works.
Graham Allen

4. The Last Man

There is little wonder that Shelley’s third major novel, The Last Man (1826), has been read as a roman à clef, a deep outpouring of grief over the deaths of P. B. Shelley, Byron, and all the other losses Shelley had experienced in her still relatively short life.153 As most critics now realize, The Last Man constitutes, in fact, the most wide-ranging, philosophically and politically challenging, and enigmatic of her novels after Frankenstein. As Bennett implies, The Last Man, in recent years, has begun to produce a body of critical interpretation which, in its variety and its divergence, is second only to that produced by Frankenstein. Bennett adds, however: ‘While these interpretations reflect aspects of the novel, they are largely selective and often uncritically replicate the reception history of the novel when it was first published.’154
Graham Allen

5. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck

With Shelley’s fourth major novel we enter the phase of her literary career which has traditionally been perceived in terms of a decline in creative energy, a lapse into orthodox conservatism, or simply a period in which she wrote sub-standard work for money. This view of the later works has begun to change in recent years, although the process is still in a relatively early phase. Perkin Warbeck is perhaps the most important of Shelley’s later texts in this regard, not least because it remains under-examined and continues to provoke negative critical reactions.203 Miranda Seymour’s response to the novel is a striking example of the latter point: ‘Few people’, she argues, perhaps proving her point by mistitling the novel, ‘have read their way through The Adventures of Perkin Warbeck; fewer still would argue that a long, laborious chronicle filled with unconvincing characters and turgid dialogue amounted to more than a waste of Mary’s imaginative gift.’204 That assessment of the novel is beginning to be revised by modern Shelley scholars and critics. Deidre Lynch suggests that Perkin Warbeck may constitute ‘Shelley’s most crucial novel in [the] effort to “read” the past’; Charlene E. Bunnell insists that the novel ‘holds its own with the previous work of the Shelley canon’; Emily Sunstein calls it ‘Mary Shelley’s last novel on a grand scale’; Melissa Sites describes it as ‘her most nuanced response to the challenge posed by tyranny to those advocating gradual reform.’205
Graham Allen

6. Lodore

Of Shelley’s last three novels, Lodore (1835) has attracted the most attention from modern critics and scholars. Often paired with Falkner, as a new phase in Shelley’s fictional career, the novel presents us with what Shelley herself referred to as ‘a tale of the present time’ (L, II, 196).229 The recent attention paid to Lodore is important, since it challenges the Victorian-inspired understanding of Shelley’s literary career in which her last works are written off as inferior efforts, composed and published merely for financial reasons, evidencing a marked decline in literary strength and political conviction. That negative assessment is still alive in otherwise important work on Shelley published from the 1970s on through to the 1990s. Mary Poovey states: ‘the differences between her first novels and her last three are so marked that the seven novels could almost have been written by two different persons.’230 Jane Blumberg argues that Shelley’s last three novels do not ‘share the complexity, scope and ambition of the first three.’ There is still no dedicated chapter for Lodore in important modern collections such as Mary Shelley in Her Times and The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley.231
Graham Allen

7. Falkner, A Novel

Falkner (1837), Shelley’s last novel, has traditionally been read alongside Lodore, frequently as a rather inferior version of the same kind of ‘tale of fashionable life’, focussed, as was the previous novel, on the intense relationship between a father and daughter estranged from the mainstream of society. The association drawn between Lodore and Falkner appears confirmed by the fact that composition of the latter novel was suggested by Shelley’s publishers, on the strength of the success of Lodore (L, II, 260). In January 1836 she was writing to Charles Ollier about the novel that would become Falkner, stating: ‘It is in the style of Lodore, but the story more interesting & even, I should think, more popular’ (L, II, 263). Making the same points to Ollier in another letter, written in March of 1836, Shelley talks about how easily Falkner came to her: ‘I wrote with a rapidity I had never done before’ (L, II, 267). In the end, Shelley published Falkner with a rival publishing firm, Saunders and Otley, at the beginning of 1837, after what she described to Ollier as a delay caused by ill health (L, II, 280).
Graham Allen

Afterword: Beyond the Novels

The period between 1830 and 1844 was the most prolific and productive of Shelley’s writing life. We have looked at the three novels associated with this period, Shelley also continued to publish short stories during the 1830s. The period, however, saw the publication of a greater volume of non-fictional works. In 1838 Sir Timothy Shelley finally relented and, still barring a memoir of the poet, allowed Shelley to publish an edition of P. B. Shelley’s poetry.290 The four volumes of Poetical Works were published through 1839 and, as she stated, cost her considerable labour and threatened her health (L, II, 318).291 As most readers of P. B. Shelley’s poetry know, Shelley got round Sir Timothy’s ban on a memoir of the poet, by writing significant notes to the major poems and for each year before the shorter poems, and as this study has demonstrated she not only gave valuable biographical and intellectual information about the poet but, in a sense, presented her own critical response to her husband’s work and many invaluable indications of her own politics and aesthetics. At the end of 1839, she published a companion volume, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations & Fragments.
Graham Allen
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