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Romantic disillusionment in the later works of Mary Shelley

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  • Pr English Literature
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  • Education
  • Literature

Abstract

Romantic Disillusionment in the Later Works of Mary Shelley argues that, despite a growing consensus among modern critics that Mary Shelley’s works, and especially the novels written after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death, are of lesser quality than her earlier novels, especially Frankenstein, the later works deserve more attention than they have hitherto received. The title Romantic Disillusionment, at once establishes my disagreement with those of Shelley’s critics who insist that her work is continuous with her father’s, her mother’s and her husband’s. No doubt, she rehearses various elements that characterise her family’s writings, revisits their favourite themes, but she does so in a way that is distinctively her own. The thesis locates in Shelley’s work a more general sense of disillusionment with Romantic ideas, amongst them a reverence for the sublime, a confident faith in the power of the imagination, and a belief in human perfectibility, ideas current in her father’s writing and discussed in the circles in which he moved, as well as those she joined as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lover and wife. The influence of her parents and husband and other contemporaries is traced with particular attention to the disillusionment that she at first shared with them and later came to feel in them. Shelley often invokes Romantic ideals, but characteristically she invokes them only to ironise or undermine them. The thesis is organized in six chapters: an introduction is followed by four chapters on the four novels Shelley wrote after her husband’s death, and a conclusion. The introduction gives an overview of Shelley’s early novels, Frankenstein and Valperga, as well as the novella Matilda, trying to establish how far Shelley even in her early writings did not simply, as seems to be the consensus, follow her family’s notions. This is followed by a chapter on The Last Man, which discusses the opposition between the public and the private life, between a life devoted to public activity and a life spent in seclusion. This chapter also explores Mary Shelley’s understanding of creativity and in particular her interest in biography. Indeed, all Mary Shelley’s later novels can be understood as disguised biographies, substitutes for the book that she had been forbidden to write, the biography of her husband. This chapter also discusses the function of the plague as, like death itself, a leveller, the destroyer not simply of humanity but of all human ideals. I understand the novel in conclusion as a parodic challenge to Godwin’s and P.B. Shelley’s belief in human perfectibility and the millenarian cast of mind that the two men shared. The following chapter on The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck examines Shelley’s single later experiment in the historical novel. Clearly she is responding to the achievement of Walter Scott, as well as to his extraordinary commercial success, but once again hers is an active response. Unlike Scott, she does not pretend to offer a disinterested description of historical events but instead undertakes a passionate engagement with history. She effects, I will argue a self-conscious feminization of the genre of the historical novel. The chapter on Lodore focuses on education, especially the question of female education that has preoccupied not only Shelley’s mother, but many of the most significant female intellectuals of her mother’s generation. In the penultimate chapter, I argue that Falkner is an appropriate culmination of Shelley’s career as a novelist. It is a novel in which she incorporates disguised the ‘Lives’ of Godwin and Shelley, as well as a novel in which she attempts a vindication of the reputation of her mother. It is a novel in which she is especially concerned with her relationship with her father, but for her it is a literary as much as a personal relationship. The novel is modelled, I shall argue, on Hamlet, the play in which Shakespeare explores most complexly the fraught relationship between the parent and the child, and it can also be understood as a re-writing of her own father’s most successful novel, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams.

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