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Mary Shelley's Fictions: From Frankenstein to Falkner. Edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra

Monday, April 1, 2002 - 07:58
Mary Shelley's Fictions: From Frankenstein
Falkner. Edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra.  New York: St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000. xxvi + 250pp.  $65.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-77106-0).

Reviewed by
Lisa Vargo
University of Saskatchewan

The very idea for this volume provides evidence for a significant reappraisal of Mary Shelley's career as a writer, a process that began in the late 1970s, when Frankenstein became an object of critical attention and a popular classroom text.  Further recuperation of Shelley's critical reputation has been aided by the appearance of editions of Mary Shelley's letters (1980-1988) and journals (1987), by critical studies by Anne K. Mellor (1988) and Jane Blumberg (1992), and by the suitably titled The Other Mary Shelley (1992). More recently access to fiction by Shelley was made possible by the appearance in 1996 of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley from Pickering & Chatto and by single volumes from Broadview Press and from other publishers.  Mary Shelley's Fictions joins two other volumes of essays, Iconoclastic Departures (1997) and Mary Shelley in Her Times (2000), in communicating "the vitality and richness of current Shelleyan criticism" (ix).  The majority of the contributions that make up this volume took their first form in papers delivered at a series of conferences on Mary Shelley in Britain, Canada, and the United States during, as Nora Crook puts it, "the double bicentenary of Mary Shelley's birth and Mary Wollstonecraft's death" (xix).  In tracing the development of Mary Shelley studies, Nora Crook suggests in her introduction to the volume that "[w]e are now in a phrase of transition towards--let us say--'The Inclusive Mary Shelley,'" and it is her hope that this collection is "partly its product" and "partly its producer" (xx).  The fourteen essays, which are arranged into four sections, go a long way towards achieving inclusiveness in their considerations of Frankenstein, The Last Man, Mathilda, Valperga, selections from her short fiction, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, Falkner, and the fragmentary "Life of William Godwin."

Part 1 contains three superb essays concerned with "The Craft of Writing"--how far Shelley's writing is the work of someone engaged with the craft of writing as opposed to viewing writing as a means to exploring concepts and themes.  Nora Crook's spirited and intelligent "In Defence of the 1831 Frankenstein" re-examines the claims scholars and editors have made for preferring the 1818 Frankenstein for its 1831 revision.  She works carefully with specific examples and refutes the critical commonplace that Mary Shelley became more conservative in her outlook.  This essay presents an important redress of the critical balance about the editions, but it also invites a more general reconsideration of Shelley's supposed political conservatism in the 1830s, a controversy that other essays in the volume also address.  Sophie Thomas looks at fragmentation in The Last Man, a novel where reduction of the human race is accompanied by the proliferation of the plague.  This double action is echoed by the novel, which is purportedly assembled from a series of fragments, in which Thomas cogently argues "the problem is no longer of the unfinished, but rather of finishing" (24).  Thomas traces metaphors of fragmentation through a consideration of the author's Preface, concluding that the novel is unfinishable by its relation to the introduction, and ultimately it is "the incompleting effects not only of writing, but of ending, that are felt to be everlasting" (37).  In a pioneering essay on Shelley's neglected and misunderstood novel Lodore, Richard Cronin calls the novel the only work by Shelley in which she "fully recognizes that the study of human personality is inseparable from an understanding of economics" (39).  He notes the influence of Edward Bulwer, who was an admirer of Byron, Shelley, and William Godwin, and suggests Bulwer's example inspired her to write in a hybrid style which mixes the sentiment with the styptic.  Through his careful analysis of style, Cronin demonstrates how the craft and concepts also found in Bulwer's work place Lodore in the vanguard of its time, as the novel of courtship is transformed into the novel of marriage--"the kind of novel practised by the great Victorians" (49)--and allows Shelley a new authorial stance.

Four essays in the second section are concerned with the matter of gender, an issue upon whose ground recent critics of Mary Shelley have most often tread.  It is interesting to note that four of the five contributors are male. Anne-Lise François and Daniel Mozes draw upon critical perspectives of feminine passivity in Romanticism, Annette Baier's critique of Kantian intentionalism and the agency of the object of romantic love to consider how Mathilda "challenges both male universalism and its feminist responses within Romanticism" (69).  Accordingly the work is "an exposition of the limitations of Enlightenment faith in the saving powers of communication" (68), as well as an examination of "the complexity of the culture's constructions of feminine personhood" in which female selfhood "is often confused by, and at odds with, her own intermixed will to love and power" (72).   Daniel E. White considers Italy and the revision of Romantic aesthetics in Valperga to demonstrate how the story of Euthanasia "opens the possibility for a different kind of power, and a different experience of sublimity" (76).  Michael Eberle-Sinatra defines the thematic concern of authorship and gendering in Frankenstein and The Last Man as a struggle in text and paratext (title, name of author, epigraph, and preface) over different gender positions in which "fear" and "ambition" are "key operatives" (95).  In an imaginative defense of Shelley's short fiction, A. A. Markley notices "the remarkable frequency with which she experimented with the plot devices of identity switches, clothes changes, disguise, and cross-dressing" in tales from the Keepsake (109).  He makes reference to the Dods affair and to the cross-dressing plays of Shakespeare.  If her tales of cross-dressing end, as do Shakespeare's plays, with a reassertion of order and the status quo, Shelley calls attention to "the often arbitrary nature of gender categories" (123) and "consistently dazzles her readers with women who boldly step out of their socially prescribed roles in order to effect change and improvement to the patriarchal world in which they live" (124).

Shelley's fiction in the context of the public sphere unites the four essays in the third section.  It is in this section that the essays especially move towards less examined works and aspects of Shelley's writing.  In "'Little England': Anxieties of Space in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," Julia Wright considers how the novel acts as "an extended refutation of reassuring representations of England as a well-defended sanctuary" (129).  Shelley's focus is Romantic insecurity, which arises from a "tension between the infinite imagination and the scale of global geography" that "critiques key discursive strategies for coping with imperial space as England turned outward to establish what would become the Victorian empire" (131).  This original and intelligent essay does much to take Shelley's novel beyond the preponderance of readings of the novel as a work of life writing.   In a re-evaluation of "its displaced attack on contemporary nineteenth-century power-structures, and the proposition of a doctrine of love as a possible answer to the problems of all ages" (159), Lidia Garbin's helpful reading of Perkin Warbeck suggests that "historical fiction became the means through which Shelley could express her political anxiety, and in this she found a mentor in Scott, despite Scott's quite different politics" (151).  Garbin applies Walter Scott's "classical notion of a universal nature" to a reading of Perkin Warbeck in her consideration of Shelley's purpose in writing about the Yorkist pretender.  Shelley attacks "both usurped and legitimate monarchy and absolutist power" (152) and demonstrates "a yearning for social and political reforms which originates in Shelley's upbringing in a radical environment" (153).  David Vallins suggests that interpretations of Shelley's writing in terms of gender obscure how her philosophical and political values "coincide with those of leading male Romantics" (165).   He examines her negotiation with negation and transcendence in Lodore through a reading of its references to Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Fiona Stafford's admirable "Lodore: a Tale of the Present Time?" also moves beyond issues of gender to offer a provocative examination of the novel's engagement with British experience in the 1830s, including the Reform Act of 1832.  Stafford demonstrates convincingly how the novel might be read "not merely as a novel suited to the taste of the day," but also and more tellingly "as a much more profound reflection on recent political history" (189).

The final section of the collection contains three essays on Shelley's parental legacy.  Some Mary Shelley scholars are resistant to such an approach, as readings of her works as biography about her parents and about Percy Shelley and Byron seem an unfortunate legacy of her daughter-in-law's campaign to contain Mary Shelley's authority into a ladylike act of memorializing her male betters.  However, these contributors present sophisticated re-evaluations of the presence of biography.  Like the attention that Lodore receives in the volume, it is good to see notice given to Shelley's final novel, Falkner.  Marie Mulvey-Roberts considers Frankenstein as rewriting Wollstonecraft and the abject with a provocative reading of the subject of the dead mother.  Mulvey-Roberts combines psychobiography and archival research into practices during the 1790s of reviving the drowned.  Julia Saunders notes that during the writing of Falkner Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, died.  Saunders argues that despite a tempered view of life, Shelley "remained loyal to a 1790s brand of radicalism" evidenced by the Godwinian elements of the novel (213).  Graham Allen tackles the literary crux of why Shelley left unfinished her "Life of William Godwin" in a thoughtful manner by suggesting with recourse to Godwin's own work that Falkner as a meta-memoir allows her to write about her father without having to relive the trauma she wishes to avoid (232).  The novel "fictionalizes and thus returns us to the history and reception (and thus the trauma) of her own father's narrative (memoir) of her mother" (236).

This volume contains essays of a consistently high quality.  Mary Shelley's Fictions provides an important contribution to Mary Shelley studies as it goes further than any other collection in looking at the entirety of her fictional corpus.  It offers both the specialist and those less familiar with Shelley illuminating readings of aspects of her fiction.  Mary Shelley's Fictions redresses the neglect by critics of much of her fiction and makes an irrefutable case for the value and interest in her writings beyond Frankenstein.   It can only be hoped that the volume will inspire further inquiry and debate about Shelley's writings, including her reviews, travel writing, lyrics, and literary biographies.