Session 7B: Romantic Women Writers and the Novel

Back To Program.

7B. Romantic Women Writers and the Novel

Irena Nikolova (Western Ontario): "Mary Shelley's Valperga and the Prophecies of History"
Judith Davis Miller (Sacred Heart): "Charlotte Smith and the Limits of Utopian Vision"
Shelley King (Queens, Kingston): "New Definitions of Gender Codes in Adeline Mowbray"

Back To Program.

"Mary Shelley's Valperga and the Prophecies of History"
Irena Nikolova
Western Ontario

My paper on Mary Shelley's novel Valperga will explore the interactive relationship of a narrative whose primary focus on the history of 13th-century Italy is complicated by the unavoidable intervention of the historical period underlying the Romantic movement. The interpretations of the historical past in Valperga are not confined to the fate of Florence and the other Italian republics in 13th-century Italy since they function as displaced versions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. In this paper I shall suggest that the novel's central conception of republican liberty, which is at odds with the recent restoration of autocracy, reads as an allegory of the conflict of the French monarchy, the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution and Robespierre's Reign of Terror. The text allegorizes the conflict between republicanism and autocracy by providing a plot that is invariably fostered by the interpretation of prophecies, omens, and cryptic signs. The recourse of the narrative to these supranatural powers is a projection of the narrator's anxieties and uncertainties about the fate of both the republic of Florence in the 13th century and the countries in Europe during and after the French Revolution. The historical past is, therefore, not only an expression of the Romantic renewal of the Mediaeval period, but a temporally and spatially displaced allegory of the turbulent historical events in France and their repercussions across the English Channel. Historical events are represented as part of a play in the theatre where histrionics creates an ambivalence between appearance and reality, and where the scene and the actors are recurrent metaphors reminding us of the necessity to read the events in the novel allegorically. The development of the plot is underscored by interpretations of the double entendre in the figuration of the main conflict between tyrannical power and republican idealism. The characters of Castruccio and Euthanasia exemplify these two polar opposites, but their relationship is complicated by the ambiguities underlying the words liberty an tyranny. "The republicans' watchword is that echo of fools and laughing stock of the wise, -- Liberty. Surely the father of lies invented that bait, that trap, at which the multitude catch, as a mouse at a bit of cheese..." (Shelley 69-70). Castruccio's aspirations to power function as allegorical allusions to Robespierre's Reign of Terror, whereas Euthanasia's republicanism is a veiled representation of the Romantics' idealism vis-a-vis the French Revolution. The underlying dilemma of good and evil is, therefore, played out on a historical stage where the spectacle is a recurrent metaphor defining both the attempt to create a truthful representation of the historical past and an allegorical reading of the history of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. The questions of good and evil recur in Valperga by questioning the viability of the paradisal state and by resisting the powers of political and religious authority. For example, Beatrice's indictment of the Catholic religion, as well as Euthanasia's conspiracy against Castruccio represent the Revolution in the form of the political unconscious, which Lyotard would associate with an excess. This excess, which is unreadable in itself, invariably requires further interpretation. The uncertainties of history are projected into the passage between inner visions and material representations. Beatrice's visions of the flood function as both prophecies and foreshadowings of the shipwreck that causes Euthanasia's death in the closing chapter of the narrative.

Back To Program.

"New Definitions of Gender Codes in Adeline Mowbray"
Shelley King
Queens University, Kingston

In Adeline Mowbray, Amelia Opie reflects on the gendered codes of honour in place at the end of the eighteenth century, and in so doing offers a fictional exploration of two key concepts presented in William Godwin's Political Justice. In that work, Godwin includes two important appendices, one pertaining to duelling, and one to marriage. These two themes can be read as the socially encoded rules and institutions of masculine and feminine honour. Male honour is defined by personal courage, socially produced through the institution of the duel; female honour is defined as sexual purity, socially produced through the institution of marriage. By setting these ideas against each other, Opie demonstrates the difficult, but possible shift taking place in the masculine code, while indicating the pragmatic problems facing a woman attempting to play out a parallel shift in the feminine code of honour. In linking the duel and marriage Opie was doing nothing especially new: the institutions were clearly recognized as interconnected in the period. Jane West writes of "chastity" and "its male concomitant courage" (vol.3 p. 146), while Hanna More warns young women against encouraging men to duel in defence of their honour. What is innovative is Opie's political foregrounding of the emerging dichotomy between these gendered codes, wherein masculine honour was coming to be redefined in socially acceptable ways, while a parallel attempt to redefine feminine honour was being met with overwhelming resistance. This paper will explore the way in which late eighteenth-century writers, both Radical and Conservative, agreed in redefining masculine codes of honour, while differing vehemently on the issue of redefining feminine honour. By examining a selection of writers against duelling, ranging from conduct writers like Hannah More and Jane West to social theorists like Godwin and Charles Moore (Treatise on Duelling as being a Species of Self-Murder,1790), I will argue the shared concern to establish masculine courage through rational discourse, rather than pistols at dawn. Then through an analysis of the way in which Opie links issues of honour, duelling, and marriage in Adeline Mowbray, I hope to demonstrate Opie's awareness that gendered codes of honour were under reconstruction, as well as her recognition that though masculine codes were being permitted to evolve, feminine codes were offered no such potential for change. Adeline Mowbray is thus more than the anti-Jacobin warning to women not to deviate from sexually prescribed roles that it has been branded: it stands as an astute exploration of the possibilities of political change for men, and of the personal costs of attempting to enact a parallel change for women.

Back To Program.

Last updated June 1, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell


JSON What's this?
As you're browsing RC, you might see small buttons scattered on various pages. These buttons let you download that page's content in a ready-to-use data file! Learn more on our RC Data page.