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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, edited by Stuart Curran

Tuesday, December 1, 1998 - 07:54
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca Edited and introduced by Stuart Curran. Women Writers in English 1350-1850, General Eds. Susanne Woods and Elizabeth H. Hageman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). [xxvi] + 454pp. $45.00 (ISBN: 0-19-510881-7); $16.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-19-510882-5).

Reviewed by
Beth Dolan Kautz
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Thanks to Stuart Curran's new edition of Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1997), students and scholars alike can put away their tattered photocopies of the first of Mary Shelley's "other" novels. Curran dazzles us with the meticulous and thorough editing that we have come to expect from him, for example in his edition of Charlotte Smith's poetry (1993), a sister volume in the Oxford series Women Writers in English 1350–1850(General Editors Susanne Woods and Elizabeth H. Hageman). As a longtime scholar of the Shelley circle, a leader in the recovery and study of Romantic women's writing, and Director of the Center for Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Curran is particularly well suited to edit this historical novel, set in fourteenth-century Italy. Available in either cloth or paperback, the Oxford edition is not only an excellent resource for scholarly study, but also an affordable and portable alternative for the classroom. Curran's presentation of the novel, from his introduction to his last footnote, brings both fourteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian culture to life and invites readers to consider Mary Shelley's novel in a political framework.

This new edition of Valperga joins Jonathan Wordsworth's facsimile edition of the novel (1995), Nora Crook's volume in Pickering & Chatto's The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley (1996), and has been followed by Tilottama Rajan's Broadview edition (1998). The detailed and carefully documented annotations and the historical map of Italy in Crook's Pickering & Chatto edition recommend it for scholarly study. Curran's edition is clearly designed for use by students, but several features will be helpful also to scholars; given the combination of elements, his edition would be an especially effective choice for the graduate classroom. Curran's edition, like Crook's, includes a valuable appendix containing a transcription of the Pierpont Morgan Manuscript Sheets of Valperga, seventeen sheets of a draft corrected by Mary Shelley. In addition, Curran consistently provides references to sources that an interested scholar might consult to analyze further the historical setting and political resonance of the novel. For example, he informs readers that remnants of the medieval statutes of the actual town of Valperga can be found in the Van Pelt Library Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania (xxii, n.7).

These editions bring much needed scholarly attention to Mary Shelley's post-Frankenstein novels, as do the complete novels in the Pickering & Chatto edition, Lisa Vargo's Broadview Press edition of Lodore (1997) and recent editions of The Last Man—including Morton Paley's Oxford edition (1994) and Anne McWhir's Broadview edition (1996). Of the 545 articles or chapters on Mary Shelley's works listed in the MLA bibliography since 1963, 424 primarily or exclusively address the omnipresent Frankenstein. A mere six focus primarily on Valperga, and with the eminent exception of Betty Bennett's 1978 essay, "The Political Philosophy of Mary Shelley's Historical Novels," all were published in the 1990s.1  Curran's dedication of the edition to Bennett highlights their shared commitment to the study of the political Mary Shelley.

The first volume of the novel fulfills expectations raised by Mary Shelley's original title—The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca—in its portrayal of the childhood and education of Castruccio, a warrior and leader of the Tuscan Ghibellines, a political faction that supported autocratic rule and the Holy Roman Empire's imperialism. Godwin's suggestion to name the work Valperga shifted the focus from Castruccio to the Tuscan city Valperga and to the city's countess, Euthanasia, who is a Guelph, or supporter of local republican government. Friends since childhood, Castruccio and Euthanasia fall in love, but she ultimately decides not to marry him because their political loyalties and ideological commitments directly oppose one another. The second and third volumes of the novel portray their symbiotic existence; as Castruccio's tyranny intensifies, Euthanasia is increasingly occupied in comforting those whom he has hurt. Among the victims of his egoism and tyranny is the orphaned prophetess Beatrice, whom he deserts after a passionate affair. Though they are connected through their involvement with Castruccio, Beatrice's depth of passion and self-absorption contrasts with Euthanasia's compassion and wisdom. Euthanasia eventually befriends Beatrice, entreating Castruccio to use his influence to free Beatrice from imprisonment for heresy. The generous Euthanasia cares for Beatrice until she dies, noting that the two women "were bound together, by their love for one who loved only himself" (333). Meanwhile, the struggle between Guelph and Ghibelline has become centered on the rule of Florence, Euthanasia's birth city and a Guelph stronghold. When Castruccio threatens to take over Florence, Euthanasia enters into a conspiracy against him that ultimately leads to her death. Castruccio lives two years longer than Euthanasia, greatly increasing his political power before he finally catches a fever and dies.

In his introduction, Curran offers the reader footholds for interpretation, addressing the significance of Valperga in terms of the conventions of the historical novel, fourteenth-century Italian political history, and the ideological concerns of post-Napoleonic Europe. Curran introduces readers to the political Mary Shelley at every turn. He contrasts the legend that paints Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as a dutiful daughter with the more radical portrait of Mary Shelley as the "author of Frankenstein." Percy Bysshe Shelley, Curran explains, thought the appellation "author of Frankenstein" so controversial that it would damage Valperga's commercial success. Many scholars have suggested that because Sir Timothy Shelley prohibited her from using the Shelley name, Mary Shelley had little choice but to sign the work with this controversial phrase. Curran reminds us that "Sir Timothy's prohibition was meant to erase a name, not to spur the construction of a persona that would come to replace it" (xiv), arguing that Mary Shelley actively embraced a more radical authorial persona. Even in his account of these biographical facts, Curran emphasizes Mary Shelley's political persona rather than her participation in familial intrigue.

Curran argues that, with Valperga, Mary Shelley challenged the conventions of the historical novel epitomized by the works of Sir Walter Scott. Curran compares Mary Shelley's creation of the polarized heroines Beatrice and Euthanasia with Scott's formulaic use of contrasting dark and light heroines in Ivanhoe (1820). While Scott's heroines are merely "the means by which to forward the designs of patriarchal culture" (xvi), Curran argues, Mary Shelley's heroines act at the center of the story and the hero Castruccio serves primarily as a means to an end. According to Curran, Mary Shelley inverts the conventional portrayal of heroines as instruments in the male characters' pursuit of power. Curran compares Mary Shelley's subversion of the "male paradigm of history" to Lady Morgan's in her Irish national tales (xix). This section of the introduction is sure to inspire heated debate about the relative agency of the male and female characters.

After briefly extolling Mary Shelley's unique command of the local Italian landscape and her factually accurate portrayal of medieval Italy, Curran states that Mary Shelley "goes out of her way to emphasize that what is at stake in Valperga is a conception of republican liberty at odds with the recent restoration of autocracy on the European continent" (xxi). Curran quotes a passage from one of Mary Shelley's principal sources for the novel, J. C. L. Simonde Sismondi's Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen âge, to demonstrate the resonance between Mary Shelley's portrayal of the fourteenth-century political conflict between local, democratic power and imperial ambition, and the conflict between libertarian and authoritarian ideals in post-Napoleonic Europe.

Luckily for the reader, Curran continues to share his knowledge of Italian history and literature in the footnotes. He meticulously identifies Mary Shelley's sources, often citing the reference that Mary Shelley relied upon to compose her own footnotes. We learn, for example, that she derived her definition of morgincap, the gift an Italian groom gives his bride, from Muratori's Antichità Italiane (236, n.3). He directs these notes equally to students and scholars. For example, he follows his basic capsule biography of Dante with an explanation that situates Dante's work within the context of Mary Shelley's and Percy Bysshe Shelley's reading habits and views of literature (7, n.2), and describes Dante's exile in terms of the political struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines (7–8, n.3). Anticipating a wider discussion for his edition of Valperga, Curran draws on his knowledge of the Italian language to provide readers with guidelines for the pronunciation of names and places in the novel, thus eliminating potential confusion in classroom and professional discussions of the novel (xxiii, n.8). Curran's footnotes act as a companionable reading partner, not intrusive to the reading experience, but available to consult if one does not know, for example, that a Mondualdo was "a guardian empowered to represent a woman in such legal engagements as signing a contract or disposing of her dowry" (139, n.1). Curran's love of language reveals itself in several of his simple definitions; he tells readers that "wot" meant "know," and then describes the word as "a very late use of an archaic verb now encountered only in the locution 'to wit'" (211, n.1). Finally, Curran has made very few corrections to the original text—changing only obvious typographical errors—and these are identified clearly in the footnotes.

Other features of the edition include a selected bibliography and a concise chronology that lists the salient publications, travels, births and deaths of the Shelley circle. The chronology reminds readers that in the four years leading up to the publication of this novel Mary Shelley gave birth to her only surviving child, Percy Florence, and mourned the deaths of her daughter Clara, son William, and, of course, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like so much in this edition, the events of the chronology are judiciously chosen and clearly described. At every step, Curran quietly and thoroughly immerses readers in the complex historical, political, and biographical context of the novel.

Curran and the other recent editors of Mary Shelley's novels have labored to create accessible and accurate texts. Now it is up to us to help reanimate these creations in scholarship and in the classroom.2



1.  See Betty T. Bennett, "The Political Philosophy of Mary Shelley's Historical Novels: Valperga and Perkin Warbeck" in The Evidence of the Imagination: Studies of Interactions Between Life and Art in English Romantic Literature, edited by Reiman, et al. (New York: New York University Press, 1978): 354–71.

2.  My thanks to Jeanne Moskal for introducing me to Mary Shelley's "other" novels and for offering suggestions for this review.