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  • Prophetic Poetics and Enthusiasm in Mary Shelley’s Valperga
  • Rachael Isom (bio)

In february 1822, mary shelley composed a sort of prose poem contemplating memory and feeling. Demanding of the heavens a clear mind and “thoughts and passions” as “everliving” as the stars, she muses on an unidentified female “Enthusiast”:

      The Enthusiast suppresses her tears—crushes her opening thoughts and—But all his is changed—some word some look awak exite the lagging spirits ↑blood↓ laughter dances in the eyes & the spirits rise proportionably high—1

The Enthusiast “suppresses” her passionate tears, “crushes” her impulse. Shelley’s dashes disrupt this sense of conquest, however, and her next lines evince the difficulty of suppressing strong feeling. Words and looks can viscerally “exite [sic]” her, and her eyes display emotion as her “spirits rise proportionably.” We might read this spiritual elevation as increasing in proportion to laughter, but the phrase also reminds readers (and perhaps the writer) of the mechanism of control suggested lines earlier. Rather than allowing her spirit to lift her beyond her capacity to “suppres[s]” or “crus[h]” its more untenable potentialities, Shelley’s Enthusiast experiences a moment proportionate to her ability and to the situation. She chooses to self-regulate.

It remains unclear whether Shelley speaks of herself, another woman, or an allegorical female type, but this fragmentary reflection reveals her thinking [End Page 51] about enthusiasm during the 1820s. The next month she would publish a longer meditation on gender, prophecy, and enthusiasm. Valperga (1823)2 adds to the historical account of fourteenth-century Ghibelline tyrant Castruccio Castracani two fictional heroines. The first is Castruccio’s childhood friend and later fiancée, Euthanasia de Adimari. Descended from rival Guelph parentage, her rule as Countess of Valperga brings her into conflict with Castruccio. Her foil, the mysterious prophetess Beatrice of Ferrara, captures Castruccio’s heart momentarily but finds herself abandoned to superstition and manipulation before the novel’s end. Shelley uses these fictional female enthusiasts to disrupt Valperga’s male-driven historical narrative,3 and to drive a gender-inflected interrogation of Romantic-era notions of enthusiasm. Considering Euthanasia, as well as Beatrice, under the enthusiastic mantle of “prophetess” reveals the dichotomy that Mary Shelley nuances in her second published novel. Castruccio’s remark about “how unlike” these two women seem has been adopted by critics who read Beatrice the prophetess as different in kind from Euthanasia the countess (Valperga, 150).4 This essay examines Shelley’s vacillation between identifying both heroines as “enthusiasts” and distinguishing their regulated and unregulated expressions of enthusiasm. Particularly, her novel exposes the tenuous distinction Percy Shelley creates between these two enthusiasms in A Defence of Poetry, where he attempts to safeguard his poetics from vulgar zeal. Valperga also offers a feminine perspective on the power of self-regulation for personal and public good. Mary Shelley thus joins ongoing religious debates about regulation, critiques her husband’s poetic theory and, most importantly, contemplates women as poets, prophets, and leaders under the controversial mantle of “enthusiast.”

Critics agree that Valperga is Mary Shelley’s revisionist effort to “imagine a wider sphere for women”5 but disagree over its import: one camp sees an [End Page 52] assertion of feminine agency,6 while the other finds even exceptional women helpless against destructive male ambition like Castruccio’s.7 The heroines’ relationship also generates disagreement. Many critics read the two women as divergent yet equally unachievable female types, often associated with opposing ideological forces.8 Orianne Smith avoids this dichotomizing move by acknowledging more subtle differences; she reads in Shelley’s heroines a history of female enthusiasm from “religious fervor” to “political idealism.”9 The rhetoric of religious zeal infiltrated political and aesthetic discourse in eighteenth-century Britain. Among religionists and literati alike, self-regulation became essential for being taken seriously; stylistic and ideological sophistication narrowly separated high Romantic poetry from the vulgar rantings of prophets like Joanna Southcott.10 Valperga’s heroines toe this fine line, struggling with enthusiasm’s gifts and [End Page 53] curses. Smith argues that “unregulated enthusiasm” causes the downfall of both characters,11 and, while I agree that Beatrice’s inability to regulate ill-informed superstition and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 51-76
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-02
Open Access
No
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