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 feverish passion causes her fatal descent, I read Euthanasia’s end differently. Euthanasia’s liberal education, introspective habits, and just governance style her as a Percy-Shelleyan poet-prophet, a self-regulated enthusiast more closely aligned with the poet’s idealism than with its superstitious counterpart. But Euthanasia is still an enthusiast, and a female enthusiast at that. Her identity remains akin to but consciously apart from the superstitious prophet known to Shelley’s readers, as well as the conventional (male) Romantic poet. In crafting the character of Euthanasia against these types, Mary Shelley illustrates the narrow margin of error for women Romantics embracing the label of “enthusiast” with all its power and danger. As Valperga’s heroines engage with the Defence’s ideals, they provoke a reexamination of how gender complicates enthusiastic expression and poetic theory.

The simultaneity of the Defence’s and Valperga’s composition strengthens this claim, especially when we consider that the Shelleys had already worked on father-daughter incest concurrently in Mathilda (c. 1819–20) and The Cenci (1819).12 In the case of Valperga, Mary Shelley’s “intermittent” writing of 1820 and 1821 brought to fruition her years of reading and research in Italian history.13 Shelley’s journals record the first reading of Valperga on July 28, 1821, and she corrected “the novel” late that year before sending it to William Godwin in January 1822 (MWSJ, 1:375–84). In the meantime, she fostered the growth of Percy Shelley’s Defence by attending with him on January 22, 1821, Sgricci’s “tragedy la morte d’Ettore” (MWSJ, 1:350). Mary immediately wrote to Claire Clairmont describing Sgricci’s “exquisitely delineated” Cassandra and, particularly, her “wondrous & torrent like” prophecies.14 Five years later, in “The English in Italy” (1826), Shelley remembered “mad Cassandra” and Sgricci’s fascination with her: in their post-performance conversation, Sgricci had reflected “that when he poured forth the ravings of the prophetess,” all else faded. Prophecy, specifically a woman’s prophecy, thus remains the most “vivid recollection” for Sgricci and in Mary Shelley’s later published remarks.15 An Italian review by Percy Shelley never appeared in print, but it [End Page 54] also addressed inspiration, reason, and the poetic imagination, prefiguring the Defence’s meditations on enthusiasm (MWSJ, 1:350n). The shared play-going experience and the related foci of these responses help establish the Shelleys’ harmonious interests in prophecy and inspiration during the early 1820s.

The couple’s shared reading at this time also supports Mary Shelley’s participation in the Defence’s development in 1821. The two read “the Defence of Poesy by Sir P[hilip] Sidney” and an unnamed text by Horace in early March, and Mary began fair-copying the Defence on March 12 (MWSJ, 1:350–58).16 Shelley’s title acknowledges the earlier essay’s influence, but his capacious reading, much of which was shared with his wife, suggests a broader excavation of historical poetic theory in anticipation of his own. The Shelleys pored over prophetic texts by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, interspersed with Platonic philosophy (MWSJ, 1:308–13, 345). Finally, the couple returned to a collaborative translation of Spinoza during the months leading up to the Defence. While no extant copy of the whole exists,17 we do have the Shelleys’s rendering of Spinoza’s “On Prophecy,” which posits “a vivid imagination” as the foremost “qualification to prophecy.”18 This view reappears when the Defence privileges imagination among poetic qualities. During this distillation of Percy Shelley’s poetic theory, which coincided with Mary Shelley’s work on Valperga, the two were fellow students in Spinozism, as well as in ancient Greek and biblical texts. We can reasonably assume that these sources may also have shaped her own views of prophetic-poetic inspiration.

Mary Shelley’s novel reading also shaped her thoughts on enthusiasm. Her most significant fictional interlocutor during the run up to Valperga’s publication was Germaine de Staël’s Corinne; ou d’Italic (1807), which Shelley first read in 1815 (MWSJ, 1:66–68, 88). The encounter spurred a longstanding interest in Staël; most notably, Shelley returned to Corinne in 1820 (MWSJ, 2:347). Three times that November, Shelley records her activities [End Page 55] as reader of Corinne and author of Valperga together: “Write—read Corinne” on November 11, “Read Corinne—Write” on November 12, and “Finish Corinne—write” on November 13 (MWSJ, 1:340). The proximity of reading Staël and writing Valperga underscores a connection observed by many critics.19 Particularly, Lisa Vargo has argued that Corinne, along with De la Littérature (1800), helped Shelley link improvisational enthusiasm with Godwinian freedom, especially as they appear in Valperga’s countess heroine.20 Corinne prefigures Euthanasia in her Anglo-Italian identity and liberal command of an adoring public; Corinne’s lovesick demise anticipates Beatrice’s tragedy. Corinne thus becomes a touchstone for Shelley, who viewed her as the “embodi[ment]” of Staël’s own “enthusiasm, her pleasure, and the knowledge she gained.”21 This description, from Shelley’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia biography of Staël (1839), helps situate Corinne as a product of “genius,” and casts its author as a woman of “enthusiasm.”22 Both Staël and her signature heroine inform Mary Shelley’s extended meditation on female enthusiasm; moreover, as Nanora Sweet has shown, both Shelleys engaged with Staël during this period,23 making her a crucial influence on their thinking about inspiration in the Defence and Valperga.

Among the many theoretical pre-texts for Valperga, Percy Shelley’s Defence has been overlooked as a crucial intermediary between, on the one hand, the enthusiastic discourses of religious zeal and secular improvisation I have outlined and, on the other, Mary Shelley’s fictional critique of them in her 1823 novel. In his introduction to Valperga, Michael Rossington does remark that Euthanasia “is often a vehicle for the expression of ideas in [Percy Shelley’s] brilliant essay … ‘A Defence of Poetry,’ ” but has nothing to say about enthusiasm.24 By tracing the works’ compositional overlap, [End Page 56] and by locating Euthanasia’s prophetic-poetic identity within Romantic-era discussions of enthusiasm, this essay will augment Rossington’s insights by clarifying the prophetic functions of Beatrice and Euthanasia.

The Defence invokes prophecy in its expansive definition of poetic genius: “Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters.”25 Sidney had called the poet “diviner, foreseer, or prophet,”26 but Shelley famously adds the distinction of “legislator.” He is also careful to explain how he understands the relationship between poetry and prophecy. Poets are not

prophets in the gross sense of the word, nor can they foretell the form as surely as they foreknow the spirit of events: such is the pretence of superstition, which would make poetry an attribute of prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry. A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.

Shelley opposes superstition to poetry: the former pretends to foretell, but the latter, in its atemporality, transcends the antics of prophetess Southcott and the vulgar, fanatical masses that followed her. Jasper Cragwall has compared Southcott’s enthusiasm with Percy Shelley’s, arguing that Shelley struggles to assert that “[p]oets are prophets, but not that kind of prophet.”28 Cragwall shows how the Defence marginalizes religious deviation at odds with the poet’s class standing and with his idealistic vision of [End Page 57] poethood; however, Shelley’s enthusiasm cannot escape those associations entirely.29 As Jon Mee demonstrates, “enthusiasm was desired as well as disavowed” by Romantic-era writers.30 The Defence’s ideal poet thus assumes an uncomfortable and quintessentially Romantic position between visionary and fanatic.

Aware of this restless contradiction in her husband’s poetic theory, Mary Shelley exposes it in her fiction. Cragwall locates her critique of the Defence in Frankenstein (1818), which depicts Victor (and thereby Percy Shelley) as an enthusiast with unavoidable “Southcottian affinities.”31 As my analysis of the Shelleys’s composition timeline shows, however, this claim proves somewhat anachronistic given Frankenstein’s publication before the Defence was formally conceptualized and composed. Accordingly, I instead read Valperga as the site of Mary Shelley’s meditations on her husband’s enthusiastic conundrum. The confident, frenetic, yet deluded figure of Beatrice represents the superstitious prophet, while Euthanasia escapes vulgar association through classical learning, political liberality, and self-conscious regulation. The juxtaposition of these two heroines registers the fineness of the distinction between desirable poetic enthusiasm sought by Shelley and its dangerous cousin: superstition. Furthermore, the gendering of Valperga’s ideal enthusiast demonstrates the powers and limitations of feminized regulatory mechanisms. Euthanasia is the novel’s closest approximation of Percy Shelley’s poet-legislator, but she combines his masculine education with feminine religious practices of self-control. Beyond critiquing Percy-Shelleyan enthusiasm, she provides a feminine alternative.

Before distinguishing the heroines of Valperga, Mary Shelley identifies both characters as “enthusiasts,” and forms of “enthusiasm” appear 28 times in the text. The connotations are mixed, but each instance signifies a person “full of ‘enthusiasm’ … for a cause or principle.”32 Euthanasia and Beatrice each receive the name “enthusiast” twice, and Shelley uses physical and behavioral attributes—apparel, fiery eyes, ecstatic postures—to link them notwithstanding their differences.33 Moreover, the two heroines similarly [End Page 58] acquire their enthusiasms from their parents, both in the sense of inherited ability and through education by guardian figures. Rather than polar opposites, Euthanasia and Beatrice represent different sides of the same enthusiastic coin. Shelley thus lays the groundwork for a nuanced critique that reveals how narrow is the coin-edge that separates her husband’s lofty poetics and the vulgar superstition he feared would taint his own expressions of enthusiasm. She also shows the influence of gender on that differentiation.

Upon first glance, Euthanasia and Beatrice seem as “unlike” as Castruccio presumes: Euthanasia replicates Corinne’s “golden hair” and blue eyes, while Beatrice possesses dark hair and “deep black eyes” (Valperga, 77, 127). In apparel, though, we notice a striking resemblance. Euthanasia dresses customarily in a wide-sleeved, “silk vest of blue” from neck to feet, “girded at the waist with a small embroidered band” (78). This image of Euthanasia in blue may inform Castruccio’s dreamlike vision of Beatrice in the “capuchin of light blue silk” she wears when they meet (137); that readers (and Castruccio) meet her for the first time in a silk as blue as Euthanasia’s eyes links the two women. Both also don symbolic headwear. Beatrice wears a “small silver plate … bound by a white riband on her forehead.” The plate’s inscription marks her self-styling as “Ancilla Dei,” or “handmaiden of God”; she believes she is “the chosen vessel into which God has poured a portion of his spirit” (129, 136).34 Euthanasia’s forehead is not emblazoned so, but her hair is “confined by a veil … wreathed round her head” (78). Here, the veil signals religious piety but also invokes the poet’s wreath: the religious symbol marks Euthanasia’s enthusiasm without undermining her social position, and the confining function signifies that regulation extends to her physical appearance.

Both heroines also share traditional prophetic attributes, from their striking postures to the fires ablaze in their eyes. When her “ardent imagination” overtakes her, Beatrice responds “in eager gesticulation,” reflecting in her dramatic posture the significance she perceives in her own speech (Valperga, 152, 129). Shelley’s narrator also observes Beatrice’s “rich and persuasive eloquence,” noting “her energetic but graceful action,” which “added force to her expressions” (137). In her early prophecies and later anathema, Beatrice rises in transport, looks upward or “point[s] to heaven,” and speaks “with tumultuous eloquence” (137, 242). Euthanasia’s “soul” is likewise “elevated by poetic transport,” and she strikes a prophetic pose during an impassioned speech for “the cause of freedom”: “Euthanasia raised her own spirits as she spoke; and fearless expectation, and something like triumph, illuminated her countenance, as she cast her eyes upward, and with her hand clasped that of her friend” (85, 314). Although her [End Page 59] words bear political rather than religious import, Euthanasia’s energy and physical presence are as striking as Beatrice’s, and she inspires listeners with loyalty to her cause. Significantly, Euthanasia “rais[es] her own spirits” instead of awaiting divine inspiration. This active prophetic mode helps distinguish Euthanasia’s secular goals as poetess-prophetess of Valperga from Beatrice’s more passive, religiously inflected superstition.

For both heroines, enthusiasm appears in the eyes and is symbolized through flashes, sparks, and flames of ardent imagination. The “fire” of Euthanasia’s “beauteous eyes” is “softened” by her “long, pointed lashes,” and “her eyes beamed with a quicker fire” in the throes of youthful love (77, 100; cf. 19). Later, incensed by Castruccio’s tyranny-tainted marriage proposal, Euthanasia’s “eyes flashed fire,” leading him to call her “wild enthusiast” (240). The connotations have changed. After labeling Euthanasia an “enthusiast,” Castruccio’s next phrase names Beatrice, juxtaposing Euthanasia with the “dangerous and wicked enthusiast” whose eyes “beamed as with inspiration” when Castruccio first encountered her and “gleamed with prophetic fire” just before the priests denounced her (240, 138, 129, 137). During her anathema, Beatrice’s eyes “shot forth sparks of fire” (245). This image recalls the prophet of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” whose “flashing eyes” and “floating hair” inspire his observers with “holy dread.” Coleridge’s prophet shows that poetic enthusiasm may be mistaken for vulgar superstition; literary and religious audiences alike may cry “Beware! Beware!” as they approach him who “hath … drunk the milk of Paradise.”35 Percy Shelley demonstrates similar awareness of this slippery slope, and Valperga’s heroines reveal its especial danger for women.

This danger appears readily in Beatrice and Euthanasia’s maternal sources of prophetic inspiration. As Smith notes, both heroines inherit prophetic abilities from their mothers,36 but Euthanasia’s enthusiastic bequest is tempered by the education she receives from her father. As her mother’s daughter, Euthanasia’s “foible” was “to love the very shadow of freedom with unbounded enthusiasm,” “but she was no narrow partisan” like her mother; “her father … had taught her higher lessons” (Valperga, 78). An embodiment of “wisdom’s self,” Euthanasia’s father steers her mother’s zealous Guelph politics into a more ecumenical view. He “taught [her] to consider the world and the community of man, or to study the little universe of [her] own mind,” practices essential for the reflective habits she maintains after his death (82). Conversely, prophetic heritage seems less a [End Page 60] matter of education than of reincarnation for Beatrice, who imbibes unfiltered the superstitions of her prophetess-mother, Wilhelmina of Bohemia. The Bishop remarks, “It seemed … as if her mother’s soul had descended into her,” and despite his efforts “to save her” from her heretical “destiny,” she remains influenced most lastingly by Wilhelmina and her follower Magfreda (136).37 “Poor Beatrice!” exclaims Shelley’s narrator:

[s]he had inherited from her mother the most ardent imagination that ever animated a human soul. Its images were as vivid as reality, and were so overpowering, that they appeared to her, when she compared them to the calm sensations of others, as something superhuman.


Beatrice, like her mother, fashions herself as “more than human” (149, 132).38 Both mothers leave enthusiastic legacies for daughters who scarcely remember them. These young women instead learn of their powers from father figures who attempt to modulate those impressions.

Shelley seems to have received a more complicated legacy from her own mother, who wrote extensively about feminine discipline as a powerful virtue of private and public good. As Stuart Curran has shown, Shelley’s pre-1824 writings were “haunted by Mary Wollstonecraft’s presence,” and Valperga in particular shows the daughter’s engagement with the mother’s feminist politics.39 Curran reads Euthanasia as a Wollstonecraftian “reanimation,” an idealist whose education fuels her “devot[ion] to liberty”; and Beatrice as an “object lesson” for the feminine emotionality Wollstonecraft decried even as she embodied it in many ways.40 Valperga thus hosts competing maternal specters, and they intersect at the issue of enthusiasm. This intersection helps further define Euthanasia’s idealism: Beatrice’s lack of control throws into sharp relief Euthanasia’s feminine restraint, a complex issue within Wollstonecraft’s vision for women’s advancement.41 Shelley suggests that the female enthusiast may benefit from sparks of “creative inspiration,” [End Page 61] and may even use them for good, but she must not “fan the flames of a passion bordering on madness.”42 But Shelley’s countess, Euthanasia, does not simply avoid madness by practicing self-control; she uses practices of self-reflection and emotional regulation to become a fair and beloved ruler, a public figure more in the vein of Percy Shelley’s legislator-poet. So if, as Curran suggests, Valperga “reclaims Mary Wollstonecraft’s legacy for a new generation,”43 then it also modifies that legacy by situating feminine restraint as necessary for harnessing female enthusiasm as a source of public power. Shelley’s feminocentric novel reveals the complexity and potential of women’s inspiration, feeling, and self-regulation.

Shelley’s Beatrice—the specter of unrestrained emotion—represents the idea of prophet as “chosen vessel,” a superstitious medium with total confidence in her power but without the agency or discipline to regulate it (Valperga, 136).44 “[W]rapt up in the belief of her own exalted nature,” Beatrice cherishes her distinction as “Ancilla Dei” (136, 149). But rather than being empowered by prophecy, she feels oppressed by it. She wanders through texts in “ignorance and enthusiasm,” and though her imagination is “active,” it simply “confirm[s] her in her mistakes” (136).45 Born of misinformed enthusiasm, Beatrice’s prophecies are “feverish” and “dangerous,” rendering her “imposter! heretic! madwoman!” in the eyes of religious leaders (149, 139). Perhaps most tellingly, Beatrice mistakes romantic passion for “heaven-derived prophecy,” and it leads to her downfall: her “thoughts burning with passion” become “dangerous,” not because of their inherent emotion, but because of Beatrice’s “belief in the divine nature of all that suggested itself to her mind” (Valperga, 149; emphasis in original). Beatrice “give[s] herself up to reverie,” relinquishing agency to “uncontrollable transport” and “imaginative vision” (149). Beatrice’s “bewildered and untamed mind” hosts ill-begotten, unregulated enthusiasm (150).

Beatrice fits the definition of “enthusiast” most associated with religious deviation in the eighteenth century: “one who erroneously believes [herself] to be the recipient of special divine communications.” This enthusiast, says Cragwall, is the superstitious prophet who “haunts” the Defence.46 [End Page 62] Beatrice’s “ill-regulated or misdirected religious emotion”47 associates her with the vulgarizing force of the religious enthusiasm Percy Shelley seeks to avoid in his poetics. In his “flights of greatest abstraction, his involvement with rapture, vision, imaginative displacement, and prophetic transfiguration,” argues Cragwall, Percy Shelley’s poetics “recycl[e] the language of enthusiasm” and thus risk association with the rhetoric of superstition.48 In Beatrice, Mary Shelley gives reign to this mantic mode, revealing the dangers of “unregulated enthusiasm,” especially for women already stereotyped as vulnerable to their own passions.49 Beatrice credits as divine revelation “a prophecy, or rather a sense of evil, which [she] could neither define nor understand” (Valperga, 256; cf. 246–48). To borrow a common Romantic metaphor, Beatrice functions like that well-known Coleridgean instrument, an “organic Har[p] … That tremble[s] into thought” only “as o’er [her] sweeps/Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze.” Like Coleridge’s “indolent and passive brain,” Beatrice expresses whatever “ traverse[s]” her faculties, lacking a regulatory mechanism to alter the strains.50 Her passive enthusiasm leads to her victimization: “blasted to despair … and betrayed by all,” Beatrice succumbs to madness, sinks into “convulsions” and curses, loses her reason, and dies a mere shadow of her former self (243–44, 282).

Euthanasia’s defining self-awareness and self-regulation differentiate her from Beatrice and prevent a similar fate; moreover, agency becomes important for comparing Valperga’s enthusiastic heroine with the Defence’s poet. Euthanasia embodies the Defence’s modified Coleridgean lyre by maximizing Percy Shelley’s key caveat: “there is a principle within the human being, which acts otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds and motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them” (511). Mary Shelley’s 1821 fair copy of the Defence, corrected by Percy Shelley, shows “internal” [End Page 63] substituted for “instinctive.”51 The change is significant: an “instinctive” lyrical adjustment implies inborn harmonizing power, whereas “internal” simply designates a place, not a source, for that ability. Shelley may have revised his lyre metaphor to allow for learned regulation: the lyre “accommodate[s] its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound” (Defence, 511). Essentially, Shelley’s poet is both lyre and musician. Self-regulation therefore affects not only the individual but also the poetic product. Attuned to the “ever-changing melody” of poetic inspiration, Mary Shelley’s Euthanasia likewise becomes a poet-prophet who can “determin[e] the proportion of sound” through reasoned understanding, can improvise to create meaningful melody,52 and can regulate that melody to ensure it is harmonious with the public good.

Like Beatrice’s prophecy, Euthanasia’s requires inspiration and, like Percy Shelley’s poetry, demands a conscious modulating of that inspiration. But the novel differentiates Euthanasia from her two counterparts with an extended discussion of her training as a self-regulated female enthusiast who leverages conventions of private feminine restraint in her public role as Countess of Valperga. Her control is born of classical education and strengthened by habitual self-reflection, both practices taught by her father (see Valperga, 78, 82). Early in Valperga, the narrator stresses Euthanasia’s self-regulation: “Her beauty, her accomplishments, and the gift of a flowing yet mild eloquence that she possessed, the glowing brilliancy of her ardent yet tempered imagination, made her the leader of [her] little band” (70–71). Romantic-era readers would doubtless have encountered the pairing of “beauty” and “accomplishments” in other novelistic heroines; here, common natural and learned graces provide a basis for understanding the relations between inherited and cultivated attributes of Euthanasia’s less commonplace characteristic: enthusiasm. The full passage quoted above denotes Euthanasia’s regulation with three instances of “yet,” each of which marks a tempered enthusiastic tendency: “eloquence” that flows like Beatrice’s; “glowin[g] … imagination” described, like Beatrice’s, as “ardent”; and imputation of “enthusiasm” itself, which, as we have seen, skirts perilous territory in the context of Beatrice’s prophecy. Yet each phrase carefully avoids that dangerous potential: Euthanasia possesses these gifts and her own mind, which tempers them into a milder expression that replaces passion with “celestial” thoughts. A later passage credits Euthanasia with regulating her own enthusiasm: she exhibits a “wisdom exalted by enthusiasm” rather than endangered by it, and a “wildness tempered by self-command” [End Page 64] (Valperga, 78). Here, “self-command” denotes agency necessary for preserving self and society from the dangers enthusiasm poses to both.53 Shelley thus characterizes Euthanasia as an enthusiast capable of reflection, deliberation, and action; or, to borrow Wollstonecraft’s terminology, one who can “lay a due restraint” on herself (Vindication, 152). Whereas Beatrice’s flame blazes unattended, Euthanasia’s “creative fire” emerges from “her heart and brain” (71), suggesting that learning and discipline enable her to curb emotions that might otherwise mislead her into the madness that destroys Beatrice.

Euthanasia’s introspective, self-applied restraint inhabits a unique place between Wollstonecraftian concerns about imposed social proprieties and Evangelical reflective piety. Euthanasia’s prophecies, unlike Beatrice’s wild ravings, involve “deep meditation” that creates a mood of “exceeding serenity,” allowing her to evaluate and regulate feelings (Valperga, 220, 314). When she “feel[s] livelier emotions arise,” Euthanasia’s “custom” is to “try to define and understand” her passions rather than fanning her enthusiastic flame (80):

Euthanasia was so self-examining, that she never allowed a night to elapse without recalling her feelings and actions of the past day; she endeavoured to be simply just to herself, and her soul had so long been accustomed to this discipline, that it easily laid open its deepest secrets. Misfortune had not dulled her sense of right and wrong; her understanding was still clear, though tinged by the same lofty enthusiasm which had ever been her characteristic.


Shelley has Euthanasia examine herself, freeing her from the “severe restraint” Wollstonecraft saw imposed on women by patriarchal society. As an “heir of immortality,” she “ac[ts] from a nobler spring” (Vindication, 215). Interestingly, the passage suggests that this spring may not flow only from secular sources, as Euthanasia’s practice alludes to reflective customs often depicted in novels with stronger ties to Romantic Evangelicalism. We might think of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, whose “own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions,” or, less canonically, the heroine of Hannah More’s Cœlebs in Search of a Wife (1809), who “constantly examined the actual state of her mind” to prevent unconscious sin.54 Whereas these heroines are demure to a fault, Shelley imbues Euthanasia’s [End Page 65] self-examination with a “tinge” of “lofty enthusiasm.” When Shelley combines these characteristics in Euthanasia, she creates a new type of female enthusiast, and, with Beatrice as foil, distinguishes her enthusiasm as a uniquely feminine “spring” that avoids both excessive zeal and oppressive didacticism.

Shelley also describes Euthanasia’s character with a favorite genteel metaphor for feminine regulation: the lady’s carefully tended garden. In Volume 3, after Beatrice has been abandoned by Castruccio and imprisoned by Tripalda, she escapes to find refuge in the care of her rival, Euthanasia. Both displaced to Lucca by Castruccio’s tyranny, the two heroines walk together along the palace-garden’s “overgrown paths,” and Beatrice tells Euthanasia: “I do not like to pry into the secrets of my own heart, and yet I am ever impelled to do it. I was about to compare it to this unweeded garden; but here all is still” (Valperga, 262). Reflection is for Beatrice unpleasant, forced; it reminds her of her soul’s disarray. As Mee observes, eighteenth-century Britons read such discomfort as popular enthusiasm’s tendency “to avoid reflection and meditation.”55 Beatrice cannot bear to examine her own soul, but she recognizes in Euthanasia a “gentler heart” able to recollect motives and, to borrow Beatrice’s metaphor, to weed its own garden (262; cf. 150).56 With the implication that Euthanasia can weed her heart-garden, Beatrice acknowledges that both gardens contain weeds. In fact, weeds seem inescapable for the female enthusiast in Shelley’s novel, which catalogs the tolls that invasive species like superstition impose on the prophetess’s mind, sometimes despite her best gardening efforts.

Here, late in the novel, Beatrice reckons with her downfall. Seeing her companion’s despair, Euthanasia explains her own conception of the human mind and her method for taming its demons. For Euthanasia, understanding the “vast cave” of the mind allows her to harness “Poetry” and “Imagination” to regulate its powers (Valperga, 262). She becomes a mouthpiece for Mary Shelley’s proto-psychological theory and a key link to the cavernous meditations that litter Percy Shelley’s oeuvre. We might think of the “dark magician in his visioned cave” in Alastor (1816), for example, but the most germane precursor for Euthanasia’s monologue is “the still cave of the witch Poesy” in “Mont Blanc” (1817).57 As Nigel Leask has shown, “Mont Blanc” links poetry with witchcraft and its cave with [End Page 66] superstition.58 The cavern also hosts the “unremitting interchange” between the poem’s speaker and “the clear universe of things around” (lines 39–40). Whereas the universe “[f]lows through the mind” in Shelley’s famous opening (line 2), it here engages in conversation. Shelley grants the “human mind” a measure of agency even as he maintains its deference to Nature: the mind “passively … renders and receives fast influencings” (lines 37–38). We can read this actively receptive mind as a stepping-stone to Shelley’s poetics of harmony in the Defence. The enthusiastic mind may not be able to control its “unremitting” openness to what flows through it, but it can participate, even passively, in an “interchange” with the inspiring source. This interchange anticipates the skilled modulation of Shelley’s Defence, and it informs Mary Shelley’s meditations on active and passive enthusiasm in Valperga.

Euthanasia’s monologue presents Mary Shelley’s more nuanced view of enthusiasm: it not only shows the effects of passive superstition, but it also demystifies the regulation of enthusiasm’s “influencings” and articulates a method for the female enthusiast to gain influence through that regulation. “I will tell you what the human mind is,” Euthanasia assures Beatrice, “and you shall learn to regulate its various powers” (Valperga, 262). This statement is one of the novel’s strongest proofs of Shelley distinguishing between her heroines based on their relative handling of strong emotion. Beatrice admits that, “in [her] soul all jars,” producing “most vile discord.” Some external force “destroys all harmony and melody, alas! that may be found in your gentler heart” (262). Front these confessions, Euthanasia recognizes a lyre in need of tuning; moreover, Beatrice’s assessment shows how closely Euthanasia resembles the Defence’s poet-prophet. Her “lyre … produces not melody alone, but harmony” (Defence, 511). The musical wordplay heightens the contrast between the novel’s female enthusiasts. Euthanasia’s solution—teaching Beatrice “to regulate” the mind’s “powers” as a musician forms pleasing chords—invokes their shared enthusiasm but highlights self-regulation as Euthanasia’s special learned ability (262). Euthanasia immediately seeks to teach Beatrice her ways, answering the Defence’s call to reject “censure or hatred” in order to “teac[h] … self-knowledge and respect” (Defence, 520). Rather than judging Beatrice’s weaker mind, Euthanasia “help[s her] recover a sense of purpose and some measure of integrated identity.”59 Mary Shelley’s female enthusiast thus “draws into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial [End Page 67] apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion” (Defence, 512). She takes up the mantle of poet-prophet as a compassionate teacher of self-knowledge.

Inside the “vestibule” of Euthanasia’s mind “cavern … sit Memory with banded eyes, grave Judgment bearing her scales, and Reason in a lawyer’s gown” (Valperga, 262). The latter two played important roles in Romantic-era discourses of religious enthusiasm: reason was often viewed as the Enlightenment principle against which Romantic enthusiasm was reacting, but in other cases it was a cousin of enthusiasm, a similarly subjective power.60 The cave’s vestibule also houses “Religion” and its “counterfei[t]”: “Hypocrisy” (Valperga, 262). Beyond this pair lies the inner cave, which “receives no light from outward day; nor has Conscience any authority here” (263). Kari Lokke has read the innermost reaches of Euthanasia’s mind cave as a place of “[s]piritual transcendence … reminiscent of … Eastern mysticism”;61 we might also read it as the realm of enthusiasm. Without light from the outer reaches, says Euthanasia, the inner cave exists in one of two states: “lighted by an inborn light” or left in darkness, where “the daring heretic learns strange secrets” (Valperga, 263). “This,” Euthanasia warns, “is the habitation of the madman, when all the powers desert the vestibule, and he, finding no light, makes darkling, fantastic combinations and lives among them” (263). This darker possibility recalls the novel’s claims of Beatrice’s heresy—she combines irresponsibly the religion she has learned from the Bishop with the superstitions of her mother’s cult. Without an “inborn light,” the mind is vulnerable to unregulated enthusiasm, but the inner cave also houses “the highest virtues” (263). Among these virtues are numbered “Poetry” and “Imagination,” and “here they find a lore better than all the lessons of the world” (263). In Euthanasia’s concept map, “Poetry” is more intrinsic to the mind than are “Religion” and “Reason,” and as such, it supersedes the “lessons” of those knowledge systems. This claim proves central to the Defence’s ideas of poetry and to Valperga’s exploration of enthusiasm.62 Euthanasia’s assertion that “[f]ew visit this … strange and wondrous” chamber accords with assumptions that the enthusiast accesses parts of the mind untapped by most people (263). Her explanation acknowledges Beatrice’s intimation that these women are special, and it offers a possibility for handling their unusual abilities.

Euthanasia’s acute self-awareness, rigid self-discipline, and tactful approach to teaching reveal Shelley’s views on good civil leadership in [End Page 68] Valperga: the novel draws from the capacious definition of the poet-prophet in the Defence, but it imbues that Percy-Shelleyan enthusiasm with a particularly feminine brand of self-discipline. Euthanasia’s enthusiasm for “cause or principle”63 gains focus in championing “the liberties of [her] country”: “[h]er young thoughts darted into futurity, to the hope of freedom for Italy, of revived learning and the reign of peace for all the world” (Valperga, 81, 19). Her education fosters personal improvement that extends into the public sphere: “Euthanasia heard and understood; her soul, adapted for the reception of all good, drained the cup of eloquent feeling that her father poured out before her” (70–71). Shelley makes Euthanasia the active recipient of knowledge, capable of receiving and combining ideas. Euthanasia’s reading acknowledges that poetry expands the mind to receive “a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought” (Defence, 517); moreover, Euthanasia’s mind “incorporated the thoughts of the sublimest geniuses with her own, while the creative fire in her heart and brain formed new combinations to delight and occupy her” (Valperga, 71). But these combinations do more than merely occupy Euthanasia. She listens, melodizes, and harmonizes with a broad range of ideas, making her a complex instrument of liberty for Valperga.

In Euthanasia, then, Mary Shelley reassesses her husband’s ideals in light of women’s concerns about and practices of self-regulation; in doing so, she envisions the female enthusiast as a different force of public good. In the Defence, the poetic mind possesses “an habit of order and harmony correlative with its own nature and with its effects upon other minds”; it links “the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination” with “[t]he enthusiasm of virtue, love, patriotism, and friendship” (534, 532). As a female version of this poet-leader, Euthanasia applies understanding and fervor to form sympathetic relationships with constituents: “her mind acquired new dignity, and the virtues of her heart new fervour” as she ruled, and she explores her potential, as leader, for “doing good” (71). But Curran also links Euthanasia’s beneficence with her womanhood: she “wields power as a protective nurturing woman and rules through love not fear.”64 Though “prudent” and “wise,” she is also “so kind, that her assistance was perpetually claimed and afforded” (Valperga, 71). She spends most of her time among Valperga’s peasantry, taxes her citizens only to satisfy “the succour of their own necessities,” and fights to “preserve the independence of her subjects” in the face of Ghibelline takeover (71, 101, 212). In these policies appears the sincere, “undisguised sympathy” that “made her adored by her servants and dependents” (101). Euthanasia understands [End Page 69] her place in the world as, in Percy-Shelleyan terms, “an atom to the Universe” (Defence, 532), and she approaches that place with feminine sympathy and self-control. Euthanasia becomes a new kind of inspired musician, a female enthusiast-leader attuned to the workings of her own mind and to the needs of those over whom she holds power.

In a novel filled with ambitious kings and ruthless conquerors, then, Euthanasia models leadership differently, and her male counterparts recognize her uncommon enthusiasm for liberty and justice. She rejects Castruccio’s veiling of “tyranny with hypocrisy and falsehood,” vowing to “never willingly surrender [her] power into his hands”: “I hold it for the good of my people, who are happy under my government, and towards whom I shall ever perform my duty” (Valperga, 201). For Euthanasia, governance is duty, not power, and she seeks, above all, freedom and happiness for her subjects. Even when she is “despoil[ed]” of immediate political control, “there was something in her manner, as if the spirit of truth animated all her accents, that compelled assent” (202, 317). Euthanasia’s knowledge, sympathy, and enthusiasm, and her regulation of those elements, inspire awe rather than pity. She is an agent who, though eventually overcome by patriarchal forces, works for social and political good while she survives.

As critics have noted, Euthanasia bears many similarities to Adrian Windsor, the Percy-Shelley-like “dreamer” of The Last Man (1826),65 but Euthanasia’s gender difference makes her the more interesting of Mary Shelley’s fictional reprises of her husband’s poetics. As Rossington observes, Euthanasia does represent the ideals of the Defence and its author. But does that mean we should take at face value Claire Clairmont’s oft-quoted remark that “Euthanasia is Shelley in female attire”?66 I suggest not. In Euthanasia, Mary Shelley does more than merely clothe Percy Shelley in feminine garb. She embodies his ideals in female enthusiasts who incorporate [End Page 70] models from Joanna Southcott to Staël’s Corinne to Mary Wollstonecraft. Valperga’s enthusiast-heroines affirm the Defence’s concern over poetic idealism being contaminated by religious zeal, but the novel explores this concern as it applies to women, and especially to women writers. Beatrice embodies the lurid fascination of Southcott, and Euthanasia shows women’s regulation of similarly powerful feeling. Like Shelley, Adrian, and the Defence’s ideal poet, she also confronts ignominy. The Defence shows how culture undervalues these prophets’ enthusiasm:

neither poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry: … Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fulness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.


The poet-prophet exits tragically, leaving unacknowledged artistic and political work. In Valperga, the narrator laments how “[e]arth felt no change when [Euthanasia] died; and men forgot her,” but the novel’s last words recall her singularity as a prophetess: “a lovelier spirit never ceased to breathe, nor was a lovelier form ever destroyed amidst the many it brings forth” (322). Even if Euthanasia’s reign is “erased from memory,”67 her fictional story becomes, as Godwin recognized, the heart of Shelley’s historical novel. Staunch opposition to tyranny and conscious distinction from unregulated enthusiasm define qualities of Shelley’s heroine, but her reliance on feminine restraint makes her a new kind of poet to be “impanelled by Time.”

While Wollstonecraft saw restraint first as a patriarchal control imposed on women, Mary Shelley embraces the Vindication’s more positive alternative and reconciles it with concerns about emotionality brought forward in Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. Euthanasia’s feminine self-control complements her enthusiasm, and she wields it against cultural biases to achieve private and public good. Rather than merely dressing male Romantic enthusiasm in women’s attire to make it socially valuable, Shelley validates feminine models for using self-regulation to legitimize visionary experience. Euthanasia may not be remembered by the men who orchestrate her exile, but the identity she embodies—that of a self-regulating female enthusiast—outlives her, and outlasts the superstitious Southcottian model that Beatrice represents. She becomes a vehicle for literary women to explore the religiously inflected identity of the female poet. She survives [End Page 71] questionable religious associations, challenges gender-based assumptions, and eventually takes her place as a serious artist. And her persistence begs reexamination of enthusiasm’s place within an evolving nineteenth-century female poetics.

Rachael Isom
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Rachael Isom

Rachael Isom recently completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has published articles on Hannah More, Caroline Fry, and J. M. Coetzee. Her current monograph project explores the intersections of religious and poetic zeal via the figure of the female enthusiast in Romantic-era women’s writing.


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I wish to thank Jeanne Moskal for her guidance through many iterations of this essay. I am also grateful to Michael Rossington, jasper Cragwall, Charles J. Rzepka, and Vera R. Foley for their helpful feedback and suggestions.


3. As editor Nora Crook notes, William Godwin suggested the title “Valperga”; Mary Shelley had named the novel for Castruccio (Valperga, xiii, xviin).

9. Smith, Romantic Women Writers, 200. Similarly, Daniel Schierenbeck uses the terms “superstition” and “secularized” enthusiasm to explore this continuum in classroom discussions of religion’s political implications in Valperga (“Religion and the Contours of the Romantic-Era Novel,” par. 17).

12. See Chapter 6 of Cragwall, Lake Methodism.

16. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert confirm Mary Shelley’s fair-copying of Percy’s Defence (MWSJ, 356n). See also The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, ed. Michael O’Neill (New York: Garland, 1994), 20:3, 20:20–83; hereafter BSM, cited in the text. Rossington and Mekler both note the overlap of her copying and the late stages of Valperga’s composition (Rossington, Introduction, xxiv; and Mekler, “Broken Mirrors,” 461). Mary Shelley returned to “Sir P.h. Sydneys D. of Poet[r]y” just after Percy Shelley’s funeral (MWSJ, 1:426).

17. The couple began translating Spinoza in October 1817 and returned to the project in January 1820; however, despite seeking a publisher in 1822, the text never appeared in print, and the manuscript seems to have been lost (MWSJ, 1:305–6 and note).

19. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert note that Shelley likely read D. Lawler’s translation, Corinna, or Italy (MWSJ, 1:88n). She revisited Corinne in December 1818 and may have introduced Percy to it (MWSJ, 1:243). According to Clarissa Campbell Orr, Mary Shelley read Corinne three times between 1815 and 1821 (Clarissa Campbell Orr, ed., vol. 3 of Mary Shelley’s Literary Lives and Other Writings, 4 vols. [London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002], 484n). For Staël’s influence on Shelley, see Kari Lokke, “Sibylline Leaves: Mary Shelley’s Valperga and the Legacy of Corinne,” in Cultural Interactions in the Romantic Age, ed. Gregory Maertz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 157–73; Lokke, Tracing Women’s Romanticism, 36; Smith, Romantic Women Writers, 202; Curran, “Valperga,” 114.

21. Mary Shelley, “Madame de Staël, 1766–1817,” in Mary Shelley’s Literary Lives and Other Writings, 3: 484.

22. Shelley, “Madame de Staël,” 3:461, 463. Vargo quotes liberally from this text (174–75).

25. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), 513; hereafter cited in the text by page. An earlier draft also includes “deities,” “seers,” and “beholders,” which would align Shelley even more closely with Sidney (Bodleian MS. Shelley d. 1, f. 76r rev., BSM, 4–2, 135).

27. Shelley’s disdain for religious “superstition” may arise from spiritual as well as class-based objections. For a recent discussion of Shelley’s “ ‘occupation’ of atheism,” see Colin Jager, Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 237–38. Shelley’s draft implicitly links this “pretence of superstition” with a Hebrew model of prophecy: “such is the pretence of superstition the spirit of events; ? & a question of which the which would make poetry an attribute of ? advocatc of the ?Hebrew ( ) this is the mere pretence of superstition” (BSM, 4–2, 135). Shelley removes another reference to superstition in his discussion of poetry and morality (see BSM, 4–2, 171).

30. Mee, Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation, 14; emphasis in original. For first-generation Romantics’ struggles to differentiate vision from fanaticism, see Mee, 1, 3–6, 12–14, 17, 239–40, 247; Coleridge’s consistent “desynonymization” of “enthusiasm” and “fanaticism” is an apt example of this anxiety (Mee, 32, 37, 76, 150, 164, 168–72; Cragwall, Lake Methodism, 114). See also Andrew O. Winckles, “ ‘Excuse What Difficiencies You Will Find’: Methodist Women and Public Space in John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 3 (2013): 423, 427–28.

32. “Enthusiast, n.,” OED Online, December 2016, Oxford University Press,, accessed January 9, 2017.

34. The Latin translation is Curran’s (“Valperga,” 112).

35. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan; Or, a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment,” in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poetical Works, 1, ed. J. C. C. Mays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 511–14, lines 49, 50, 52, 53–54.

38. Phyllis Mack argues that, for women in particular, convincing an audience that one is “both less and more than human” is essential for establishing prophetic credibility. See Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 108.

40. Curran, “Mothers and Daughters,” 590; “Valperga,” 113, 114. Similarly, Rossington reads Euthanasia as “that combination of reason and sensibility promoted as the prerogative of women” by Wollstonecraft (Introduction, xii).

47. “Enthusiast” and “enthusiasm,” Oxford English Dictionary Online (September 2014); Cragwall, Lake Methodism, 191.

50. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp: Composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire,” in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poetical Works, 1:232–34, lines 42–44, 38.

51. BSM, 20:21. Michael O’Neill confirms that Bodleian MS. Shelley e.6, is Mary Shelley’s fair copy, and that Percy Shelley made the interlinear corrections (BSM, 20:7). For the draft changes discussed above, see BSM, 20:85; and 4–2, 103.

56. For a different reading, see Twigg, “Do you then repair my work,” 493. For women’s gardening as a mechanism of regulation in the Romantic period, see Judith W. Page and Elise L. Smith, Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), esp. chapters 5 and 7.

57. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alastor; Or, The Spirit of Solitude, line 682; and “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni,” line 44, in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. I am grateful to Michael Rossington for this lead.

62. In the Defence, Shelley subjugates reason as “instrument” to the “agent,” imagination (510–11).

63. “Enthusiast,” OED Online.

64. Curran, Introduction, xix. See also Rossington, Introduction, xii.

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