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  • Mary Shelley's Guido, Genoa, and Janus
  • Scott Wiggins and Alexander Gourlay

Mary Shelley's 1831 short story "Transformation" was commissioned for the annual anthology The Keepsake, which at the time was one of several popular collections of illustrated fiction, essays, and poetry promoted as gifts for women. In the story, Guido, a Renaissance rake, tells in first-person retrospect how he evolved from an arrogant wastrel into "Guido il Cortese," a prodigy of politeness, following an encounter with a demonic dwarf personifying his own ugly impulses. As in many works of the Romantic era, the confrontation between natural and supernatural occurs at the seashore, where Guido finds himself after alienating his entire terrestrial acquaintance. The grotesque demon suddenly emerges from an apparent shipwreck and proposes to borrow Guido's handsome appearance for three days in exchange for a treasure chest. They part, and when his alternative self does not return as promised, Guido follows him and discovers to his horror that, hidden in Guido's handsome shape, the demon has humbly conciliated those who had banished him and is on the verge of marrying his childhood sweetheart. At the climax of the story Guido's human and demonic forms struggle, but then apparently coalesce and live happily ever after with Guido's beloved soulmate Juliet.

The notes on "Transformation" in a recent collection of thematically related works edited by Susan Wolfson and Barry Qualls thoroughly document the paronomastic dualities and other symbolic wordplay in Shelley's story, but one particularly appropriate detail, Guido's home city, has not yet been recognized as significant—in at least two different ways, as it turns out.1 Guido begins the account of his transformation by saying, emphatically, "Genoa! my birth place—proud city!" (121). The last two words evoke a famous epithet, "Genoa la Superba" ("Genoa the Proud"), said to reflect the ostentatious marble architecture [End Page 37] of the city; Guido describes himself as proud Genoa's proper native, one "born with the most imperious, haughty, tameless spirit with which ever mortal was gifted" (121–22). But Genoa had additional associations that are mirrored in Guido's character: accounts going back to the classical era derive "Genoa" from the name of its putative founder, "Janus," identified variously as either a mortal king, a hero, or the Roman god; a related tradition connects the city's geography with the two faces of the god, in that Genoa, too, has two faces, with one looking to the sea and the other to the land.2

Mary Shelley spent an unhappy year in Genoa after Percy's death in 1822 and would have had many opportunities to hear of the traditional connection of Genoa to Janus. She could have seen in person the Latin inscription in Genoa's Cathedral of San Lorenzo that identifies "'… JAN[US] P[RI]MU[S] REX ITALIE * DE PROGENIE GIGANTIU[M] …" as the founder of the city, and the legends associating Genoa with the god and his worship are mentioned in numerous histories and guidebooks.3 In tying Guido's identity to Genoa, Shelley could exploit both of its traditional attributes: its pride and its Januslike doubleness. Furthermore, Guido's crisis on the shore is represented in a symbolic geography that corresponds with that of the city, poised between the emotional, irrational sea and the sober, pragmatic land.4

When the two Guidos collide in the story's violent finale, the demon abruptly vanishes, indicating that Guido has subsumed and concealed his demonic aspect rather than conquering or casting it off. As he attacks his handsome self the temporarily monstrous Guido shouts, "O loathsome and foul-shaped wretch!" (134), but then the mature Guido il Cortese politely interrupts his own narrative, declaring, "I need not repeat epithets, all tending, as it appeared, to rail at a person [End Page 38] I at present feel some partiality for" (134). The word "partiality" punningly suggests that as he looks back in maturity, Guido recognizes and accepts the monstrous "person" as an essential part of himself.5 Shelley's tale is thus less straightforwardly moralistic than it might at first appear to be, in that the maturation of the Byronic...


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pp. 37-39
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