Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Markley, A. A. "'Laughing That I May Not Weep': Mary Shelley's Short Fiction and Her Novels." Keats-Shelley Journal 66 (1997): 97-124.

In the following excerpt, Markley attempts to reassess Shelley's reputation by examining her stories and novels, arguing that a fresh look at her neglected stories, which explore themes such as the loyalty of women and arranged marriage, shows the breadth of her interests and stylistic abilities.


Still fixed in the general cultural memory as a grieving widow who was unable to reproduce the success of her first novel, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has not been known as a writer skilled in a range of generic conventions. Until very recently her reputation has been based almost solely upon Frankenstein (1818), and occasionally The Last Man (1826), both of which are serious works of science fiction within which Mary Shelley also refashioned the genre of her father's popular confessional narratives, such as Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), Fleet-wood (1805), and Mandeville (1817). Nevertheless, Mary Shelley also wrote the historical novels Valperga (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the Victorian domestic novels Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), and two travel books, History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817) and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), all of which demonstrate significant differences in style and tone from her better-known Godwinian confessional narratives. It has only been within the last few years that significant numbers of scholars have begun to move beyond Frankenstein in assessing her work, and 1996 marked the first publication of all of her novels together in a complete edition, indeed the first publication of several of the novels in this century.1

If we are to give Mary Shelley her due as an artist, it is important to establish a framework for analyzing her work that does not derive solely from Frankenstein, a framework that takes into account her versatility and range from multiple stylistic and generic perspectives. An analysis of many of her shorter pieces, for example, reveals that not only did she experiment with more than one literary genre, but she very often reworked her serious themes and conventions, employed so effectively in such novels as Frankenstein and The Last Man, in a lighter, more artistically playful vein. Mostly short stories that Mary Shelley wrote for gift-book annuals—as financial necessity dictated in the mid to late 1820s and 1830s—many of these works display her wit and ability as a humorist, an aspect of her literary personality which has not been sufficiently acknowledged.2 Moreover, an analysis of these stories offers a rare view of Mary Shelley the writer at work, in this case using and reusing material that inspired her in the composition of her more serious, longer novels.

Mary Shelley produced the majority of her short stories for publication in The Keepsake, a popular annual published every November in time for holiday gift-giving. In working in the rapidly growing gift-book genre, she faced a number of restrictions quite different from those of the three-decker novel. In his Introduction to the Collected Tales and Stories, Charles E. Robinson explains that annuals such as The Keepsake often contracted with writers to compose stories of a certain rigidly-set length to accompany plates they had already chosen to publish (p. xvi). In The Keepsake for 1831 (publ. 1830), for example, Mary Shelley's stories "Transformation: A Tale," and "The Swiss Peasant" were published to accompany plates depicting young women entitled "Juliet" and "The Swiss Peasant."3 The plates were a particular point of pride for The Keepsake's editor, Mary Shelley's friend Frederic Mansel Reynolds, who in the Preface to this number heartily thanks a contributor for permission to publish a frontispiece engraving of a painting of "Haidée," which has no apparent connection to the contents of the annual. Although Mary Shelley's stories are often linked to their respective plates of necessity, the relationship between the illustration and the story is in most cases artificial and rather tenuous.4 A study of her work for the annuals reveals Mary Shelley's remarkably consistent production of high quality work true to her own literary designs, which simultaneously satisfy the necessity of illustrating predetermined engravings.5

Indeed, in many of these short pieces, Mary Shelley manages to complement the plate which she was obligated to "illustrate" in a creative, sometimes even humorous manner. This may suggest something of her attitude toward the restricting genre of the annuals. After all, her feelings must have been mixed about frequently having to put aside work on her novels during the 1820s to compose short stories in order to support herself and her son. And most of her work for the annuals involves treating themes of love and romance, meeting the editors' requirements for stories involving beautiful young women aimed at a largely female readership. The various twists that Mary Shelley is able to put on the themes of these stories provides an array of evidence for her professional poise and artistic skills within a set genre.

No doubt the limited attention paid to Mary Shelley's short stories, along with the majority of her other works, is partly the result of the critical assumption, beginning as early as her own lifetime, that her post-Frankenstein work is aesthetically inferior. Perhaps the most unfortunate fact of her publishing career is that the genius behind Frankenstein often has been attributed in varying degrees to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.6 Even Richard Garnett, one of the most important nineteenth-century figures responsible for the preservation of Mary Shelley's reputation and the first editor of her short stories, contributed to the abiding perception of Mary Shelley's work after Frankenstein as inferior. In his Introduction to Mary Shelley's Tales and Stories of 1891, Garnett attempted to defend Mary Shelley against those who attributed her success in Frankenstein solely to her relationship with her husband. Nevertheless, he undercuts his defense by dismissing her later novels, with the exception of The Last Man:

None of Mary Shelley's subsequent romances approached Frankenstein in power and popularity. The reason may be summed up in a word—Languor. After the death of her infant in 1819, she could never again command the energy which had carried her so vigorously through Frankenstein. Except in one instance, her work did not really interest her. Her heart was not in it.7

Garnett did, however, see many of the virtues of Mary Shelley's short stories, although he credited their general success to the restrictions of the short story format of the period. He wrote that "the necessary limitations of space afforded less scope for that creeping languor which relaxed the nerve of her more ambitious productions" (Introduction, p. xi). In addition, he claims that the annual's tendency to affect "an exalted order of sentiment" was "perfectly suited" to Mary Shelley as a writer of passion and emotion (p. x). Although Garnett credited her for her ability to create "poetical atmosphere" and for the deeply interwoven biographical elements in her work, he did not acknowledge the range of her work. He did not comment on the humorous and parodic elements of such works as "Transformation" and "The Mortal Immortal," for example, nor did he credit either of these stories for their subtle reworkings of the Godwinian confessional narrator; "The Mortal Immortal" he saw merely as "a variation on the theme of St. Leon" (p. xiii).

In reassessing Mary Shelley's reputation as a writer, it must be acknowledged that her short stories vary widely in both tone and generic form, and that the "grieving widow" was in fact capable of great originality, wit, and humor. Her supposed "languor" after the deaths of her children and husband neither stifled Mary Shelley's ability to produce great literature, nor prevented her from exercising a marked ingenuity, even a kind of ironic playfulness, in some works. She frequently achieves these effects by imaginatively playing off the engravings provided her, putting a creative twist on the typical literary fare published in the annuals at that time.

I begin by looking at three stories in which Mary Shelley treats the theme of the loyalty of women, in each case reworking what constitutes a frequently recurring theme in her longer fiction, namely Valperga, The Last Man, and Perkin Warbeck, novels written during the mid to late 1820s. In "The Bride of Modern Italy," Mary Shelley provides a wryly ironic critique of the Italian custom of arranged marriages, which she witnessed while living in Italy from 1818-1823, as well as a humorous response to her husband's infatuation with the young Emilia Viviani. "The False Rhyme" is a comic treatment of the extent of one woman's loyalty; and "The Dream" a humorous deflation of many of the conventions of gothic literature that Mary Shelley often drew on in her own novels. The protagonist of "The Dream" is in many ways a comic recasting of such figures as Ellen in "The Mourner," written two years earlier, or even the heroine of Mathilda —both characters whose obsessive grief cripple them emotionally.



To [Sir Walter Scott]

Bagni di Lucca 14 June-1818


Having received from the publisher of Frankenstein the notice taken of that work in Blackwood's magasine, and intelligence at the same time that it was to your kindness that I owed this favourable notice I hasten to return my acknowledgements and thanks, and at the same time to express the pleasure I receive from approbation of so high a value as yours.

Mr Shelley soon after its publication took the liberty of sending you a copy but as both he and I thought in a manner which would prevent you from supposing that he was the author we were surprised therefore to see him mentioned in the notice as the probable author,—I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine; to which—from its being written at an early age, I abstained from putting my name—and from respect to those persons from whom I bear it. I have therefore kept it concealed except from a few friends.

I beg you will pardon the intrusion of this explanation—

Your obliged & c & c Mary Wollstft Shelley.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "A Letter to Sir Walter Scott." In The Mary Shelley Reader, edited by Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson, pp. 391-92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Next I will look at three stories in which Mary Shelley reworks conventions of science fiction and the fantastic—like those found in her well-known novels Frankenstein and The Last Man. In "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman," for example, Mary Shelley gently satirizes contemporary British culture through the device of a European "Rip Van Winkle," whose reanimation in a later century allows her to associate nineteenth-century England with the revolutionary England of the Interregnum. In this story she provides a lighter treatment of the same situation that she had taken up in the unfinished "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" and The Last Man. In "The Mortal Immortal" and "Transformation," Mary Shelley reaches the height of her gift for humor. In these stories she develops the themes of human immortality and of body-swapping, and while doing so she also recasts the Godwinian confessional narrator, a character-type that strongly influenced her conception of both Victor Frankenstein and Lionel Verney. In addition, she draws on the popular figure of the Byronic hero, traces of whom are also evident in such figures as Valperga 's Castruccio, and The Last Man 's Lord Raymond. And, in her humorous treatment of fantastic plot elements, she reworks elements of science fiction and the supernatural that characterize her own more serious fiction, Frankenstein in particular.

Mary Shelley was driven to the necessity of having to produce short works quickly in order to support herself and her son Percy Florence in the years following Percy Bysshe Shelley's death, so it is not surprising to find that she occasionally found it worthwhile to rework some of the serious themes to which she devoted herself in her novels. That she reworked the themes with such wit, and sometimes in parodic or humorous ways, however, may be surprising to readers who know her only for her more serious longer fiction. Perhaps Mary Shelley found in these lighter short stories a welcome release from the serious themes that she was continually drawn to in her novels; one may think of Byron's lines from Don Juan: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing / 'T is that I may not weep" (IV.iv.1-2).


"The Bride of Modern Italy" is an excellent example among Mary Shelley's shorter fiction of her artful, playful mode. First published in 1824 in the London Magazine, in it Mary Shelley took the opportunity to respond to her husband's obsession with the young Italian Emilia Viviani in 1820-1821, who was the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Italian Platonics," and his poem Epipsychidion. Although "The Bride of Modern Italy" is a rather gentle treatment of this situation, a passage in a letter that Mary Shelley wrote to Maria Gisborne on 7 March 1822 clarifies her feelings. In reporting to Mrs. Gisborne Emilia's marriage, Mary Shelley writes, "The conclusion of our friendship a la Italiana puts me in mind of a nursery rhyme which runs thus—

As I was going down Cranbourne lane,
Cranbourne lane was dirty,
And there I met a pretty maid,
Who dropt to me a curt'sey;
I gave her cakes, I gave her wine,
I gave her sugar candy,
But oh! the little naughty girl!
She asked me for some brandy

Now turn Cranbourne lane into Pisan acquaintances, which I am sure are dirty enough, & brandy into that wherewithall to buy brandy (& that no small sum pero) & you have [the] whole story of Shelley['s] Italian platonics."8

During the time in which she composed "The Bride of Modern Italy," or soon thereafter, Mary Shelley was at work on another fiction, in which she idealizes Percy Bysshe Shelley in the character of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, a major figure in The Last Man. Adrian embodies the virtues of genius, gentleness, and altruism that Mary Shelley most admired in her husband. Emily Sustein notes that Mary Shelley had to put aside her work on the novel from time to time in order to write short stories for more ready money; her work on "The Bride of Modern Italy" therefore offered her an alternative site for working through the anguished feelings regarding the difficult issues in her marriage in the years immediately preceding Shelley's death.9

The Shelleys became acquainted with Emilia Viviani while living in Pisa in 1820, and both Mary and Shelley were drawn to her out of sympathy for her plight. The daughter of the governor of Pisa, Emilia was confined to a convent until her family arranged her marriage—a process which excluded Emilia's wishes altogether. Mary Shelley's initial response was horror at Italian conventions concerning arranged marriages. In a letter to Leigh Hunt, she described the pitiful, lamenting Emilia: "Her only hope is to marry but her very existence is almost a secret—what an exceptional wedding! I will tell you, my friend, how they marry in this country."10 Her diatribe against the conventions of arranged marriages continues in a long description of a sample marriage contract, in which a groom's physical and financial attributes are described in detail; his name is to be withheld until the contract was agreed upon by both families. But it is not merely the contemporary Italian mode of arranging marriages that Mary Shelley satirizes in "The Bride of Modern Italy"; she also draws a gently critical portrait of her husband in the story—perhaps in part to balance the idealization of Shelley in The Last Man 's Adrian. Shelley had become infatuated with Emilia Viviani soon after the Shelleys made her acquaintance, and his feelings for the young girl and the emotional relationship he carried on with Emilia drove a wedge between him and his wife at a time when the marriage was strained by the deaths of Harriet Shelley, their children Clara and William, and problems between Claire Clairmont and Byron concerning Claire's daughter Allegra. As Shelley grew more enamoured of Emilia Viviani, Mary may well have grown gradually more suspicious of the girl's duplicity despite her innocuous demeanor.

In the story, Mary Shelley represents Emilia as "Clorinda Saviani," a woman whose very name, "Clorinda," playfully recalls the military Clorinda of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata in order to exploit the comic potential of the woman-warrior. Clorinda's last name, "Saviani," ironically comes from the Italian savio or "wise," a detail that suggests that the girl is not the innocent that she appears to be. Like Emilia, Clorinda is shut up in a convent until her marriage is arranged, and Mary Shelley's long, de-romanticized description of Clorinda's convent itself parodies a convention of gothic literature. "If my reader has never seen a convent," Mary Shelley writes, "let him dismiss from his mind all he may have heard or imagined of such abodes, or he can never transport himself into the garden of St. S——" (p. 32). The narrator describes the weather-stained building and the kitchen garden (overgrown, untended, and strewn with "broken earthen-ware, ashes, cabbage-stalks, orange-peel, bones, and all that marks the vicinity of a much frequented, but disorderly mansion" [p. 32]), creating an exceptionally prosaic setting, something far more earthy than readers might expect. In effect Mary Shelley deflates the conventional gothic setting of the convent, destroying any likelihood that it will invoke the darkness and mystery of gothic fiction. From the beginning of the story Mary Shelley stresses Clorinda's fickleness. The dejected Clorinda pines for her lover Giacomo and explains to her friend Teresa that she changes her patron saint to match her lovers' changing names, a comment that recalls Claire Clairmont's journal entry of 23 July 1821 regarding Emilia Viviani: "Emilia says that she prays always to a Saint, and every time she changes her lover, she changes her Saint, adopting the one of her lover."11 Even for the real Emilia, religious devotion is subjected to amorous whims. Mary Shelley undermines Clorinda's sworn "eternal devotion" to Giacomo by plotting a tale in which that devotion is shaken as soon as the young artist Marcott Alleyn enters the scene. Alleyn, described as "a man of infinitely pleasing manners" and possessing "a soft tone of voice and eyes full of expression," is clearly based in part on Percy Bysshe Shelley. At this point Mary Shelley adds a comic twist to Dante's famous story of the pathethic figures of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno. Dante's Paolo, having been sent as his brother's representative in obtaining Francesca's hand, falls in love with Francesca himself. Like Paolo, Alleyn comes to Clorinda as a messenger for his friend Giacomo, commenting that "if I do not lose my heart, I shall at least gain some excellent hints for my picture of the Profession of Eloisa." Since the narrator has already described the real state of the convent, the reader can imagine the irony of the disappointment awaiting Alleyn, much like Mary Shelley's disappointment on her first visit to Emilia's dirty convent, which smelled of garlic (Sunstein, p. 193). The depiction of Marcott Alleyn and his artist's hope that he will, at the very least, gain material for a new painting, along with his infatuation—Alleyn's compassion is "excited in various ways"—is obviously satirical. Alleyn's initial infatuation with Clorinda begins to fade as soon as Clorinda begins to return it, the narrator explaining that young men that age "look on women as living Edens which they dare not imagine they can ever enjoy; they love, and dream not of being loved; they seek, and their wildest fancies do not picture themselves as sought" (p. 38). Thematically, the male figure in this scenario turns out to be as fickle as the inconstant Clorinda.

"The Bride of Modern Italy" obviously builds on Mary Shelley's reaction to her husband's interest in Emilia Viviani, but it also offers an excellent example of her sense of humor and her facility for subtle satire. In Valperga, published just a year before (1823), she devoted herself to depicting unflagging feminine devotion in the characters of Euthanasia and Beatrice as opposed to the ambitious and single-minded Castruccio. Here, she allows herself the freedom to satirize masculine devotion. Because Mary Shelley more often tended to idealize her husband in her fiction, and because she went to great lengths throughout her life to establish his reputation as a poet by providing the public with annotated editions of his works, readers may be surprised by the tone of "The Bride of Modern Italy." But the story is perhaps most valuable as proof that Mary Shelley's reputation after her husband's death as a languorous and remorseful widow is based on a substantial underestimation of her mind, her art, and her understanding of the complexities of human relationships.

In the case of "The False Rhyme," Mary Shelley turns again in a comic vein to the theme of feminine loyalty, here making the most of the given engraving and the forced necessity to compose a romantic love story. Written in 1829 for The Keepsake for 1830, this story is built around the premise of a king's mourning a failed love affair, thus imaginatively complementing the plate. The engraving depicts King Francis languishing on a couch with two dogs at his feet, with his sister Margaret, Queen of Navarre, standing beside him and drawing the curtain back from a window to expose an epigram that has been etched into the windowpane.12 In Mary Shelley's extrapolation from the plate, Margaret teases the king for his exaggerated pronouncements on the unfaithfulness of all women, and for his having etched into the window the couplet, "Souvent femme varie / Bien fou qui s'y fie!" (Often a woman is inconstant / A great fool is he who has faith in her!). Margaret jokes that the epigram may just as well read "Souvent homme varie, / Bien folle qui s'y fie," in which she reverses the genders in the couplet and suggests that it is greatly amended thus. The siblings' discussion concludes with a bet that Margaret cannot produce for the king one instance of a woman's faithfulness. Margaret's success in doing so ultimately proves to the king that his couplet is a "false rhyme," the title itself thus working as a pun on this poetic term.

A remarkably concise story, Mary Shelley's light tone and comic treatment of Francis' and Margaret's wager is strengthened by the story's debt to Shakespeare.13 Mary Shelley's characterization of the brooding Francis, who has impetuously imprisoned his knight, Enguerrard de Lagny, on a false charge, is drawn in the tradition of Shakespeare's jealous Othello or Leontes of The Winter's Tale. Moreover, the plot hinges on a traditional case of hidden identity—the king learns that de Lagny's wife Emilie has donned men's clothing in order to take her husband's place in prison so that he can continue to fight for the king. The mistaken-identity and cross-dressing in "The False Rhyme" is traditionally Shakespearean, but in this case it may also be something of a disguised disclosure of a real-life situation for Mary Shelley. In 1991 Betty T. Bennett uncovered proof that Mary Shelley was involved in the long-term success of her friend Mary Diana Dods' dressing and passing as a man, "Walter Sholto Douglas," the "husband" of Isabel Robinson, in Paris social circles in the late 1820s.14 In light of this discovery it is no surprise that the theme of cross-dressing recurs in Mary Shelley's fiction of the mid to late 1820s; other instances include "A Tale of the Passions," "Ferdinando Eboli," The Last Man and Perkin Warbeck.

Much of the humor of "The False Rhyme" derives from its exaggeration of the theme of feminine devotion. Rather than merely provide an example of a woman who is faithful to her husband in the sexual sense, Queen Margaret finds an extreme example in the case of Emilie de Lagny, who is not only the ideal of a woman's loyalty to her husband, but also the ideal of loyalty to the king, since the couple's switch of identity had been orchestrated entirely for the purpose of serving Francis. Having lost his bet, Francis dutifully breaks the window upon which he had etched his "false rhyme," as he had agreed he would do. The story exaggerates the ideal of loyalty to comic proportions, but the issue of loyalty is one that plays a major role in Mary Shelley's serious fiction of this period, including Valperga, which depicts extreme feminine loyalty in both Euthanasia and Beatrice, and The Last Man (1826), in the characters of Perdita and Evadne. In July 1827 Mary Shelley discovered that she had been betrayed for years by her close friend Jane Williams, who had been spreading rumors regarding the problems in Mary's marriage to P. B. Shelley.15 Then, in Perkin Warbeck (1830), she explored the theme of loyalty in the story of Richard Plantagenet, the Yorkist heir to the throne during the reign of Henry VII, with particular focus on the faithfulness and devotion of his wife Katherine. One passage is clearly relevant to Mary Shelley's situation with Jane Williams; when Richard learns of the betrayal of his friend Robin Clifford, he says, "The whole wide world of misery contains no pang so great, as the discovery of treachery where we pictured truth; death is less in the comparison, for both destroy the future, and one, with Gorgon countenance, transforms the past."16

Mary Shelley again explores the theme of female devotion in "The Dream," written for The Keepsake for 1832, and here she chooses to exaggerate elements of Keatsian gothic as represented by such works as "Isabella; or the Pot of Basil" (1818) and "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1819). "The Dream" was composed to accompany an illustration of a woman sitting in the woods, entitled "Constance," and it would be difficult to conceive of a more imaginative story line than Mary Shelley's drawn from such an illustration. Mary Shelley's Constance is an exaggeration of that virtue—a woman who lives her life to mourn the deaths of her father and brother, and who vows to deny her love for Gaspar, whom she deems responsible for their deaths. Constance is an exaggerated figure of the grieving woman, a rather comic counterpart to a figure such as Ellen in Mary Shelley's melodramatic story, "The Mourner" (1830), who inadvertently causes her father's drowning at sea, or to the mournful Mathilda in the novel of that name (written 1819-1820 and unpublished until the twentieth century), in which the heroine inadvertently drives her father to suicide as a result of their incestuous attraction to each other. In the particular scene written to accommodate the illustration, Mary Shelley's heroine hears a rustling in the leaves in the woods around her and despairs that such a sound will never again indicate the approach of her former lover, Gaspar. Just then Gaspar leaps from the bushes to confront her. The situation of the lamenting Constance and her interview with the lover she had been sure she would never see again recalls the appearance of the dead Lorenzo to Keats's crazed "Isabella." The story's similarity to "Isabella" was even clearer in the original manuscript version, in which Constance's interview with Gaspar was set in the dark, gloomy bedroom that she had converted into "black hung rooms" to suit her state of mourning. Charles Robinson notes that Mary Shelley was forced to alter her story to fit the illustration of "Constance" outside in the woods, thus diminishing what seems to have been originally an even stronger evocation of Keats.17

The story's similarity to Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" is even stronger than its resemblance to "Isabella," however, for Constance's inability to decide between her devotion to the dead and her love for Gaspar leads her to consult her patron saint, Catherine.18 Like the legend of St. Agnes on which Keats structures his poem, Mary Shelley describes a local legend that a young woman who spends a night asleep on "Saint Catherine's bed" will be guided by the saint in a dream. Here Mary Shelley takes the gothic setting to the extreme, for Saint Catherine's bed turns out to be a precarious ledge jutting out over the river, and the reader is told that those who formerly attempted to sleep there either fled in fear or met their death in the turbulent waters below. True to her name, however, Constance cannot be dissuaded from her decision to seek St. Catherine's guidance, and the description of her perilous night spent on the "bed" extends Keats's use of folktale. In the exaggerated gravity and devotion of "Constance," Mary Shelley recasts Keats's Madeline with her maidenly purity and devotion. In addition, she humorously reworks Keats's theme of appearance and reality: Constance nearly falls from the ledge crying out in a dream that she will save Gaspar, only to be caught and rescued by the real Gaspar, who is standing over her, watching her sleep. Mary Shelley rounds out the humorous ending of "The Dream" by having Constance's maid Manon, who has slept the night in the chapel near St. Catherine's bed, awaken to find Constance's wedding ceremony underway. In addition, Gaspar himself makes light of the events of the story when Constance finally confides to him that it was a vision of his suffering in prison "in soiled and tattered garments, with unkempt locks and wild matted beard," in form "a mere skeleton" that caused her to cry out in her dream and which nearly cost her her life (p. 164). Gaspar answers, "And was it my appearance in that attractive state and winning costume that softened the hard heart of Constance?" (p. 164), thus laughing himself at the ordeal that Constance went through before being able to abandon her grief and excess of devotion, and to accept the opportunity of love.

"The Dream" provides further evidence for Mary Shelley's abilities as a humorist. She exaggerates gothic conventions, in this case as they were employed by Keats, poking fun at some examples of popular fiction, including the "constant" woman whose blind devotion to the dead and to religious folk belief inhibits her present life and happiness until she is saved from the restrictions she has created for herself. The biographical context is unavoidable. Mary Shelley may well be "laughing that [she] may not weep" in this case, given her strong devotion to her husband's memory and her guilt over the dead, as well as the treatments of the theme of the constant woman in her more serious works. Both "The False Rhyme" and "The Dream" are comic treatments of what was obviously a serious issue for Mary Shelley, and as such these stories demonstrate a flexibility and resilience in handling themes that inform her major writings at the time, including Mathilda, Valperga, The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, and "The Mourner." In these stories Mary Shelley again managed to produce original and creative works within the restrictions of market demands. These stories must have far superseded any expectations the reader of the annuals must have derived from the accompanying engravings.…

Having produced both Frankenstein and The Last Man in the direct lineage of her father's popular confessional narratives, Mary Shelley in "The Mortal Immortal" and "Transformation" may have sought (and found) an outlet for recasting those serious confessionals in a lighter manner. Certainly one of the most valuable legacies of her short stories for the modern reader is the view they provide us of Mary Shelley as an author, playfully reworking the exaggerated and oftentimes morose conventions of gothic fiction, portraying the self-absorbed figures of both Godwin's and Byron's works with wit and humor, and even finding new ways to rework serious themes, such as feminine devotion, that repeatedly inspired her own longer, more serious fiction. In many of her short stories, Mary Shelley not only greatly superseded one of the few publishing venues available to her as a woman writing in the early nineteenth century, and a fairly rigidly confining one at that, but she also produced works of subtle humor—even brilliant imagination—which, as a group, contribute to a reappraisal of her genius and her reputation.


  1. The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Nora Crook, ed., with Pamela Clemit. Consulting ed. Betty T. Bennett, 8 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1996).
  2. In his edition Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories with Original Engravings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Charles E. Robinson acknowledges the humorous elements in the short fiction; in this paper I hope to focus on the range and the contexts of Mary Shelley's use of humor in her stories as she reworks major themes from her novels. References to Mary Shelley's short stories are in Robinson's edition.
  3. Mary Shelley also contributed the poems "A Dirge," and "A Night Scene," and "Absence" to the 1831 Keepsake. The stories and poems are attributed in the Table of Contents and under the title of each work in the text as "The Author of Frankenstein, "withthe exception of "A Night Scene" ("I see thee not, my gentlest Isabel;"), which is attributed to "Mary S."
  4. See Robinson, Introduction, p. xvi.
  5. For a treatment of the challenges Mary Shelley faced in writing for the annuals, and especially for an astute assessment of her success within the limitations of the genre, see Sonia Hofkosh, "Disfiguring Economies: Mary Shelley's Short Stories," in The Other Mary Shelley, Audrey Fisch, Anne Mellor, and Esther Schor, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 204-19.
  6. Charles E. Robinson's publication of The Frankenstein Notebooks, 2 vols. (New York: Garland, 1996) at last puts this controversy to rest by providing physical proof of the relatively small degree to which P. B. Shelley made editorial additions or changes to the novel.
  7. Richard Garnett, ed. Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London: William Paterson, 1891), p. vii. The exception that Garnett allows in this assessment of Mary Shelley's work is The Last Man, although he again undercuts his praise by contributing to the reductive stereotype of Mary Shelley as grieving widow: "The Last Man demands great attention, for it is not only a work of far higher merit than commonly admitted, but of all her works the most characteristic of the authoress, the most representative of Mary Shelley in the character of pining widowhood which it was her destiny to support for the remainder of her life" (pp. vii-viii).
  8. Betty T. Bennett ed., The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), i, 223. Bennett explains that Mary Shelley's comment on "that wherewithall to buy brandy" refers to Emilia's attempt to borrow a large sum of money from Shelley (225, n14).
  9. Emily Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1989), p. 254. Mary Shelley's journals attest to the anguish that she suffered in coming to terms with Shelley's death. See Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  10. Mary W. Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 3 December 1820, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), i, 162-66.
  11. The Journals of Claire Clairmont, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 243; cited by Robinson, p. 376.
  12. See Robinson, Tales, p. xiv. Mary Shelley would have been familiar with Francis I's history from William Godwin's novel St. Leon, in which the narrator witnesses and describes Francis' ceremonial meeting with Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and participates in certain military engagements in Francis' ranks, including the defeat of the French at Pavia.
  13. Mary Shelley's journal records that she and Shelley read at least 26 of Shakespeare's plays between 1814-1821, and she would have been familiar with all of the plays to some degree from Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespear, published by M. J. Godwin and Co. in 1807.
  14. Betty T. Bennett, Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). Mary Shelley's interest in the theme of cross-dressing is no doubt likewise due to influences such as Tasso and Byron's Don Juan, during much of the composition of which she served Byron as a copyist.
  15. For Mary Shelley's relationship with Jane Williams, see Emily Sunstein's biography, and Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  16. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a romance, by the author of "Frankenstein," 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830), ii, p.68.
  17. See Robinson, Tales, p. 383.
  18. Robinson, Tales, p. 383.

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft: General Commentary

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