Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 11

Mrs. Shelley  (1890)  by Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti
Chapter XI. Godwin and "Valperga"



At this time while political events were absorbing England, and Shelley was weaving them into poetry in Italy during the remainder of his residence in Florence, Godwin's personal difficulties were reaching their climax. When he lost, in an action for the rent of his house, Shelley came to his help, but in some way Godwin expected more than he received, and became very unpleasant in his correspondence, so much so that Shelley had to beg him not to write to Mary on these subjects, as her health was not then, in October 1819, able to bear the strain, and the subject of money was not a fitting one to be pressed on her by him. Mary had not the disposal of money; if she had she would give it all to her father. He assured Godwin that the four or five thousand pounds already expended on him might have made him comfortable for the remainder of his life. Mrs. Godwiu, naturally, would not hear of abandoning the Skinner Street business, as being the only provision for herself when Godwin should die. It is extremely painful at this stage of Godwin's career to witness the lowering effects of his wife's smaller nature upon him, as he certainly allowed himself to be unduly influenced by her excited and not always truthful views, as known since the early days of their married life. We have Mrs. Gisborne's diary showing how Mrs. Godwin could not endure to see anyone in 1820 who had an attachment for Mary, whom (as Godwin told Mrs. Gisborne) she considered her greatest enemy; and although he described his] wife as of if the most irritable disposition possible/' he listened to, and repeated her conjectures to the disparagement of Shelley and Mary at the time when she did not hesitate to accept with her husband the large sums of money which Shelley with difficulty raised for them. All the facts shown in this diary prove that Mary and Fanny must have had a sufficiently trying life at home to account for the result in either case, especially when we consider that Claire and her brother Charles both preferred to leave Godwin's house on the first possible occasion, Charles having left for France immediately after Mary's and Claire's departure with Shelley. William alone remained at home, but four years passed in a boarding school at Greenwich, from 1814, must have helped him to endure the discomforts of the time. Before Mrs. Gisborne's return to Italy Godwin gave her a detailed account, in writing, of his money transactions with Shelley, which had become very painful to both.

In January, 1820, Florence proving unsuitable for Shelley's health, they left for Pisa, the mild climate of which city made it a favourite resort of the poet during most of the short remainder of his life. Mary, ever hospitable, although, as Shelley said, the bills for printing his poems must be paid for by stinting himself in meat and drink, hoped that Mrs. Gisborne would have stayed with them during her husband's visit to England in 1820, as they had moved into a pleasant apartment in March. This idea was not carried out. About this time Mary and Claire, both with their own absorbing anxieties, became again irksome to each other. Mary found relief when Claire was absent, and Claire notes how "the Claire and the Mai find something to fight about every day," a way of putting it which indicates differences, but certainly no grave cause of disturbance. This was after their removal to Leghorn, where they went towards the end of June to be near the lawyer on account of Paolo. At the beginning of August the heat at Leghorn caused the Shelleys to migrate to the baths of San Giuliano, where Shelley found a very pleasant house, Casa Prini. The moderate rent suited their slender purse, which had so many outside calls upon it.

In October Claire's departure for Florence, as governess in the family of Professor Bojti, where she went by the advice of her friend Mrs. Mason, formerly Lady Mountcashell, brought an end to her permanent residence with the Shelleys, although she was still to look upon their house as her home, and she visited them either for her pleasure or to assist them. Her absence from her friends gives us the advantage of letters from them, letters full of a certain exaggeration of affection and sympathy from Shelley, who felt more acutely than Mary that Claire might be unhappy under a strange roof. Mary, less anxious on those grounds, writes about the operas she has seen, giving good descriptions of them. One of her letters is full of anxiety as to Allegra, who has been placed in the convent of Bagnacavallo by Byron. She feels that the child ought, as soon as possible, to be taken out of the hands of so "remorseless and unprincipled a man " but advises caution and waiting for a favourable opportunity. She hopes that he may be returning to England. "He may be reconciled with his wife." At any rate, Bagnacavallo is high and in a healthy position, quite different from the dirty canals of Venice, which might injure any child's health. Mary thus tries to console Claire, who is planning, in her imagination, various ways of getting at her child, and corresponding with and seeing Shelley on the subject. Mary dissuades Claire from attempting anything in the spring their unlucky time. It was in the second spring Claire met L. B., &c.; the third they went to Marlow no wise thing, at least; the fourth, uncomfortable in London; fifth, their Roman misery; the sixth, Paolo at Pisa; the seventh, a mixture of Emilia and a Chancery suit. Mary acknowledges this superstitious feeling is more in Claire's line than her own, but thinks it worth considering; but this letter to Claire carries us a year in advance.

During the summer of 1820 Mary had some of the delightful times she loved so dearly, of poetic wanderings with Shelley through woods and by the river, one of which she remembers long afterwards, when, making her note to the "Skylark," she recalls how she and Shelley, wandering through the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the firefly, heard the carolling of the skylark which inspired one of the most beautiful of his poems. Precious memories which helped her through many after years devoid of the sympathy she yearned for. At the Baths they had the pleasure of a visit from Medwin, who gave a description of how Shelley, his wife and child, had to escape from the upper windows of their house in a boat when the canal overflowed and inundated the valley. Mary speaks of it as a very picturesque sight, with the herdsmen driving their cattle.

During the short absence of Shelley, when he took Claire to Florence, Mary was occupied planning her novel of Valperga, for which she studied Villani's chronicle and Sismondr's history.

On leaving the baths of San Giuliano, after the floods, the Shelleys returned to Pisa, where they passed the late autumn and winter of 1820 and the spring of 1821. Here they made more acquaintances than heretofore, Professor Pacchiani, called also "II Diavolo," introducing them to the Prince Mavrocordato, the Princess Aigiropoli, the improvisators Sgricci, Taafe, and last, not least, to Emilia Viviaui. Here Mary continued to write Valperga, and pursued her Latin, Spanish, and Greek studies; the latter the Prince Mavrocordato assisted her with, as Mary writes to Mrs. Gisborne: "Do not you envy me my luck? that, having begun Greek, an amiable, young, agreeable, and learned Greek prince comes every morning to give me a lesson of an hour and a half."

But the person of most moment at this time was undoubtedly the Contessina Emilia Viviani, whom, accompanied by Pacchiani, Claire, then Mary, and then Shelley, visited at the Convent of Sant' Anna. This beautiful girl, with profuse black hair, Grecian profile, and dreamy eyes, placed in the convent till she should be married, to satisfy the jealousy of her stepmother, became naturally an object of extreme interest the Shelleys. Many visits were paid, and Mary invited her to stay with them at Christmas. Shelley was convinced that she had great talent, if not genius. Shelley and Mary sent her books, and Claire gave her English lessons at her convent, while she was taking a holiday from the Bojtis. Many letters are preserved from the beautiful Emilia to Shelley and Mary, letters which, translated into English, seem overflowing with sentiment and affection, but which to Italians would indicate rather the style cultivated by Italian ladies, which, to this day, seems one of their chief accomplishments if they are not gifted with a voice to sing. To Mary she complains of a certain coldness, but certainly this could not be brought to the charge of Shelley, who was now inspired to write his Epipsychidion. To him Emilia was as the Skylark, an emanation of the beautiful; but to Mary for a time, during Shelley's transitory adoration, the event evidently became painful, with all her philosophy and belief in her husband. She could not regard the lovely girl who took walks with him as the skylark that soared over their heads ; and the Epipsychidion was evidently not a favourite poem of Mary. Surely we may ascribe to this time, in the spring of 1821, the poem written by Shelley to Lieutenant Williams, whose acquaintance he had made in January. There is no month affixed to

The Serpent is cast out from Paradise. . . .

and it might well apply, with its reference to "my cold home," to the time when Mary, in depression and pique, did not always give her likewise sensitive husband all the welcome he was accustomed to, and Shelley took refuge in a poem by way of letter; for this is the time referred to by Mary in her letter to Claire as their seventh unfortunate spring a mixture of Emilia and a Chancery suit! It was not till the next spring that Emilia was married, and led her husband and mother-in-law, as Mary puts it, "a devil of a life." We have only to be grateful to Emilia for having inspired one of the most wondrous poems in any language.

The Williamses, to whom Shelley's poem is addressed, were met by them in January. Mary writes of the fascinating Jane (Mrs. Williams) that she is certainly very pretty, but wants animation ; while Shelley writes that she is extremely pretty and gentle, but apparently not very clever; that he liked her much, but had only seen her for an hour.

Mary, among her multifarious reading, notes an article by Medwin on Animal Magnetism, and Shelley, who suffered severely at this time, shortly afterwards tried its effect through Medwin. The latter bored Mary excessively; possibly she found the magnetising a wearisome operation, although Shelley is said to have been relieved by it. His highly nervous temperament was evidently impressed. When Medwin left, Mrs. Williams undertook to carry on the cure.

The Chancery suit referred to by Mary was an attempt between Sir Timothy's attorney and Shelley's to throw their affairs into Chancery, causing great alarm to them in Italy, till Horace Smith came to their rescue in England, and with indignant letters settled the inconsiderate litigation.

Mrs. Shelley, in her Notes to Poems in 1821, recounts how Shelley was nearly drowned, by a flat boat which he had recently acquired being overturned in the canal near Pisa, when returning from Leghorn. Williams upset the boat by standing up and holding the mast. Henry Reveley, Mrs. Gisborne's son, rescued Shelley and brought him to land, where he fainted with the cold. At this same time, at Pisa, Mary had to consider with Shelley a matter of great importance to Claire.

Byron, now at Ravenna, had placed Allegra, as already stated, in the convent of Bagnacavallo. He told Mrs. Hoppner that she had become so unmanageable by servants that it was necessary to have her under better care than he could secure, and he considered that it would be preferable to bring her up as a Roman Catholic with an Italian education, as in that way, with a fortune of five or six thousand pounds, she would marry an Italian and be provided for, whereas she would always hold an anomalous position in England. At this proposal Claire was extremely indignant; but Shelley and Mary took the opposite view, and considered that Byron acted for the best, as the convent was in a healthy position, and the nuns would be kind to the child. This idea of Mary would naturally be agreed with by some, and disapproved of by others; but at that time there was certainly no cause to indicate that Bagnacavallo would be more fatal to Allegra than any other place, although Claire's apprehensions were cruelly realised. From this time Claire and Byron wrote letters of recrimination to each other, which, considering Byron's obduracy against the feelings of the mother, Shelley and Mary came to hold as tyrannically unfeeling.

In May, Shelley and his wife and son returned to the baths of San Giuliano, and while here' Shelley's Adonais was published. In 1820, when the Shelleys heard of Keats's fatal illness from Mrs. Gisborne, she having met him the day after he had received his death warrant from the doctor, they were the first to beg him to join them at Pisa. A small touch of poetical criticism, however, appears to have weighed more with the sensitive Keats than these friendly considerations for his health, and as he was about to accompany his friend Mr. Severn to Rome, he did not accept their kind offer, though in all probability Pisa would have been better for him.

During this summer at the baths Mary had finished her romance of Valperga, and read it to her husband, who admired it extremely. He considered it to be a "living and moving picture of an age almost forgotten, a profound study of the passions of human nature."

Valperga, published in 1823, the year after Shelley's death is a romance of the 14th century in Italy, during the height of the struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, when each state and almost each town was at war with the other; a condition of things which lends itself to romance. Mary Shelley's intimate acquaintance with Italy and Italians gives her the necessary knowledge to write on this subject. Her zealous Italian studies came to her aid, and her love of nature give life and vitality to the scene. Valperga, the ancestral castle home of Euthanasia, a Florentine lady of the Guelph faction, is most picturesquely described, on its ledge of projecting rock, overlooking the plain of Lucca; the dependent peasants around happy under the protection of their good Signora. That this beautiful and high-minded lady should be affianced to a Ghibelline leader is a natural combination; but when her lover Castruccio, prince of Lucca, carries his political enthusiasm the length of making war on her native city of Florence, whose Republican greatness and love of art are happily described, Euthanasia cannot let love stand in the way of duty and gratitude to all those dearest to her. The severe struggle is well described, for Euthanasia has loved Castruccio from their childhood. When they played about the mountain grounds of her home at Valperga, Castruccio learnt the secret paths to the Castle, which knowledge later helped him to take the fortress when Euthanasia refused to yield it to him. Castruccio's character is also well described : his devoted attachment to Euthanasia from which nothing could turn him, till the passions of the conqueror and party faction are still stronger; and the irresistible force which impels him to make war and subdue the Guelphs, which by her is regarded as murder and rapine, disunites beings seemingly formed for each other. All these different emotions are pourtrayed with great beauty and simplicity.

The Italian superstitions are well shown, as how the Florentines ascribed all good and evil fortune to conjunction of stars. The power of the Inquisition in Rome comes likewise into play, when the beautiful pro-phetess Beatrice (the child of the prophetess Wilhelmina) who had to be given to the Leper for protection, as even his filthy and deserted hut was safer for her than that it should be known to the Inquisition that she existed. She is rescued from the Leper by a bishop who heard her story from the death-bed of the woman to whom her mother when dying had confided her. She was then brought up by the bishop's sister. Her mother's spirit of prophecy was inherited by the daughter; and as the mother believed herself to be an emanation of the Holy Spirit, so Beatrice thought herself the Ancilla Dei. These mystical fancies and their working are depicted with much beauty and strength.

These Donne Estatiche first appear in Italy after the 12th century, and had continued to the time which Mary Shelley selected for her romance. After giving an account of their pretensions, Muratori gravely observes: "We may piously believe that some were distinguished by supernatural gifts and admitted to the secrets of heaven, but we may justly suspect that the source of many of their revelations was their ardent imagination filled with ideas of religion and piety." Beatrice, on prophesying the Grhibelline rule in Ferrara, is seized by the emissaries of the Pope, and has to undergo the ordeal of the white hot ploughshares, through which she passes unscathed, there having apparently been connivance to help her through. Her exultation and enthusiasm become intense, and it is only after a great shock that she grows conscious of the falseness of her position; for, having met Castruccio on his mission to Ferrara, she is irresistibly attracted by him, and, mixing up her infatuation with her mystical ideas, does not hesitate to make secret appointments with him, never doubting that her love is returned, and that they are one at heart. When at length Castruccio has to return to Lucca, and to his betrothed, Euthanasia, the shock to the poor mystical Beatrice is terrible. Finally she is met as a pilgrim wending her weary way to Rome. Assuredly, Shelley was justified in admiring this character. There is a straight-forwardness in the plot into which the stormy history of the period is clearly introduced, which gives much interest to this romance, and it is a decided advance upon Frankenstein, though her age when that was written must not be forgotten. A book of this kind shows forcibly the troubles to which a lovely country like Italy is exposed through disunion, and must fill the hearts of all lovers of this beautiful land with gratitude to the noble men who willingly sacrificed themselves to help in the cause of united Italy; those whose songs roused the people, and carried hope into the hearts of even the prisoners in the pozzi of Venice; for the man of idea who can rouse the nation by his songs does not help less than the brave soldier who can aid with his arms, though alas! he does not always live to see the triumph he has helped to achieve.*

This work, when completed, was sent to her father by Mary, for it had been a labour of love, and the sum of four hundred pounds which Godwin obtained for it was devoted to help him in his difficulties. Unhappily, the romance was not published till the year after her husband's death.

"Gabriele Rossetti, whom Mary Shelley knew, and to whom she referred for information while writing her lives of Italian poets, has been said to have been the first who in modern times had the idea of a united Italy under a constitutional monarch, for which idea and for his rousing songs he was forced to leave Italy by Ferdinand I. of Naples in 1821, and remained an exile in England till his death in 1854, at the age of 71. How Mary Shelley, with her husband, must have sympathised in these ideas with their love of Italy can be understood, although it was the climate and beauty of Italy more than the people that charmed Shelley ; but then was he not also an exile from his native land?