AT A PIVOTAL MOMENT IN MARY SHELLEY'S SECOND NOVEL, VALPERGA; OR the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823), Shelley describes the pain experienced by the central female character, Euthanasia dei Adimari, following the dissolution of her relationship with the tide character of Castruccio. The narrator explains, "She determined to think no more of Castruccio; but every day, every moment of the day, was as a broken mirror, a multiplied reflection of his form alone." (1) In her note to this passage, Tilottama Rajan suggests that this image of the multiplied reflection of a shattered mirror may echo a passage from Percy Shelley's De fence of Poetry, in which he describes drama "'so long as it continues to express poetry,' as a 'prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature ... and multiplies all that it reflects'" (459n). Owing to the relative contemporaneity of the composition of the passages, this connection is logical. Mary Shelley completed composition of her novel, after a period of over four years, by December of 1821, while Percy had completed his essay in March of that same year. Nevertheless, the brightness of Percy Shelley's imagery and the celebratory attitude he expresses in this passage and in the larger essay as a whole offer a stark contrast to the gloomy discussion found in Mary Shelley's treatment of the similar image in her novel.
A clearer precursor to Mary Shelley's use of the image of the broken mirror is in the writings of Lord Byron, whose often skeptical views offer a more fitting parallel to those found in Shelley's writings. No connection has previously been made between Shelley's use of this image and Byron's, even in criticism of Shelley's novels that incorporates consideration of Byron's influence on Shelley's writing. Such discussions most often focus on the presence of Byron the man, rather than Byron the poet, and therefore diminish the focus on Shelley's skills as a writer, instead often portraying her as a deeply troubled woman seeking to relieve her personal sufferings through the incorporation of autobiographical parallels into her fiction. (2)
Although such parallels do exist, the professional relationship between Mary Shelley and Lord Byron provided a more important influence on her writings. During the summer of 1816, again in 1818, and also after Percy Shelley's death in 1822, Mary Shelley acted as copyist for some of Byron's works, including The Prisoner of Chillon, Don Juan, and, most important for the present discussion, the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. (3) Consequently, Shelley's use of the broken-mirror image reveals a more complex connection to Byron than other treatments of their relationship might suggest, and it demonstrates her sophistication as a writer, even in a novel that has not received the critical praise of her other two early novels, Frankenstein and The Last Man. Valperga thus reveals her ability to deal successfully with a precursor writer in order to develop her own unique perspective, a perspective that at the same time both stands in sharp contrast to, and aligns her closely with that precursor. (4)
For Byron and Shelley, the close connection between external events and personal identity was an important component of the perspective they developed. Both writers drew heavily on their own experiences for the formation of characters who "reflected" their own beliefs or attitudes. Because their less optimistic views contrasted with the more utopian views of a number of their contemporaries and predecessors, their employment of a unique version of the mirror image is particularly significant. Although writers such as Percy Shelley describe multiple reflections that occur in many-sided mirrors or prisms (for example, in Prometheus Unbound and Epipsychidion, in addition to the Defence), only Byron and Mary Shelley make use of the image of the broken mirror, and the multiplied reflections thus created, to convey the intensely negative power of excessive emotion, especially in the context of political events, but also in terms of personal experience. That Byron and Shelley's broken-mirror images occur in works that are increasingly more historical in nature reinforces the importance of this recognition. Mary Shelley's employment of the image, therefore, precisely because it involves such an intimate reworking of Byron's, provides a logical culmination for this process.
This study examines three examples from Lord Byron---specifically in The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1816)--as predecessors to that found in Mary Shelley's Valperga. Although only Byron's Childe Harold deals directly with contemporary political events, both his oriental tales and Shelley's Valperga employ references to events that have significant parallels to the political occurrences of the day, parallels that can be elucidated through the exploration of the different images of reflection.
The image of the mirror has been particularly important to recent critical consideration of the literature of the period. What so many texts of the period enact, such criticism suggests, is an important break with tradition. In The Mirror and the Lamp, for example, M. H. Abrams asserts, "In the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the transformation of the key images by which critics pictured the process and product of art is a convenient index to a comprehensive revolution in the theory of poetry, and of all the arts." (5) The transformation Abrams identifies here primarily involves the figure of the artist and his transition in the eyes of the Romantic critic from a passive mirror reflecting the world around him to a more active participant, one whose own imagination acts as a lamp projecting itself out into the world it experiences. As Abrams clearly demonstrates, this reconceptualization of the image of the artist as mirror, an image that originates in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, is certainly innovative. At the same time, even the very writings that help to enact this movement forward also maintain a firm hold on the thoughts and texts of the past. For example, in the passage from A Defence of Poetry that Rajan associates with Valperga, Percy Shelley utilizes the traditional concept of the artist as mirror, but reconfigures it to attribute greater creative power to the artist. This dual vision lends importance to the use of the broken mirror image in the texts of Byron and Mary Shelley. Byron and Shelley's use of the image, in fact, makes more explicit what is presented in most contemporary discussions of the artist figure in the literature of the period.
One relevant view of reflection is found in Lacan's theory of the mirror stage. Essentially, this stage involves the moment in a child's development, occurring somewhere between six to eighteen months, when a child who is "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence" as Lacan explains, (6) is able to recognize himself in the mirror and, in response, physically assumes a more upright position (sits up) and consequently develops an idealized image of himself as a being more autonomous and fully developed than he is in reality. What the child responds to, therefore, is the illusion, or what Lacan terms a "misrecognition," of a "totalized" self that is distinguished from the fragmented reality. This misrecognition, then, occurs within a complex combination of anticipation and retroaction. Jane Gallop explains in her reading of Lacan, "The self is constituted through anticipating what it will become [unified], and then this anticipatory model is used for gauging what was before [fragmentation]." (7) In doing so, the subject first begins to distinguish between the "inside" and the "outside," between self and other, thus initiating himself into the realm of the social. In an analogy appropriate for the purposes of this discussion, Gallop compares the experience of the mirror stage to the loss of Paradise. Like Adam and Eve, the subject experiences a second birth--the first into "nature," the second into "history" (85), the latter occurring within a social framework.
In fact, this sense of the lost Paradise, of the fallen Adam, is central to the consideration of what has been termed the Byronic hero, the main figure in the works under consideration. This character's sense of "psychic and social despair," as Jerome McGann explains, places him in …