Broken Mirrors and Multiplied Reflections in Lord Byron and Mary Shelley

By Mekler, L. Adam | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Broken Mirrors and Multiplied Reflections in Lord Byron and Mary Shelley


Mekler, L. Adam, Studies in Romanticism


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.

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