Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Angelic Realism: Domestic Idealization in Mary Shelley's Lodore

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Angelic Realism: Domestic Idealization in Mary Shelley's Lodore

Article excerpt

Although recent critical efforts to assess Mary Shelley's literary achievements "beyond Frankenstein" (as the subtitle to the collection The Other Mary Shelley puts it) have yielded fine discussions of her other novels, her next-to-last Lodore (1835) has still received relatively little attention. This neglect surely stems in part from the fact that the novel sticks to fairly quotidian issues such as family strife, love relationships, and financial difficulty. In this "tale of the present time" (as Shelley had considered subtitling the novel), the elements of the gothic, the historically alien, and the globally catastrophic are absent; and so, it seems, are those marks that distinguish Shelley's particular literary gifts. In addition, the novel has been seen as less daring politically than its predecessors and, as such, representative of Shelley's retreat into the safety of propriety in the face of social and financial pressure. Fiona Stafford, for example, while noting some of the covert radical implications of the novel, places it squarely in the context of a decade of economic and political retrenchment, when a state of "virtual paralysis" (183) in the book trade led to authors tailoring their productions to popular taste and to the ascendancy of such literary types as the silver-fork novel. And, as Stafford points out, these pressures were especially salient for Shelley, given her status as single mother and her financial dependence on Percy's father, Sir Timothy, himself a formidable enforcer of codes of female propriety and respectability. Thus, in Mary Poovey's highly influential narrative of Shelley's career, the later novels reveal her desire "to make her behavior conform to conventional expectations of what a woman should be" and "to achieve the personal satisfaction of expressing a self that was 'original' only in its exemplary propriety" (Proper 116-17). In this context, the story of Ethel, who willingly sacrifices all for her father, Lord Lodore, and subsequently for her husband, Edward Villiers, can seem ideologically and artistically stultifying, unpromising ground for any critical argument other than that of Shelley's decline from the heights of the 1818 Frankenstein.

Widening our historical scope still further, Lodore can even seem a founding text in that fantasy of ideal femininity that would dominate the British and American social imagination of the nineteenth century and would find its lasting name and sacred text with the publication of Coventry Patmore's Angel in the House (1854-62). Elizabeth Langland, in her detailed analysis of the origins and functions of the discourse of the domestic angel, identifies the 1830s as the crucial decade of its emergence. Noting the virtual disappearance of conduct books between 1804 and 1828, after their great popularity in the eighteenth century, Langland identifies the widespread publication of etiquette guides in the 1830s as a key sign of a new valuation of middle-class women and a new description of the home as the setting for their angelic qualities. The differences between the earlier conduct books and the new etiquette guides are instructive: while the conduct manuals focused on abstract moral values, the new guides were much more concerned with those outward signs by which people (mainly women) would indicate their membership in a newly hegemonic middle class (26-27). In Langland's view, etiquette, and the emergent discourse of the Angel of the House, involves precise behavioral distinctions by which the middle class, in a post-Reform era, can set itself apart and validate its expression of hard-won power. In this account, the discursive separation of private (domestic, female) and public (male) spheres should not obscure the fact that the fantasy of ideal femininity does immense political and social work, underwriting expressions of global economic power by grounding them in an unsullied realm of familial love and religious piety. Indeed, for Langland, woman is the carrier of social class in the Victorian era, as evidenced by the paucity of fictional accounts of men marrying beneath them, whatever the historical actuality, since that real loss of status seemed too fearsome to depict (29-30). …

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