MARY SHELLEY'S VALPERGA, PUBLISHED IN 1823, OFFERS A REVISION OF fourteenth-century Italian political history by inserting two fictional characters into "The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca," as the subtitle reads. Careful examination of the rhetoric of bargain, promise, and exchange in the novel reveals a persistent concern with contract not yet addressed in the critical literature. Specifically, the novel exposes how contractual relations between the characters lead to inequities that require coveting up, in the form of "care" for others, in order to validate the economic and moral aspects of contract. Given this concern, the novel may be read as a displacement of Shelley's nineteenth-century present that offers a sustained critique of the role of contract in prevailing economic thought.
Valperga tells the story of childhood friends Euthanasia, Countess of Valperga, and Castruccio, the future prince of Lucca. (1) Euthanasia, educated in history and classics by her father, rules benevolently over her ancestral estate. Castruccio, on the other hand, is exiled with his Ghibelline family from his homeland as a child, and schooled in the arts of war and political intrigue. He returns to Italy intent on accumulating political power, and his increasing ambition, corruption, and cruelty estrange him from Euthanasia. Even after conquering Florence and capturing Euthanasia's palace, Castruccio continues to insist that she be his. In the course of securing political allies in the Church, Castruccio seduces and abandons a young girl, Beatrice, who is convinced until her fall that she is the chosen prophet of God. Neither woman survives the machinations of Castruccio. Beatrice succumbs to madness and death after a severe, self-inflicted atonement, and Euthanasia dies in a shipwreck after being exiled from Italy for her participation in an assassination plot against Castruccio.
Reading Euthanasia, the Countess of Valperga, as representative of a feminine Romantic ideology, critics have argued for and against her triumph over the masculine Romantic ideology of Castruccio. (2) Kari Lokke maintains that "[w]ith the ... female characters ... Shelley sets women ... in radical opposition to male power and privilege and to the values which represent and sustain them." Joseph Lew argues that the novel illustrates the failure of "female Romantic ideology" to overcome the "threat" of male Romantic ideology because "its ideological bases (at least in Euthanasia's enunciation of them) might themselves be tainted." Most recently, Daniel White's analysis of "the correspondence between Romantic aesthetic categories and visions of social and political order" presents Euthanasia's "externally directed ideology of domesticity and enlightened bourgeois politics" as an alternative to Castruccio's "egotistical emptiness Shelley identifies as the end of masculine Romantic desire--empty because unable to accept the humanist or domestic values of an alternative ideology on their own terms, those offered by Euthanasia." (3) Rather than investigating the novel along these oppositional lines, I theorize a structural relation that operates as a contract, one that at times incorporates and at others excludes the characters' ideological values as each attempts to negotiate within it. Elements of both feminine and masculine Romantic ideology are implicated in the functioning of contractual relations in a manner that begins to blur this gendered designation. What may look like an ethic of care from the perspective of gendered oppositions begins to resemble a necessary component in the economic and moral underpinnings of nationalism when considered in a contractual light.
Whereas critics emphasize the oppositional nature of Euthanasia and Castruccio's worldviews, they posit the complementary nature of Euthanasia and Beatrice's character. (4) The implicit assumption of such characterizations is that some unspoken promise or potential has been left unfulfilled. …