The BARS ‘On This Day’ series marks July 8 2022, 200 years to the day from the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with a fascinating look at some of his lesser explored literary works. Fitting for the anniversary of his death, we bring you Molly Watson’s discussion of Shelley’s Gothic fictions Zastrozzi and St Irvyne, and the echoes these texts left in his final work, The Triumph of Life, which was unfinished when he passed away.
On 8 July 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at the Bay of Spezia, leaving his final poem, The Triumph of Life (1822), unfinished. As such, questions about Shelley’s authorship remain unanswered; the poet is, in effect, a posthumous fragment. But the complexities of Shelley’s literary identity can be felt in his Gothic fiction a decade earlier.[i]
In a letter dated 1812 to his future father-in-law, William Godwin, Shelley declares that he is ‘no longer the votary of Romance’.[ii] In 1810 Shelley had published Zastrozzi: A Romance, a lurid Gothic tale which chronicles the self-destructive passions of its primary characters. The atheist Zastrozzi exercises his hatred upon the ‘hapless’ Verezzi, whose father had sexually dishonoured Zastrozzi’s mother. The following year, Shelley published St. Irvyne; or, the Rosicrucian: A Romance (1811), which details the self-centered obtainment of immortality; also embedded within the narrative is a plot concerning the sexual ruination of Eloise de St. Irvyne.[iii] Shelley was rather quick to dismiss the novellas as the product of a diseased sensibility, and as such laid the groundworks for the less-than-favourable critical response to Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne.[iv] Historically, Shelley’s Gothic fiction has not been well received; only recently have scholars like Stephen Behrendt pushed for Shelley’s ‘considerable’ literary output to be taken ‘seriously’.[v] And yet Shelley’s Gothic fiction is not entirely serious in the first place. Certainly, in his early correspondence with Godwin, Shelley conceives of it as a juvenile mode.
In the letter dated 10 January 1812 Shelley attempts to distance himself from his Gothic fiction. He justifies the production of Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne by proclaiming: ‘From a reader I became I [a] writer of Romances; before the age of seventeen I had published two ‘St. Irvyne’ and ‘Zastrozzi’ each of which tho quite uncharacteristic of me as now I am, yet serve to mark the state of my mind at the period of their composition’. According to Shelley, only by reading Godwin’s ‘inestimable book’ (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793)) was he exposed to ‘fresh and more extensive views’. Shelley then continues to document his expulsion from Oxford—caused by Shelley and Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s notorious pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811)—and the ‘incoincident’ habits of his father.[vi] By positing himself as a Godwinian disciple eager to absorb the philosophical foundations of Political Justice, Shelley constructs not only his relationship with Godwin, but also the trajectory of his literary career.
This is not to say that Shelley fabricates his biography, nor is it a complete rejection of his poetical self-fashioning. Rather, as Shelley’s editor Frederick L. Jones states, the poet ‘is rather given to exaggerating his youthfulness’.[vii] While Shelley’s self-mythologizing needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, it is a core part of his authorship. Though Shelley told Godwin that Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne were published ‘before the age of seventeen’, he was in fact slightly older, and most certainly familiar with Godwin’s works before he read Political Justice. It is obvious that Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne are partially indebted to Godwin’s Gothic novels, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), the latter of which, like St. Irvyne, recounts the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone; even the titles sound familiar. Shelley’s characterization of Zastrozzi as a man who believes that ‘revenge is sweeter than life’ is like that of the misanthropic Bethlem Gabor in St. Leon, who is ‘engendered [by] some new thought or passion: and it appeared probable that he would not yet quit the stage of existence till he had left behind him the remembrances of a terrible and desolating revenge’.[viii] The sheer rage evinced in Gabor and Zastrozzi anticipates both the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Mandeville in Godwin’s 1817 historical novel of the same name.[ix]
Even though Shelley was already familiar with Godwin’s literary output, he was nonetheless keen to emphasise that he had intellectually and philosophically matured since the publication of Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne. Shelley admits to Godwin that he was ‘haunted with a passion for the wildest and most extravagant romances… ancient books of Chemistry and Magic were perused with an enthusiasm almost amounting to belief…external impediments were numerous, and strongly applied—their effects were merely temporary’.[x] Shelley here almost sounds like a Gothic character himself, a proto-Frankensteinian student desperate to acquire esoteric knowledge; it is certainly well documented that Shelley retained a life-long interest in scientific phenomenon.[xi] Throughout his early correspondence with Godwin, Shelley posits himself as a student vulnerable to the throes and passions of Gothic romance, but who is eventually rescued by the philosophically enlightened Godwin. Of course, the relationship between not only Shelley and Godwin but also Shelley and the Gothic is far more complex. Though Shelley tries to distance himself from Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne as much as possible, his literary career—including some of his later poetry—is haunted by the Gothic.
The Triumph of Life (1822) is Gothic in that it is testament to the contradictory nature of Shelley’s literary identity. As an incomplete manuscript, the Triumph invites readers to engage with not only its form and content but also Shelley’s authorial intentions.[xii] Shelley’s death in July 1822 means that the Triumph exists only as a fragment, and as such questions about Shelley’s authorship remain unanswered. Did Shelley intend to leave the Triumph as an incomplete manuscript, or was its construction cut short by his untimely death? The uncertainty of Shelley’s authorial intent can likewise be felt in Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne. After all, while Shelley maintained to Godwin that Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne were the products of intellectual disease, he still sent them for Godwin’s perusal. Moreover, just as the Triumph’s final couplet (‘Happy those for whom the fold/Of…’) complicates the sense of an ending, so does the conclusion of St. Irvyne confound Shelley’s authorial intent. The novella ends with the revelation that Eloise de St. Irvyne ‘is the sister of Wolfstein’, the primary character of the Gothic plot. The rather hasty finale of St. Irvyne is additional evidence of what Timothy Webb and Alan M. Weinberg have called Shelley’s ‘questioning’ and ‘somewhat puzzling’ methods of composition in his later works, that is, the rejection of poetic linearity.[xiii] Even a decade before the composition of the Triumph, then, there is a similar poetic contradiction at work in Shelley’s Gothic fiction. Shelley’s paradoxical poetics means that his work—and by extension his literary identity—evades straightforwardness.
The complexities of Shelley’s later poetry has its antecedent in his early Gothic fiction. Shelley’s careful construction of his relationship with Godwin would lead one to believe that he dabbled in the Gothic and then abandoned it for the loftiness of philosophy and ‘true’ literature. Yet the trajectory of Shelley’s rather short literary career is far more nuanced. The Gothic consistently haunts his later poetry, and, by the time of his death, Shelley was a posthumous fragment of different ideas and identities.
Molly Watson (@diddykeats) is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham researching Motherhood, Children and Loss in the Works of Mary Shelley and Sara Coleridge, 1820-44. She is interested in second-generation and ‘late’ Romanticism (1820s-50s), children’s literature, women writers, and Gothic fiction. Her PhD is funded by the Midlands4Cities DTP (AHRC).
[i] The content of this post is inspired by my MRes thesis, ‘Arising from the state of intellectual sickliness and lethargy’: A Re-evaluation of Percy Shelley’s Gothic Fiction’ [University of Huddersfield, 2021]. For a discussion on Shelley’s indebtedness to Charlotte Dacre and William Godwin, see pp. 48-53 and pp. 83-6 respectively; see pp. 5-9 for Shelley’s ‘diseased’ intellect.
[ii] Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. I: Shelley in England, ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I:27.
[v] Behrendt, ‘Introduction’ to Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, 11.
[vi] Letters, I:227-8.
[vii] Letters, I:227n1.
[ix] Brewer, ‘Introduction’ to St. Leon, 22.
[x] Letters, I:227.