On This Day in 1823 – Mary Shelley’s Valperga was first published

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The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

The BARS ‘On This Day’ series marks 19th February 2023, 200 years to the day from the first publication of Valperga with this blog post by Almudena Jiménez Virosta.

The 19th of February 1823 was not a regular entry in William Godwin’s diary. Like any other day, he had noted down both what he had been working on, and his reading materials. However, he also marked that day as the publication date of his daughter’s Valperga, or, the Adventures of Castruccio Prince of Lucca [1]. Set amidst the wars between the political factions of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in fourteenth-century Italy, Valperga is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s second long work of fiction and a historical novel which Godwin particularly liked. ‘Beatrice is the jewel of the book’, he wrote to ‘Mrs. Shelley’ on the 14th of February 1823: 

not but that I greatly admire Euthanasia, and I think the characters of Pepi, Binda, and the witch decisive efforts of original genius [2]. 

Although the main plot is about the coming of age and into power of Castruccio Castrani, as the novel’s full title reads, Valperga significantly revolves around the intertwined stories of the two powerful women that Godwin so highly praised in his letter. Having been studied as representations of the female character as explored by Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), both Euthanasia and Beatrice seem to symbolize, however, two sides of the same coin [3]. As an educated, independent, and poised ruler Euthanasia epitomizes the perfect equilibrium between the rational and the sensible woman, while fanatic prophet Beatrice lives a life entirely governed by her unruled passions. Nevertheless, such different paths converge in their respective relationships with Castruccio, revealing thus how the fourteenth-century societal and political tissue constricted women’s fate only because of their sex. Of course, like many other novels of the day, Valperga also doubles as a denouncement of its own times, having Percy Bysshe Shelley compare Castruccio to ‘a little Napoleon… with a dukedom instead of an empire for his theatre’, just as John Gibson Lockhart also noted in his review for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine defining the novel as a ‘drumming at poor Buonaparte’ and an attempt ‘to shadow out Napoleon under the guise and semblance of some greater or smaller usurper of ancient days’ [4]. 

This double historical dimension of the novel is possible thanks to the diligent research carried out by Mary Shelley, who understood the politics of her times and those depicted in the book. Valperga is indeed heavily based on historical sources, including Machiavelli’s romance of the real Castruccio and Sismonde de Sismondi’s Histoire des Républiques Italiennes de l’Âge Moyen (1807). It is also inspired by literary works of that era, such as Dante’s Divina Commedia (1472), and others inspired by it, such as Percy Shelley’s The Cenci (1819)- both of these works strongly influencing the development of the character of Beatrice. It is no coincidence that Percy Shelley’s play came into being right in the middle of the conception of the novel, which Mary Shelley started to envision during the winter of 1817 [5]. Converting a novel supposedly conceived to narrate the adventures of Castruccio into focusing on the story of two relevant female characters, Euthanasia and Beatrice, has been attributed to Godwin. He played a significant role not only as an influence for the novel, as has been widely studied, but also as its editor. As he confesses in the letter above, he had ‘taken great liberties’ in editing it, to the point he feared his daughter’s ‘amour propre [to] be proportionally shocked. For instance, we know he changed the title to the name of Euthanasia’s fortress, Valperga, echoing in its subtitle, as Tilottama Rajan has pointed out, his very own 1794 Things as they are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams [6]. 

Among other reasons, the fact that the sources in Valperga were so easily recognizable, along with the disappointment Mary Shelley’s readers experienced when they found out how different this novel was from Frankenstein (1818), provoked a general disinterest in Valperga for decades. One of her most neglected novels, it also fell into the category of the works she composed after Percy Shelley’s death when in need of money and was therefore not seen as possessing any artistic value––Nora Crook reminds us –– until F. L. Jones reconsidered this in 1944 [7]. This lack of attention also caused the indifference of the book industry and a subsequent problem of accessibility. In fact, it was not reprinted from the Romantic period until the 1970s and then only made wholly accessible during the 1990s with a hard-back library edition by Crook for Pickering and Chatto; and the paperbacks of Broadview Press, by Rajan, and Oxford University Press, by Stuart Curran, then by Michael Rossington in the year 2000 [8]. These are still today key sources for all those who want to start researching Valperga or indulge themselves in a novel that is increasingly gaining relevance. Due to the growing number of studies devoted to the book by disciplines as varied as Queer Theory, Political Theory and Radical Ecology, Valperga is being more and more celebrated each day. Only this year, and after having hosted a series of online seminars since the summer of 2021, the Gothic Women Project, supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies and headed by scholars such as Daniel Cook, Laura Kirkley, Anna Mercer, Deborah Russell, and Lauren Nixon, will commemorate its bicentenary with a conference that will be held this August of 2023 in Dundee [9]. Valperga surely still has much to teach us: from fourteenth-century politics and literature to how we live our lives today. For that, we have ‘the Author of Frankenstein’ to thank, for, after all, as Godwin proudly wrote to her in his letter:

‘I need no to tell you that all the merit of the book is exclusively your own’

Almudena Jiménez Virosta (@jimenezvirosta) is an MA student at the University of Geneva. She researches the cultural and political interrelations between England and Spain (1600-1850), with a special focus on education and communications in the Spanish Golden Age and British Romanticism. 


[1] Diary entry for 19 February 1823 – The Diary of William Godwin, (eds) Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford Digital Library, 2010). http://godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk (accessed: February 2023)

[2] Letter from William Godwin to Mary Shelley (14 February 1823), in The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Vol. II by Florence Asthon Thomas Marshall. London: Richard Bently & Son, 1889 –– All further mentions of a letter from Godwin to Mary Shelley will refer to this one.

[3] See the introduction to the edition of Valperga by Tilottama Rajan (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998) and ‘Mary Shelley’s Valperga: The triumph of euthanasia’s mind’ by William D. Brewer in European Romantic Review, vol. 5, 1995; pp. 133-148. 

[4] For Percy Shelley’s commentary, see his letter to Charles Ollier (25 September 1821) in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley II, edited by Frederick L. Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964. | For Lockhart’s review, see Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. XIII, January-June 1823. Also available in Romantic Circles: https://romantic-circles.org/reference/chronologies/mschronology/reviews/valpbw.html (accessed: February 2023)

[5] See The Collaborative Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Anna Mercer. London: Routledge, 2019. 

[6] See the aforementioned introduction to Rajan’s edition of Valperga, where this is broadly discussed as a Godwinian novel.

[7 & 8] Crook, N. Review of ‘Mary Shelley, Valperga. Ed. Stuart Curran. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997’. Romanticism on the Net, n. 12, 1998 (accessed: February 2023)

[9] Gothic Women also commemorates the bicentenary of Ann Radcliffe’s death and celebrates other lesser-known gothic women writers. You can take a look at the project here: https://gothicwomenproject.wordpress.com (accessed: February 2023)