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Proserpine and Midas

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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Proserpine is based on Ovid's tale of the abduction of Proserpine by Pluto, which itself was based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Mary Shelley's version focuses on the female characters. In a largely feminist retelling from Ceres's point of view, Shelley emphasises the separation of mother and daughter and the strength offered by a community of women. Midas is largely concerned with gender issues. It comments on the definitions of femininity and masculinity in the early nineteenth century and the developing ideology of separate spheres which encouraged women to restrict themselves to domestic affairs and men to political affairs.

This book has 71 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1820.

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Excerpt from 'Proserpine and Midas'

Mary Godwin in her younger days certainly possessed a fair share of that nimbleness of invention which generally characterizes women of letters. Her favourite pastime as a child, she herself testifies, had been to write stories. And a dearer pleasure had been—to use her own characteristic abstract and elongated way of putting it—‘the following up trains of thought which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents’. All readers of Shelley’s life remember how later on, as a girl of nineteen—and a two years’ wife—she was present, ‘a devout but nearly silent listener’, at the long symposia held by her husband and Byron in Switzerland (June 1816), and how the pondering over ‘German horrors’, and a common resolve to perpetrate ghost stories of their own, led her to imagine that most unwomanly of all feminine romances, Frankenstein. The paradoxical effort was paradoxically successful, and, as publishers’ lists aver to this day, Frankenstein’s monster has turned out to be the hardest-lived specimen of the ‘raw-head-and-bloody-bones’ school of romantic tales. So much, no doubt, to the credit of Mary Shelley. But more creditable, surely, is the fact that she was not tempted, as ‘Monk’ Lewis had been, to persevere in those lugubrious themes.

Although her publishers—et pour cause—insisted on styling her ‘the author of Frankenstein’, an entirely different vein appears in her later productions. Indeed, a quiet reserve of tone, a slow, sober, and sedate bearing, are henceforth characteristic of all her literary attitudes. It is almost a case of running from one to the other extreme. The force of style which even adverse critics acknowledged in Frankenstein was sometimes perilously akin to the most disputable kinds of romantic rant. But in the historical or society novels which followed, in the contributions which graced the ‘Keepsakes’ of the thirties, and even—alas—in the various prefaces and commentaries which accompanied the publication of so many poems of Shelley, his wife succumbed to an increasing habit of almost Victorian reticence and dignity. And those later novels and tales, though they sold well in their days and were kindly reviewed, can hardly boast of any reputation now. Most of them are pervaded by a brooding spirit of melancholy of the ‘moping’ rather than the ‘musical’ sort, and consequently rather ineffective as an artistic motive. Students of Shelley occasionally scan those pages with a view to pick some obscure ‘hints and indirections’, some veiled reminiscences, in the stories of the adventures and misfortunes of The Last Man or Lodore. And the books may be good biography at times—they are never life.

Altogether there is a curious contrast between the two aspects, hitherto revealed, of Mary Shelley’s literary activities. It is as if the pulse which had been beating so wildly, so frantically, in Frankenstein(1818), had lapsed, with Valperga (1823) and the rest, into an increasingly sluggish flow.

The following pages may be held to bridge the gap between those two extremes in a felicitous way. A more purely artistic mood, instinct with the serene joy and clear warmth of Italian skies, combining a good deal of youthful buoyancy with a sort of quiet and unpretending philosophy, is here represented. And it is submitted that the little classical fancies which Mrs. Shelley never ventured to publish are quite as worthy of consideration as her more ambitious prose works.

For one thing they give us the longest poetical effort of the writer. The moon of Epipsychidion never seems to have been thrilled with the music of the highest spheres. Yet there were times when Shelley’s inspiration and example fired her into something more than her usual calm and cold brilliancy.

One of those periods—perhaps the happiest period in Mary’s life—was during the early months in Italy of the English ‘exiles’. ‘She never was more strongly impelled to write than at this time; she felt her powers fresh and strong within her; all she wanted was some motive, some suggestion to guide her in the choice of a subject.’

Shelley then expected her to try her hand at a drama, perhaps on the terrible story of the Cenci, or again on the catastrophes of Charles the First. Her Frankenstein was attracting more attention than had ever been granted to his own works. And Shelley, with that touching simplicity which characterized his loving moments, showed the greatest confidence in the literary career of his wife. He helped her and encouraged her in every way. He then translated for her Plato’s Symposium. He led her on in her Latin and Italian studies. He wanted her—probably as a sort of preliminary exercise before her flight into tragedy—to translate Alfieri’s Myrrha. ‘Remember Charles the First, and do you be prepared to bring at least some of Myrrha translated,’ he wrote; ‘remember, remember Charles the First andMyrrha,’ he insisted; and he quoted, for her benefit, the presumptuous aphorism of Godwin, in St. Leon, ‘There is nothing which the human mind can conceive which it may not execute’.

But in the year that followed these auspicious days, the strain and stress of her life proved more powerful on Mary Shelley than the inspiration of literature. The loss of her little girl Clara, at Venice, on the 24th of September 1818, was cruel enough. However, she tried hard not to show the ‘pusillanimous disposition’ which, Godwin assured his daughter, characterizes the persons ‘that sink long under a calamity of this nature’. But the death of her boy, William, at Rome, on the 4th of June 1819, reduced her to a ‘kind of despair’. Whatever it could be to her husband, Italy no longer was for her a ‘paradise of exiles’. The flush and excitement of the early months, the ‘first fine careless rapture’, were for ever gone. ‘I shall never recover that blow,’ Mary wrote on the 27th of June 1819; ‘the thought never leaves me for a single moment; everything on earth has lost its interest for me,’ This time her imperturbable father ’philosophized’ in vain. With a more sympathetic and acuter intelligence of her case, Leigh Hunt insisted (July 1819) that she should try and give her paralysing sorrow some literary expression, ‘strike her pen into some... genial subject... and bring up a fountain of gentle tears for us’. But the poor childless mother could only rehearse her complaint—‘to have won, and thus cruelly to have lost’ (4 August 1819). In fact she had, on William’s death, discontinued her diary.

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