Love, Vengeance, Purple Blood, etc.

I suppose I ought to consider this an education in [Classic] Gothic Literature—a movement whose influence I’ve always only encountered in books, though mostly as tone or a small plot detour. But I don’t think I’ve ever really read something that was so solidly Gothic. So. For this installment of the ever-enlightening Classics Circuit, the parameters were simple: read “original” Gothic literature—that is, pre-Victorian, in the age of the Romantics. I had two in my shelves, bought early this year: Zastrozzi by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1810) and Transformation by Mary Shelley(1831), both from Hesperus Press. [Yes, I think of them as a celebrity literary Gothic-Romantic power couple.]

[If you’ll allow me, I’ll be lazy and won’t be dwelling much on the plot of Zastrozzi, because it is all sorts of WTFery, briefly described in this oh-so-reliable Wiki entry, and I will have too much fun lacerating it. Also, please note that the Hesperus Press edition of Mary’s book is actually a translation, but for purposes of this Classics Circuit stop, I will only be focusing on the title story.]

* * *

Percy wrote Zastrozzi when he was seventeen, and it was published when he was 18. I refuse to offer the pithy “it shows”—but maybe, you know, this was before he realized he was a far better poet than he would ever be a fictionist? Because, dammit, Zastrozzi is all sorts of messy and crazy and just weird. Parts of it deliberately weird, most of it funny, a whole lot of it confused with what it wanted to do to itself. Also, the blood that gushed in this novel—and there are buckets—is, well, purple. Yes. Purple. This is a novel where people weep and wail out their monologues as they do so, where people slipping into a fevered coma upon hearing bad news, where the blood is purple.

However, a third of this slim novel—mostly about a kidnapping, foiled escapes to old women he meets, the thugs, his freaking kidnapping—is not really the point, because all those, they’re unnecessary, because they’re not really the story. I don’t think it’s even about Verezzi, or Zastrozzi.

The story is mostly about Matilda, Contessa di Laurentini, who’s madly in love with Verezzi, who happens to hold one hell of a burning torch for Julia, La Marchessa de Strobazzo. Zastrozzi, too, yes, being his vengeance-y self [his reasons for vengeance too tacked-on for me, btw] [also, yes, it must be said that Zastrozzi can rightfully labeled as the catalyst, or, at least, the grand manipulator of the narrative].  It’s all Matilda, for me, and not only because I stopped falling asleep with this book once Matilda came on the scene with all her wild-love yumminess.]

Yeah. It’s about love and revenge, yes, seemingly competing instincts but, if exercised with the same kind of passion, exerts the same kind of destructive energy. All in the desperate Matilda. As Zastrozzi instructs her:

Love is worthy of any risk—I felt it once, but revenge has swallowed up every other feeling of my soul—I am alive to nothing but revenge.

First of all, here’s another teeth-gritting story where the angelic woman is pitted against her sly and lusty counterpart. The ideal wife, with her virtue a mantle around her, a contrast to the woman who loves too much and discovers that her love can drive her too too intensely. It’s the mostly-absent Marchessa against our Contessa, and guess whose team I was on? Though, yes, although I am all for her desperate loving, I wanted to take her aside and say, “Honey, you sure you want to go all ninny for that Verezzi loser?”

[In fact, later on in the novel, when Matilda cunningly and complicatedly succeeds in making Verezzi love her back, his love is described as “a Lethean torpor,” emphasizing the fact that, hell, Matilda will never win. Oh, how happy Matilda was when he saw that Verezzi finally, after a long struggle and seduction, loved her.]

Zastrozzi fans Matilda’s jealousy, turning it into murderous rage. This is Matilda’s weakness—loving Verezzi and not being loved back—and Zastrozzi pounces on this, because of some grand scheme of his that frankly doesn’t make sense to me. Still, however, Matilda needed a Zastrozzi to push her love of Verezzi and hatred of Julia to an extreme. [Because it never occurred to her to, you know, hate Verezzi, or at least try to leave well enough alone?]

‘Oh Julia! hated Julia! words are not able to express my detestation of thee. Thou hast destroyed Verezzi. Thy cursed image, reveling in his heart, has blacked my happiness for ever, but ere I die, I will taste revenge—oh! exquisite revenge!’

* * *

Love and vengeance as bedmates, too, is the focus of Mary’s “Transformation”—it was apparent to me, however, that Mary is the better writer this round. It’s a concise, well-crafted, near-mythical tale of, as our narrator Guido describes it in retrospect, “an impious tempting of providence, and soul-subduing humiliation.”

Briefly, Guido is a wastrel, spendthrift, and prodigal adopted son all rolled into one. He loses his bride, thinks himself a victim of other people’s machinations, and plots sweet, sweet vengeance. In a pivotal scene, Guido all brood-y and shit on a cliff, he goes:

Revenge!—the word seemed a balm to me. I hugged it—caressed it—till, like a serpent, it stung me.

There are many similarities, yes, when I looked for them—but the main difference [aside from the writing skill, haha] is the reversal of the characters’ roles. Mary’s Guido is Percy’s Matilda, overcome by his emotions, lost in the intensity of his feelings. However, it helps that Guido tells this story years into the future, giving the tale a wiser edge, or, at least, one of self-awareness [as seen in what I quoted above].

Mary’s Zastrozzi comes in the form of a grotesque dwarf who comes to Guido on a cliff, offering temptation—better yet, offering a chance for vengeance—Guido can reclaim his beautiful bride [who kept daintily insisting that he behave himself], thumb his nose at his adopted father [who has nothing but love for him], and sneer at the townspeople who drove him out of his home [never mind that he habitually went on binges and orgies]:

‘Oh, you cousin of Lucifer!’ said he; ‘so you too have fallen through your pride; and, though bright as the son of morning, you are ready to give up your good looks, your bride, and your well-being, rather than submit to the tyranny of good.’

Offers from grotesque dwarves don’t augur well. Look at Rumplestiltskin, dammit. The dwarf offers untold riches to fund Guido’s vengeance, in exchange for three days of living in Guido’s body. The struggle in Guido—will common sense win out or his thirst for revenge? And then, when the revenge won out, the three days he waits for his body to return—the suspicion, the panic, the fear.

And, damn, is this book rife with symbolism. Makes me all dorky-giddy. Guido, in the body of that grotesque dwarf, gets the nerve to return to his hometown, encounter the people he’d left behind and hurt. Most especially, his confrontation with the dwarf in his booty-ful body. Wee!

* * *

Yes, I realize that these two works are not considered among these two’s masterpieces, or even their key works—for one, Percy’s a poet [and, man, does his novella know that], and, well, Mary’s got Frankenstein. But, ye know, I decided to go hipster and read their more obscure[d] books. Also, these were the books already in my shelves. Heh.

But, I like what I’ve read. Although Percy’s juvenilia had me stifling mad attacks of the giggles, the quiet dignity—the self-aware Gothic-y yumminess—of Mary’s stories were amazing. Percy’s bored me at first, and then it drove me batshit crazy, but I have nothing but respect for Mary’s writing. You know, I’ve long hemmed and hawed about reading Frankenstein, but, dammit, I think that I will very, very soon.

- – – – – – -

This post is one of many stops for the Gothic Literature Classics Tour of the Classics Circuit. Check out the tour stops before me, and wait with bated breath those that are a-coming!

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10 comments

  1. I’d had no idea that Percy Shelley had ever written such a thing..sounds awful. But I think Mary Shelley’s novel sounds interesting. I’m thinking I might like her. I’m contemplating reading her Frankenstein as well….

    1. Haha, I just realized that that word was what I was avoiding–but, yes, Zastrozzi is awful. My giggling only saved it. Mary Shelley’s is actually a short story, and at about 25 pages, yes, definitely better than Percy’s. Good luck to us re Frankenstein!

  2. The gothic book I read had a Matilda too. Who would have thought that name would be so popular?

    I think I’ll try the Mary Shelley book and stay far away from Percy’s.

    1. In her foreword, Germaine Greer goes all: “By her very name Matilda signals her lineal descent from the lust-maddened anti-heroine of M.G. Lewis’ hugely successful novel, The Monk . . . When Charlotte Dacre came to publish her Gothic romances, she took the name Rosa Matilda, by way of suggesting to her readers that they might expect more of the same kind of raging female passion . . .”

      It seems like the name Matilda, at the time, was the go-to name for cray-cray women. So, I have to ask: Is the Matilda of The Castle of Wolfenbach a “lust-maddened anti-heroine”? :’)

  3. Jillian ♣ · · Reply

    Oh, you MUST read Frankenstein!! And I must read Transformation!!

    Also, I want to giggle over some Percy Shelley. :)

  4. I second that you must read Frankenstein. It is so beautiful and full of symbolism that you can think about for days. I’ll have to look for Transformation, sounds wonderful!

  5. I wish I could remember whether Zastrozzi was one of the PB Shelley novellas I had to read in college (for a Gothic novel class). I’m pretty sure it was. Mostly, all I remember is reading out passages to my roommates, howling with laughter and how dreadful it was. I made lots of fun of the books we read in that class, what with all the fainting and melodrama, but most had some redeeming features, like decent writing or a gripping plot. The PB Shelleys were outright bad. Frankenstein was terrific, though, and you’ve got me curious about Transformation.

  6. @Jillian, @Shannon, @Teresa

    Man, okay, I will read Frankenstein. Soon. Next year. Sometime next year. Yes, it’s daunting, but I’m so impressed by Mary’s stories here [if I remember correctly, they were written years after Frankenstein, though I don't know why I mention this, haha]. Mary Shelley’s a wonderful writer, and the symbolism is spot-on and the language just so accomplished. I can’t wait. For “soon.”

    And I think I will forever be grateful to Percy for showing me that Gothic literature is a big package of the Lulz. Yes, Teresa, “howling with laughter”–I mean, at first, I felt I had to be all respectful, so I only stifled the giggles. But, purple blood! People weeping every which way! Hilarity.

  7. Carl Savich · · Reply

    Has anyone read The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein by John Lauritsen? He shows conclusively that Percy Bysshe Shelley was the actual author of Frankenstein. His wife Mary contributed to the novel, but Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote all the major parts in the novel. This “allegation” created a stir but it hs since been shown to be accurate and true. Percy Bysshe Shas always suspected from day one of being the real author of Frankenstein. Mary even admitted that he wrote the 1818 Preface where Percy Bysshe Shelley explains how he wrote the novel and what it was about and how he could never hope to match Lord Byron as a write.

  8. Carl Savich · · Reply

    Professor Charles E. Robisnon, the foremost scholar on Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, conceded in 2008 that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a lot of the novel himself. Robinson found that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s handwriting was all over a final draft. He corrected it, he changed the ending, he dictated what he wanted in the novel to Mary. Before Percy Bysshe sent the novel to his publisher, he proofread it and made changes to it. He acted like he was the real author. Based on this, Robinson published a version of the novel in 2008 listing Percy Bysshe Shelley as a co-author. I think all the John Milton material in Frankenstein, and there is a lot, a whole lot, was written by Percy Bysshe. The epigraph from Paradise Lost is by him. All the vegetarian stuff is by Percy Bysshe. The monster says: “My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” Only Percy Bysshe could have written that. He wrote the exact same thing in his 1813 essay on vegetarianism using the exact same lamb analogy. Percy was a devout vegetarian. Mary was not. Guess who wrote that part of the novel? And then the statement “I will glut the maw of death!” Pleeeeease! Only Percy Bysshe could have written that. In Mary’s letters, she talks about how Percy was dictating to her what to write. She even says in one letter that she gave Percy carte blanche to write whatever he wanted. And if you look at all the ideas, images, concepts, etc., they are all from Percy’s own life. Revenge. Obsession. John Milton. Immortality. Vegetarianism. Atheism. The blind old man is based on a teacher that Percy had in school, Dr. James Lind. He also appears in Percy’s The Revolt of Islam and The Coliseum and other works. So Percy Bysshe’s fingerprints are all over Frankenstein. It was Percy who was into galvanism and using it to bring people to life. Percy even experimented with electricity and had a galvanic trough when he was at school. All the key motifs and ideas are by him. I think they both wrote Frankenstein together. But Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the key parts. And what do the critics know? The critics said Frankenstein was trash and garbage and hated it when it was published anonymously in 1818. Percy could not find a publisher for it at first. The critics absolutely hated it. So I would not go by what critics say. The critics trashed Zastrozzi too but in 2009 a play adaptation of Zastrozzi by George F. Walker was staged at the Shakespeare Stratford Festival in Canada so what do they know? Zastrozi is performed in theaters all over the world today. And now the critics say Frankenstein is a classic. Insane. From trash and rubbish and profane now it is a classic. No one wanted to publish it. Why? Because of Percy’s radical ideas, that’s why. Critics have always hated anything revolutionary. But Percy Bysshe Shelley is now regarded as one of the greatest poets and writers who ever lived. And Frankenstein is regarded as a classic. So what do the critics know?

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