“An Introduction to Percy Shelley’s Gothic Fiction” by Molly Watson

On 8 March 1812, nineteen-year-old Percy Shelley wrote the following letter to William Godwin:

[…] [T]o you, I owe the inestimable boon of granted power, of arising from the state of intellectual sickliness and lethargy which I was plunged two years ago, and of which ‘St. Irvyne’ and ‘Zastrozzi’ were the distempered altho unoriginal visions. 

(LPBS I, 226)

Shelley claims that only by reading Godwin’s Political Justice (1793) was he “no longer the votary of Romance” (228). Shelley’s romances, written and published the previous year are typical Gothic novels. Zastrozzi (1810) is a revenge tale in which the eponymous character seeks to destroy the son of the man who had sexually dishonoured Zastrozzi’s mother. St. Irvyne (1811) is a more complex work. Readers are first introduced to a Gothic narrative in which the bandit Wolfstein is haunted by the spirit-human Ginotti, who seeks to obtain the elixir vitae. Running parallel to this is a sentimental plot following the plight of Eloise De St. Irvyne, who is impregnated by the libertine Nempere and subsequently marries the Irish nobleman Fitzeustace. St. Irvyne ends with the somewhat puzzling declaration that “Ginotti is Nempere. Eloise is the sister of Wolfstein” (252). Between 1809-12 Shelley produced an immense amount of literature, ranging from Gothic poetry to Godwinian novels contemplating the failure of the French revolution. It was a period of rapid development for Shelley, both politically and personally.

Unsurprisingly, contemporary reviewers did not warm to Shelley’s novels. Proclaiming themselves as guardians of public decency, The Critical Review attacked Zastrozzi as “one of the most savage and improbable demons that ever issued from a diseased brain” (329). Similarly, St. Irvyne was regarded by The Anti-Jacobin as a novel only fit for prostitutes (Barcus, 53). Subsequent scholarship has not been much kinder. Biographer Jean Overton Fuller dubiously suggests that Shelley wrote his Gothic fiction in a state of somnambulism, and therefore did not fully comprehend what he had written (31). For Angela Wright and Dale Townshend, Shelley “dabbled” in the Gothic before moving on to bigger and better things, as it were (14). Such scholarly dismissal demonstrates the sheer desperation to cling onto Shelley’s literary wholeness. Yet, this was formed in part by Shelley himself, who would always feel embarrassed that he succumbed to “intellectual sickliness and lethargy” (226). 

But to cling onto Shelley’s literary wholeness is to dismiss the many nuances and complexities within his Gothic fiction. If it has been established that the Gothic and British Romanticism are ambiguous and fluid, there has been little incentive to approach Shelley’s novels in the same way. Indeed, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne demonstrate Shelley’s experimentation with literary narrativization and genre, as well as showcasing his conflicting ideological voice. Shelley sympathises with Zastrozzi’s atheistic dismissal of “vulgar prejudices” (103) while celebrating divine retribution, which seems odd given that Shelley was a self-proclaimed atheist at the time. Likewise, in St. Irvyne, Shelley honours free love while simultaneously warning Nempere that “the God whom thou hast insulted has marked thee!” (232). The novels, then, are far more intricate than previously acknowledged. 

Indeed, trying to pin Shelley down as an arrogant young man who “tired” of the Gothic in favour of intellectualism is problematic. Attempting to fill in the gaps of Shelley’s juvenilia ignores the fact that Shelley as a man and as a writer is an aporia, a found manuscript that is, essentially, incomplete. Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne are not simply antecedents to his major poetry, and to read them solely in relation to his “masterpieces” dismisses the novels’ own autonomy. Paradoxically, Shelley is at his most Romantic when Gothic. 

Author biography

Molly graduated with a first-class BA in English Literature at Huddersfield in 2020 and is currently conducting an MRes on Percy Shelley’s Gothic fiction. She has submitted a PhD proposal on motherhood and loss in the children’s literature of Sara Coleridge and Mary Shelley. 

Works Cited

“ART. 19.-Zastrozzi; a Romance, 1 Vol.” The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, vol. 21, no. 3, 1810, pp. 329-331. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/historical-periodicals/art-19-zastrozzi-romance-1-vol/docview/4380540/se-2?accountid=11526. Accessed 3 Feb 2021.

Barcus, James. Shelley: The Critical Heritage. Routledge & K. Paul, 1975, 53. 

Fuller, Jean Overton. Shelley. Jonathan Cape, 1968, 31. 

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol I: Shelley in England. Edited by Frederick Jones, Clarendon Press, 1964, 226-228.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Zastrozzi & St. Irvyne. Edited by Stephen Behrendt, Broadview Press, 2002, 59-252.

Wright, Angela, and Townshend, Dale, editors. Romantic Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 14.