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Book Review: Falkner by Mary Shelley

November 22, 2019

This was written in 2014, when I read the novel, but it just got its fourth like on Goodreads, so I decided to publish it here.

Falkner by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Fiction, LiteraryFalkner by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Fiction, Literary by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this one of Shelley’s most satisfying reads. I previously gave 5 stars to Perkin Warbeck, but that was more like a 4.5 because it got bogged down in so much summary. This is fresh and vivid. I don’t know why the introduction refers to this as a “period piece,” although the last two pages have summary of what the remainder of Falkner’s life was like, there’s no indication that the story isn’t as modern and up-to-date as it could be in 1838. Frankenstein, on the other hand, had incomplete years given starting with 17s, establishing that book as being set before the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. From a powerful opening in which orphaned Elizabeth Raby, a little girl, grabs the hand of John (or Rupert) Falkner during his suicide attempt, pulling him down onto her mother’s grave and telling him not to step on it again, to the years of devotion to one another, to the chance meeting with Gerard Neville setting the action in motion to the point of voyages north and a long stay in prison, this vivid novel deserves to be revered as a classic. I would rate it as high as Frankenstein and The Last Man as being among her best work. The scene in Oswi Raby’s study is particularly vivid in atmosphere and setting, as well as characterization. Shelley keeps the characters pretty tight (being a work of pure fiction rather than historical fiction gives her more leeway, but Valperga is certainly less sprawling than Perkin Warbeck) and each one has a personality. The Falkners go through several servants because of their peripatetic lifestyle, and each one is as different from the other as one could possibly imagine–the stern, serious Englishwoman Miss Jervis, the avuncular Vasili who bonds with Elizabeth, the vacuous Thompson who inadvertently creates trouble, etc. I also like that no one in the book has a villainous motive–people do bad things out of concern for their own interests, but it’s never out of malice, and always from a desire to do right, or at least, in the case of James Osborne, to not do bad.

Shelley’s commentaries on class issues seem quite bold, almost to the point of giving the book the feel of a period piece in which the author comments on an earlier form of the culture by pointing out its absurd dogmas. Shelley here is playing cultural critic in a way I am not accustomed to seeing in nineteenth century novelists other than Shelley. The progressive-mindedness of Mrs. Raby (as in Elizabeth aunt, not her mother, neither of whom Shelley provides with first names), the treatment of Gerard’s desire for a gentlemanly duel treated as foolhardy are just two of the examples of Shelley being far ahead of her time. The somewhat florid beauty of her writing may hide this, but Elizabeth is a character of the twentieth century stifled by the mores of the nineteenth. It is as though neither she nor Shelley truly understand the restrictions put on female independence at the time, kowtowing to it on a strictly intellectual basis while fervently disagreeing. For example, Elizabeth sees no reason why she can’t take care of herself traveling alone in America in spite of the warnings from all around her; although she is eventually talked out of going, it is really only because she gets good reason not to do so, not that she is ever really convinced that she cannot handle herself. I think Shelley, who spent much of her life as a single (widowed) mother believes Elizabeth correct. The introduction states that Percy Jr. and his wife tried to portray her as more conservative to make her more respectable, but all that really seems to have done is make her books less read and harder to find when they should be as revered as those of any of the other unforgotten novelists of her time.

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