Extract from Richard Garnett's "Introduction" to _Tales and Stories_

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The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley, Edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra

Extract from Richard Garnett's 'Introduction' to Tales and Stories:

When The Last Man is reprinted it will come before the world as a new work. The same is the case with the short tales in this collection, the very existence of which is probably unknown to those most deeply interested in Mary Shelley. The entire class of literature to which they belong has long ago gone into Time's wallet as "alms for oblivion." They are exclusively contributions to a form of publication utterly superseded in this hasty--the Annual, whose very name seemed to prophesy that it would not be perennial. For the creations of the intellect, however, there is a way back from Avernus. Every new generation convicts the last of undue precipitation in discarding the work of its own immediate predecessor. The special literary form may be incapable of revival; but the substance of that which has pleased or profited its age, be it Crashaw's verse, or Etherege's comedies, or Hoadly's pamphlets, or what it may, always repays a fresh examination, and is always found to contribute some element useful or acceptable to the literature of a later day. The day of the "splendid annual" was certainly not a vigorous or healthy one in the history of English belles-lettres. It came in at the ebb of a great tide of poetry which followed on the French Revolution, and before the insetting of the great tide of Victorian [ix] prose. A pretentious feebleness characterizes the majority of its productions, half of which are hardly above the level of the album. Yet it had its good points, worthy to be taken into account. The necessary brevity of contributions to an annual operated a powerful check on the loquacity so unfortunately encouraged by the three-volume novel. There was no room for tiresome descriptions of minutiae, or interminable talk about uninteresting people. Being, moreover, largely intended for the perusal of high-born maidens in palace towers, the annuals frequently affected an exalted order of sentiment, which, if tolerable in sincere or merely mechanical hands, encouraged the emotion of a really passionate writer as much as the present taste for minute delineation represses it. This perfectly suited Mary Shelley. No writer felt less call to reproduce the society around her. It did not interest her in the smallest degree. The bent of her soul was entirely towards the ideal. This ideal was by no means buried in the grave of Shelley. She aspired passionately towards an imaginary perfection all her life, and solaced disappointment with what, in actual existence, too often proved the parent of fresh disillusion. In fiction it was otherwise; the fashionable style of publication, with all its faults, encouraged the enthusiasm, rapturous or melancholy, with which she adored the present or lamented the lost. She could fully indulge her taste for exalted sentiment [x] in the Annual, and the necessary limitations of space afforded less cope for that creeping languor which relaxed the nerve of her more ambitious productions. In these little tales she is her perfect self, and the reader will find not only the entertainment of interesting fiction, but a fair picture of the mind, repressed in its energies by circumstances, but naturally enthusiastic and aspiring, of a lonely, thwarted, misunderstood woman, who could seldom do herself justice, and whose precise place in the contemporary constellation of genius remains to be determined.

The merit of a collection of stories, casually written at different periods and under different influences, must necessarily be various. As a rule, it may be said that Mary Shelley is best when most ideal, and excels in proportion to the exaltation of the sentiment embodied in her tale. Virtue, patriotism, disinterested affection, are very real things to her; and her heroes and heroines, if generally above the ordinary plane of humanity, never transgresses the limits of humanity itself. Her fault is the other way, and arises from a positive incapacity for painting the ugly and commonplace. She does her best, but her villains do not impress us. Minute delineation of character is never attempted; it lay entirely out of her sphere. Her tales are consequently executed in the free, broad style of the eighteenth century, towards which a reaction is now fortunately observable. As stories, they are very [xi] good. The theme is always interesting, and the sequence of events natural. No person and no incident, perhaps, takes a very strong hold upon the imagination; but the general impression is one of a sphere of exalted feeling into which its is good to enter, and which ennobles as much as the photography of ugliness degrades. The diction, as usual in the imaginative literature of the period, is frequently too ornate, and could spare a good many adjectives. But its native strength is revealed in passages of impassioned feeling; and remarkable command over the resource of the language is displayed in descriptions of scenes of natural beauty. The microscopic touch of a Browning or a Meredith, bringing the scene vividly before the mind's eye, is indeed absolutely wanting; but the landscape is suffused with the poetical atmosphere of a Claude or a Danby. The description at the beginning of The Sisters of Albano is a characteristic and beautiful instance.

The biographical element is deeply interwoven with these as with as all Mary Shelley's writings. It is of special interest to search out the traces of her own history, and the sources from which her descriptions and ideas may have been derived. The Mourner has evident vestiges of her residence near Windsor when Alastor was written, and probably reflects the general impression derived from Shelley's recollection of Eton. The visit to Paestum in The Pole recalls in of the most [xii] beautiful of Shelley's letters, which Mary, however, probably never saw. Claire Clairmont's fortunes seem glanced at in one or two places; and the story of The Pole may be partly founded on some experience of hers in Russia. Trelawny probably suggested the subjects of the two Greek tales, The Evil Eye , and Euphrasia . The Mortal Immortal is a variation on the theme of St. Leon , and Transformation on that of Frankenstein . These are the only tales in the collection which betray the influence of Godwin, and neither is so fully worked out as it might have been. Mary Shelley was evidently more at home with a human than with a superhuman ideal; her enthusiasm soars high, but does not transcend the possibilities of human nature. The artistic merit of her tales will be diversely estimated, but no reader will refuse the authoress facility of invention, or command of language, or elevation of soul. (ix-xiii)

Published @ RC

September 1997