Mary Shelley’s last novel, Falkner, narrates the stories of Elizabeth and her adopted father Falkner as they battle English societal pressures and persistent melancholia. Shelley was in the middle of writing Falkner when her own father, William Godwin, died in 1836. For this and other reasons critics have primarily discussed Falkner in terms of Shelley’s relationships with her father and other immediate family members and their political histories. Much criticism attempts to suss out whether or not the political views in Falkner diverge or align with those of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, or Percy Shelley, and has had a distinct biographical basis [i]. Though some critics claim to diverge from this precedent, most articles and chapters that treat Falkner end up falling back into biography through the father figure [ii]. There is most certainly basis for this approach: there is more than ample evidence in the text to suggest that their relationship is a romantic and sexualized one, as Katherine Hill-Miller and others have outlined. It is all too tempting, then, to read Shelley’s relationship with her father into and over Falkner and her other later fiction.
With the rise of feminist recovery work in the late eighties and early nineties, Shelley’s lesser-known novels started to garner more critical attention. Falkner, however, of Shelley’s “other fiction” (i.e. not Frankenstein ) remains perhaps the most obscure. There are only a few published articles on the novel, and there remains to be a critical edition published. Most collected volumes treat the novel with its predecessor Lodore or another of Shelley’s works. Even in a volume professing to focus on Mary Shelley post- Frankenstein, there is only half a chapter dedicated to her last novel. [iii] There are many reasons I see for this critical negligence: Falkner seemingly isn’t as grand in scale as Frankenstein and The Last Man ; Mathilda, a posthumously published novella , deals with straightforward (or at least, admitted) incestuous feelings, rather than somewhat veiled ones; and, most important to this project, Falkner is seen almost exclusively as a sentimental domestic novel that is a retreat from her former radical politics. The basis of this type of reading, and of the lack of criticism on Falkner, I argue, stems from the constraints of reading Falkner exclusively through the lens of Shelley’s own biography. By looking away from biography, the utopian elements of the text emerge, generically recasting Falkner into the little-considered subgenre of utopian domestic fiction.
In this essay, instead of focusing on Shelley’s own family circumstances, I want to push on what we read as biography, historicism, and fact, and move toward a critical lens that can take these methods into account while also allowing the text to move beyond them. I want to resist the microscopic biographical impulse, and rather focus on larger social constructions that are reflected and critiqued in Shelley’s (re)presentations of the family. Biographical criticism, in my view, results in a limitation of how the father-daughter relationship is read in Falkner. Other modes of relationality emerge when you stop looking at biographical relationships and uncouple parental relationships from biology. This uncoupling allows us to see Shelley’s critique and rewriting of the aristocratic family and her revision of domestic relations; it is also an entryway into what structures Shelley cannot excise in her pursuance of what I call utopian revisionism.
I see utopian revisionism as Shelley’s deployment of specific iterations and revisions of language to explore and imagine a utopian vision of family. I argue that these permutations remain in the novel in palimpsest-like layers, revealing the intersecting social structures at work in Shelley’s text. By examining these layers, I ask: What has been overwritten? What has been excised? And, as Julie Carlson expresses in her investigation of the Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Shelley family, “What of the literary remains?” (8). In Carlson’s analysis, this question works to ask what of the literary (literary convention, the literary canon) necessarily persists when an author is born into a literary family. But, I would like to re-ask this question as asking after the remains – where, and what, are they? What of them? Shelley’s revisionism is utopian in her dedication to the mutability of language: the control she has over her literary world to write language in and out of meaning. Here, I sift through the literary remains in Falkner to pursue the production of and the waste left by Shelley’s utopian revisionism.
While I eschew a focus on the biographical (and biological) here, this critical trend has occasioned a particular investment in the “domestic” that I wish to pursue. Assuming Shelley’s personal connection to the domestic, I argue, serves to keep personal and political spheres both separate and gendered and obscures the figuration of the domestic in Falkner as an experimental category. The attempts to merge the spheres in this vein of criticism rely on the domestic, female Shelley’s incorporation of her male, public counterparts. I want to emphasize that the domestic in Falkner is always already a public matter. Rather than equating the domestic to the personal and therefore to biographical details, I want to broaden the available scope of what domesticity means by looking to how social narratives of marriage, class, and empire play into Shelley’s rehearsal and revision of family.
Julia Saunders, in her chapter “Rehabilitating the Family in Mary Shelley’s Falkner, ” is one of the first critics to treat the “domestic” aspects of Falkner as potentially harboring social critique, rather than mere acquiescence to social normativity (in Eberle-Sinatra). Citing Elizabeth and Falkner’s relationship as the hinge and focal point of the novel, Saunders writes: “In this relationship…Shelley constructs the family on a new footing. She adopts the premise that relationships should be based on more substantial values than a blind adherence to the creed that blood is thicker than water. By doing so, Shelley picks up a central theme of the social reform agenda of her parents’ generation” (Eberle-Sinatra 215). Melissa Sites follows Saunders’ lead in investigating the domestic reconfigurations in Falkner and how these new social spaces critique traditional domestic structures. Like Saunders and Hill-Miller before her, though, Sites continues to fall back on comparisons of Shelley’s family’s works and thoughts: much of her analysis asserts that Falkner rewrites and revises Godwin’s Caleb Williams.
Sites mobilizes the term “utopian domesticity” to describe much of Shelley’s fiction; Sites claims that Falkner and Elizabeth’s relationship forms the basis for a type of chosen family in which members come together willingly and work out their problems amongst themselves. She writes, “utopian domesticity is enhanced as a model for society when, as here, characters join together out of this feeling of mutual benevolence” (Sites 158). The ending of Falkner seems to support her claim: Falkner and Elizabeth continue to live together with a group of chosen companions, including Elizabeth’s husband Gerard Neville (who just so happens to be the son of Falkner’s adolescent love). I would like to echo Sites’ sentiment here in identifying Shelley as engaged in a utopian project. Sites’ analysis, however, is itself perhaps too utopian. The last definition of “utopia” in the OED acknowledges the impossibility of the category: “A plan for or vision of an ideal society, place, or state of existence, esp. one that is impossible to realize; a fantasy, a dream” (‘utopia, n.”). If a utopia is an impossible category, what, I ask, is undergirding this impossibility? I hope to explore the ways in which Shelley deploys language to imagine a utopian family structure while at the same time recognizing that the novel relies on the privileges conferred upon those who are born into aristocratic classes. The social scaffolding remains underneath the possibilities of form (and reform) that lie in Shelley’s multiple iterations of and redeployments of language – her utopian revisionism – in Falkner.
Reanimating the Dead: Motherhood as Utopian project
Elizabeth and Falkner’s relationship circulates in the text as the comparative locus for all others. While Falkner’s status as a son of a second son propels him to his choices, Elizabeth’s as the daughter of a second son similarly enables her to be in the right place at the right time; their specifically upper-class yet disinherited positions bring them together. Though critics have previously examined this bond and claim that the father figure is the most important role in the novel [iv], I am changing the terms of this thinking slightly to conceive of the parent-child bond as a two-way street: a child can parent, just as a parental figure can act childish. Instead of relying on the genders of Elizabeth and Falkner, I argue that Shelley constructs motherhood as the primary function not only of women who bear children but of all members of a “chosen family.” Though some claim “actual” (i.e. biological) mothers in this text and Shelley’s other works are not given voice, [v] I propose that Shelley un-couples motherhood from biological determinism, allowing for the signifier to contain multiple meanings and for multiple characters to fill this role. In a utopian twist, Shelley recuperates seemingly problematic elements of family – notably, the specter of incest – and marks them as constitutive elements of family structure. This can only be done, however, by relying on the political positions of its characters as white middle to upper class English aristocrats and the structures of class and racial inequality that create and support these positions.
As a part of Shelley’s revisionist project, she sets up models from which she adds and subtracts, revising the definition of motherhood from the center out. Alithea Rivers Neville is Falkner’s adolescent love and Gerard Neville’s mother. Her story, hidden at the center of multiple narrative arcs, becomes the material upon and from which motherhood is defined and revised. [vi] Falkner’s dark secret is that he once asked, and then forced, Alithea to run away from her marriage, ultimately causing her death. After his initial request, Alithea chooses her role as mother to her children rather than the pursuit of a romantic partner. She says:
‘My mother brought me up for a higher purpose than even conducing to your happiness. She brought me up to fulfill my duties, to be a mother in my turn. I do not deny,’ she continued, ‘that I share in some sort my mother’s fate, and am more maternal than wife-like; and as I fondly wish to resemble her in all her virtues, I will not repine at the circumstances that lead me rather to devote my existence to my children, than to be that most blessed creature, a happy wife – I do not ask for that happiness…my very girlish romantic repinings do not make me unhappy.’ (195)
In this paragraph, we see a tautological definition of motherhood – a spiraling inward – that finally ends with the truism that a mother is only happy through her children. She creates a binary between mother and wife, and can only see them as opposites: as either the wife who makes herself happy by “conducing” to her husband’s happiness, or a mother who has devoted her “existence” to her (presumably male) children. But, this is situated as a choice for Alithea rather than an imposition. While Alithea can only be a mother to her children to the exclusion of sexual desire, Elizabeth is able to revise this binary by being “more maternal than wife-like” with her father, her husband, and her other family members.
It is important that Alithea’s story remains ; Alithea was unable to form a protective community for herself and her children, and her death and unhappiness serve to rehearse the problems with traditional narratives of marriage and motherhood. Alithea’s example, though, illustrates not only the constraints of traditional marriage structures, but also the power women can gain from reconfiguring their roles within those structures. Falkner cannot accept that Alithea has in fact found purpose within an unhappy marriage. His masculine insistence on the unhappiness of Alithea reflects his assumption that her husband dictates not only her actions but her feelings. Falkner describes Alithea’s situation as that of a prisoner: he claims she lives in a “cage,” that the “slave had entered her soul,” and that she was a “poor prisoner” who would not “escape from [her] jailer” (193). Shelley does not shy away from describing the plight of Alithea’s situation, but Alithea is still allowed to be happy even within her disastrous marriage by turning to her children. Shelley gives Alithea a way to create something worthwhile, and insists that she say no to Falkner’s advances. The narrator muses on benevolent feelings of motherhood, citing power as a part of this initial definition of motherhood that cannot exist within the realm of marriage: “There is something so beautiful in a young mother’s feelings. Usually a creature to be fostered and protected – taught to look to another for aid and safety; yet a woman is the undaunted guardian of her little child” (209). Alithea demonstrates that, rather than “look to another for aid and safety” and follow Falkner in his scheme, she would refuse him and retain the power in the position as “guardian” of her children. While power over another intrinsically creates hierarchies, the novel (again, utopically) suggests that parents and children, lovers and friends, can have equal power over each other. Falkner himself cannot imagine a world in which Alithea could use her power to say no him: Alithea was “the wife of [his] reveries, [his] hopes, [his] heart” (198). The plot revolves around this one instance where a woman says no to a man and dies for it, regardless of the power Alithea discovers for herself. There are years of fallout from this action; though we know Alithea is strong in her resolve to saying no to her friend, Shelley shows us the extreme circumstances that ensue when a woman chooses for herself against an influential (i.e. wealthy) man.
Alithe’a circumstances, though situated as her personal choice, are impossible within the traditional marital framework that pits motherhood against marital happiness (or, more specifically, sexual fulfillment). Alithea’s husband, Sir Boyvill, illustrates how she would have been punished if she had made the choice to say yes to Falkner. Shelley shows that, despite the space that Alithea was able to carve for herself out of her circumstances, without an agreement that others will also take on the responsibilities of motherhood, the project will inevitably fail. Sir Boyvill thinks to himself, after he learns what actually happened to Alithea through Falkner’s written account, “had she remained voluntarily one half hour in the power of the man who had carried her from her home, no subsequent repentance, no remorse, no suffering could exculpate her” (218). Alithea’s situation, though – the ill consequences of any choice she makes – reveals the difficulty of women having the power to define family and motherhood for themselves. Alithea’s choice was the only one in which she could find solace for herself; not coincidentally, this choice also is the one that is presented as the most virtuous, and most conducive to a model in which motherhood becomes central. Alithea’s stringent devotion to motherhood, her love for her son, and her extreme fidelity represent the ideals of the community that Elizabeth forms at the end of the novel, in which Elizabeth does get to define her own conception of family: Shelley’s utopian revisionism at its finest.
While Alithea’s story models both the ways in which women are inhibited by structures of marriage and the power of motherhood, her story also generates the utopic gesture of motherhood as a universal (or, at least familial) mode of relationality. Falkner’s childhood circumstances were “motherless”; Alithea and her mother Mrs. Rivers took on the role of mothering Falkner, and thus his attachment grew. Tellingly, they were friends of his own deceased mother, and he declares that Mrs. Rivers “called me her son – her friend; she taught me to…consider herself and her daughter as near and dear ties that could not be rent away” (173). Indeed, after Mrs. Rivers dies, the motherly virtues that she displayed and avowed, Falkner says, seemed to transfer to Alithea: “Before I loved – now I revered [Alithea]; her mother’s angelic essence seemed united with hers, forming two in one. The sentiments these beings had divided now concentrated in her” (180). So, Falkner’s love for Alithea in the first place comes from her ability to channel the attributes of the only woman that had called Falkner son. Alithea becomes at once sister, mother, and lover for Falkner; which, in Shelley’s revision of the role of motherhood becomes encompassed in its very definition.
Elizabeth’s relationships successfully retool the utopian elements of Alithea’s initial experience of motherhood as both a model for all relationships and as an experience of empowerment. When Falkner goes to war in Greece in a veiled suicide attempt (à la Byron), Elizabeth follows him. He is wounded, and Elizabeth walks straight into the war zone to bring him medical attention and return him to safety. The narrator describes Elizabeth as a mother to Falkner who has to fiercely protect her child: “she drew nearer the litter, as a lonely mother might to the cradle of her child, when in the stillness of night some ravenous beast intruded on a savage [vii] solitude” (67). In their frolics around the continent, Elizabeth is described as taking just as much care of Falkner as he takes of her. Though Falkner attempts to dissuade Elizabeth from her caretaking, she finds power in both her refusal to keep away and in literally keeping Falkner alive. In an imaginative twist, Shelley imbues motherhood with a power that can be shared; the text imagines a world in which power – power to decide one’s own circumstances and to have effect on others – is not one-sided, is not unequal, and is again, in a word, utopian.
This version of motherhood, as a road to familial (e)quality, is feminine but also necessarily inclusive of male characters. Shelley gives both Falkner and Neville, Elizabeth’s future husband, “mothering” qualities: caretaking, attention, gentleness, love. This is always spoken in slightly oblique tones, however; Falkner is always “like” a mother, or “more” than a father. Early on, after Falkner has adopted Elizabeth, Shelley writes, “No mother could have attended on [Elizabeth] more assiduously than Falkner” (38). And again, Elizabeth says, “he brought me up as his child; he was more to me than father ever was. He has nursed me as my own mother would in sickness” (245). The slippage in these statements – no mother, as his child, more than father, as my own mother – reveals a searching for the right term; the traditional meanings of father, mother, and child do not quite fit. The gendered separation of parental terms does not suffice, but neither does the simple term “parent.” While it is easier for Elizabeth and Alithea to become mothers to their family members, it becomes harder to put a finger on how Falkner interacts with Elizabeth. There is an excess in Elizabeth’s statement that Falkner is “ more than father ever was” (55, emphasis mine). In redefining motherhood as an umbrella term for familial affection, Shelley must un-gender mothering for it to encompass more than biology. Even Gerard Neville embodies motherly virtues in his attendance of Falkner’s sickbed: “it was impossible not to be won by [Neville’s] gentleness, and almost feminine delicacy of attention, joined to all a man’s activity and readiness to do the thing that was necessary to be done” (76). By revising motherhood through the unlikely characters of Gerard and Falkner, Shelley retools the term to speak for her definition of family: mutual care, nursing, gentleness, and sympathy. Any family member, regardless of age or gender, can inhabit that position, and is in fact necessary in Shelley’s utopian schema: everyone must become a mother.
“My daughter, I love you!”: Remnants and Revisions of Sexuality and Love
Shelley’s (re)definitions of motherhood – as seen through Alithea and revised through subsequent characters – still encompass typical descriptions. Adjectives like caring, sympathetic, benevolent, etc. are by no means new conceptions, even if the sphere of mothering is extended to include men and more women. There is, of course, more to this picture; while the excess in relationships described above might signal Shelley’s redefinition of family and motherhood, there is also an unmistakable overtone of sexuality that pervades these revisions. Sites’ analysis deliberately ignores the sexual nature of the parent-child relationships in the novel. In a footnote, she writes that “Falkner and Elizabeth lovingly choose to remain together, without the stifling, incestuous overtones present” in Shelley’s Frankenstein, and they “become an ideal model for any relationship, blood or otherwise” (Sites 157). While Hill-Miller argues that the “more” in “more than father” and “more than brother” and “more than daughter” exhibits a clear sexual tension – and I agree – Sites claims that it is a “phrase emphasizing Falkner’s virtue in taking care of a child not related to him by blood” (157). These seemingly opposite arguments rely on an adherence to reading biography and biology onto the text. Falkner seems instead to ask: do incestuous overtones have to be stifling? What happens to sexuality in the reformulated family in which everyone is a mother, and is there space for sexual intimacy?
The key to this question, I think, lies in the utopian opening of the definition of love in Falkner. Shelley’s overlapping definition of love – that ultimately collapses familial, parental, and sexual love – is rehearsed, defined, and redefined through the course of the text. Though Shelley does attempt to distinguish two sides of a love coin, the language she uses to do so falls short. Shelley does not differentiate with adjectives or modifiers, and only occasionally with context. She expects her readers to know the difference. This is especially apparent in Falkner’s feelings for Elizabeth, and the vacillation between claiming a father’s love and something more, or different, than paternal feelings. The narrator describes that Falkner “felt how passionately he loved her – how to part from her was to part from every joy of life; he called himself her father – his heart acknowledged the tie in every pulsation; no father ever worshipped a child so fervently” (153, emphasis mine). Even in this one rambling thought, Falkner cannot decide whether to solely “acknowledge the tie” of father, or give in to his feeling that “no father ever worshipped a child so fervently;” the slippage between father and no father is here again repeated, and signals Shelley’s reworking of these terms. When Falkner is imprisoned for the charge of murder, he reflects on his relationship with Elizabeth, who comes to stay with him as much as she can. He loved Elizabeth “with a feeling which, though not paternal, was as warm as ever filled a father’s breast” (257, emphasis mine). He sets up Elizabeth as both a wife and mother to him: “She had been his sweet household companion, his familiar friend, his patient nurse – his soul had grown to her image, and when the place was vacant that she had filled, he was excited by eager longings for her presence, that even made his man’s heart soft as a woman’s with very desire” (258). In these passages, Falkner ranges from a paternal devotion to Elizabeth to actual desire. The “no father could have…” and other deliberate modifiers hint at Shelley’s attempt to open up what we conceive as motherly or fatherly: to redefine and rewrite these terms in ways that do not exclude sexuality. The sexual language and images, in Shelley’s utopian impulse, do not take away from the equality and benevolence espoused in praise of motherhood, but in fact become a constitutive component.
Some have argued that the inclusion of sexuality in the familial equation is accounted for by the fact that Falkner has adopted Elizabeth: their relationship does not have a biological basis. [viii] This approach, however, overlooks the notion of a chosen family and the ability to inhabit the roles of father, mother, and child with no blood ties. This becomes apparent by looking at the other relationship models in the text, rather than solely focusing on Falkner and Elizabeth. While Alithea cannot include Sir Boyvill within her motherly circle, her son Gerard easily reciprocates her love. Gerard and Alithea’s relationship, like Falkner and Elizabeth’s, is figured in sexual terms: Neville “dreamed often that she kissed him in his sleep, and woke to weep over the delusion” (118); and “Gerard was all in all to her – her hope, her joy, her idol, and he returned her love with more than a child’s affection” (103, emphasis mine). Again there is the formulation of excess in the parent/child relationship that isn’t yet accounted for. Unlike Falkner and Elizabeth, Alithea is Neville’s biological mother; the potential for an intense, mothering, and yet sexual relationship, then, is not precluded by biology. The intensely sexual relationships between parents and children indeed take precedence over others in the text, and the characters openly acknowledge this. It is only because Elizabeth understands deep, familial love – deeper than the connection she has with Gerard – that the two are able to reconcile with one another. She “deigns to partake in [his] griefs” rather than replacing Alithea as the primary woman in Gerard’s life. Elizabeth says, “I think that, in all he is doing, he is obeying the most sacred law of our nature – exculpating the innocent, and rendering duty to her who has a right, living or dead, to demand all his love ” (143, emphasis mine). Elizabeth uses this model of motherly, parental love to care for and relate to Gerard; in effect, she does replace his mother, but only if he also replaces hers. To love each other, they must mother each other.
Falkner actively engages in negotiating the boundaries between sexual love and familial love, resulting in an extended meditation on the subject. It is useful here to look at Shelley’s Mathilda – suppressed from publication until 1959 because of incestuous themes – to help tease out the descriptions of love in Falkner. It is interesting to note that in Gerard’s case the audience is expected to extra-textually differentiate between romantic love and parental love. The narrator claims that Gerard had “never loved before,” (135, 157) but he again and again demonstrates that he has unceasing devotional love for his mother, the woman who “has a right, living or dead, to demand all his love.” Shelley uses the same term in multiple ways to form a compound definition of love in which its various meanings can no longer be separated out. Shelley performs a similar linguistic move in her short novella Mathilda. Mathilda is the daughter of a widower who has been absent for the first sixteen years of her life. When he returns, they enjoy each other’s company and she becomes devoted to him. After a few months, though, things take a turn, and she realizes that her father has fallen in (romantic) love with her. The language, when Mathilda’s father confesses his desire for his daughter, is famously vague. Though “love” has been mentioned multiple times in the short text, when her father tells her, “My daughter, I love you!” Mathilda immediately differentiates this declaration from other expressions of love (45). She sinks to the ground in shock and then locks herself in her room (45-47). There are absolutely no linguistic clues, though, that this love is any different than the love a father bears a child. Mathilda, and by proxy the reader, must feel that the two are separate. Similarly, Gerard does not identify the love he bears for his mother as romantic love, as cited above; the omniscient narrator keeps them separate in this case. He, like Mathilda, can immediately feel the difference. This is not the case with Elizabeth: when she realizes her feelings for Gerard, she starts to compare them to her feelings for Falkner. She thinks, “She loved Falkner, and that with so much truth and delicacy, yet fervor of passion, that scarcely could her virgin heart conceive a power more absolute, a tie more endearing, than the gratitude she had vowed to him” (236). After this gushing of sentiment towards her father, there is an attempt to separate those feelings from her love for Gerard: “she intimately felt the difference that existed between her deep-rooted attachment for him she named and looked on as her father, and the spring of playful, happy, absorbing emotions that animated her intercourse with Neville” (236). Yet, Shelley spends the next few pages and more teasing out the similarities and differences in Elizabeth’s feelings for the men in her life. Even by the next page, Elizabeth has forgotten about the “spring of playful, happy, absorbing emotions” that she felt around Gerard, and instead speaks of Falkner in similar language: “She loved him so truly, that she forgot her personal regrets – she forgot even Neville when with him…it was a fresh spring of overflowing love” (237). Though there are attempts at differentiation here, those differences do not come down to generally describe fathers or lovers, but are specific to the characters themselves: more like describing the virtues of two different companions than differentiating based on the type of relationship they have. Elizabeth and Falkner’s relationship further complicates what we see in Mathilda and Gerard’s relationship with his mother. The scene makes us question what categorizes Mathilda’s father’s feelings as non-paternal, and Elizabeth actively attempts to tease out what might make them different. Elizabeth, unlike Mathilda, does not immediately know the distinction between romantic and paternal love, nor does the text shy away from describing paternal love as romantic, sexual love, and vice-versa.
Claiming motherhood for everyone, then, does not mean that the text ignores sexuality. However, the coexistence of sexuality and motherhood is initially sussed out through the ur-text Alithea’s Orientalist comparison to natives in colonial India. Falkner’s stint in India becomes indicative of his privileged yet compromised status. Falkner goes to India out of the necessity created by his position as the son of a second son, and acknowledges that he is serving a system of oppression. He says, “I attached myself to several natives; that was a misdemeanor… I was for ever entangled in the intimacy, and driven to try to serve the oppressed; while the affection I excited was considered disaffection on my part to the rulers” (183). Falkner here establishes that he doesn’t agree with “the rulers,” in India – his British superiors – and admits the difficulty of working within the system to change it or to have any sort of impact for those living under British colonial rule. Shelley uses strong descriptors – “entanglement,” “misdemeanors,” “oppressed” – for Falkner’s situation. There is an explicit gesture to the oppression that stems from British colonial rule.
Falkner actively works to revise his role within this system, but still falls into the narratives of British exceptionalism and Orientalism. While Falkner is upfront with his critical opinion of his situation, this is tempered with his mission to “inculcate” the Indian natives with distinctly British values. Falkner admits that his “youthful imagination [was] exalted by native magnificence” (184); but, this “magnificence,” it would seem, rests on the position of Indian natives as pupils in whom Falkner could “inculcate European tastes and spirit, enlightened views, and liberal policy” (183). There is a clear critique of Anglo-Indian colonial policy here, as well as a Romantic attempt to eschew civilization’s constraints in favor of a non-English system. Falkner simultaneously finds the rule oppressive and yet reinforces the values upon which colonial rule is justified. Falkner resides at the intersection of intertwined hierarchies of aristocratic inheritance and the system that feeds labor in the English colonies; his position as the son of a second son enables this. This colonial position not only finances his journey and Elizabeth’s, enabling the utopian project of motherhood for all, but reinstates national hierarchies and Orientalist binaries.
While in India, Falkner lets his imagination run wild; he assumes Alithea is waiting for him and persists in his fantasy of their marriage, assuming it is inevitable. Though he is forceful about his constancy to Alithea, part of what allows him be is seeing her in the Indian women he encounters. Falkner describes this triangulation at length:
I never saw a young Indian mother with her infant, but my soul dissolved in tender fancies of domestic union and bliss with Alithea. There was something in her soft dark eye, and in the turn of her countenance, purely eastern; and many a lovely, half-veiled face I could have taken for hers; many a slight, symmetrical figure, round, elegant, and delicate, seemed her own, as, with elastic, undulating motion, they passed on their way to temple or feast. I cultivated all these fancies […] I indulged them with complacency – I returned to them with ardour – I nourished them with perseverance. (Shelley 185)
The tone is sexual: he speaks of their forms as “undulating,” he was forever “entangled in the intimacy,” he “indulged” the “fancies” with “ardour,” and persevered in seeking them. He specifically associates Indian mothers with Alithea; motherhood here is a sexual position. It can only be figured as such, though, by categorizing Alithea as non-English; her sexuality is derived from her “purely eastern” countenance, and the Indian women are only vessels for Falkner’s sexual fantasies of an English woman. Motherhood, in Shelley’s revision, is not only the ideal caretaking role but also the source of sexual energy and power. The only way to achieve this, though, is by channeling Alithea’s sexuality through Indian women: the sexual objects that aid in a white woman’s sexual liberation. It’s also worth noting that this is triangulated through Falkner’s white male gaze. In this instance, Alithea cannot claim her own sexuality; Falkner must imagine it. Shelley is both using and perpetuating the stereotype of the sexualized Indian woman to claim that motherhood is the ultimate position of love in all its forms.
Though Shelley’s claim about the inherent sexuality and multiplicity of motherhood is radical, it is presented in the terms of colonial conquest. Though Falkner does espouse anti-colonial views and disparages his position in India, he still derives much of his fortune and well-being from his employment there. Falkner, contrary to the ideals of a utopian motherhood, sees his relationship with Alithea as a monetary transaction of conquest rather than one of mutual exchange. The twinning of motherhood and sexuality, and therefore the critique of the inhibiting institution of marriage, comes at the cost of employing colonial metaphors and perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes. Though Elizabeth revises Alithea’s circumstances to allow for the co-existence of sexuality and motherhood for herself, the original traces of this Orientalist formulation remain.
In conclusion: A Queer Family?
In this essay, I have attempted to think through the ways in which Mary Shelley’s last novel Falkner radically, and some might say perversely, revises normative notions of family. And yet, there are structures of inequality remaining that undergird this utopian revision of terms. Why does this matter? I am reminded of the 2014 essay by Ulrika Dahl, “Not Gay as in Happy, but Queer as in Fuck You: Notes on Love and Failure in Queer(ing) Kinship.” Dahl’s polemical piece opens with the premise that there is extra pressure for queer couples to “make it,” to be happier, or at least as happy, as hetero couples. There is a notion that if we do family the “right way” – outside the structures of gender inequality that haunt traditional marriage – we can form families in which all members are equal. Biological mothers and adoptive mothers in lesbian parental partnerships are both, in the end, mothers. The family revisions in Falkner, in their way, are not all that different from LGBTQ “love wins” movements: a choose your own family adventure tale. Dahl’s piece forcefully illuminates the failures of these notions; they are grounded in utopian ideals that ignore persistent forces of inequality. As Elizabeth Freeman has put it, a chosen family model “presumes a range of economic, racial, gender, and national privileges” (304). Whether Falkner should or could be categorized as a queer text remains to be seen, but thinking in these terms presents the question at the heart of this paper: a feminist utopia for whom?
Author's Bio: Bryn Gravitt is a PhD Candidate in Literature at Tufts University. She received her M.A. from Tufts in 2012 and her B.S from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009. Her research interests include Nineteenth-Century British Literature, Intersectional Feminism, and translations to digital media. She is currently writing a dissertation titled “Household Management: Genre, Family, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century British Domestic Literature” that examines structures of family in genres like the long poem, the novel, and the early household manual. She is also the Interim Director at the Women’s Center at Tufts where she works closely with students dedicated to intersectional feminist thought and practice.
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[i] Mary Poovey is one of the earliest critics to examine Falkner, but only in comparison with what she sees as the more radical politics of Frankenstein, and in relationship to William Godwin; she claims that Shelley used Elizabeth’s relationship with Falkner to punish her own father. Her analysis of Falkner in her book The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer continues to influence criticism of the novel. See also Julie Carlson, Ranita Chatterjee, Julie Sauders (in Eberle-Sinatra), Katherine Hill-Miller, and Sharon Jowell.
[ii] In her book My Hideous Progeny, Katherine Hill-Miller attempts to read Mary Shelley as an author in her own right, “rather than as an adjunct to her husband” (14), but instead chooses to read Shelley as influence by her father. She writes, “after all, Mary Shelley was more her father’s student than her husband’s” (15).
[iii] See Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein, Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Birth, Edited by Sydny M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O’Dea
[iv] Julia Saunders, Graham Allen, and Katherine Hill-Miller all claim that the central role for women in Falkner is the daughter, and Shelley’s primary purpose in this is to work through her own feelings about her father, making the father-figure the one around which the plot revolves.
[v] See Sharon L. Jowell’s “Mary Shelley’s Silent Mothers: The Weak, the Absent, and the Silent in Lodore and Falkner ”
[vi] Alithea’s story is both located at the literal center of the novel and is its developmental turning point. Hill-Miller writes that “the story of the dead mother is imbedded, nearly hidden, at [the] center...[it] lies buried at the work’s emotional center” (191).
[vii] In an extended version of this article, I discuss Shelley’s revisionist use of the word savage to argue that Shelley ultimately recasts the term as a necessary prerequisite to embrace a new conception of family. Like the twinning of sexuality and motherhood, though, its deployment cannot escape raced and gendered formations that undermine its utopian use.
[viii] Hill-Miller focuses on the fact that Falkner and Elizabeth are not biologically related to make her point about how sexually suggestive the text is.