So … Mathilda and Maurice were two of her writing projects during her sad sojourn in Italy, 1818–1823. But these were smaller in scope and required nothing like the effort she expended to research and write a novel published in February 1823 (several months before she left to return to England) as Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca.
In the scholarly edition of the novel, editor Nora Cook notes that Mary had originally thought of the idea before they’d left for Italy, but the idea took shape at Naples in early 1819; but there, reports Crook, the research materials were not sufficient, so it was in Pisa and the nearby Bagni de Pisa (Baths of Pisa—about 3.5 miles northeast) that Mary did the bulk of her work.
It is a long novel—more than 325 pages in Crook’s edition (which features a smallish font!)—and deals with some historical events and figures in medieval Italy. I’ll confess that I didn’t know very much (okay, nothing at all) about these events—and had never heard of Castruccio—before I read her book between March 20–31, 1997, very early in my “Mary Shelley period.” I had retired from public school teaching only about two months earlier and had really just begun working full-time on Mary and her work. So I have to say that I was a bit … ignorant … when I read the novel.
I compensated, though, as I just discovered when I checked my file on Valperga: fifteen single-spaced pages of notes. That’s what one (I) does (do) when one (I) doesn’t (don’t) know very much: Write down everything.
But do not despair. I am not going to summarize the story in detail (something that, I know, is a very powerful narcotic). But I’ll give you a swift, sort of Wikipedian notion of what her novel is about—a novel, I confess, that I read because I knew I should rather than because I was mesmerized.
It deals with the war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (contending forces in northern Italy … want to know more? Look it up yourself!) and the rise of Castruccio, who would lead the winners (the Ghibellines, defending Florence) and would have relationships with two key women—Euthanasia (scary name—so close) and Beatrice. (Dante, by the way, was living at the time, though he appears only allusively in the novel).
Euthanasia doesn’t fare well. Near the end of the novel (spoiler alert!), sent away by Castruccio, she boards a ship, which encounters a storm with huge, dark columns, descending from heaven and a bunch of other bad stuff. The ship is lost—with all on board. Among the ruins that wash up? A broken mast, round which, tangled with some of its cordage, was a white silk handkerchief, such a one as had bound the tresses of Euthanasia the night before she had embarked, and in its knot were a few golden hairs. … She slept in the oozy cavern of the ocean; the sea-week was tangled with her shining hair ….
Again, let’s be careful about reading too much autobiography into an author's novel. But … only seven months before publication, Percy Bysshe Shelley had drowned during a storm at sea.
And, while we’re at it, a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair survives and was on display at the New York Public Library in 2011 (link to story).