Mary begins Perkin Warbeck at a high point (or low, depending on your politics)—the end of the Battle of Bosworth Field, 22 August 1485 (immortalized by the Bard—that image of the unhorsed Richard III offering his kingdom for a horse). Three of the losers are galloping away. They split; others come together; they arrive in London, believing that the King’s two nephews in the Tower are dead. But! One of the boys has been rescued. And so the story gallops along—and Mary, remember, declares in her Preface to the novel that Perkin was, in reality the lost Duke of York.
Through three volumes of Perkin we travel and encounter the internecine politics, the betrayals, the relationships-that-shouldn’t-be—the sort of stuff that’s now so common on popular television series.
After about 350 pages, Richard (“Perkin”) surrenders; his captors take him to the palace at Westminster. He escapes—for a bit. Is betrayed. Re-captured. Placed in the stocks. Right before he’s taken to his beheading, he meets with his beloved wife, Katherine: One long, affectionate kiss he pressed on the mouth of Katherine, and as her roseate lips yet asked another, another and another followed; their lives mingled with their breath.
Years later, Katherine (in Mary’s “Conclusion”) speaks with an acquaintance. Call it love, charity, or sympathy, she says; it is the best, the angelic portion of us. It teaches us to feel pain at others’ pain, join in their joy. The more entirely we mingle our emotions with those of others, making our well or ill being depend on theirs, the more completely do we cast away selfishness, and approach the perfection of our nature. … I must love and be loved. … Permit this to be, unblamed—permit a heart whose sufferings have been, and are, so many and so bitter, to reap what joy it can from the strong necessity it feels to be sympathized with—to love.
As I read these words again today—December 28, 2016—I am nearly overwhelmed by their enduring relevance. Feeling the suffering and joy of others (making it your own)—this is a human quality so absent in our polarized political world today. We seem to be sacrificing empathy for judgment, for censure and condemnation. Mary Shelley would be deeply disappointed in us.