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The Shelleys and the Idea of Europe

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This article explores how the Shelleys and their circle configure ideas of “Europe” between January 1817 and March 1818. I begin with Frankenstein, discussing how Mary Shelley associates Frankenstein's experiment with the particularly “European” problem of over-reaching - a drive for success leading to conflict or failure. I then turn to Laon and Cythna, a poem which labels itself as “revolution writing” and contemplates how the French revolution changed “Europe.” Here, Percy Shelley constructs an idea of “Europe” upon his interests in radical politics and the possibility of utopian social progress. Laon's setting, Constantinople, is a border-zone between Europe and Asia; it is simultaneously a European city in the throes of revolution and an Oriental tyranny. The Shelleys evoke “America” in a similar manner, treating it as a non-European “other” and as a more ideal version of “Europe” uncorrupted by post-revolutionary disappointments. Lastly, based on a remark in a letter to Percy Shelley about “European marriage,” I examine the connection between “Europeanness” and sexual mores. If, for Shelley, debates about “Europe” occur within specific parameters relating to revolution and radical change, “European” also has very different connotations connected to orthodox moral and sexual conventions.

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