bodies and identities


Elinor Wylie, The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925)
Available in the General Collection, Georgia Tech Library

Elinor Wylie's The Venetian Glass Nephew, published in 1925, is a more fantasy-based take on the Frankenstein tradition. In it, Cardinal Peter Innocent Bon travels to Venice to meet the Pope. Venice is his place of birth, and as he travels excitedly to his destination, he recalls fond memories of his long life. His only regret is that he does not have a nephew. (Since men of the cloth are vowed to celibacy, his only option to fulfill his fatherly tendencies is a nephew.) Peter meets with the Pope, who requests that the Cardinal attend a concert in his stead. On his way out, Peter crosses paths with a glass-blowing sorcerer named Luna, who introduces the Cardinal to his associate, Chevalier M. de Chastelneuf. The two men show Peter their marvelous glass creations and surprise him with a display of sorcery - one of their glass creations comes to life in a display of burning spices and incantations. Pleased with what he sees, the Cardinal requests that the men create for him a nephew, Virginio, a very delicate boy with an appearance much like translucent glass. Some time later, Virginio comes across a young lady named Rosalba, whose hand he soon asks for in marriage. This meeting is revealed to have been planned by Virginio's mentors, Cardinal Peter, the Chevalier, and his tutor Count Gozzi. Gozzi is also a writer whose romantic stories garner the disapproval of Rosalba's guardian, who is a follower and friend of Voltaire. The Chevalier relates the story of Rosalba's birth from a father who was a Cardinal and a mother who was his only true love. The two are soon wed, and all seem pleased. Harmony does not last long, however, as Rosalba's independent and outgoing nature clashes with Virginio's delicate, fragile person. Rosalba dearly loves Virginio, and she would rather die than live in such a torturous situation. After a suicide attempt, the Chevalier suggests a risky proposal that Rosalba accepts. She is to be transformed into porcelain, a living doll devoid of emotion who is a fit companion for Virginio. Due to her sacrifice, everyone lives happily ever after.

Rather than rejecting their creation, the creators embrace Virginio. He is a near perfect replica of a human: "Upon the most minute examination, Peter Innocent failed to discover anything in the appearance of his young kinsman-for as such we must henceforward consider him-which could suggest an abhuman origin or composition" (Wylie 59). The Cardinal indeed loves Virginio like a child. In contrast to Frankenstein's creature, Virginio's appearance is fair and inviting. Also, Virginio is created as a child, and he is provided with both family and education by the Cardinal and Count Gozzi. Ultimately, Virginio's interest focuses on companionship, much like Frankenstein's creature. When he meets Rosalba, who "to the five senses of an observer she was indeed imagined flowers to breathe," he asks her hand in marriage, which initiates the tragedy of the story.

Rebelling against her association with Voltaire, the patron saint of reason, Rosalba embraces the fantastic, as written in her favorite Count Gozzi stories, upon introduction to Virginio: "As she took her guardian's congratulatory kiss, she succumbed for the first time in her life to the warm, delightful luxury of complete unreason" (Wylie 82). Thus, the tale of Virginio's birth is accepted by her and dismissed by her guardian, Angelo Querini. Struck by his delicate beauty, Rosalba accepts Virginio's marriage proposal.

Unfortunately, the longer she stays with the fragile Virginio, the more rebellious the athletic, outgoing Rosalba becomes: "'She used never to be so wild a creature while she shared my roof…She was always so studious, so docile, so domestic! God knows what possesses her poor little body; her tranquility is turned to quicksilver" (Wylie 135). This causes a rift between Rosalba and Virginio and they begin to quarrel. Rosalba finally throws herself into a fire where she is saved by the Chevalier, who declares his love for her: "It is such as you will never discover in the hollow veins of Virginio…it is human, not divine, not animal, but the love of mortal for mortal" (Wylie 142). As in Frankenstein, despair catalyzes sacrifice, and for love, Rosalba is willing to do "anything, everything, or nothing" at the Chevalier's advice in order to maintain her relationship with Virginio (Wylie 148). The only option is to transform the flamboyant Rosalba into a porcelain doll, which will condemn her to a life as fragile as that of her lover. Against the protests of the Chevalier, Rosalba makes her final sacrifice, allowing the lovers to forget "fear and the requirements of pity" (Wylie 182).

The Venetian Glass Nephew is an allegorical retelling of Frankenstein, written in a broken narrative structure and punctuated by obscure vernacular, full of symbolism and characterization. Like Frankenstein it is a tragedy, but the tragedy is reversed in this situation: while in Frankenstein the created being struggles to achieve an identity and human acceptance, here the tragedy stems in the inability of natural and created humans to live together without sacrifice. In essence, then, Rosalba must become sub-human in order to become Virginio's mate.


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