“The Parvenue” was first published in 1836 by Mary Shelley in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXVII (1837).
"Parvenue" Definition and Examples
The title comes from the word “parvenu” which is derived from the French verb parvenir, meaning to reach, to arrive, or to manage to do something. The Oxford English Dictionary defines parvenu as “A person from a humble background who has rapidly gained wealth or an influential social position; a nouveau riche; an upstart, a social climber.” In extended use, parvenu is “generally used with the implication that the person concerned is unsuited to the new social position, esp[ecially] through lacking the necessary manners or accomplishments.” The term can possess a negative connotation especially in historical and literary contexts, as it usually refers to individuals who do not belong or are considered outsiders by those already in the social class. Parvenus often are nouveau riche or “new money” as opposed to “old money” families who have held their socioeconomic positions for some time.
Another literary example of a parvenu is Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, gaining money through bootlegging enterprises and throwing lavish parties, but never really fitting in with the old money crowd of East Egg. Historically, the Bonaparte family was considered parvenu royalty in Europe, “despised” by existing royal and noble families (Baring-Gould 340).
“The Parvenue” is told in first person by a narrator named Fanny. She begins by explaining that she has been so bewildered by the events she is about to retell that she leaves it to the reader to judge her actions.
Fanny describes her family and dwells on her mother in particular. The mother serves as a strong, loving foundation for the narrator and her primary source of education, being the person “who took pains to instruct me, not in accomplishments, but in all real knowledge” (Shelley 267). Fanny’s mother taught her about the wonders of nature, morals, “the precepts of the gospel, charity to every fellow-creature, the brotherhood of mankind, the rights that every sentient creature possesses to our services alone” (267).
When Fanny is 17 years old, a house fire nearly kills the entire family and destroys their home. Fanny is saved by Lord Reginald Desborough. Lord Reginald liked Fanny for some time, but saving her life turns his desire into an “overpowering passion” (268). Fanny’s father came out of the fire “scorched, maimed, and crippled for life,” and though it is unclear the nature of the other family members’ injuries, Fanny says that she is the only one “preserved” (267). Lord Reginald offers the family lodging and food after their tragedy and becomes quite close with them.
Though Fanny herself seems genuinely unsure of why Lord Reginald wanted to marry her with her lack of status or wealth, the two marry and go abroad immediately after for two years. Fanny feels compelled to help others through true charity and believes that everyone deserves a life like the one she enjoys with her husband. She denies herself luxuries because of this and dresses shabbily, which begins to annoy her husband, especially when she does not reflect well on him at social gatherings. Fanny admits that this was a major source of conflict: “I lost my husband’s affections because I performed what I believed to be a duty” (270).
When they return to London, the narrator sees her family and realizes that her mother is fairly close to death. Everyone in the family needs money and wants Lord Reginald to bankroll them, but he explains to Fanny that her family has made exorbitant claims to him for some time, wishing that he would raise their status in society. He does not feel it is his place to do so. Fanny feels as though if she does not persuade Lord Reginald to provide the money, her mother’s already-failing health will certainly worsen. She also discovers from her sister that her father had a “violent altercation” with their mother over money, which frightens Fanny and motivates her to approach her husband (271).
Lord Reginald eventually gives the narrator’s family additional funds, though Fanny says she “saw his very heart close on me as he wrote the cheque” (273). The money is gone nearly as fast as he provides them, and they simply need more. The narrator does not feel like she can ask for more assistance at this point, but she is torn because of her mother’s rapidly fading health. Lord Reginald goes as far as to send Susan and her husband to America to remove their ability to physically ask him for money again.
Because her father in particular continues to have financial issues, Fanny again approaches Lord Reginald, who gives Fanny an ultimatum: either leave your greedy family, or I leave you. The narrator struggles with this decision but eventually decides she cannot turn her back on her family and returns home, where Fanny nurses her mother for the next three years, until her death. Fanny’s father passes away soon after, prompting Fanny to write to Lord Desborough: “I communicated the death of my parents; I represented that my position was altered; that my duties did not now clash; and that if he still cared for his unhappy wife all might be well” (274). Fanny discovers that Lord Reginald is reportedly seeing a highborn girl now, and he informs Fanny via letter that it is too late to mend their relationship. Fanny reports to the reader that Susan desires for her to move to America with them, where she and her husband are doing quite well. Fanny considers this, but also states that she wants to end her life and her suffering.
Ties to Shelley's Life
The narrator, Fanny, is potentially named after Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay (also known as Fanny Godwin), the illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay. Fanny committed suicide at age 22 on October 19, 1816 by taking an overdose of laudanum (Hindle 333).
The money troubles that plague the narrator’s family and their constant demands on Lord Reginald mirror in some ways Mary’s relationship with her father in her adult life. William Godwin reportedly requested money often from the Shelleys.
In The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley by William Dean Brewer, Brewer suggests that “The Parvenue” is a “self-projection” of Mary Shelley, exploring her own feelings of subordination to her husband’s skill and fame (75).
In the chapter “The Transparent Mind” in William Dean Brewer’s The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley, Brewer compares Shelley’s works to Rousseau’s ideas about transparency and the mind. He states that Shelley often employs “victim-narrators” who have a desire for sympathy, similar to Winzy in her story “The Mortal Immortal.” But, rather than being overly concerned about the reader’s eventual judgment that she herself requested, Fanny “has little interest in the world or posterity’s opinion of her. A need for emotional ventilation rather than a desire to set the record straight motivates and inspires [her] narrative.” Brewer argues that Shelley’s victim-narrators are not motivated by guilt, because their concerns lies “in helping their families and saving humankind or destroying their enemies,” and “unlike Rousseau, they do not feel the need to vindicate themselves to posterity, and they have no crimes or errors that they feel require public confession” (77). Brewer also compares Fanny to Lionel Verney in The Last Man (1826), for they are both steadfast in their devotion to their relatives: “These narrators sacrifice at least some of their independence in order to perform their duty to their ‘fellow-creatures.’ These narrators suffer a great deal but at least they avoid what Shelley regards as ‘one of the greatest errors that the human heart can nourish’: the pursuit of personal autonomy at the expense of family obligations” (78).
Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. London: Truslove & Combs, 1897. Print.
Brewer, William D. The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001. Print.
Hindle, Maurice. "Victim of Romance: The Life and Death of Fanny Godwin." Women's Writing 13.3 (2006): 331-47. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "The Parvenue." 1836. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 266-74. Print.
Contributed by Leighann Dicks