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Hidden by a Window: Mary Shelley’s “The False Rhyme”

A. A. Markley has pointed out that “The False Rhyme” is not only one of Mary Shelley’s shortest stories, it is one that follows unusually closely the content of the engraving provided as prompt and accompanying illustration by the editors of The Keepsake, for which the story was written. Furthermore, it is—along with “The Bride of Modern Italy”—a rare example of Shelley’s wit and humor. Despite its brevity and farcical tone, however, some serious interpretation is possible. Markley focuses on the theme of female devotion, mentioning only quickly other common Shelley themes like the brooding male, and cross-dressing or disguise.[1]

It is the theme of disguise and false appearance that concerns us here. Briefly, False Rhyme tells the story of a bet between king Francis I and his sister Marguerite of Navarre. The wager is brought about when Francis is discovered brooding over a lost or reluctant lover, and has consequently used his diamond ring to carve a derogatory verse in the pane of his chamber window: “Often a woman is inconstant/ A great fool is he who has faith in her!”[2]. Marguerite objects to Francis’ denunciation of women and bets that she can, within one month, find a woman whose constancy will vindicate the sex. If she can do so, Francis will break the window and grant a request; if not, Marguerite accept his verse as “a motto to my shame to my grave”. Marguerite wins the bet when her former handmaid Emilie (lately married to a falsely disgraced and imprisoned nobleman), who has been falsely disgraced for supposedly running off with a young page, turns up in the garb of her husband—having secretly taken his place in prison. Upon Marguerite’s winning, the window is broken, and both Emilie and her husband are forgiven.

While an obvious instance of disguise, the actions of Emilie are of less interest than the theme of false appearance as it is woven throughout the rest of the story to connect Shelley’s other themes. One way to unravel this notion is to examine the function and symbolism of the window. Upon entering the royal chamber, Marguerite discovers her brother “writing with a diamond on the glass.” This phrase could easily have been “etching the window with his ring,” but it isn’t. So while it may be a stretch, one could conceivably approach the word “glass” as a symbol—commonly, it was the word used to indicate a mirror. From this standpoint we can imagine that the window serves to reflect an image of the either the author or her characters.

            Ruminating upon the engraving that was to accompany her commissioned story, Mary Shelley may have reflected upon the real life of Marguerite, which bore striking similarities to her own. The real Marguerite had been, like Shelley, a classically educated woman at a time when such a thing was rare. She had been a central figure in the artistic circle that propelled the French Renaissance, and she had been an author. Her most famous works included a collection of short fiction, The Heptameron, which relied for its plot on a group of stranded friends amusing each other for ten days by writing and sharing stories—much like the now-famous weekend that gave birth to Frankenstein. Marguerite’s other well-known work was a long poem titled “Mirror of the Sinful Soul”, written while grieving the death of her only son on Christmas day—the day on which Shelley’s commissioned story was likely to meet its readers as people exchanged copies of The Keepsake as gifts.[3]

            Similarly, Marguerite the character sees the pejorative verse as a reflection upon her and her own honor. This prompts her to vindicate herself by vindicating women generally. Given that the verse implicates all women by not naming or criticizing a particular woman, this reaction makes sense. When Francis looks in the glass, however, he sees himself as the victim. As Shelley states in the first paragraph, “He was melancholy; and the cause was said to be some lover’s quarrel with a favourite dame.” Within this description lies a glimmer of the truth that Francis fails to recognize. Being embroiled in a lover’s quarrel with a favorite dame necessarily implies the existence of other, less-favored dames and lovers. This, again, reflects the renowned womanizing of the historical Francis I. Nevertheless, Francis the character sees in the glass the reflection of himself that he wants to see—a picture in which he is not subject to the same standard of constancy that he exhorts for women.[4]

            This dual image of Francis—combining the one he wants to see with the one that others see—echoes another common theme in Shelley’s work: the self-absorbed male who either broods upon his own lack of omnipotence, or exuberantly chases his pet idea of “progress” without regard for consequences. It also leads us to the other common symbolic meaning of the window. The glass functions both literally and symbolically as Francis’ “window on the world”. It is the border that separates him from the world outside; a wall that seems transparent, but that by its very existence distorts his perception.

            Through the window Francis looks out upon “dark rain and murky clouds”. In the realm of literary symbolism, one might here be reminded of Shelley’s frequent reliance on Shakespeare—where weather events are frequently used to reflect either personal emotional turmoil or interpersonal conflict. Despite his self-absorption, however, Francis does not recognize the world as a function of his perception; nor does he see himself as a part of it. Rather, he views the world only as something “out there”. Though essentially hiding, Francis knows only that he is inside, warm and dry. He is privileged to be separate. Within the confines of his chamber, he becomes the center, the focal point of his universe. Consequently, his verse reinforces his own feeling of superiority and centrality. By etching the window, he physically carves his own ego on the lens through which he views the world.

            By inscribing his self-centric perception on the visible world, Francis has symbolically illustrated humans’ method of constructing history—another common Shelley theme. From her early work Frankenstein to The Last Man to her  time-defying short stories like “Roger Dodsworth” and “Valerius”,  Mary Shelley questioned the teleological view of history—and the associated notion of the “perfectibility” of society—championed by both her husband Percy and her father William Godwin. As suggested by “The False Rhyme” that teleological view is dependent on a ego-centric perspective that distorts our perception of both the present and future by writing our current perspective into our story of the past. When we set out to write “what happened” we invariably, like Francis, inscribe our own interpretation of ourselves; holding ourselves somehow superior, somehow detached, somehow not subject to the world and its indelible influence on us.[5]

            Hence, when we look upon the world we too-often see the reflection of our selves that is most flattering, and our ego-centric perception is a “false-speaking window” that must be broken if we are to view the world in undistorted reality. Else, the history we write will continue to be but a “False Rhyme” that demonizes the world in order to protect us from the recognition of our own faults, from our own unimportance.

Contributor: Derek Hyatte


[1]   Markley, A. A. “’Laughing That I May Not Weep’: Mary Shelley’s Short Fiction and Her Novels”.

 Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 46 (1997), pp. 97-124.

[2]   Shelley, Mary. “The False Rhyme”. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories, ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (1976), pp. 117-120.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_of_Navarre

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_I_of_France

[5]   Nellist, Brian. "Imagining the Future: Predictive Fiction in the Nineteenth Century." Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors, ed. David Seed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press (1995), pp. 111-136.

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