The Virtue of Incest

Marina Warner

  • Elizabeth’s Glass by Marc Shell
    Nebraska, 365 pp, £30.95, July 1993, ISBN 0 8032 4216 6

The romance of Apollonius of Tyre opens with the classic fairy-tale couple: the king and his daughter. Antiochus is powerful, she is beautiful, and of marriageable age – there is no mother. The difference is that, in this variation, she will not leave home to marry a prince, for her father Antiochus ‘began to love her in a way unsuitable for a father ... Since he could not endure the wound in his breast, one day ... he rushed into his daughter’s room and ordered the servants to withdraw ... Spurred on by the frenzy of his lust, he took his daughter’s virginity by force, in spite of her lengthy resistance.’

After the rape, the girl (who remains nameless) wants to kill herself, but her nurse (in romance and fairy tale, nurses almost always advance the immoralist argument for survival) persuades her to live and tolerate her father’s passion. The King announces that he will give his daughter to the suitor who can answer a riddle – and candidates who fail will die. Enter Apollonius, who guesses correctly that Antiochus is living incestuously with his daughter: ‘Nor did you lie,’ he tells the King, ‘when you said, “I eat my mother’s flesh”: look at your daughter.’ Apollonius’s discovery places him in great danger, and he flees – his adventures will disclose the proper pattern of paternal and filial love, as he first loses, then regains both true wife and true daughter. His multiple quest will involve him in redefining himself and others, in recognising concealed identities and in solving riddles, before the happy ending and the reconciliation are achieved.

The romance was one of the best known and most loved in the medieval world, and exists in numerous manuscripts and versions from the tenth and 11th centuries onwards. Shakespeare follows its plot in Pericles, and it intertwines with many fairy tales: for example, Gian Battista Basile’s ‘The She-Bear’ (1636) and ‘Donkeyskin’, written down by Charles Perrault in 1694, though in both these stories the daughter escapes from her father by disguising herself in an animal skin.

Although incest has now become one of the dominant focuses of moral panic, flourishing virulently in fantasy as well as occurring, often tragically, in practice, these old stories which deal with it, and which offer the consolation of an image reflected back, of a wrong unmasked, of authority shaken and realigned, lie overlooked on the river-bed of contemporary consciousness, as a turbulent current of terror, suspicions and despair rushes by. Through its own form of riddling, a romance like that of Apollonius encrypted emotional and social realities which helped its receivers at least to understand their situation a bit better.

In this remarkable study, Marc Shell has widened the range of genres dealing with the personal cost of the dysfunctional family to include a startling and unlikely candidate: a translation of a mystical meditation into English from French made by Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen. The Glass of the Sinful Soul, as she called it, was not an original work, but a good pupil’s exercise, undertaken in 1544 at the age of 11 as part of her lessons. A long prayer by Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, it was written out, and enclosed between embroidered covers, as a New Year’s present for Catherine Parr, Elizabeth’s fourth stepmother, and her last. This text has never been edited or analysed before, in spite of its fascination as a holograph manuscript by the future Gloriana. Astraea, Una, the Faerie Queene. Marc Shell expresses surprise at this, as well he might, for as he points out, the manuscript conjoins three of the most brilliant and lively-minded queens of the era: Marguerite of Navarre was the compiler of The Heptameron, a collection of secular tales, as well as a Reformist sympathiser, friend of Calvin and patron of independent scholars; Catherine Parr also composed religious meditations, including the Lamentacion of a Synner. She was ‘the first woman to publish in English’, Shell says, ‘with the intention of influencing the public’. All three once and future queens were united by their active interest in Protestantism: Marguerite gave protection to the Huguenots in France, and her own work was denounced as heretical by the Sorbonne.

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