Like many in Walpole’s own day, my appreciation of The Mysterious Mother prior to the staged reading at the Yale Center for British Art in May 2018 was largely textual, and, as a reader of the play, I have long admired Walpole’s blank verse, his deft use of dialogue, the intricate network of metaphor, imagery, and allusion that he weaves from the opening lines of the Prologue onward. Of course, it is a cliché to say that performance brings an otherwise moribund play-script to life, but in this case, the claim could not be truer. Misty Anderson’s masterful direction of David Worrall’s careful abridgement of the play charged The Mysterious Mother with new vitality, by turns amplifying its tragic dimensions, exploring the full extent of its horror, and even bringing to light some rather unexpected moments of humor. To say that my understanding of Walpole’s play has been enriched through this experience is an understatement, and my participation in this extraordinary event is bound to remain a highlight of my academic career.
Playing Friars Benedict and Martin was something of a “too close to home” sort of experience for us—Charlie is a Roman Catholic layperson and a scholar of religion and theatre, and Justin is a priest in the Anglican tradition and a theologian. Conspiracy in religious garb (and cowls!) fuels The Mysterious Mother’s Oedipal engine, with mastermind Benedict and his sycophant-sidekick Martin using the age-old tools of guilt, shame, and doubt to manipulate the Countess of Narbonne and her family in grotesque and shocking ways that make for extraordinarily fun parts to play.
The anti-Catholicism of Walpole is in full force here, clearly, to which we were both sensitive as scholars and practitioners of high church traditions. It became a welcome challenge to balance these monks’ almost campy plotting (delicious scenes of secretive meetings and villainous monologues inviting the audience to hiss or delight at their evil genius) and the seriousness of their misdeeds.
For Justin, playing so obvious an exemplar of clerical vice was something of a cautionary tale, the vulnerabilities and risks of pastoral power put on display here in a way more vivid than even the most brilliant page of Foucault. And certainly, in the wake of the clerical sex abuse crisis, all religious leaders could use more attention to the ways that spiritual authority can go horrifically awry.
For Charlie, the play’s refusal to distinguish between sacred, political, academic, and theatrical power circulated through our concrete lecture hall turned gothic churchy-stage.
This production represented a conscious confrontation between interwoven identities and historical consequences. We walked to the sound of familiar Latin chants; we adopted postures and gestures we learned through our ordinary ritual practices. To embody these characters endorsed this play’s relevance to both historical and contemporary interpretations of religion but also illuminated shifting cultural attitudes toward Walpole’s “obscenity” and Christianity’s meanings.
For all that, The Mysterious Mother has a great deal in common with the religious tradition it so roundly chastises, namely its obsession with the supernatural, the miraculous and the providential—whether in the guise of mysterious weather patterns (lightning-blasted monuments!) or tragic necessity. In the end, Walpole dramatizes something much more interesting simply than a new atheism-style critique of the immorality and hypocrisy of religious belief: the cracks and fissures in modernity’s supposedly areligious veneer, the return of the repressed, the tremendous fascination of mystery.
As soon as I was invited to play the Countess, I felt the adrenaline rush I usually feel before going on stage. What a role for a woman of a certain age! An aristocrat who has a daughter by her son and usurps, by the standards of the time, his right to rule the Duchy – all based, allegedly, on a real French mother. I love playing transgressors and Walpole made me feel for the Countess because she is eaten by guilt and threatened by conniving clerics. However, I was nervous – having spent at least ten years reading, watching and talking about drama, instead of performing it. Moreover, I’ve performed way more comedy than tragedy, but it would do no justice to Walpole to play the eloquent script for blackly humourous laughs… even if the audience spotted them. My character had to take herself seriously. I think we all felt like that about our characters.
The Countess is a very physical character and I enjoyed locating her in my own body – standing tall to express status despite her gut sickening at what she constantly remembers doing. The more I read the script and looked inside her lines, the more I could believe her extreme actions – and Misty and the cast egged me on to express them. The short rehearsal and deadline added to the urgency and “now or never” fun… although I must say I would love to do it again.
Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and teaching platform devoted to Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war. The “Paxton” in Digital Paxton refers to a little-known massacre in colonial Pennsylvania that unfolded in December 1763, when a mob of settlers from Paxtang Township murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County. A month later, hundreds of “Paxton Boys” marched toward Philadelphia to menace refugee Indians who sought the protection of the Pennsylvania government. While Benjamin Franklin halted the march just outside of Philadelphia in Germantown, supporters of the Paxton Boys and their critics spent the next year battling in print. The pamphlet war that followed in 1764 was not so different from the Twitter wars of today. Pamphleteers waged battle using pseudonyms, slandering opponents as failed elites and racial traitors. At stake was much more than the conduct of the Paxton men. Pamphleteers staked claims about colonization, peace and war, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, and religious association in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.
To support interdisciplinary study of this formative print debate, Digital Paxton makes freely available more than 2,500 pages of print-quality scans from eighteen different archives, research libraries, and cultural heritage institutions; contextualizes materials with twelve essays from leading historians and literary scholars; and scaffolds the collection with six lessons from secondary and post-secondary educators.
Being involved in a workshop staging of Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother was both a joy and a wonderful provocation to think deeply about eighteenth-century theatrical texts and their creative and pedagogical potential today. One great strength of the project was the open collaboration between the Lewis Walpole Library and scholars, theatre professionals, students, and educators from two continents. This rich population entered fully into the rigor and fun of the project as we discovered and worked to clarify the story (using David Worrall’s wonderful edited version) in a very short amount of time–a restriction that pushed us to work with the text’s style rather than to question it, circumventing a challenge I think many would anticipate with such a project. We were rewarded with an audience that enthusiastically and wholeheartedly entered into the performance (helped in large measure by the phenomenally atmospheric projections and soundscapes) in ways that both validated our own sense of the story and surprised in their ability to transition swiftly between laughter and gravity. In short, the experience of staging the play enabled us to ask better questions of Walpole’s text and eighteenth-century performance, and to appreciate the capacity of audiences today to revel in both; I hope it is only the beginning.
This plot summary of The Mysterious Mother attempts to preserve the flow of information as it is revealed to the viewer. The gothic tragedy opens as Edmund, Count of Narbonne, returns to his ancestral home from the crusades with his friend and fellow soldier Florian. Edmund was banished by his mother, presumably because he arranged to sleep with a lady’s maid, Beatrice, the night after his father’s death. Edmund has had no contact with his mother for sixteen years, though she has sent him money from the estate she has inherited (a breach of patrilineal protocol motivated by her late husband in his love for her). Edmund assumes that she is being manipulated by the priest of the adjacent abbey, Father Benedict, and his protégé Father Martin, but on his return, he finds her defiant, refusing to confess and yet clearly tormented. She is convinced she has hallucinated her husband’s ghost when she first sees him. Edmund, stunned by his mother’s majestic demeanor in the midst of her distress, nonetheless hopes for a reconciliation through his newfound love for her young ward, Adeliza. The Countess misunderstands the proposed union, thinking that Florian loves Adeliza. Father Benedict begins to connect the dots of her guilt, seizes the moment for his vengeful triumph over the Countess, and hastily marries the unwitting Adeliza to Edmund who, when they come to seek the Countess’s blessing, instead drive her to the horrified confession that Benedict has been trying to extract for years: that her sexual longing for her husband, who unexpectedly died before he could return to her bed, drove her to disguise herself as Beatrice, the maid her son Edmund was to sleep with that night, and put herself in his bed. Edmund is unaware of the bedtrick, but the Countess knowingly has sex with her son. They conceive Adeliza and launch a lifetime of alienation and guilt. When the secret finally explodes in the revelation of a now-double incest plot, the Countess commits suicide with a dagger. Edmund, shattered, vows to return to the wars while Adeliza retreats to a convent.
The digital scenery for the staged reading of The Mysterious Mother was designed by Alice Trent and projected onto the concrete walls of auditorium in the Yale Center for British Art.
Session I of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Reading The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Jill Campbell, Professor of English, Yale University. Session I can be viewed in its entirety below. The session featured the following papers:
- Dale Townshend, Professor of Gothic Literature, Manchester University. “The Mystery of The Mysterious Mother: Textual Lives and Afterlives”
- Matthew Reeve, Associate Professor, Art History, Queens University. “The Mysterious Mother and Crypto-Catholicism in the Circle of Horace Walpole”
- Nicole Garret, Lecturer, Department of English, SUNY Stony Brook. “Mis-reading in The Mysterious Mother“
- Cheryl Nixon, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Boston. “The Mysterious Orphan: Dramatizing the Betrayal of the Child”
- Nicole Wright, Assistant Professor of English, University of Colorado, Boulder. “‘Kindest Laws’: Intimate Ajudication in The Mysterious Mother“
Session II of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Staging The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Misty Anderson, James R. Cox Professor of English at the University of Tennessee. Session II can be viewed in its entirety below. The session featured the following papers:
- Marcie Frank, Professor of English, Concordia University. “Wilful Walpole: Performing Publication and The Mysterious Mother“
- Jean Marsden, Professor of English, University of Connecticut. “Family Dramas: The Mysterious Mother and the Eighteenth-Century Incest Play”
- Al Coppola, Associate Professor of English, John Jay College, CUNY. “Spectacles of Science and Superstition”
- Judith Hawley, Professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London. “‘the beautiful negilence of a gentleman’: Horace Walpole and Amateur Theatricals
- David Worrall, Professor Emeritus, Nottingham Trent University. “‘I beg you would keep it under lock and key’: The Mystery of the 1821 Mysterious Mother Performances”
Before the species-ending plague, the characters in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826) dream of a world without disease. Early in the first volume, Adrian—only son of England’s final reigning monarch—argues that, here at the end of the twenty-first century, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise. For the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease and wiping away the tears of agony” (76) . Others agree: not only has smallpox been eradicated, but the narrator also records, many believe, that in the near future of their English republic, “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and all “disease was to be banished” (106) .
The final volume of Shelley’s novel proves these characters wrong, as death comes for all members of the human species save one. Although the novel belabors the effects of the plague (when I taught the novel a few semesters ago, one of my students described it as a never-ending set of death scenes), the plague’s origin and means of transmission remain mysterious. “It was called an epidemic,” Verney writes, “but the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased” (231). An “invincible monster” (221), the plague appears alternately in the figure of a woman—“Queen of the world” (346)—and as the word “plague” itself . Verney contends that the plague is miasmatic rather than contagious, caught when one breathes air “empoisoned” (233) by rotting animal and vegetable matter in heat, rather than by physical contact with contagious bodies—infected breath or sweat, or even goods previously handled by a person with the plague. Importantly, as a miasmatic disease, Verney argues that there is no need for England to establish quarantine, or to turn away the sick. However, literary critics have been skeptical about Verney’s own explanations, not least because his admonitions to care for the sick are belied by his own racist acts of self-protection, as when, rushing back to his family in Windsor, he rejects the “convulsive clasp” of a “negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease” (336). It is from this encounter that Verney himself appears to catch the disease and then becomes immune to its power .
While my own recent publication, Reading Contagion (2018), postulates that The Last Man’s plague might appear so very inexplicable because it revives now obsolete beliefs about the hazards of reading—the various contagions eighteenth-century authors speculate might be spread by the form and contents of printed texts—I’m more interested here in the novel’s rebuke of fantasies about a world without disease. In our own moment, this rebuke resonates. Today, epidemiologists and public health experts warn about the potential for the vast expansion or virulent return of contagious diseases as one of the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change. In a rapidly warming world, researchers caution that localized diseases such as Zika could spread much more widely if disease-carriers like mosquitos find newly warm habitats, or that older pathogens frozen in ice might be released as a result of continued drilling, mining, or melting of permafrost in formerly frozen regions like Siberia . This contemporary concern prompts the question: could Mary Shelley’s novel—which imagines the end of humanity one hundred years in our own future and depicts natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes, alongside an unstoppable plague—be an early warning about the Anthropocene? 
I think the answer is rather obviously yes, but indirectly and problematically so. For Shelley’s novel, written in 1826, seems to have its own contemporaneous target, one that we can see in her pointed refusal of the idea that in the future “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and “disease was to be banished.” In England during the 1820s, these are the dreams of a newly formed public health movement—led in part by Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861), physician at the London Fever Hospital, and the future ally of sanitation reformer Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890)—both of whom altered longstanding theories of disease. In a series of articles published in the Westminster Review in 1825, Smith argued stridently that—save smallpox—all diseases are miasmatic, the product of climatic conditions in particular places. For Smith, miasmatic (or what he terms “epidemic”) diseases “prevail most in certain countries, in certain districts, in certain towns, and in certain parts of the same town” .
Smith contends that these locations are dispersed across the earth but share the same features: spaces that “are the most low and damp, the worst built and the least sheltered” (144). These locations are dirty, crowded, moist, and unventilated, and as Smith writes, “inhabited by persons who can least afford to pay” (144). When heated, these spaces will putrefy, generating epidemic disease. For Smith this is wholly distinct from contagion, which is a “specific animal poison” (134–35). Contagion is a “palpable” (135) or “morbid matter” (140) secreted by the human body and spread solely by person-to-person contact; epidemic disease is caused by “a certain condition of the air” (135), when the air becomes “charged with noxious exhalations arising from the putrefaction of animal and vegetable matter” (142). This “corrupted atmosphere” (151) is for Smith not itself contagious, but instead local and seasonal.
In these articles, Smith revises, by simplification, those complicated causal networks that had been inherent to theories of disease during the eighteenth century. In that earlier period, British physicians postulated that some diseases begin when the air is polluted by the presence of rotting animal or vegetable matter (most likely to occur in hot, moist climates), while others (such as smallpox) originate instead as a specific contagion—infectious matter spread by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, breath, air, or even porous objects (termed “fomites”). But even this distinction between types of diseases remained somewhat fuzzy, as physicians also argued that diseases can transform from miasma to contagion. In the case of the plague, or certain kinds of fevers, physicians argued that even if the disease begins as miasma, it can transform: when enough infected bodies breathe together, that diseased breath saturates and transforms the air, rendering it contagious and capable of spreading over vast distances . Smith’s theories eradicate these complicated causal networks, which locate infectious agency in the interactions among humans and their surrounding worlds—interactions capable of transforming both a disease and its means of transmission.
Smith’s writings for the Westminster Review, as well as his later Treatise on Fever (1830), were successful in shifting the beliefs of public health advocates, even if other medical professionals remained unconvinced. Absolute distinctions between contagious and miasmatic diseases and sanitation as a wholesale cure for all diseases were taken up as doctrine by public health reformers, led by Chadwick . As historians and literary scholars including Margaret Pelling, Christopher Hamlin, Mark Harrison, Pamela Gilbert, and Rajani Sudan have emphasized, this shift bolsters an already hardening ideology of native English superiority—of national health—that locates disease solely in improvable locations, usually urban or tropical ones . As these scholars also note, public health’s winnowing of the causes of disease to the physical qualities of particular locations works to minimize concurrent or contributing social and economic factors. Further, cures for diseases could be likewise simplified and rendered politically inoffensive. Because if miasmatic diseases are caused by stagnant air and water, cures could be found in physical acts of cleansing or sanitation—by removing dirt, constructing proper drains to void stagnant water, establishing proper ventilation, or burning away the bad air. The bodies of those persons infected could be similarly cured by being moved to fever hospitals, where they could be treated in pure air.
Dreaming of perfecting human health in Shelley’s moment, then, operates via a simplified causality that erases the agential power of mobile and contingent interactions among collective bodies, air, goods, etc. And, so, one way to read The Last Man is as a critique of that kind of simplification, accomplished when Shelley raises a plague that will not be confined to miasma or cured by sanitation. As such, Verney is proven wrong when he asserts that the plague is generated and spread not by bodies or objects, but only by location, which can be avoided: “as for instance, a typhus fever has been brought by ships to one sea-port town; yet the very people who brought it there, were incapable of communicating it in a town more fortunately situated” (231). And thus to get back to the question of the Anthropocene, Shelley’s novel can be read as critiquing exactly the kind of simplified causal thinking—which sees no agency in interaction itself—that is so debilitating when attempting to comprehend anthropogenic climate change today. For to comprehend climate change we have to understand the importance of both interactions and secondary effects, which can themselves catalyze further catastrophes: for example, that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevent heat from escaping, and that warming causes greater ocean evaporation, and that evaporation causes even greater warming because that vapor absorbs heat and then stays in the atmosphere, and that ever-increasing warming then opens novel pathways for disease vectors, and so on.
But what makes The Last Man so very difficult is that, even as it critiques one kind of thinking, it also proffers its own simplification in place of Verney’s mistakes: a plague that only infects humans. I think this is crucial. For what The Last Man can imagine is the particular human hubris of thinking that disease possesses one sole cause—location, which can be improved upon by human action: “let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise.” What the novel cannot imagine, though, is our own vast underestimation of our power to do harm to—indeed, to destroy—every element of the non-human world in our interactions with that world. For, as the drastic destruction of insects in the rain forests of Central America or the potential extinction of clouds shows, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes” . . . 
 Mary Shelley, The Last Man. Ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
 During the second volume, Verney asserts, “the plague was not what is commonly called contagious, like the scarlet fever, or extinct small-pox” (231).
 The novel’s preoccupation with the word plague—in quotations or italicized, as when Verney reports “the man to whom I spoke, uttered the word ‘plague,’ and fell at my feet in convulsions; he also was infected” (400)—raises the possibility for many scholars that language or story is also responsible for plague’s transmission.
 After the dying man’s “breath, death-laden, entered my vitals” (337), Verney experiences fever followed after three days by a miraculous “restoration” (343), which, for Verney, “brought slow conviction that I had recovered from the plague” (343). Verney’s achieved immunity to the disease suggests that, counter to his own arguments, the plague is contagious (like smallpox). Given the novel’s own incoherence about disease, a wide body of productive literary scholarship has explored this question of whether the plague is miasmatic, contagious, or some combination of the two, and why those distinctions might matter. For just some of this incisive work, see Anne Mellor, “Introduction,” The Last Man, edited by Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), vii-xxiv; Kari E. Lokke, “The Last Man,” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 116-134; Anne McWhir, “Mary Shelley’s Anti-Contagionism: The Last Man as ‘Fatal Narrative,’” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35. 2 (June 2002): 23-38; Peter Melville, “The Problem of Immunity in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” SEL 47. 4 (Autumn 2007): 825-46; and Siobhan Carroll, “Mary Shelley’s Global Atmosphere,” European Romantic Review 25.1 (February 2014): 3-17. Most recently, Melissa Bailes has rethought these questions by arguing that Shelley’s novel draws upon the work of George Cuvier to represent individual deaths as themselves apocalyptic (“The Psychologization of Catastrophe in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” ELH 82.2 : 671-699).
 See, for example, Greg Mercer, “The Link Between Zika and Climate Change” The Atlantic, February 24, 2016, as well as Boris A. Ravich and Mariana A. Podolnaya, “Thawing of Permafrost May Disturb Historic Cattle Burial Grounds in East Siberia.” Global Health Action 4.1 (2011): 1-6.
 I am deeply grateful for Kent Linthicum for first suggesting that I think about this question, and for providing important insights from his own work about The Last Man’s many natural disasters. For recent scholarship indicting the novel’s politics of sustainability, see Lauren Cameron, “Questioning Agency: Dehumanizing Sustainability in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Romantic Sustainability: Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830, edited by Ben Robertson (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2016): 261-73.
 [Thomas Southwood Smith], “Contagion and Sanitary Laws.” Westminster Review 3 (January-April 1825): 37-67, 144.
 Early eighteenth-century physician and contagion-expert Richard Mead argues that “when in an evil Disposition of This [corrupted air] they [infectious particles] meet with the subtle Parts, its Corruption has generated [people who are infected with disease], by uniting with them they become more active and powerful, and likewise more durable and lasting, so as to form an Infectious Matter capable of conveying the Mischief to a great Distance from the diseased Body, out of which it was produced” (A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion, 6th edition [London: Printed for Sam Buckley in Amen-Corner, and Ralph Smith at the Royal-Exchange, 1720], 12-13). Later in the century prominent physician William Cullen writes of jail fevers: “the effluvia constantly arising from the living human body, if long retained in the same place, without being diffused in the atmosphere, acquire a singular virulence; and, in that state, . . . become the cause of a fever which is highly contagious” (First Lines of the Practice of Physic [4th edition, Edinburgh: Printed for C. Elliot, 1784], 1:81).
 As Margaret Pelling explains, while originally referring to quarantine measures (from the French cordon sanitaire), “sanitary” began to include “measures directed towards improvement in comfort and cleanliness” during the time of the first cholera epidemic (Cholera, Fever and English Medicine, 1825-1865 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978], 30-31). According to Pelling, the term “sanitary,” was first used by Charles McLean, in his arguments against quarantine in the Evils of Quarantine Laws (1824), a primary source for Smith’s articles.
 See Pelling, Cholera, Fever; Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800-1854 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment, and British Imperialism in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Medicine in the Age of Commerce and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Pamela Gilbert, Cholera and the Nation: Doctoring the Social Body in Victorian England (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008); and Rajani Sudan, The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). More recently, in Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), Suman Seth illuminates that it is roughly during this same period (the late eighteenth century) that medical writers themselves begin to distinguish absolutely diseases of temperate and tropical climates, what he terms a “race-medicine” that shares affinity with a “race-science” that is also arguing for absolute distinctions between an ever smaller number of races.
 See Damian Carrington, “Plummeting Insect Numbers Threaten the Collapse of Nature” The Guardian, February 10, 2019, and Natalie Wolchover, “A World Without Clouds” Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019.