Note: I plan to discuss this novel and its plot in detail. I don’t think you can really “spoil” it, given that the events of the novel are historical and well-known, but Lynn Shepherd gives them her own interpretation, so if you want to avoid knowing about that, you might want to avoid this review.
I admit that I always have some initial skepticism about novels that feature real people as their protagonists. We know something about history, but even that is difficult enough to interpret: how am I to feel about adding new episodes and unsubstantiated emotions and dialogue to a real person’s life? Besides, in history there is certainly enough drama to go around without fictionalizing more.
This was the way I felt when I began reading Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness and realized that it was about the deadly hothouse of jealousy and love and passion that surrounded Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Claire Clairmont during their time in Italy. Byron was involved, and Shelley’s first wife Harriet, and Polidori, as well as others; no one seemed able to avoid the maelstrom. I read about it fairly recently in Daisy Hay’s superb group biography, Young Romantics. How could you add any mystery or drama to a time already so dark?
Shepherd’s novel takes place a generation later, well after Shelley’s death, when his only surviving son and daughter-in-law ask the detective, Charles Maddox, to look into someone who claims to have some of Shelley’s letters. The unprepossessing couple, unhealthily obsessed with sanitizing Shelley’s memory, ask him to try to find out whether the letters are real or forgeries. Maddox swiftly discovers that the owner of the letters is none other than a fifty- or sixty-year-old Claire Clairmont, a woman who is warm and fascinating but volcanically unpredictable in her moods. He also finds out that the letters reveal far more about that terrible summer in Italy than anyone was supposed to know — including his own beloved uncle’s complicity in the deaths of innocents.
Despite my fears, the novel drew me in. It’s very well-written, with an interesting cast of characters both in the present — Charles Maddox’s time — and, of course, in the slightly more distant past, when Shelley and Mary Shelley and Byron and Claire are all living out their tangled web. There’s an interesting conceit that Shepherd uses, in which the narrator occasionally breaks in with modern knowledge: pointing out, for instance, that Charles would not have understood Shelley as having a personality disorder, but that all the signs are there; or that today there is no trace left of certain buildings in London. It should be intrusive, but somehow it isn’t, especially since the entire novel is well-told with flashbacks, stories, and letters. We all have knowledge about the past; our lives are built on it. This book is just more knowing about it than most.
Shepherd draws a wonderfully vivid picture of the detective work, both past and present, and there are times when it becomes heart-stopping, even though the crimes are a generation before Charles was born. She plays eerily with the theme of likenesses and doubles, something that haunts Shelley’s poetry as well as a healthy section of 19th-century fiction. The book is also well-researched. There’s not a flaw in the ruthless logic: the way women are treated, the carefully circumscribed social roles, the travel, the medicine, the politics, the police work. It all made for a well-drawn portrait of Victorian London and some of the terrible things that can happen there. I even thought of Laurie King once or twice — and that’s high praise indeed. I raced through it, and enjoyed the whole thing.
But in the end, I was left with a bitter taste, and I found that my initial skepticism — about using real people in a work of fiction — was justified. Shepherd says in her author’s note, “In the notes at the end I set out what here is fact and what is invention, but I’ve tried to remain faithful to the lives and characters of these extraordinary and complex people. The story history tells us is one of death and love, of secrets and betrayal. My own version of that story is darker yet, but I do believe it is one plausible answer to many of the mysteries about the Shelleys that still persist even now, and have never yet been fully explained.”
What Shepherd apparently means by that is that the story needs a villain, and that villain is Mary Shelley. In this novel, she’s accused of… well, I said I was going to talk about it in detail, but I find I’d better not. In any case, she’s accused of doing some of the most evil things human beings are capable of doing, and of doing them many times. Shepherd sees her as a malicious spider, sitting in the center of a web of lies, betrayals, and far, far worse acts, everything centering on herself. In addition to these multiple horrible crimes, she’s also accused of claiming she wrote Frankenstein, when actually Shelley wrote it.
This, for me, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the end notes, Shepherd says that she would be “very far from the first” to suggest that Shelley wrote Frankenstein for Mary. Oh indeed? Yes? Would it surprise you to know that if you suggested that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels, you would also be very far from the first? Or that if you suggested that Jane Austen owes most of her brilliance to her editor William Gifford, you would also be very far from the first? It may be true that after Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s other novels were not of the same compelling quality or of the same popularity, but consider her circumstances. Frankenstein was written under the galvanic (ha!) conditions of close proximity to Shelley, Polidori, Claire, and Byron. They talked every day and read drafts to each other. Afterward, nothing was the same: everyone separated, and Shelley was tragically dead. The logical conclusion is not that she didn’t write Frankenstein, but that Frankenstein was her best work: the product of a summer that could never come again.
Also, did you know that when Mary eloped with Shelley, she was sixteen years old? SIXTEEN. YEARS. OLD. Shelley was still married (and his wife was pregnant, incidentally — and he would write her horrible letters, accusing her of coldness and then asking her to send money and socks), and he and Mary and Claire, also a teenager, eloped to Italy in an experiment in “free love.” Somehow “free love” doesn’t ever work out quite as well for the women as for the men, whether it’s in the 19th century or in the hippie movement, and poor Mary and Claire found themselves with the fuzzy end of the lollipop, so to speak. All this “free love” produces an awful lot of free babies, and Mary’s babies almost all died, one after another: utterly devastating.
I suppose my question is: does this story need a villain? It is, as Shepherd says, already full of betrayal and secrets and loss and death and love. Need we find a scapegoat? These people were famously strange and complex, with radical political opinions that we usually forget about in favor of their Romantic poetry these days. The poets almost all died before they were thirty. The women lived longer, but alone, alone. These were real people with enough sorrow for a dozen. Need we fictionalize them into horrifying villains and plagiarists, too? I wonder.