“The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).
For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak after another. But why?
In her wonderfully composed and intriguingly plotted novel, A Fatal Likeness, Lynn Shepherd seeks not simply to depict the heavy price paid by Percy and Mary Shelley and their circle of family and friends for their liberal ideals, but to try and make sense of it. Inspired by what primary sources say and do not say, Shepherd weaves a masterful trail of scandalous events that had me loathing in turns both Percy and Mary Shelley. Indeed, at the heart of this story, as in any good mystery novel, is a sinister darkness. The question is whether this darkness is the fruit of hedonistic depravity or psychological madness–and whose depravity or madness?
Enter Charles Maddox, our fictional hero. Maddox, like his celebrated uncle of the same name, is a London detective whose own reputation as a successful sleuth is steadily growing. Although he is well-meaning and determined, he is no saint–he’s sleeping with his cook Molly, a young black woman who cannot speak, and is abusive toward his male servants, especially poor Billy, the surly scapegoat. Maddox is hired by Mary Shelley’s son and daughter-in-law to retrieve papers which may contain damaging information about Percy Shelley. However, the papers are owned by Claire Clairmont–Mary’s stepsister and former rival for her late husband’s affections. It seems that Mary Shelley, widowed and ill, is obsessed with protecting the memory of her late husband and wants total control over the interpretation and telling of his life. And so, with Mary on the one hand and Claire on the other, the unfolding of two versions of Percy Shelley begins. Simply put, it’s a bizarre picture of a man who, although apparently effeminate and sickly, is able to cast a spell on nearly any young lady he encounters, to their doom. Readers are led to believe that Percy is somehow responsible for the suicides of his first wife Harriet Westbrook and his sister-in-law Fanny Imlay, that he may have killed a little girl named Ianthe for whom he had an odd affection, and that he is either being pursued by someone out for revenge or is psychotically making the phantom doppelganger up. Worst of all is the image of Percy Shelley standing over a cradle in the night committing an unthinkable crime. It makes the drama of Frankenstein appear eerily autobiographical.
But is it true? As Maddox frantically follows leads to uncover the evidence, a very different version of events comes to light, a version in which Mary, not Percy, is painted as the cold, manipulative hand orchestrating the various disasters Maddox is attempting to comprehend. Fans of Mary Shelley may cringe at the idea of Percy’s having substantially written Frankenstein, a fact Mary is eager to conceal in this novel, but that’s the least of the crimes she is accused of here. Was it Percy who so unfeelingly persecuted his first wife Harriet, or was it Mary? Was it the murder of his own child that tormented Percy, or was it the shame of a past deed which Mary used, by way of her own children, to cruelly dominate him, until he sought freedom in death? Who, indeed, deserves the epitaph monster?
Shepherd, author of three other literary thrillers including Murder at Mansfield Park re-imagining Mansfield Park, offers readers a delicious, bold, psychological and literary thriller in this excellent fourth novel. She does three important things so perfectly. Firstly, she builds a solid mystery–the kind where readers can’t rest comfortably with what they think they know. Secondly, her characters are fascinating. Charles Maddox is intelligent, insightful, but all too human. Claire Clairmont is seductive and persuasive, while Mary Shelley is aloof and just a touch frightening. And Percy? I’ll let you decide. Lest I forget the supporting cast, who wouldn’t love Nancy, a down-on-her-luck prostitute who probably has more virtue in her than any of the Shelley clan put together? Finally and most important, the prose of this novel is tight and well-constructed. With period novels, there’s always the danger that the language will feel contrived. Shepherd makes an interesting negotiation with the historical context by having her narrator’s voice be contemporary. This allows the modern day narrator to describe historical events in modern terms, leaving much of the “matching” work to fall on dialogue, which Shepherd manages impressively well.
As such, I award this novel five very bright Regency Stars. I look forward to discussing it this fall with the students in my British literature class, all of whom read Frankenstein this summer.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
A Fatal Likeness: A Novel (Charles Maddox Mysteries), by Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte Press (August 20, 2013)
Hardcover (384) pages
Cover image courtesy of Delacote Press © 2013; Text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com