Last night I was lucky enough to be at the Guildhall Library to hear Lynn Shepherd’s talk her new book A Treacherous Likeness. The talk was called ‘The Last Secret of the Shelleys’ – intriguing.
I read Lynn’s previous book Tom-All-Alone’s last year, and loved the dark atmosphere and sinister going-ons. I also became very attached to the hero Charles Maddox, ex-detective and indefatigable investigator. I’m thrilled that Maddox is back in A Treacherous Likeness, this time looking into some dodgy dealing in Shelley papers the family would rather didn’t come to light.
The talk Lynn gave filled in all the background on the Shelleys, especially highlighting the ‘strange silences’ surrounding key episodes in the lives of Mary and Percy. These gaps in the historical record are where Lynn draws inspiration from for her novel. There are some very large holes in our knowledge, largely due to some very deliberate document destruction. Percy’s volatile personality only adds to the mysteries.
I was fascinated by the potted biographies Lynn gave of the main players in the Shelley marriage. I knew Mary was the daughter of radicals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and that her mother had died shortly after Mary’s birth. I didn’t know about William’s subsequent marriage to a rather coarse women with two children of her own, nor the breach this caused between father and daughter. Mary’s stepsister Claire played an important role in her relationship with Percy Shelley; Claire sounded a lot of fun actually, and I can understand why Lynn warmed to her the most of all her cast.
Percy sounds like a complete nightmare honestly. It turns out I’ve been completely hoodwinked by the propaganda efforts of his family to recast him as a misunderstood tortured romantic soul. In my imagination he floated around being marvellous in a gentle and sympathetic way. Ha! The man was a monster – self-absorbed, lacking empathy, destructive and quite possibly insane. Makes Byron seem a fine upstanding young man. It’s no wonder that strange episodes surround Percy Shelley.
There are five incidents in particular that Lynn tackled. Firstly, chronologically, is a violent tussle in 1813, when Percy was living in Wales. He was subject to an assassination attempt, but only Percy ever saw the assailant. Questions were very quickly raised over the reality of the attack; locally they referred to it as ‘Shelley’s ghost’. What did happen that night?
Next is that famous summer of 1816, when the gang of romantics gathered in Geneva and started telling ghost stories. But, what is the true story behind Mary’s inspiration for Frankenstein? Perhaps her account of it coming to her in a dream is as fanciful as any fiction. Two sad episodes make up the third and fourth mystery. The suicide of Shelley’s first wife is shrouded in a fog of misdirection and tragedy. Then there is the puzzle of Elena Shelley, the baby registered to Mary and Percy then abandoned in the foundling hospital in Naples.
Then there is of course the final mystery of Shelley’s last days. Why did he set out in a boat unsuited to the approaching weather, and why did he ignore and rebuff a rescue attempt and advice? What was he seeing in his visions that terrified so much? In A Treacherous Likeness Lynn is putting forward a plausible version of these events; what Charles Maddox uncovers will shake him to his core as he discovers a cover-up of one last great secret…
The talk was fantastic; if you get the chance to hear Lynn speak I would recommend you grab it. I am itching to get started on the novel and find out more about the secrets and lies that swirl around the legendary Shelleys.