I do like a good historical thriller (with the emphasis on good) and especially so if they have real historical figures appearing in them. Tricky to do, but fun if it works. So I was more than delighted when I was offered Lynn Shepherd's latest novel to review, since the historical figures in it are people about whom I already knew rather a lot. But as it turned out, that was a bit of a mixed blessing.
The people concerned here are the poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her step sister Claire Clairmont. In fact when the novel begins, in 1850, Percy is long dead, and Mary is a sick elderly lady living with her son, the 'controversially ordinary' Sir Percy and his manipulative wife Jane, whose sole purpose in life is to sanitise the poet's posthumous reputation, a far from easy task. This is, indeed, the starting point for the novel. Jane Shelley is deeply anxious because Claire, for many years an exile from England, has reappeared in London. Jane fears that she holds documents that will show that the poet, far from the ineffectual angel she wishes him to appear, was actually immoral, untrustworthy, and verging on the unbalanced. To help her to retrieve the documents Jane calls in the detective Charles Maddox, who soon works out that there are other secrets to be uncovered which are at least equally damaging, and which involve his own family. Soon we are back in the years 1814 to 1816, as Charles looks hard at the existing evidence of the shenannigans of the Shelley entourage, uncovering disturbing indications of unexplained infant deaths and promptings to suicide.
Lynn Shepherd was well qualified to write this novel, as she has a PhD in English Literature and has clearly used all her research skills here. Not only that, but she has brilliantly interwoven the real words of her characters -- Mary, Shelley and Claire -- with her own imagined dialogue, so that the people appear totally convincing. Also, all the mysteries that Charles sets out to solve are genuine and have puzzled Shelley scholars for generations. What was the true nature of Shelley's relationship with Claire? Whose was the baby Elena, adopted and then inexplicably dropped by the Shelleys in Italy? What happened in Wales in 1814 to terrify Shelley so much? and much more besides. I could not possibly fault all this, or indeed wholly disagree with her conclusions about Shelley's peculiar mental state. I've always had a very soft spot for Claire and thought she came out well here. But, though I've never really warmed to Mary, I can't say I've ever gone down the road that Shepherd takes us on -- enough said.
Many years ago I wrote a book about Mary Shelley's mother, the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and did my fair share of puzzling over discrepancies in the historical accounts, one of which resulted in an article with the rather charming name 'A Meritorious Wife; or, Mrs Godwin and the Donkey'. You might think that this foreknowledge would have put me off the novel, and I see that Daisy Hay, author of the recent Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives, showed her displeasure with it in her Guardian review. But you know what? I took it all with a pinch of salt and thought it was really good fun. In fact my only real quibble was that by the end my head was rather spinning with all the revelations and complications that Charles uncovered. But maybe that's just me.
I have not read Shepherd's other novels, but I am now keen to read Tom All Alone's, which uses the characters and seetings of one of my favorite novels of all time, Bleak House, as well as featuring the attractive detective who reappears here. Anyone else read either of these?