Thanks to Penguin Random House UK and NetGalley for providing me with an Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.
This novel follows the early life of Mary Godwin (Mary Shelley to be) and Percy Bysshe Shelley as well as some of their more well-known family members and friends such as Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron. This book is based on the lives of real historical figures who have been dead for nearly 200 years and many of the events of their fascinating lives are relatively well known, particularly as there has recently been a Mary Shelley movie starring Elle Fanning. With that in mind there may be some light spoilers in this review.
Anyone familiar with this cast of characters knows that fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction. The real-life drama of Mary Godwin and Bysshe Shelley is surprisingly mirrored in our celebrity obsessed modern times, their actions were considered the height of scandal at the time and you really couldn’t make up some of the events they experienced.
The novel begins with a young Mary Godwin, the daughter of writer Mary Wollstonecraft, living with her father, her sister Fanny and her step-mother and step-sister. Mary has a tense relationship with her step-mother and resents her influence over her father. Mary’s mother died shortly after she was born but she feels a strong connection to her and her beliefs, and Mary frequently visits her grave to commune with her. As events progress, she meets the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the rest as they say, is history. The events of the novel take us from England, Scotland, France and Switzerland and cover Mary’s life from approximately age 15 until shortly after she publishes Frankenstein at age 20.
The story starts off a little slow with some domestic drama, mopey visits to the graveyard and slightly inane conversations between the Godwin siblings (lots of exclamation marks, my pet hate) but really picks up once Mary meets (the very much married) Bysshe. They are intellectually matched and their passion for one another is tangible and their relationship as two infatuated teenagers is utterly believable. Bysshe, an avowed atheist believes in free love (polyamory essentially) and both Mary and her sisters quickly fall under his spell, in particular Jane, who chooses to join Mary and Bysshe in their self-imposed exile from England. Suffice to say 17th century was not quite ready for a married man to shack up with two very young teenage girls.
Lots of themes are explored in this book including sexism and the double standards in attitudes towards the actions of men and women, religion, grief, frustrated passions and unrequited love, suicide, mother-daughter relationships, homosexuality and political upheavals. When reading this novel, I was struck with how familiar some of the issues were to those still experienced by women today. The scenes where Mary loses her premature daughter were particularly heart-breaking and her loss is felt through the novel. As a new mother these scenes, along with Mary’s longing for the mother she never knew, had a particular resonance for me. Knowing what happens to Mary’s other children after the events of the novel make Mary’s ruminations on grief and loss in the novel particularly poignant and help us understand some of her inspirations for writing Frankenstein.
The author has done an admirable job of keeping the dialogue in tune with that of the time whilst not alienating modern readers. The inclusion of letters back and fore to various characters is also a nice approach to break the narrative up and to get an insight into the mind of Mary and some of the other characters. The novel has been comprehensively researched and follows real life events close enough to satisfy the more nitpicky readers amongst us (like me!)
Although some of the characters are downright unlikeable, they are nonetheless utterly compelling. It can be difficult to like men like Shelley or Byron, yet we can understand some of what made them irresistible to the women and men who crossed their paths. This story is about young people who were born before their time and even if we don’t always like them, we must have a grudging admiration for their bravery in utterly rejecting the status quo and forging their own paths.
My only small criticism would be that at certain points it was tricky to follow the third-person viewpoint to know who was doing or saying what. I was caught out a few times and had to re-read some passages as I’d got lost. I’d suggest that this book doesn’t sit entirely comfortably in the Young Adult genre. I’d perhaps categorise it more leaning towards Historical Fiction. That’s not to say young people wouldn’t like it, they certainly could and would. It just didn’t “feel” like a typical YA novel to me and I think it would perhaps appeal more to a slightly mature reader.
I haven’t watched the Mary Shelley movie yet but I know what will be on my watchlist for tomorrow night. I know the reviews have been iffy but i’m curious to see how closely the film follows the real life story of Mary Shelley. For those interested I can also recommend reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley and Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation
I’ll probably make a post about Lord Byron sometime in the future because even though he was by all accounts a colossal git in a lot of ways, he had a fascinating life nonetheless. He also grew up very close to where I live now so it might be interesting to do a little tour of some of his old haunts.