Novels which take as their subject the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley are few and far between. Elsewhere in this space I reviewed Elinor Wylie’s intriguing Orphan Angel. The allure of Wylie’s long forgotten novel is, however, heavily reliant on a single brilliant conceit – the idea that Shelley survived the sinking of his sloop, turned his back on his European life and secretly made his way to America. Lynn Shepherd’s recent novel, A Treacherous Likeness, is far more complex, nuanced and subtle.
The novel opens in 1850 during which year most of the action takes place (with flashbacks to 1814). We are introduced to a Victorian detective, Charles Maddox who will supply the narrative heart of the novel. Maddox has been hired by Percy Shelley’s surviving son and his wife Lady Jane to track down certain records allegedly in the possession of Claire Clairmont. This is a case which will in due course bring into focus every major character in the drama that was Percy Shelley’s life. But there is a twist, Maddox has inherited his detective agency from his great uncle, another “thief-taker” from an earlier era – and one who had personally made the acquaintance of Percy. It is the elder Maddox who supplies some of the key “eye witness accounts” of meetings with Shelley in 1814.
A Treacherous Likeness has many pleasures, not the least of which are the interesting asides that Maddox offers from time to time. For example, of Shelley's famously ordinary son, Maddox wryly and accurately remarks:
"If talent, or intellect, or genius can really be bequeathed, what a prodigy this man should have been, who numbers among his immediate ancestors for of the greatest literary minds of the last 200 years."
Later, Maddox reflects on something Claire has just said to him,
"He wonders for a wild moment if she is not about to smile. He thought he had the measure of these three - thought he had understood the coils of attraction and repulsion that threaten to drown them all in a wreckage of hearts, but it seems he is wrong: there are darknesses here for which his experience cannot find a like."
Shepherd’s novel reminds me strongly of Charles Palliser’s Quincunx in several respects.
Like Palliser, Shepherd is a clearly a master of her material having immersed herself in the poetry, novels, essays and the letters that constitute the written record of that era. Like Quincunx, Shepherd’s novel has the feel of a Victorian mystery, but as did Palliser, Shepherd uses devices such as unreliable narrators, deceived narrators and ambiguity to thoroughly modernize her story. The result is mesmerizing.
Some may take issue with Shepherd’s characterizations of Mary and Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Harriet Shelley and even those peripherally involved in their lives. For my part, with a few notable exceptions I found them believable. I am not alone, Miranda Seymour, author of Mary Shelley remarked that Shepherd’s story line is “marvellously persuasive.”
The lives of Percy and Mary Shelley have always provoked passionate debate and controversy. We have moved from a time when Percy’s reputation dwarfed that of his wife’s to one in which typical undergraduate students of English literature are only dimly aware that Mary had a husband who was a poet. I am fairly certain Mary, who worked so carefully to preserve and enhance her husband’s reputation, would not herself be comfortable with this. There are dozens upon dozens of gaps in our understanding not just of the details of their lives but their motivations. Biographers have for decades attempted to prise the unknown and perhaps unknowable from the historical record.
An excellent example of this revolves around the degree to which Mary and Percy actively collaborated. Shortly after Frankenstein was written, Shelley sent a copy of it to England for publication and indicated himself as the author. It was only later that this designation was changed. The reading public was unaware of this fact and when it was published, it was presented to the world as entirely the work of Mary.
Speculations about Percy’s role in the authorship of Frankenstein were not uncommon. These broke into the open in 1974 when James Rieger openly suggested that Percy had a played a major role in the writing of the novel. Then, in 1996, Charles Robinson, after years of painstaking scholarship, published a facsimile edition of Frankenstein which assigned Percy a collaborative and editorial role, estimating that he had contributed over 4,000 of the 60,000 words to the text that. However, Robinson was quite blunt in concluding:
“A reading of the evidence in these Frankenstein Notebooks should make clear that PBS's contributions to Frankenstein were no more than what most publishers' editors have provided new (or old) authors or, in fact, what colleagues have provided to each other after reading each other's works in progress.”
He ended with the hope that his work would “encourage someone to undertake a major study” of the extent of the collaboration between Mary and Percy – and not just with respect to Frankenstein.
This has in fact happened and scholars such as Anna Mercer are undertaking this important work and looking past Frankenstein and into the question of the degree to which Mary contributed to her husband’s poetry. Until this work is complete, which requires careful textual analysis, question marks will loom over the extent of their collaboration. You can find an introduction to this subject in Anna's article here. Layered on to this is, however, a much, much larger problem, and that is the question of the nature of actual personal relationship between Percy and Shelley. The picture which has emerged from the Bieri and Holmes biographies is not pretty.
Another aspect of their lives which has elicited much comment is the fact that so many of their children died. Three of the four children that Mary gave birth to, died before the age of 4 – only their last child, Percy Florence survived. There was also a miscarriage in Italy that nearly cost Mary her own life. Historians of the era have told us that as many as one in three children failed to survive infancy; thus, infant mortality was a fact of life. But Percy and Mary were not common folk, they were from the aristocratic order and were highly educated. How could it be that they would lose four of five children? Was someone to blame? Many have rushed to point the finger at Percy; not Shepherd!
Short of transporting ourselves back in time, most efforts to bring the truth to light will be frustrated. What is possible, however, is to do what Shepherd does; and that is to apply a formidable understanding of human nature to reconstruct a series of plausible character sketches.
If, however, you are expecting a neat and tidy set of resolutions, you can lay that aside now. Instead, the history of the relationship of Mary, Percy and Claire are presented from differing points of view. Shepherd offers a series of portraits against we must test our preconceptions. To the extent anyone gets center stage, it would be Claire Clairmont. Some minor characters also step forward, notably Sir Florence, his wife Lady Jane Shelley and Harriet Westbrook, Percy’s first wife.
None of the characters emerge unscathed, and the impression one is left with is that each and every one of them had a lot to hide and even more to regret. Through the ingenious device of her intrepid detective, Charles Maddox, Shepherd affords herself the opportunity to weigh the evidence and posit some very disturbing propositions. But Maddox himself is hamstrung by the fact that he is attempting (as are modern scholars) to divine what actually happened from a series of clues which are maddeningly inconclusive and eye witness accounts coming from a series of individuals who all have an axe to grind or a horse in the race.
But what of Percy himself? Depictions and representations of the poet have been freighted down through the centuries by the agendas of others. Michael Gamer admirably reviewed the manner in which his reputation has been manipulated in an article Shelley Incinerated. It began with Mary, who perhaps with the best of intentions may have done much of the damage herself because of the wheels she set in motion. It was Mary who gave birth to the notion of the ephemeral Shelley – or as Matthew Arnold put it, the beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. Labouring hard to maintain this impression was Percy’s daughter-in-law, Lady Shelley who is depicted by Shepherd in a deservedly invidious light for her role in acquiring and destroying manuscript evidence of Shelley’s deviancy.
Descriptions of the adult Percy as being child-like became common in the late 19th century. For example Francis Thompson wrote this of him: Enchanted child, born into a world unchildlike. It was a way of avoiding an unpleasant truth. Shelley in fact represented the antithesis of Victorian values: he was an atheist and humanist, a revolutionary, a philosophical anarchist and a republican. Shelley could be excused all of these things if he could be seen as a misguided youth who, had he grown up, would have cast aside all of these childish conceits. Ranged against this, of course, is the Karl Marx’s opinion:
"The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism."
Wylie, writing Orphan Angel in the 1920s, gives us a Shelley that is the apogee of the Victorian impression of the man: child-like [even childish], effeminate, disconnected from reality, he flits through the pages of her novel like an other-worldly being.
Shepherd gives us a very different Shelley. But it is difficult for the reader to determine where she exactly stands because her Percy is described principally through the eyes of Charles Maddox. Maddox is not so much an unreliable narrator as a deceived narrator. His opinion of Percy, and the conclusions he draws about him, evolve slowly based on the information he has at hand. And this information is coloured by some gross misinterpretations on the part of some of the “witnesses to history” he encounters – including his own great uncle. One thing you will take away from Shepherd’s book is a healthy disregard for eyewitness testimony! Maddox’s own assessment of the situation is aptly summed up when he notes,
“From the start, this case has duped him, an endlessly receding hall of mirrors in which nothing can be believed, and no deduction trusted.”
Having said this, and without wanting to give the plot away, I think it is fair for me to venture that the picture that is painted here of Percy is somewhat extreme. Somewhat annoyingly for me, there seems to be an undue emphasis on his supposedly high-pitched and “squeaky” voice (a feature that was, it is true, commonly remarked upon in his lifetime). I did take some solace in the fact that the one other famous "squeaky-voiced" character from history is Cicero; so at least Percy is in good company.
Unlike other characters in the novel, Percy is not afforded the opportunity to tell his side of the story – and this is necessary for plot purposes. The elder Maddox, however, provides an eye witness account of several meetings with Percy during which he is depicted as so hysterical he almost non-functioning. Even taking into account the fact that the elder Maddox is looking at Percy with eyes clouded by information that may be incorrect, the Shelley he describes is in my opinion grossly at variance with the Percy Bysshe Shelley I have come to know and who emerges from the pages of his letters, essays and poetry.
Shepherd has, however, many twists and turns in store for her readers and I am loath to delve further into this issue. Suffice to say that while Shepherd offers theories about questions such as the authorship of Frankenstein, the circumstances of the children’s death and who might be to blame, as well as the motives for both Percy’s and Mary’s behaviour, at the end of the day the jury remains out. Readers are left to make their own judgements and to draw their own conclusions – I know I did.
Lynn Shepherd’s compelling, elegant novel, A Treacherous Likeness, should be on the “must read” list of every person with even a remote interest in the lives of Percy and Mary - I loved every second of it. It is available here, however, I strongly advise you to visit your local bookseller and order it that way!