Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Confession: I’ve read A Day of Fire twice. The first time, I breezed through the pages, gripped by each individual storyline, their multidimensional characters, and the collective whole. For the second round, I paid more attention to the structure, thinking about what a detailed process it must have been to put together. Because it really has been very carefully assembled, and the result is impressive.

Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii. Separately and together, they evoke the lives of a large cast of characters during the lead-up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the port city in 79 AD.

Within their six interlocking stories, the people come from different walks of life and across the social spectrum: an earnest young man, a Roman senator, a young woman of wealth, a former soldier, an expectant mother, her proud father, and two slaves working in a tavern at the Vesuvian side of town. The way the authors construct their tales, the protagonist of one will appear in many of the others. It allows for a distinctive form of character shaping and progression throughout the entire book. This isn't limited to the main characters; even Cuspius Pansa, the handsome, much-despised aedile (magistrate) of Pompeii, has a satisfying story arc.

Regardless of each person’s status, the personal danger bearing down upon them forces them all to re-evaluate their lives as they fight to escape. Real-life historical suspense doesn’t get more dramatic. Not everyone survives, but because impending peril often elicits courage from deep within, the overall tone isn’t gloomy; rather, the novel works as a celebration of life.

Within most short story anthologies – generally not my preferred format – there are some strong entries and some less memorable ones. There are no weak links in this bunch, though.  A few notes on each:

Vicky Alvear Shecter’s “The Son” was the perfect choice to open the novel, with its youthful tone and portrayal of a young man’s emergence into maturity (complicated and messy, as it always is). My figuring out his historical identity partway through was an added bonus.

“The Heiress” by Sophie Perinot, which sees a privileged young woman torn between a gorgeous bad-boy type and the sensible older man her father wants her to marry, stands out for the thoughtfully realistic transformation of its heroine.

I enjoyed the scene-setting details, camaraderie, and build-up of suspense in Ben Kane’s “The Soldier,” which looks at a military man from a less frequently seen angle: the trying years of near-poverty after his career in the legions has ended.

Kate Quinn’s “The Senator” brought back, to my delight, two characters I’d last met in her standalone novels. Their witty banter kept the action moving along, and it was great to see a take-charge woman getting the job done.

When the heroine of E. Knight’s “The Mother” first appeared, in Vicky Alvear Shecter's "The Son," I had a sinking feeling of where her story would lead. The difference in style between it and the previous segment made the telling feel a bit formal at first, but that soon faded away once the characters' situation became clear. Reading this was a wrenching experience, but it held some surprises, too, in seeing how the members of one family interacted and changed during these all-too-brief moments.

Stephanie Dray’s “The Whore” successfully brings the collection full circle, to a hot-tempered prostitute introduced in the very beginning – and to her spiritually-minded sister, who plays a minor but significant role in several other stories. The grand finale is intense and shattering, and I mentally applauded at the epilogue. Masterfully done.

Throughout the book, readers also see the ongoing development of the most overarching character of all, Mount Vesuvius: the initial earth tremors, the rising cloud of ash and tainted air, the flying missiles of molten rock, the deadly hot flow of lava. Both the big picture and the little details matter here.

Each entry complements and enhances the others and gives you a chance to sample the work of authors you may not have tried before. Although it’s based on the latest archaeological research, no prior knowledge is needed; you’ll experience the last moments of a once-vibrant city just as its people might have done.  If you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.

A Day of Fire was published in October by Knight Media in e-book ($4.99) and trade paperback ($14.99). This review forms part of the blog tour for the book, and there's a giveaway that goes along with it:

To enter to win this beautiful one-of-a-kind Roman style Necklace (18″) and earring set, hand-crafted with real carnelian, and inspired by jewelry of the ancient world, please complete the Rafflecopter giveaway form below. Giveaway is open internationally.

Giveaway ends at 11:59pm on December 5th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones, a dark portrayal of 18th-century gypsy life

In Falcones’ newest historical epic, set mostly in Andalusia in the mid-eighteenth century, expressions of cultural pride, artistic exuberance, and unlikely love are enclosed within a dark, research-heavy tale of persecution and blood vengeance.

After her former master dies while en route from Havana, Caridad arrives alone in Spain, clearly unused to her new freedom. Her ebony skin quickly attracts unwelcome attention, but she is rescued by Melchor Vega, a Gypsy who draws her into his world of tobacco smuggling in Seville’s Triana district, where she befriends his feisty teenage granddaughter, Milagros. “She sings with the same pain,” Melchor notes, recognizing Caridad as a fellow outcast. The detonation of long-standing family rivalries and a royal mandate demanding the Gypsies’ arrest lead to long separations and heartache as they struggle for their liberty.

Caridad and Milagros are robust characters, both resilient and sensual yet equally powerless in their male-dominated country. Exciting in places, slow and meandering in others, this lengthy novel demands commitment, but its multifaceted look at Gypsy life and morality is vivid and memorable.

The Barefoot Queen will be published by Crown this week in hardcover ($28, 640pp).  Mara Faye Lethem translated it from the original Spanish.  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 15th issue. 

This was the first of Falcones' novels I've read, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of how typical his tone and themes are here (can anyone comment?). There were many segments of dry history, and it was also extremely dark; in particular, the brutal treatment the women experience made it hard to read in places, even though it didn't feel unrealistic for the time and place.  I did appreciate learning about a culture that was new to me, though.

I had just 175 words to encapsulate my thoughts; for additional and more detailed viewpoints, check out Tara's review/rant at Book Babe and Mystica's review at Musings from Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lodger by Louisa Treger, a journey into the mind and heart of an unconventional Edwardian woman

Sometimes one can judge a book by its cover. The content of Louisa Treger’s debut is just as exquisitely formed as the luminous jacket art. Dorothy Richardson was an early 20th-century literary star whose innovative stream-of-consciousness style influenced countless others but who is essentially forgotten today – undeservedly so, per Treger, and her thesis is convincing. Tracing Dorothy’s journey to self-recognition, she movingly illustrates both the price and rewards of independence.

In 1906, Dorothy visits her old school friend, Amy Catherine, now married and living with her husband, author H. G. “Bertie” Wells, on the Kentish coast. At their home, Dorothy can temporarily forget her threadbare existence at a boardinghouse in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood and her dreary secretarial job. Amid this intellectual company, Dorothy feels overwhelmed. Here her conversation is hesitant, but she and the charismatic Bertie clearly share an attraction – which she resists at first but eventually succumbs to, after hearing he supposedly has an open marriage. Then the arrival of a new lodger at the boardinghouse, vibrant suffragette Veronica Leslie-Jones, throws Dorothy’s world into turmoil. Soon she’s fully engulfed in two illicit sexual relationships. As she struggles to balance her competing needs for togetherness and solitude, her literary voice is born.

Through Treger’s sensitive, poetic writing, The Lodger offers a wonderful study in character growth. Haunted by her mother’s suicide and disturbed by her unorthodox desires, Dorothy matures through experience, acknowledging her dual-sided nature and emerging triumphant. Alongside, she comes to recognize the many facets of the city of her heart, London, a place of “terror and beauty, squalor and splendor” where women’s rights are brutally suppressed but whose magnificence at sunset can take her breath away. Also noteworthy is the subtle depiction of the novel’s other female characters, as seen through Dorothy’s eyes. In all, a rich portrait of the times and of an unconventional woman’s interior life.

The Lodger was published in September by Thomas Dunne ($24.99, hardcover, 262pp).  This was one of my Editors' Choice selections from November's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A long-sought historical novel about a Princess of Monaco finally found

Jennifer Ellis' A Princess Dies is a historical novel that's been on my wishlist for 20 years.  I found mention of it in an early volume of Cumulated Fiction Index, a series of guides to British fiction by subject.  The Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, where I went to library school, owns copies of most CFI volumes (I've since purchased them all for my personal library).  I used to spend hours in their reference room going through these books, jotting down the titles of historical novels about people who sounded interesting.  My special interest was lesser-known members of royal or noble families.

Last month I got an automated email from Abebooks that one of their sellers had a copy.  The price ($40ish) was high but not unreasonable given how hard to find the book is.  I snapped it up, and now it's sitting on my desk.  The condition is pretty good considering the book was published the year I was born.  Thanks to the Cornwall County Library in Truro for withdrawing it from their collection!  From the slip pasted onto the flyleaf, it was last checked out in December 1972.

The novel's subject is Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joséph de Monaco, who was one of the last victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution.  The book's title (depressing, I know) gives away the ending.  I'm eager to read more about her life in this novelized biography, since you don't read much about the Monegasque royal family in fiction.  It promises to be a different take on a well-known historical event.  Per the blurb, it's based on research that Ellis did in the Archives of the Palace of Monaco and in the Grimaldi family's private papers.  She dedicated her book to Princess Grace, "another lovely but happier Princess of Monaco."

I haven't had the best luck with books I've waited years to read; Sea Change by Robert Goddard (one of my favorite thriller writers) turned out to be a big disappointment, and I wasn't captivated by Diana Norman's Daughter of Lir, either.  So I'm very curious to see how this one turns out.  I see I haven't done any posts in my Reviews of Obscure Books series in a few years, so it's about time for a new one.  I'll report back.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rainbows on the Moon by Barbara Wood, a lively journey through early Hawaii

The enticing setting for Barbara Wood’s latest entertaining epic, the tropical splendor of old Hawaii, is a strong selling point. Her heroines’ linked stories are tightly woven into the islands’ cultural and political history, and while the narrative is packed with detail, the flowing prose style makes for smooth reading. Her characters grow and change over time, and the light tone doesn’t lessen the impact of the tragedies the Hawaiians experience.

Emily Stone is a new bride who settles at Hilo in 1820 with her priggish missionary husband, Isaac, to minister to the natives and improve their moral standards by eradicating promiscuity and incest. Unhappy with her grass hut of a home and her distant marriage, Emily finds herself attracted to a handsome sea captain who visits on his trade stops. While she makes inroads with educating the people, changing their behavior proves harder than expected. Earnestly devout and set in her ways, Emily is also a compassionate woman who has a tough life, isolated from family and familiar comforts in this lushly verdant, alien land.

The switch over to 1850s Oregon partway through comes as a surprise, but the story loops back to Hawaii soon enough. Anna Barnett is a determined young woman whose passion for nursing leads her to convert to Catholicism, become a nun, and travel to Honolulu, where competent medical care is sorely needed. Her path draws her to the prominent Farrow family, who appear to be cursed. The Hawaiians’ perspective is shown via a powerful chiefess, Pua, and her daughter, Mahina, who struggle to keep their beliefs alive amid rapid industrial development and an ever-shrinking native population. The broken English they speak in dialogue feels overdone and distracting, however. With its adventurous women, island lore, and stunning scenery, this is a lively read for anyone thinking or dreaming of visiting Hawaii.

Rainbows on the Moon was published by Turner this fall in paperback ($21.95, 460pp).  I read it from an Edelweiss e-galley.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

I appreciate Barbara Wood's willingness to venture into less familiar settings in her novels.  Other books of hers which I've reviewed here previously are The Divining, set in the 1st-century Roman world, and Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in 14th-century Guatemala and Mexico.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Portrait of a Girl by Dörthe Binkert, a historical novel of self-discovery and artistic inspiration

The Hotel Spa Maloja, a ritzy venue high in the Swiss Alps, is the scene for life-changing encounters and romantic entanglements during the summer of 1896. In her uneven but ultimately worthwhile second novel, Binkert sets up an interesting convergence of personalities and social classes, with a vast gap between the wealthy hotel guests, there for a health cure or to photograph the views, and the impoverished, proud locals.

The large cast includes a flirtatious Englishman and his best friend, a young woman with bad lungs, a family of mountain farmers, Italian pastoral painter Giovanni Segantini, and a bitchy American socialite who could have sprung from a Jackie Collins book. The main plotline centers on Nika, a mute stranger with striking strawberry-blond hair who endured a traumatic childhood and who’s searching for her true identity. Readers follow her on her journey of self-discovery, which is alternately helped and impeded by the men who fall in love with her.

I found the novel rough going early on. The translation has some odd phrasings for a historical novel (“he didn’t suck up to people”). The story jumped from viewpoint to viewpoint with abandon, and few people felt distinct. Fortunately, after enough time in the clear mountain air, they and their motives began to sharpen, and the reading became smoother. My interest was also piqued after discovering the novel imagines the backstory of a real painting, Segantini’s La Vanità (which looks nothing like the demure image on the book’s cover!).

Binkert is gifted at describing the beautiful Engadine region and evoking her characters’ deep, swirling emotions. Another strong point is her depiction of a master artist at work in his preferred element, outdoors, where he can mix the perfect palette of colors and “capture the harmony of light.” Overall, a good choice for readers in search of thoughtful escapism.

Portrait of a Girl was published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's imprint for translated fiction, in September 2014 ($14.99/£8.99/$4.99 ebook).  Margot Bettauer Dembo translated it from the original German.  This review, which first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, was based on a personal purchase via Kindle First.

And here's Giovanni Segantini's La Vanità, below.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book review: The Tiger Queens, by Stephanie Thornton

The four protagonists of Stephanie Thornton’s latest book aren’t household names. After reading this magnificent history-based epic, though, readers won’t question why she chose to write about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. “These Mongols were fearsome warriors because everything in their lives, from the food to the weather, was raw and harsh,” observes one of them. The sturdiness of character this environment produced wasn’t limited to the men.

The Tiger Queens, beginning in 1171 AD and spanning nearly 80 years on the Mongolian grasslands, is divided into four segments of unequal length, but each heroine’s story is equally valiant.

The first perspective is that of Borte, the promised wife of a young man called Temujin.  She's a young woman born under a dark star who is predicted to “become the sword that would spill the clans’ blood across the steppes.” As Temujin attracts followers and conquers rival tribes on his way to being named Genghis (“all powerful”) Khan, her sympathetically-told narrative unfolds against a backdrop of bloodlust, revenge, and the destructive power of jealousy. Hers and Temujin’s is an unusual marriage, one tested by a pretty devastating betrayal, but their union becomes the bedrock of a large family – and of an empire.

The remaining three stories skip down to the next generation. Borte’s daughter Alaqai, like her father, is born clenching a clot of blood, a visceral image that foreshadows her fiery nature. As a foreign bride in a hostile land – the fate of most of Genghis’ female descendants – she must leave her beloved horses and nomadic lifestyle behind for wooden dwellings and camels, but her life is hardly a settled one. Thirdly, Fatima, the Muslim widow of Nishapur’s governor, is introduced when her beautiful, elegant homeland is invaded by Mongols. Once bent on vengeance, she rises, through her fellowship with the other women, to become one of their greatest supporters.

Over the course of nearly 500 pages, and numerous routs and alliances, the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum. There truly isn’t a dull moment. The Golden Family continues to expand, and, after the death of their fearless leader, it begins to splinter due to internal disputes. It seems the Great Khan’s sons, who lose themselves in drink, aren’t as capable as their wives and sisters.

Just in the nick of time, the widow Sorkhoktani, Genghis’ quietly crafty daughter-in-law, emerges from the shadows to take up her life’s purpose: preparing the throne for her sons. Other strong women make their mark, too, both for good and not.

This was a brutal time and place, as the Mongols’ “resistance is futile” modus operandi makes them a ruthless enemy. (Their horses, being sources of transportation, food, and drink, have it rough as well.) However, their saga as told by Thornton is one to get lost in for days.

In an ideal world, The Tiger Queens would be an enduring hardcover, but the trade paperback is plenty gorgeous and represents its contents well. Readers will find themselves fully involved with these characters, existing alongside them as they sleep within their felt-walled tents, receive nourishment from fermented mare’s milk, ride their horses over the steppes, and fight to sustain the greatest land empire in history, living boldly under the Eternal Blue Sky.

The Tiger Queens is published this month by NAL (454pp + author's note, interview, and discussion guide, $15.00/$17.00 in Canada).  I received an ARC from the author as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours (and check out the other glowing reviews it's been receiving).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Book review: Bittersweet, by Colleen McCullough

After over 30 years, Colleen McCullough has written another big Australian saga that shows she’s in top storytelling form. However, despite the similarity in genre, Bittersweet is significantly, and deliberately, different from the mega-selling The Thorn Birds. It covers a narrower timespan, namely 1924 through the early Thirties, and celebrates women’s growing prominence in the workforce and the resilient ties between sisters.

The beautiful, intelligent Latimer girls – Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty – are two sets of identical twins born of the same father but different mothers. To achieve their personal ambitions, and to let fragile Kitty escape from her dreadful mother’s suffocating favoritism, they sign up to train at the hospital in Corunda, their small city in rural New South Wales. Their working and living conditions are atrocious at first, and as the initial crop of prospective “new style” registered nurses, they’re resented by others who don’t have their privileged status or education. Their unpretentious attitudes and work ethic soon win over their doubters. The women are more dissimilar than alike temperament-wise, and this becomes more apparent as men enter their orbit and disrupt their exceptional closeness.

Their story is full of personality and verve even when McCullough is relating pure history, such as the circumstances leading to Australia’s downward slide into the Great Depression. The background details on medical techniques and even hospital administration prove to be fascinating, but the focus stays personal. Each woman’s true character manifests itself as the years pass, their ties to one another frequently affecting their relationships with the prideful men who interact with them, love them, and sometimes get in their way. Maybe to enhance the drama, the characters make some surprisingly impulsive decisions. The plot is constantly entertaining, and the warm and chatty style makes the novel read like a good gossip with old friends.

Bittersweet was published in the US by Simon & Schuster in hardcover ($26.00, 384pp) and in the UK by Head of Zeus (cover image at top). Which do you prefer?   This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review. I read it from a personal copy of the UK edition.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? A guest essay by Sarah Kennedy

In today's guest essay, author Sarah Kennedy explores the different meanings of "mystery" in English history and in her own fiction, which includes (so far) two novels set in the Tudor era.  Her latest release, City of Ladies, is published this month by Knox Robinson Publishing in hardcover ($27.99 / £19.99).


Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? 
by Sarah Kennedy

When I first began writing The Cross and the Crown, my series of historical novels set in Tudor England, I was interested primarily in my main character, a young nun named Catherine Havens. The first book, The Altarpiece, opens with the sixteenth-century dissolution of the convents and monasteries in England, and one of the “mysteries” is the hiding place of the convent’s missing altarpiece. In constructing that plot, I tried to create a bit of traditional mystery, but I laid clues that were not too difficult to follow because I wanted readers to focus as much on the character development of Catherine as they did on the “whodunit” of the missing altarpiece and the dead sexton.

The second novel in the series, City of Ladies, also contains an element of mystery in the plot: several former nuns have gone missing and they wind up dead. Catherine, as the lady of the house, wants to know who is committing these horrendous murders. In time-honored mystery fashion, the killer is revealed at the end . . . sort of. A question hangs over the conclusion, because the characters are themselves often questionable.

This brings me to my own concern with mystery as both plot and character. In my series, the great “mystery” of the culture, Renaissance England, is the mystery of the Christian religion. Not long before Henry VIII broke from Rome, plays performed in cycles were quite common all over Europe. These came to be called “mystery plays” and they told stories from the Bible, both old and new Testaments, often combining quite low comedy with profound representations of holy men and women. The plays probably began with church performances of important moments in the church calendar, and the first one was probably the Easter story. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, only to discover that the tomb is empty. Distraught, she searches for the body and encounters a man dressed as a gardener. He says, “Quem quaeritis?”—or “Whom do you seek?” She looks into his face and discovers the greatest mystery of the church: Jesus has risen from the grave. That resurrection, promised to all believers, becomes the great “mystery” of the Christian faith: all humans are mortal and all humans sin, and yet all can rise again from death.

The plays soon moved out of the church and were put on in towns and villages during the summer, with large wagons used as mobile stages. The stories grew in number and by the fifteenth century were shown in great cycles, with the different individual plays performed simultaneously in village squares and along high roads. They often featured elaborate sets and costumes, made by local craftsmen and labor guild members, who were lucky enough to have steady work. They also performed the various parts, both good and evil. These labor guilds were called “mysteries.” So these “mystery plays” contained within their very name multiple meanings. They played out the “mystery” of God’s creation, of the existence of evil, and of the forgiveness of sin. They were also played by actors who were members of “mysteries.”

All of this has been in my mind as I’ve been writing the series, especially as I’ve been revising book three, The King’s Sisters. There is some mystery involved in the plot (though I won’t reveal exactly what!), but, for me, the genre of the mystery novel—the whodunit element—is complicated in writing about people of faith and moments of doubt during the Renaissance. The mystery of murder—the “peculiar crime,” as P.D. James puts it—is bound up with the mystery of good and evil and the mystery of human choice, as well as the mystery of power, thought to have been conferred on the king at coronation . . . and putting into his hands the decision to grant life or death to his subjects.

Do I make use of the traditional clues and final reveal of classical mystery plots? Sometimes I do, though not always in traditional ways. I still like to think of mystery as not only a genre—and who doesn’t like to be on the edge of the seat, reading to find out who the criminal really is?—but also as a way of thinking about character. The word has deep roots in social class and religious belief. Human character itself is also a mystery, and the more elements that are revealed, the more readers understand why anyone does what he or she does. What exactly is crime? Is it murder if the king orders the killing? Is it treason if a plot to circumvent the king’s laws succeeds?

For me, mystery becomes almost emblematic sometimes. The “whodunit” in fiction always, for me, is bound up with the discovery of human character—“whom do you seek?” We read mystery, at least in part, because it deals with fundamental questions of good and evil . . . and sometimes we are led to understand the criminal, even as we applaud the person who unravels the crime. Mystery forces readers to consider what makes a person resort to lying, cheating, stealing, or killing, and in doing so, it raises a question for all of us. How far are we from becoming criminals ourselves? What would push any of us over that edge, into an act so heinous that it requires punishment?

The answer can be an uncomfortable one: we all make errors of judgment; perform hasty, ill-thought-out acts; and commit offenses against others, and our circumstances may be the only difference between us and the “bad guy.” We may all be just a few unlucky turns from becoming that lawbreaker. The mystery, both as plot and character, dramatizes this fictionally and has long allowed us to both to revel in the tangled events that lead to crime and to rehabilitate the tangled hearts that we all carry within us.

Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems.

She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.

Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.

Sarah has been publishing a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII.  Visit her website at http://sarahkennedybooks.com.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Mary Shelley's real demon: A guest essay by Suzanne Burdon

I've always been intrigued by the members of the Shelley Circle:  the literary talents, the dramatic personalities, the entangled love affairs, jealousies, and tragedies.  It's easy to understand why these figures are compelling subjects for historical fiction writers.  Today Suzanne Burdon, author of Almost Invincible, takes a close look at Mary Shelley's fraught relationship with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont.


Mary Shelley’s Real Demon
Suzanne Burdon

Mary Shelley is fascinating because of her authorship, as a girl of eighteen, of the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein. She is also remembered as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. My book, Almost Invincible, is a reimagining of the nine years of her relationship with the poet.

When I started to research beyond those well-known aspects of her life, I found a complex story. She was a strong but vulnerable woman living in an unsympathetic society, and most of what she did was controversial. She was a teenage rebel, a grieving mother, a determined author, and a long-suffering lover of a man with ideas well ahead of his time. Her life was operatic perhaps more like a soap opera! There were more scandals, deaths, tortured relationships, loves and losses than in several seasons of Desperate Housewives. It was full of crises and high-flown emotions passion, jealousy, grief and hate. As you might imagine, many aspects of it resonated strongly with modern life.

There was though, one aspect of Mary's story, a particularly toxic relationship, which fascinated me above all. ‘Don't leave me alone with her. She’s been the bane of my life since I was three years old!’ were the words of Mary when in her fifties, and her step-sister, Claire, proposed a visit. As I continued to research her story, I noticed how much the tension and animosity caused by Claire was a continuous sore that infected almost everything that happened to Mary.

In 1814, when Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, they took Claire with them. It was a bad decision. There was already plenty of scandal in the elopement of a sixteen-year-old girl with a man who was already a husband and father. Shelley’s reputation as an unprincipled atheist led London society to assume the worst, and the rumour was that Mary’s father, William Godwin, always in debt, had sold the girls to Shelley Mary for £800 and Claire for £700. What was worse, from Mary’s perspective, was that Claire was also in love with Shelley and thereafter devoted herself to undermining Mary in Shelley’s eyes.

Mary was the daughter of two literary superstars, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, who wrote a radical treatise called Political Justice, famous in its day. Mary Shelley was expected to have strong creative genes, which she eventually realised in writing Frankenstein and several other novels and stories. Her heritage was one of her early attractions for Shelley. Claire was the daughter of William Godwin’s venal second wife and one of her mother’s previous lovers. She had literary aspirations herself and was jealous of the general assumption of Mary’s intellectual superiority.

Claire lived with Mary and Shelley during most of their relationship. She had more stamina than Mary, who was often sick, especially when pregnant. Shelley hated to go out alone, and there was always Claire ready and willing to accompany him. Claire and Shelley would stay up late discussing utopias when Mary had to go to bed early. Claire was also less inhibited than Mary once, for instance, she was happy to bathe naked in a stream with Shelley while Mary refused. Shelley took responsibility for Claire since, in his eyes, although she was the same age as Mary, she was a sweet, if sometimes wrong-headed child who needed rescuing from her appalling mother, and could be educated out of her temper tantrums and vitriolic outbursts toward Mary. Although she was mainly confident of Shelley's preference, Mary had to fight against her own jealousy as she tried to keep the moral high ground. On a few occasions, though, she snapped and made Shelley send Claire away for a while with a classic 'her or me' threat.

author Suzanne Burdon
Even the writing of Frankenstein is in some ways a result of Claire's influence. Because she was jealous of Mary’s relationship with Shelley, she tried to outdo her by seducing Lord Byron. When Byron fled London for the continent, Claire persuaded Mary and Shelley that they should go too, partly because she knew Byron was already tired of her and that meeting Shelley would be a fresh attraction. Famously, in Byron’s Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, during the long, dark, ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, Byron threw out the challenge of writing ghost stories, and Frankenstein was conceived.

When Claire had Byron’s child, much of Mary and Shelley’s life was dictated by the need to conceal the existence of the child from their families and society and to mediate between Byron and Claire as to the child’s welfare. Byron took responsibility for his daughter but refused to see Claire, whom he called ‘a damned bitch’. Taking the child to Byron in Italy was one of the main reasons for leaving England in 1819, and the consequences included the death of Mary’s baby in Venice.

Fortunately, for Mary and Shelley, their writing was what kept them sane through all their trials and was the bedrock of their relationship. They had great faith in each other's literary genius. Ultimately, it was the one area that Claire could not manipulate or undermine.

The title of the book Almost Invincible is taken from a letter that Mary's father wrote to friends whom Mary was to visit, describing his daughter. He said: 'She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.' Mary certainly had to prove that prophecy in the nine years she spent with Shelley.

It took me four years to research the book, and I visited many sites that are relevant to her story in the UK, Italy and Switzerland as well as the major collections of original documents, in Oxford and New York. It was a pleasure getting to know Mary Shelley.

Suzanne Burdon is a social researcher and author. Born in London, she now lives in Sydney.  Her website is www.suzanneburdon.comAlmost Invincible was published by Criteria Publishing in October at £9.99/$16.99 in trade paper / $7.99 ebook.