Bringing the Shelleys back to life
A Treacherous Likeness is a fictional recreation of the lives of the Shelleys – the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned at the age of 29, and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein. Anyone who resurrects real people in fiction faces some complex challenges, both technical and, if you like, ‘ethical’, but when your subjects are some of the most celebrated figures in English literature you have a particularly difficult task on your hands.
A Treacherous Likeness is my third literary mystery, but the first two drew their inspiration from other books (Mansfield Park and Bleak House), rather than the people who wrote them. As a writer, that was a lot easier, because it allowed me to draw what I wanted from the source material, and discard what didn’t work well in my own novel.
For example, I was able to play with the social standing of Jane Austen’s characters, making the poor relation Fanny Price into a rich heiress, and the wealthy Crawfords into the genteel poor. The consequences for their characters – and the trajectory of the narrative – are immense, and that in itself is a creative commentary on Jane Austen’s text. Likewise, Bleak House is a marvellous ‘anthology’ of literary styles, from satire, to comedy, to psychological drama, to detective mystery (and it is indeed the first English novel to include such a thing). It’s an extraordinary tour-de-force, and one reason why I think Bleak House is Dickens’ masterpiece, but my own interest was in exploring the dark underside of Victorian life, which Dickens himself was unable to bring into fiction, given the constraints of popular publication at the time. So in creating Tom-All-Alone’s I worked only with the psychological drama and the detective story, and left the comedy and the satire behind.
But you can’t do that with biographical material. If you’re going to do it properly – and I was determined to do that – then you can’t pick and choose among your facts. What you can do, of course, is focus only on certain episodes rather than the whole life (and I do), but you can’t start airbrushing out characters or elements just because they don’t fit your story. The analogy I always use is concrete posts: a real person’s life is like a series of concrete posts stretching out before you, and you can neither move them nor swerve past them. But what you can do is find a new and creative way to link them, especially when there are questions unanswered, and silences unexplained.
And that’s very much the case with the Shelleys. There are some things about them that have become the stuff of legend – most notably that famous summer of 1816 when Frankenstein was conceived – but there is so much else that we don’t know, that their lives are a wonderful rich seam for a novelist. There are so many bizarre events that are still a mystery, even to their biographers: that peculiar incident in 1813 when Shelley was apparently the target of an assassination attempt; the strange circumstances surrounding the suicide of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, in 1816; the Shelleys’ decision to adopt and then abandon a baby girl in Italy, in 1821; and the terrifying visions Shelley claimed to have seen in the weeks leading up to his death.
My novel is an attempt to find creative answers to these questions, and to construct a story that could be the ‘missing link’ connecting them all. Many of the Shelley experts who’ve read the book have thought my version of events at least as plausible as many of the other theories about the Shelleys, whether presented in biographical or fictional form. But the wonderful thing about fiction is that it allows you to speculate, and that in turn can spark debate. Some of the nicest compliments I’ve had about Tom-All-Alone’s have been from readers who tried Dickens for the first time after reading it; this time the equivalent has been from people who’ve told me they knew hardly anything about the Shelleys beforehand, but are now inspired to read other accounts of their lives. No writer could ask for more than that.
This post was originally written for the Lloyd Paige blog http://www.lloydpaige.com/?p=3239