Dead poets’ notoriety: Fictionalising Byron and the Shelleys
This post was written for the Newstead Byron Society Review, January 2014
‘T is strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
Don Juan, Canto XIV
Nowhere is truth stranger, in fact, than in aspects of Byron’s own life, not least that famous – or infamous – summer of 1816, which led to the creation of Frankenstein, and forms a central episode in my own novel, A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US).
The novel is a fictional recreation of the lives of the Shelleys, and the idea first took shape when I read Richard Holmes’ wonderful biography Shelley: The Pursuit. I knew the basic story, of course, having studied English at Oxford, but the more I discovered about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life and personality, the more fascinated I became. His character was so darkly complex, and his behaviour so apparently contradictory, that I realised at once that there was marvellous material here that I could explore in fiction, and all the more so because there are so many aspects of his and Mary’s lives that are still unexplained, where even the most diligent biographers can offer us only speculation.
I’ve engaged with literary giants in fiction before, first by trying to recreate Jane Austen’s uber-elegant prose, and then by ‘recalling to life’ Dickens’ London, but working with real historical figures was a step further even than that. In the 189 years since his death, Byron, in particular, has had many fictional resurrections, both in book and film, from Robert’s Nye’s re-imagined memoirs to Benjamin Markovits’ more recent trilogy; from the suitably saturnine Gabriel Byrne in Gothic to the hopelessly miscast Hugh Grant in Rowing with the Wind. His life is so well-known, his personality so overwhelming, that anyone contemplating bringing him back cannot but be rather daunted. And if he is one of English literature’s most fictionalised poets, that summer on Lake Geneva must likewise be one of its most fictionalised episodes, making my own task doubly formidable.
So how did I go about it? What research did I do, and what challenges did I face?
Holmes’ biography may have been the catalyst for the novel, but I quickly made the decision not to use biographies as my primary source. I read Miranda Seymour’s excellent life of Mary Shelley, but once I had the overall chronological ‘scaffolding’ in place, I turned instead to my characters’ own records, including the journals Mary and Percy kept separately and together, what remains of Claire Clairmont’s papers, the documents relating to Harriet Shelley’s suicide, and all the surviving letters I could lay my hands on. This paid some unexpected dividends, most obviously when I came upon two mysterious Shelley letters, in which he instructs his bankers to make payments to an unidentified person bearing the initials ‘A.B’. Scholars still have no idea who this person was, or why Shelley should have wanted to make such secret payments, but for a novelist it was a gift.
Aside from serendipity, what the Shelley and Clairmont papers brought me was a picture of the personalities in play, and the passionate and sometimes poisonous relationships between them. Many of the documents are as revealing for what they don’t say, as what they do. Mary is an obvious case in point – her journal is full of eloquent evasions, and her letters are a mesmerising account of her relationship with Claire, as it veers erratically from a savage if simmering jealousy to a sisterly concern (real or feigned), back and forth for the best part of 45 years. Indeed as you read them, you’re irresistibly reminded of Samuel Johnson’s observation that “there is, indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse”.
Having written my doctorate on Samuel Richardson, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying the letter form and the use Richardson made of it in epistolary fiction; in Clarissa, for example, correspondence functions both as an unreliable narration and an authentic ‘discourse of the self’, offering direct and unmediated access to what Johnson called the “inner recesses of the human heart”. I drew extensively on this insight in constructing the narrative of A Treacherous Likeness, and it informed my decision to present much of the novel in the form of letters and journals by the characters themselves.
The summer of 1816, for example, is constructed as a ‘long lost’ memoir in Claire’s hand, written many years after the event. This memoir – and what it might reveal – is the primum mobile of my story, which begins with the hiring of the young detective, Charles Maddox, by the Shelleys’ only surviving child, Sir Percy, and his formidable and interfering wife Jane. They suspect that Claire may indeed have written her own account of that fateful few months, and are terrified that its publication might threaten the tragic-Romantic image of the poet which the two of them (and most especially Lady Shelley) have spent years carefully constructing. Charles is commissioned to discover the truth, and inveigles himself into Claire’s St John’s Wood cottage in search of her papers, without the slightest idea who she really is.
In Clarissa, Richardson dramatizes the process of reading inside the novel, as Anna Howe interprets, questions and responds to her friend’s letters; in A Treacherous Likeness, a parallel process takes place, as my readers become as much of a literary ‘detective’ as Charles Maddox himself. They – like him – are presented with documents and letters, and they must decide, just as he must, which accounts can be believed, and which writers are to be trusted.
Given that I’m writing this piece for a journal dedicated to Byron, there’s a further interesting consequence that follows from this approach, and which relates specifically to the way I’ve chosen to handle his lordship. By presenting the summer of 1816 in Claire’s voice, we see Byron only through her eyes. And it is a portrayal that is all the more ambivalent because it is retrospective: as an older Claire looks back on that infamous summer, we see both her lover and her betrayer, both the man she pursued so passionately in 1816, and the man she knows now will abandon her, and prevent her from seeing their child. Byron was nothing if not ambivalent – in just about every way one can think of – and this double-charged perspective allowed me to capture not just his charisma but his carelessness, and his often rather grand disregard for the needs and feelings of others, most especially the women who loved him. One can level much the same charge at Shelley, of course (and I do), but even if the effect on those around him was the same, I suspect that in his case it sprang from a very different cause. What was aristocratic arrogance and lofty disdain on Byron’s part, was, I believe, a profound and possibly even pathological failure of empathy on Shelley’s.
At such a great distance of time it’s impossible to come to definitive conclusions about what might have led Shelley to behave as he did – was he suffering from some sort of personality disorder (and you could make certainly a case for a condition like high-functioning autism), or were he and Byron, as Claire was to write many years later, nothing more than “monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery”? I suspect we’re no more likely to find an answer to that question than we are to discover the truth about so many other aspects of Shelley’s life, of which the ‘A.B’ letters are only one. What, for example, really happened in Tremadoc in 1813, when Shelley was apparently the victim of an assassination attempt? Why did the Shelleys adopt, and then almost immediately abandon a baby girl in Naples in 1819? How can we account for the visions Shelley had of his own doppelgänger, in the last days of his life, and why had he been convinced for years that he was being pursued by an unknown persecutor?
A Treacherous Likeness is an attempt to weave a story that might explain these strange episodes. The answers I offer are, of course, speculation, but fiction is an ideal vehicle for such creative conjecture. Most readers – and the acknowledged Shelley experts I have talked to – have found the trajectory of my story both compelling and plausible, though there have been a few, among them Daisy Hay in the Guardian, who have disagreed with my extrapolations. But given that she acknowledges that “it is the privilege of fiction to speculate, to invent truths that documentary evidence cannot supply”, it is somewhat baffling that she then criticises the book for doing exactly that. I would love to see the novel provoke a wider debate, because I am genuinely convinced that the conclusion I come to, controversial though it may be, does indeed fit the documentary evidence, such as it is. A Treacherous Likeness does not claim to be a biography, or ask to be read as one, but I have been rigorous in recreating the past, and scrupulous in respecting the truth, as far as we know it. Though where the Shelleys are concerned, that truth is very often far stranger than even my fiction can make it.