The shades of Shelley Manor
As the author of novels inspired by some of the great writers of the past, it’s always particularly special when I get to speak at a venue that has a close association with one of them. I was lucky enough to talk about Murder at Mansfield Park at Chawton House (home of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight, and in the same village as her own home), and we held the launch of Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House at the wonderful Dickens Museum in Doughty Street. Each was a very special night, but then again both of those novels were written in a spirit of love and homage to the works that inspired them, so if the ghosts of Austen and Dickens still lingered, I had no fear I might have offended them.
But the event I was invited to a few weeks ago was quite another matter, because it was to give a talk at the theatre attached to Shelley Manor near Bournemouth, the one-time home of Sir Percy Florence Shelley, and his formidable, not to say indomitable wife, Jane.
A Treacherous Likeness is a re-creation of the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, but the action of the novel opens with the poet’s son and daughter-in-law, the self-same Sir Percy and Lady Jane. Now anyone who’s read the book will know that I am – shall we say – rather less than sympathetic to the baronet, and I portray his wife as ruthless in her determination to sanitise the poet’s legacy, and relentless in suppressing anything that might serve to sully either his reputation or that of his wife, her mother-in-law Mary Shelley, whom she claimed communicated with her by ‘spirit writing’ after her death.
I did a lot of research for the book, so I can back up what I claim, but while it’s one thing to be confident that my portrayal does the lady no great injustice, it’s quite another to be invited to her former home, to speak in the very theatre that her husband built for his amateur theatricals. Echoes of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” In fact, the first thing one of my friends said was ‘You won’t get out alive!’ and I even found myself laughing nervously and asking the organisers whether there was any evidence the house was haunted…
I’m joking now, of course, but all the same it was rather eerie to discover that Lady Shelley had a special shutter made in the wall of her bedroom, which gave her a bird’s eye view of everything going on in the theatre below (you can see the view she had in the picture below). So when I got up to speak I was only too uneasily aware that high above me, in the shadows, was the window where the lady herself once sat in the dark and watched….
But it was, all joking aside, an absolutely delightful day. Not just the talk itself and the spirited question session we had afterwards, but the tour we were given of the restored house beforehand. It’s now a medical centre so it’s not open to the public, but we lucky enough to see the Shelleys’ strange cloud-painted dome, which has such odd acoustics that you can hear the sound of your own voice in your ears as it sounds to other people.
The Manor was also home to Lady Shelley’s famous ‘shrine’ of relics and memorabilia of the poet (and which I transpose to their London house for the purposes of my plot). All of that is long gone now, of course, but you can still see some of the artefacts on the excellent Shelley’s Ghost exhibition website.
I’m hoping to go back and speak at the Manor again, and perhaps next time I’ll talk a bit more about Lady Shelley’s efforts to rehabilitate her long-dead father-in-law for the Victorian age, which had such a profound effect on the way he is remembered, even now.
I would like to thank Patrick Keats for all his help in organising the event, and Phil Proctor for the fascinating tour. A dedicated team of volunteers is working to restore the theatre as a local arts facility for the Boscombe area, and there will be other events coming up this summer.