Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, by Fiona Sampson

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by Barry Forshaw
 
Does Mary Shelley need rescuing from neglect? Has the young woman who created the most iconic figures in Gothic literature apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula — Frankenstein and his benighted, stitched-together creature — languished in the shadow of her husband and lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, her friend Lord Byron and her celebrated parents Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin?
 
The poet Fiona Sampson, author of this extremely readable biography, considers that Mary Shelley has been eclipsed of late, but it might be argued that the fascination with the young woman who created her durable monster and creator at a famous Italian literary gathering with Shelley, Lord Byron and others has more of a comprehensive hold on the popular imagination than others in her circle of family and friends.  Not least for the fact that this quiet, well-educated English girl counter-intuitively forged a gruesome horror myth that continues to inspire imitations to this day.
 
Sampson, however, clearly thinks that more attention should be paid to her heroine, and attacks her proselytising task (in the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein) with some panache.
 
As the daughter of a high-achieving mother (one of the founders of feminism) and a father famous for his shocking rejection of orthodox religion — and an equally unconventional espousal of free love — Mary had an iconoclastic upbringing and possessed the credentials necessary for success in the literary field.
 
But Sampson points out that we know less about her life after eloping with the poet Shelley because of the loss of her journals. And with the paucity of material describing Mary’s inner life, Sampson (as with earlier biographers of the writer) is obliged to bring her own imaginative constructions into play
 
While the famous ghost story face-off at Villa Diodati — at which Byron, the Shelleys and others attempted to frighten each other with their own tales of the macabre — has been communicated to us by several of the participants, it’s probably now better known via the various film versions of the gathering (in fact, for generations of viewers, the face of Mary Shelley was that of the English actress Elsa Lanchester, who played both the writer and the electric-haired female monster in James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein). That cinematic connection, in fact, makes the very filmic ‘cutting’ between scenes employed in In Search of Mary Shelley very appropriate.
 
What Sampson has done is to try to read the life of her subject through Mary’s most famous book, and it’s an approach that bears fruit. For instance, Sampson notes that Mary was concerned with the fragility of the human body. She suffered from a condition of the arm, which at one point was unnaturally swollen, and issues of birth (including her own miscarriages) were often in her thoughts; not hard to see reflections of Victor Frankenstein’s connection with both the giving of life and the distortion of the body.
 
As for the popular conception of Mary Shelley submerging her own life in that of her husband (even after his death when she returned to the house in which he was brought up as a boy), Sampson briskly disposes of this dated image, pointing up the writer’s remarkable individual achievements while not ignoring the fact that certain constraints would have been placed on her as a Victorian woman.
 
There is already a considerable body of literature concerning Mary Shelley, so one might not agree that her star has been somewhat dimmed. But Fiona Sampson’s study manages to illuminate her subject in prose that is both insightful and elegant
 
This review originally appeared in the i newspaper.
Fiona Sampson has written her own blog for us on Mary Shelley which you can read here.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book review: Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, by Christopher Frayling

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by Barry Forshaw
Given that the 1st of January 2018 is a significant literary date — 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — it is surprising (and disappointing) that this event is not enjoying more ballyhoo – but this sumptuous, over-sized volume goes some way to redressing that injustice.
 
Sir Christopher Fraying, a cultural polymath in the UK of heavyweight reputation, proves to be the perfect commentator to celebrate the Frankenstein bicentennial. Frayling utilises new research on the novel’s origins, and his text is enriched with a variety of illustrative materials (all the films, of course, but also the first visual representations of the creature).
 
His book is also an examination of the tributaries of the creation myth in modern times, from genetic engineering to nanotechnology, but this is no dry academic text. Shelley’s novel set in motion a cultural phenomenon whose offshoots continue to this day. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is not a more fecund source of Gothic inspiration.
 
Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years
by Christopher Fraying. Reel Art Press, 208 pages, £29.95
 
This review first appeared in the Financial Times.
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book review: William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill

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by Anna Mercer
Stephen Gill’s biography of William Wordsworth is a carefully considered, detailed and incredibly readable account of the poet’s life and – most importantly – his works. A chronological survey of Wordsworth’s writing is given here as well as attention to the facts of his biography, and observations on the nature of his personal relationships.

The importance of Wordsworth’s formative years is examined in compelling detail – but always alongside the poetry. In reading about his early childhood or adolescence in the Lake District we are repeatedly reminded of the impact of these events on that great work The Prelude, and this mirrors the poet’s aims in The Prelude itself: childhood is a prerequisite to the adult mind, and part of its formation, not just an idealised state of innocence that must be lost. Gill’s attentiveness to Wordsworth’s autobiographical writing in The Prelude allows this work to do exactly what should be done in literary biography: we remember that William Wordsworth is a poet, and that is why we are interested in him. This is not simply the documented tales of any man born in 1770, or a record of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century life. There is a distinct focus on ‘what the poetry records’ (my emphasis) throughout. We also encounter Wordsworth in his old age by Gill combining attention to the poetical voice of his subject with the circumstances of his overtly personal priorities:

Wordsworth’s most famous line is probably “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. The words “lonely”, “alone”, “solitary”, take up column inches in the Concordance. But the poet of the lonely brooks and the high fells relied on the security of a family, a home, and a circle of friends, and ever since 1799 he had nurtured these with the sure instinct of someone acknowledging imperative needs.

Thus what the verse tells us about the man, and what the man tells us about the verse, is explored in scholarly detail throughout. My admiration of this biography is centred on how Gill consistently looks forward, even in chapter 1, to the illustrious verses of 1797-8 and beyond, intertwining poetics with lived experience in a way any literary biography should prioritise.

Literary biography is a genre with a high-risk potential to emphasise the ‘scandal’ of author’s lives in favour of sensationalising events to produce dramatic effect for the reader. Gill does not do this. Even when discussing Annette Vallon, the French woman with whom Wordsworth had an illegitimate child, Gill is more concerned with the effect of these experiences on Wordsworth as a writer, and how Annette’s absence and/or presence is intermingled with his other relationships and, of course, nature itself:

Above all other influences of this kind in importance, perhaps, is the fact that for twelve months Wordsworth shared every part of his life with Dorothy […] It was an extraordinary prefiguring of the future, as Wordsworth sat round the table with the sister who was never to live apart from him again and the woman he was to marry in 1802 [Mary Hutchinson]. Together with shared memories of the North and childhood experiences, they re-established a sense of continuity, which was strong enough to incorporate the knowledge of Annette.

The moral implications of Annette (and how Wordsworth left her in France with her child) are not questioned. This is a work stating the importance of the poet as a writer and the direct personal, philosophical and political influences on his writing. Gill does not provide unhelpful conjecture but carefully maps out the complex web of interpersonal relationships and the wide range of lived experiences that came to affect Wordsworth’s work – as well as his vast reading and intellectual progress.

Gill also makes clear the importance of location for Wordsworth as a poet: ‘Lovers of Wordsworth’ might recognise An Evening Walk, Lyrical Ballads or The Prelude as key writings, but they are ‘at least as likely to mark out the poet’s spiritual odyssey by referring to “Windy Brow”, “Racedown”, “Alfoxden”, “Dove Cottage”, “Rydal Mount”.’ Recent academic interest in literary pilgrimages, and literary houses, make this particularly relevant to 21st century Romantic criticism. As Gill writes,

These were places, it is understood, in which self-discovery or achievement   or consolidation occurred, whose particular nature, which may or may not be in evidence in specific poems, can be evoked by naming that one special place.

It is with a critical subtlety that Gill discusses the importance of these locations earlier in the biography, setting them apart from the ‘national monument’ that Wordsworth was to become in his years as poet laureate, when ‘for many, Rydal Mount was a must on the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour’. This may appear slightly knowing – implying an understanding of the complexity of Wordsworth’s poetics is required to comprehend his Lake District or his Quantock Hills. Yet you can see how observations like this are appealing both to the literary scholar and also the common reader. All of which is powerfully expressed in Gill’s prose in the intertwining of explorations of the poems themselves, and then verses cited verbatim. A particularly great instance of this is when Gill cites the poem Wordsworth wrote to Scott, Coleridge and Lamb after their deaths: ‘Who next will drop and disappear?’

Gill appeals to the experienced scholar and the common reader alike in introducing famous, well-known moments in the Wordsworth biography (such as when Coleridge leaped over the gate and ‘bounded down a pathless field’ arriving at the Wordsworth’s house in the West Country in 1797) alongside less well-known moments from Wordsworth’s story. One particular event I had never come across before, and therefore took my particular interest, was Dorothy’s description of Wordsworth’s night-time observations of the sky: ‘William called me into the garden to observe a singular appearance about the moon’. As Gill says, the Wordsworth siblings ‘shared their pleasure, alerting one another to nature’s particularities as if bestowing gifts’. Such a powerful example of nature as an experience shared and then a possible joint inspirational moment is a fantastic Romantic anecdote. It reminded me of the moment in S. T. Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale’ when the baby Hartley Coleridge is taken to the garden by his father whilst crying: ‘And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once, / Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently’. The associations between the Coleridges, the Wordsworths, and the moon in the sky: this is an inspiration for myself, in that I would like to read more about this poetical connection, and there may well be more to say on the subject.

And of course, Coleridge plays his own significant role in the biography. What I think is an achievement in particular here is that Wordsworth is – as Gill himself acknowledges – known for being perhaps more reserved and inscrutable than the enthusiastic and soul-baring Coleridge. What Gill does through his vast myriad of sources is draw out a personality in Wordsworth that we expect (i.e. that is still elusive) but attempts to explain constantly his intellectual calling: his dedication to poetry, and a life of writing.

There is a consistent sense of the importance of Coleridge, Dorothy and other members of the Wordsworth group. As a doctoral researcher working on the Shelleys and their circle, and how interpersonal relationships within such a circle affected the writings of its members, I was inspired by Gill in how he manages to weave biography and careful literary analysis of the poetry. My favourite sections included the discussion of the notebook held at Grasmere, perhaps ‘one of the most exciting of all the manuscripts’ there. This contains Dorothy’s Hamburg journal and, rather magically, evidence of Wordsworth beginning ‘to work up blank verse about his own childhood’. Here we see ‘the beginning of his greatest poem, The Prelude, take shape’. I have a personal interest in poetical manuscripts, but how can this not engage any reader by introducing the potential of such a poignant document? It is in the origins of Wordsworth’s greatest poems by which Gill engages the reader with the poet through his writing.
Prelude
The fact that this notebook (containing The Prelude) also contains Dorothy’s handwriting exemplifies how the book places an emphasis on the collaborative nature of the Wordsworth circle and the impact of the people around the poet had on his work. I found the constant conversations with Coleridge in letters or in person fascinating and it revealed the extended collaborative friendship that goes beyond the annus mirabilis of 1798. For example, there are idiosyncratic but noteworthy instances of two friends’ correspondence: on arrival at Grasmere, ‘within days of arrival Wordsworth told Coleridge of his plans to make a front garden’. The significance of this is emphasised in Gill’s reading of Home at Grasmere, a poem that ‘clearly originated in Wordsworth’s desire to celebrate the good fortune that had led him to this place and to take hold of its features by touching them with his imagination’. Indeed, the first meeting with Coleridge is a momentous moment in the biography, and yet again we see Gill’s subtle way of incorporating the personal details required to write biography with the literariness that makes Wordsworth our subject:

But when Wordsworth left Bristol for Racedown with Dorothy on 26 September what neither her nor Coleridge can have foreseen was that a friendship had begun which was profoundly to affect their lives as private individuals and to determine their destinies as poets.

Gill is not afraid to be critical of the great sage, which is refreshing, as many biographers can become defensive of their subject. For example, Gill explores how at times, ‘not surprisingly […] Wordsworth seems to have become completely self absorbed’. He is also not afraid to consider Wordsworth’s scant regard for Coleridge’s feelings: measured and useful, perhaps, when occasionally the battle between Wordsworth and Coleridge rages on when critics or biographers attempt to establish who was ‘right’ during this famous dispute. In my work on Percy and Mary Shelley, I often face the problem of attempting to write about two authors who have endured criticism that separates them in an attempt to establish whose ‘side’ we should be on. The same can occur with the fall-out of the famous Wordsworth/Coleridge partnership: but Gill does not appeal to this and his measured and engaging response to his detailed research attempts to paint a full picture of facts and then the impact of this on the composition of poetry. ‘Wordsworth’s treatment of Coleridge over Lyrical Ballads 1800 was certainly unfeeling. It was due in part to the fact that Coleridge was maddening’. By this point in the narrative, Gill has established his narrative voice, which is one in which we trust wholeheartedly: and thus when he says, for example, ‘Wordsworth was troubled, but unmoved’ by an event or encounter, we believe him. Gill is less sentimental than, for example, Richard Holmes in the Coleridge biographies. This is in part due to the character tropes of Wordsworth as a subject, but not always.

The length of Wordsworth’s life (he lived until he was eighty) presents a challenge to the biographer, but Gill does not shy away from attempting to depict those years in which, admittedly, Wordsworth wrote very little. Gill’s discussion of ‘the least productive period of Wordsworth’s life’ does not fail to comment on the verse that were produced, perhaps less well known, ‘domestic’ verses, and what is implied in the importance of these is that he often wrote lyrics addressing his companions (his wife Mary, or Benjamin Robert Haydon in response to his paintings) or a ‘celebration’ of the daughters of the lake poets, Edith May Southey, Sara Coleridge, and Dora Wordsworth (The Triad).

The only criticism I have is that there is perhaps something questionable in Gill’s repetition of the phrase ‘He was preparing for death’ at the beginning of chapter thirteen, which appears again in the final pages of the biography (‘in reality he was waiting for death’). However, this all goes to demonstrate the complexity of such a man – who was at once preparing for death but climbing Helvellyn aged seventy – and delivers intrigue about those later years, which perhaps we dismiss as the period of Wordsworth’s more comfortable, and conservative, existence. There is considerable attention paid to the tragic sickness of Dorothy, and Wordsworth’s growing concerns about his children’s future. Overall, this is an honest depiction of the great man who still retains his earthly calling, despite his failure to write The Recluse. Gill does not gloss over the particulars of poetical composition in any attempt at unnecessary grandeur. This is both a sentimental and rigorously scholarly work, and a very enjoyable and detailed read.

Wordsworth’s sonnets, in particular, present a powerful yet succinct depiction of the power of the poet at work. In 1815 he wrote to Haydon:

High is our calling, Friend! – Creative Art
(Whether the instrument of words she use,
Or pencil pregnant with etherial hues,)
Demands the service of a mind and heart,
Though sensitive, yet, in their weakest part,
Heroically fashioned – to infuse
Faith in the whispers of the lonely Muse,
While the whole world seems adverse to desert:
And oh! when Nature sinks, as oft she may,
Through long-lived pressure of obscure distress,
Still to be strenuous for the bright reward,
And in the Soul admit of no decay, –
Brook no continuance of weak-mindedness:
Great is the glory, for the strife is hard!

Anna Mercer is a second-year AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her thesis focuses on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. She won second prize for her essay ‘Beyond Frankenstein’ at the Keats-Shelley Awards 2015. She is also organising a day conference on the work of Percy and Mary Shelley in London in September 2017. For more details click here .
Anna Mercer
Twitter: @annamercer_
Website: https://york.academia.edu/AnnaMercer

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book reviews: The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave

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For this post we have two different reviews of a new biography of Sara Coleridge and Dora Wordsworth: the first by Lynn Roberts, and a second by Will Barber-Taylor. They have slightly different views, so do join in the debate in Twitter or on this page, and let us know what you think!
Katie Waldegrave, The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth & Sara Coleridge. Windmill Books, 2014, pp.400, p’back, £9.99
This is a tour de force of an autobiography: 44 years and two women’s lives assembled from a jigsaw of letters, journals, memoirs, books published in the Coleridge-Wordsworth circle, and other reminiscences. All these have been patiently analyzed, interpreted and reassembled so that the reader appears to be eavesdropping on the years as they run through the hands of the poets’ daughters – seeing the landscapes they saw, suffering cold, difficult domesticity and illness with them, and feeling their own discouragement at the obstacles they faced.

Wordsworth and Coleridge – two of our most important Romantic poets (or poet-writer-philosopher, in Coleridge’s case) – but oh, how one would have shrunk from having either as one’s father. The book begins with Coleridge introducing his youngest child and only daughter, Sara, into the spartan, bohemian, smoky household of Wordsworth, in his post-Dove Cottage home at Allan Bank in Grasmere:

‘The Wordsworths had never been renowned for their hospitality: Sir Walter Scott famously used to climb out of the window and escape to the nearest inn when he was fed up with eating nothing but oatmeal.’

The various children who came and went in this household ran wild and often had a glorious time; but the suggestion of underlying pinched circumstances is also an index of the hard domestic work and worry which was the backdrop for the Romantics’ women.
Coleridge and Wordsworth existed in a mutual bond of mingled dependency, irritation, and distrust. Coleridge, as well as heroizing Wordsworth, was deeply in love with another Sara, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary; he had left his own wife, Sarah-with-an-‘h’, to find what sanctuary she could for herself and her little daughter in the well-ordered neighbouring household of her brother-in-law, Robert Southey. (There are three pages of interwoven family trees at the beginning of the book, which – unless you are completely au fait with the Wordsworths, Coleridges and Southeys – will get quite a lot of wear in the course of reading it).

Southey thought Coleridge a domestic blight, and constituted himself surrogate father to Sara, without there being any concomitant undertaking to ensure her future support; her mother (Mrs STC as she’s called, to cut down on the number of Sara/hs) spent most of her life worrying about the maintenance of herself and her children. Sara in her early years was compared unfavourably by Coleridge with Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora; whereas Wordsworth saw Sara as more intelligent and a superior poet’s daughter to his own Dora (who was ‘too wild and needed to be “tamed”’). Extraordinarily, in view of the tensions around them, and their inability as girls to win the approval of their respective fathers, Dora and Sara became close friends; probably the only relationship which could help them, by taking their mutual unconventional circumstances for granted.

And they needed help. Whilst Sara ‘slaved away at her Latin and Italian, desperate to please her father’, and with the threat of life as a governess haunting her poverty-stricken future, Dora was already being co-opted into life as a vestal virgin, serving at her father’s altar. Waldegrave quotes Wordsworth’s nephew, Christopher:

‘If Providence had not blessed [Wordsworth] with a wife, a sister, a wife’s sister, and a daughter, whose lives were bound up in his life…and who felt that his poems were destined for immortality, and that it was no small privilege to be instrumental in conveying them to posterity, it is probable that many of his verses, muttered by him… would have been scattered to the winds.’

Thus one poet abandoned his womenfolk in all material and emotional respects, whilst the other imprisoned his in an inescapable web, their personalities subsumed by the cult of the poet, and their lives sucked vampirically out into his verse. It seems extraordinary that men who thought so deeply on the state of their fellow man should have been so blind to their treatment of their fellow woman, and such towering monsters of selfishness to their own children.

In December 1821 a local ball was held in Ambleside in celebration of Dora’s and a friend’s leaving school. Dora was by now 17, very attractive and extremely sweet-tempered, while Sara was not only beautiful, but clever enough to have a book on the verge of publication (the translation of a 3-volume work in Latin on a Paraguayan tribe). Edward Quillinan, a married 30-year-old Dragoon and Wordsworth fan, attended, and began to fall for Dora. He was widowed in a few months, but it took an intricate courtship dance of sixteen years before he felt able to propose, and he didn’t marry Dora until 1841. In the intervening period she battled with horrendous weight loss (possibly due to TB, and exacerbated by some form of anorexia), as well as acne; her only really happy and healthy year seems to have been 1823, when she worked as a schoolteacher. This last escape wasn’t at all what Wordsworth wanted; Dora had regained her initial hold on his heart, and was also far too useful to him, transcribing poems, arranging books and urging him to write the poem he had once promised Coleridge – The Recluse.

Sara’s life was equally fraught. After her translation was published (and reviewed only by Southey, anonymously), she retreated back to the latter’s home, Greta Hall, where she and her mother tried to pay for their keep by teaching Southey’s children and housekeeping. This tenuous situation was further strained when Sara’s elder brother, Hartley Coleridge, drank his way out of his Oxford fellowship; Sara used her small translation profits to take herself and her mother away to London, in search of the father she hadn’t seen for eight years.

Waldegrave is good on the difficulties of this confused and broken relationship. Coleridge took to his bed after a while –

‘…In all probability, he simply didn’t know how to respond to this daughter – in his memory a twelve-year-old child and now a beautiful woman – who was desperate for a father. She was a complicated, intelligent adult and, unlike Dora Wordsworth, he had never really known her.’

Fortunately, she was taken up by her cousins, the family of Coleridge’s elder brother, James. Amongst them was Henry, a huge admirer of his poet uncle; like Dora, Sara was to fall in love with one of her father’s greatest fans, and like Dora years were to pass before parental opposition (on both sides) gave way, and she could marry. Sara’s wait for her wedding day was shorter, however: a Biblical seven years, during which she started to take opium to manage her worry over parting from Henry, and latterly over leaving the Lake District and managing a house.

When they finally married she enjoyed a few years of intense happiness; but, with the birth of her second child, darkness set in – post-natal depression, and what was characterized as ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century. Sara took more and more opium – and experienced all the side-effects: constipation, headaches, exhaustion, mood swings, etc. Waldegrave brings vividly alive the trials of being a woman in the 1820s: the very real symptoms of hysteria, which we might see as pointing to epilepsy or anorexia, the continual worries about further pregnancies and belated periods, and the hideous effects of becoming hooked on morphine. Sara seemed to be following her father into his drug-ridden shadows, and it’s a wonder that her husband bore with her so patiently for what became years, punctuated by three more babies, who lived only for days.

She was saved by her father’s death, and the need to defend his life and work against his detractors. Henry wanted to publish a book of his conversations, Table Talk, and Sara was catalyzed by her wish to write an introduction which would interpret and explain his ideas. In the end, Table talk was published without such a defence, which would have overweighted it and been inappropriate; however, Sara became involved with Henry’s next project, The literary remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and brought it to publication after his early death (possibly from syphilis) in 1843. Eventually she also edited Biographia Literaria (second edition, 1847, ‘…a breathtakingly accomplished volume’), and Coleridge’s Essays on his own times (2 vols, 1850). In the last years of her life – she died in 1852 – she edited Coleridge’s poems into chronological order, and rewrote the preface (first drafted by her brother, Derwent). Just as Wordsworth’s voice to a large extent only found issue through the pens of his female relations, so Coleridge’s comes to us filtered through the organizational and interpretive skills of his daughter.

Dora had her own small literary triumph. She enjoyed a brief resurgence of youth and health through a holiday in Portugal in 1843 with the husband who had finally won her after almost twenty years. Even this had had to be fought for through emotional blackmail of Wordsworth and his wife on the grounds of Dora’s parlous health; on her return, Wordsworth had further kittens on discovering that Dora was publishing the journal she had written in Portugal. Despite opposition, she went ahead, and public reaction arrived on her deathbed in the summer of 1847: ‘the book was widely and (mostly) favourably reviewed’.

Sara Coleridge and Dora Wordsworth – although often apart – lived entwined lives, which reflected and echoed each other. These correspondences emphasize the difficulties encountered by both women, whose talents and energies were swallowed up by the work of others, and whose domestic happiness was a hostage to male selfishness. Do read this extraordinary and engrossing book, and thank heaven that you weren’t born either to Wordsworth or to Coleridge.

Lynn Roberts is an art historian specializing in the history of picture

Lynn Roberts pic

frames. Her poetry has been published in a number of magazines; she won the 2009 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection, and has reached the longlist for the 2011 & 2012 National Poetry Competitions. In 2011 she published Rosa Mundi and Pandora’s Book; her latest collection, A Brush with Poetry (2014) is published by Oversteps Books.

Dora Wordsworth

Margaret Gillies, Dora Wordsworth, 1839, detail: The Wordsworth Trust Grasmere. Also see print after the painting.

 

Sara Coleridge

George Richmond, Sara Coleridge, 1845, print after the painting: The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

And here’s another point of view from Will Barber–Taylor
Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge were life-long friends. They were also the daughters of best friends: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two poetic geniuses who shaped the Romantic Age.
Living in the shadow of their fathers’ extraordinary fame brought Sara and Dora great privilege, but at a terrible cost. In different ways, each father almost destroyed his daughter. Growing up in the shadow of genius, each girl made it her life’s ambition to dedicate herself to her father’s writing and reputation. Anorexia, drug addiction and depression were part of the legacy of fame, but so too were great friendship and love.
To lovers of poetry, the lives of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be familiar. Wordsworth, the lover of the lakes and the Poet Laureate; Coleridge a man who ran away from his wife and children and became addicted to a drug which would mar the lives of all the people who loved him best. Yet the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s daughters are not as well known. However, it is their lives that had the most impact on the legacy of their fathers.
Waldegrave manages to tell the stories of the two women Sara Coledridge and Dora Wordsworth with skill and passion. The lives of women during the Georgian and Victorian period are not always as well documented as those of men, so it is thankful that so much survives from the period concerning the two women. From the time of their birth to their death Waldegrave has managed to show the inner feelings and thoughts of the two extraordinary women. Waldegrave has clearly done her research; the book is filled to the brim with historical detail relating to the lives of Sara and Dora. Using letters, journals and extracts from Sara and Dora’s published works Waldegrave manages to take old and dusty documents and bring Sara and Dora alive for the reader in a way that a lesser writer wouldn’t be able to.
As the book goes on we feel connected to the two different yet similar women; Dora’s anorexia and her sad and slow end are genuinely heart breaking particularly when it seemed that she had so much more to offer the world. Sara’s own slide into drug addiction is equally depressing and makes the reader feel that they have lost a friend; don’t read this book if you are feeling down.
Waldegrave’s writing is so intense and powerful that you become sucked into the world of the people you are reading about and understand their feelings; their desires and their ultimate flaws. Waldegrave paints vivid pictures of the landscape that Wordsworth and Coleridge lived in. From London’s dingy backstreets to the high mountains of the Lake District, Waldegrave manages to transport her reader exactly into that time and place. The true power of the book is its ability to make the reader feel like they are experiencing the events in real time and thanks to Waldegrave’s excellent research we are. While some historical books tend to jump around while describing the events that happen, Waldegrave keeps to a fairly rigid structure meaning that the book feels more like a novel than a simple history of the period and its people. When Waldegrave talks about Sara’s life with the Southeys it doesn’t feel like we are reading about some far off time disconnected and remote; it feels like we are reading about now.
This immersive ability that the book has is its bestselling point and the thing that will keep readers knowledgeable about Coleridge and Wordsworth. By reading the book we are taken back to a time and place and we feel that we have met the people who are the subject of it. This is not an easy feat but one which Waldegrave pulls off with loving care and finesse. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the lake side poets as it is truly a great book.
Will Barber – Taylor is a keen amateur historian with a passion for poetry. He writes and acts professionally and has appeared at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and a number of other theatre

Will B-T

s. He has previously written for Doctor Who Online, What Culture and The Cult Den. He is also a great walker and enjoys the countryside of the Lake District.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book review: The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and The Curse of Byron by Andrew McConnell Stott

Page 1

By Pam Norfolk
The famous meeting of literary minds at the Villa Diodati in the stormy summer of 1816 has always read like the Gothic novel it spawned.

This iconic juncture in the lives of troubled poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with Shelley’s lover Mary Godwin, gave birth to a series of personal tragedies, the classic novel Frankenstein, the embryo of an authorship dispute and a scandalous story as powerful today as it was 200 years ago.

But there were two others at the notorious gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva, two victims of the cult of celebrity whose lives would be blighted by events both before and after a legendary wet weekend of intense creativity and steamy sexual tensions.

In The Vampyre Family, an elegant and dynamic re-telling of a familiar story, Andrew McConnell Stott focuses on the demise of Byron’s doomed camp followers… his teenage travelling companion and doctor John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont.

Claire, already pregnant to the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ Byron, will face rejection and then the death of their daughter Allegra aged just five, whilst Polidori, disillusioned by the failure of his own literary ambitions and heavily in debt, will kill himself by drinking acid.

McConnell Stott, Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, argues that it was as much the corrosive Romantic obsession with fame as the turbulent wake of cruel, self-absorbed literary giant Byron that ‘infected them forever.’

For these two hapless young people, the caustic flame of celebrity brought only pain, and helped to mould them into the archetypes of ‘grievance,’ a destructive sense of bitterness that would become increasingly recognisable as the 19th century progressed.

By fusing the biographies of the five characters who played out that centuries-old Swiss drama, and viewing their lives and times from an inspired new perspective, McConnell Stott imparts fresh insight and vitality to the popular parable of genius, madness and suffering.

By the spring of 1816, 28-year-old Byron was the greatest poet of his generation and the most famous man in Britain but his personal life was in meltdown. With the jeers of a hostile crowd still echoing in his ears, he fled to Europe leaving behind mounting debts, rumours of an affair with his half-sister Augusta and his angry, humiliated wife Annabella.

With him was his inexperienced personal physician John Polidori who had only been in service with the poet for a week and who harboured literary aspirations of his own.

Handsome, dark-haired Polidori, who looked more Byronic than Byron and dressed in the same flamboyant style as his master, quickly took the opportunity to show Byron his own work, three plays written as a medical student and more precious to him than his profession.

When Polidori found his prized plays mocked mercilessly rather than praised, the seeds of their ill-fated future relationship were sown before they had even left the shores of England.

In hot pursuit of Byron was the pregnant Claire Clairmont, accompanied by Mary Godwin and her married lover Shelley who were also running away from scandal at home. For three months in a summer of rain, storms and sexual tensions, this party of young bohemians met regularly at their neighbouring villas near Lake Geneva.

Inevitably, it also became a period of extraordinary creativity culminating in Byron’s famous ghost story challenge, Mary’s Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, Byron’s poem Childe Harold, Shelley’s ode Mont Blanc and Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s classic book Dracula.

The Swiss sojourn guaranteed immortality for Byron and the Shelleys but for Clairmont and Polidori, it was the start of a slippery downward slope. Five years later, after The Vampyre had been erroneously and controversially published under Byron’s name, Polidori took a fatal dose of prussic acid.

Allegra, Clairmont’s daughter by Byron, died of typhus in the convent where she lived even though her father had pledged to keep her in his care. Clairmont spent the rest of her long life declaring that ‘only a few minutes of pleasure’ with Byron had given her ‘a lifetime of trouble.’

Through immaculate research and lively, accessible prose, McConnell Stott reveals both the myths and the realities of the Romantics legend through the prism of Clairmont and Polidori, allowing us to witness how their adoration and devotion to Byron’s bright star turned to disappointment and despair.

As many have already surmised and as the author exposes so powerfully, Byron, ‘a human tiger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain,’ the intellectually gifted but impractical Shelley and the not-so-saintly Mary were all flawed geniuses, arrogant, egotistical, insensitive and intensely human.

Those who came within their orbit risked being burned and no one knew better than Byron the fierce and yet fleeting nature of celebrity.

‘Love, fame, ambition, avarice – ’tis the same,
Each idle – and all ill – and none the worst –
For all are meteors with a different name.’
(Canongate, hardback, £25)
Pam Norfolk

About Pam Norfolk: Born In Lancaster and educated at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, Pam Norfolk (née Wolfendale) trained as a journalist on a newspaper in Morecambe. For over 30 years, she has worked as a reporter and sub-editor on various evening newspapers as well as a national newspaper, gaining a first-class degree in English along the way and now book reviewing for over 20 North West of England newspapers, including the Lancashire Evening Post. She is married to fellow journalist John Norfolk and has three children and two granddaughters.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book review: A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

Page 1

Reviewed by Pam Norfolk
He was one of England’s great Romantic poets, she was the celebrated creator of Frankenstein, and their illicit love affair scandalised early 19th century society. But did the lives of Percy and Mary Shelley harbour secrets more dangerous and more deadly than we could ever have imagined?

It will take two generations of a fictional detective family to lift the lid on a mystery that has been bubbling below the surface of history for nearly 200 years.

Back to pursue the gaps in our literary heritage is Lynn Shepherd and her daring duo, Charles Maddox senior and Charles Maddox junior, whose thrilling investigations in Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s brought their author fame and acclaim.

A Treacherous Likeness is the third outing for the Victorian Maddoxes whose cerebral sleuthing has already solved mysteries inspired by the great Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
In her latest foray into the classics, Shepherd exploits the treachery, turbulence and tragedy that dogged the lives of the Shelleys, the notorious poet Lord Byron and those unfortunates whose fates become bound up with these flawed geniuses. It’s a tale of passion told with passion – a shocking story of cruelty, unrequited love, betrayal, cover-up, abandonment (in every sense of the word) and premature death.

Shepherd’s complex but compelling crime puzzle weaves between the dying days of 1850 and the early years of that century to unravel secrets from the past and offer a dark, new and excitingly authentic version of a literary enigma.

As always, Shepherd undertakes the task with style, harnessing the facts, taking some very credible liberties, adding atmosphere and colour, and turning an old mystery into something refreshingly readable.

While Charles Maddox, once one of London’s greatest ‘thief-takers,’ lies semi-conscious, ravaged by age and mental incapacity, his great-nephew and namesake, and also a detective, reluctantly takes on a new case.

His clients are the ineffectual Sir Percy Florence Shelley, only surviving son of the famous Shelleys, and Lady Jane Shelley, his brusque, haughty wife who has turned their home into a shrine to the long-dead poet.

The widowed Mary Shelley, now very much a recluse, is being blackmailed over lost ‘letters’, claim her son and daughter-in-law, and young Charles’ job will be to find whether the missing, and probably incriminating, memoirs really do exist.

When Charles tracks down Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, a former lover of Lord Byron and a leading player in the Shelleys’ misadventures during their travels abroad, he soon finds himself being drawn into the bitter battle being waged over the poet’s literary legacy.

And as he learns more about the scheming, single-minded Mary Shelley and her ruthlessly ambitious father, political journalist and philosopher William Godwin, Charles makes a chance discovery that raises new doubts about the death of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook. Did young Harriet kill herself, or was her death far more sinister than suicide?

The tangled web of the past continues to yield up more disturbing secrets and Charles faces the shattering possibility that his own great-uncle is implicated in a conspiracy to conceal terrible truths…

With an inherently charismatic cast and an all-seeing narrator to provide 21st century rationale, possessing an extensive knowledge of literature and the Romantics is not essential to enjoy and appreciate this beautifully executed novel.

A Treacherous Likeness is undeniably a new spin on an old story but it is also intelligent, revealing and exciting in the sheer power of its possibility.

Immaculately researched, gripping and often unsettling, this is the kind of storytelling to set the grey matter in motion, help us reflect on the nature of genius and question the veracity of literary legacies.

We might even feel encouraged to consider that maybe, just maybe, Lord Byron was not the only member of that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation who was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’
This review was originally written for the Lancashire Evening Post.

A Treacherous Likeness is published by Corsair in the UK, and as A Fatal Likeness, by Random House, in the US.

Pam Norfolk

Pam Norfolk

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Book review: Unfashioned Creatures by Lesley McDowell

Page 1

Review by Pam Norfolk

‘Love is merely a madness,’ wrote Shakespeare but it was the poets and writers of the later Romantic period who came to love madness to distraction.

Mental disorders, sexual obsession and supernatural mystery were at the beating heart of 19th century literature… and leading the charge was Mary Shelley with her groundbreaking novel Frankenstein.

‘In a fit of enthusiastic madness,’ her eponymous doctor used the ‘unhallowed arts’ to form what he hoped would be a ‘rational creature’ to counteract the human reality that we are all ‘unfashioned creatures, but half made up…  [with] weak and faulty natures.’

And in a novel brimming with the menace of Victorian classics like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Scottish author Lesley McDowell harnesses the Romantic mania for madness with the fictionalised back story of a troubled real-life friend of Mary Shelley, mysteriously described by the famous author as ‘disturbed in her reason’ when they became reacquainted in 1823.

McDowell’s flight of inspired imagination, fuelled by chilling intrigue and powerful notions of identity and gender, sweeps us back to a male-dominated society in which perceived female frailty and mental illness were inextricably linked.

Insanity, superstition, desire, jealousy, ghostly apparitions and forbidden love are the driving forces behind the haunting tale of Isabella Baxter Booth who takes her two young daughters and flees her violent, deranged and epileptic husband in London for the shelter of her childhood home in Scotland.

It is there she meets Alexander Balfour, an ambitious but flawed young ‘mind-doctor’ who will stop at nothing to establish a reputation as a genius in the emerging science of psychiatry and who sees Isabella as his perfect case study.

For years, Isabella has been plagued by the guilt of marrying her dead sister’s husband, David Booth, an eminent scholar who is thirty years older than herself and slowly losing touch with the real world.

He has severe epileptic fits and suffers delusional mood swings during which he is abusive and violent towards his young wife. Hooked on laudanum and fearful for her safety, Isabella leaves their Richmond home to seek refuge with her family north of the border.
She carries with her a note from her husband to take to the asylum in Montrose which she believes is requesting help for his illness but which, in fact, claims his wife has a ‘distressed’ state of mind and needs treatment.

But not only does the ambitious Dr Balfour fall for the charms of Isabella, he also sees in her the key to his greatness as a new ‘psychiatrist.’ Can he prove that a ‘sympathy of the nerves’ could be taken one step further… to ‘the infection of madness’? Isabella, meanwhile, is making her own discoveries. Newly addicted to Alexander’s ‘eager talk,’ ‘springing step’ and ‘casual cruelty,’ she declares that ‘love is a madness that infects us all.’

However, there is betrayal and danger ahead as Isabella’s demons refuse to leave her, Alexander’s torments threaten to overwhelm him and David becomes increasingly disturbed…

There is a seductive method in McDowell’s exploration of early 19th century attitudes to madness. From the outset, she creates a palpable tension between the ‘science’ of madness and the centuries-old ‘artistic’ concept of madness as a literary motif.

‘This is a pretty kind of madness,’ observes Isabella when she is introduced to the ‘perfect microcosm of the world’ at the innovative Montrose Lunatic Asylum where women sew, cook and paint, and men till the soil.

From stark prose and slick dialogue to passages of haunting lyricism, the stylish grandeur of Unfashioned Creatures is as compelling as the ambiguity over where the madness truly lies amidst the dissembling, the drugs and the delusions.

Just how reliable are our two narrators? Is Alexander who, we learn, battles his own family history of insanity, losing his grip on reality, and are Isabella’s ghostly visions merely hallucinations?

McDowell’s characters are extraordinary ‘creations,’ embodying the strange mix of superstition and enlightenment which was so symptomatic of the way that madness – and indeed immorality – was viewed by Victorian society.

‘It’s the old and the new, warring with each other, but the new will win out,’ the scholar David Booth assures Mary Shelley when she once visited his home.

Fact and fiction, reason and madness, order and chaos… nothing is a certainty is this gripping evocation of Gothic grotesquery.
Unfashioned Creatures is published by Saraband.
Pam Norfolk
About Pam Norfolk: Born In Lancaster and educated at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, Pam Norfolk (née Wolfendale) trained as a journalist on a newspaper in Morecambe. For over 30 years, she has worked as a reporter and sub-editor on various evening newspapers as well as a national newspaper, gaining a first-class degree in English along the way and now book reviewing for over 20 North West of England newspapers, including the Lancashire Evening Post. She is married to fellow journalist John Norfolk and has three children and two granddaughters.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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