That night was the genesis of Mary's Frankenstein, the novel that has probably eclipsed work by her husband and his "mad, bad and dangerous to know" friend.
Or so the myth goes. The lives of the Shelleys are full of unanswered questions, in spite of a vast quantity of letters and diary entries. Why did three of their four children die so young? Why did Shelley's first wife, Harriet, and Mary's half-sister, Fanny Godwin, commit suicide within a short time? Who was the child, Elena, whom the Shelleys adopted, then abandoned, in Naples? And what status did Claire Clairmont, Mary's step-sister, have in their household? Was she also Shelley's lover?
These biographical curiosities have inevitably proved fertile ground for fiction writers and have been appropriated for literary fiction, from Henry James's The Aspern Papers to the more recent Felony by Emma Tennant and the Byron trilogy by Benjamin Markovits; for high romance, as with Jude Morgan's Passion; and now for detective fiction. Lynn Shepherd, who first introduced us to her 19th-century detective, Charles Maddox, in her previous novel, Tom-All-Alone's, shines a perceptive and beautifully researched light on the Shelleys, to give us a fast-paced, urgent, highly atmospheric account.
Maddox has been approached by Shelley's one surviving son, Percy, and his wife to procure remaining letters of Shelley's that they believe Claire Clairmont, now in her fifties, may have. Maddox's great-uncle first received the Shelleys' card when they called and immediately had a stroke – as Maddox begins to investigate, he finds the man in whose footsteps he wants to follow is heavily implicated in the Shelleys' history.
Shepherd wisely keeps her circle small – Maddox meets the still alluring and vivacious Clairmont as one might expect, but there is a huge cast of extra players that she avoids (Jane Williams, for instance, with whom Mary had a huge row after their husbands died in the same sailing accident, and with whom Shelley was reputed to have been in love). It's inevitable, with stories involving passion and high drama, that sides are taken, and biographers and novelists are no different. Shepherd's focus is on the women she regards as victims of a heartless and almost demonic Shelley – his circle is a "looking-glass world Shelley built for himself and then could not escape". The pace of her novel builds almost frenetically as it reaches its close and loose ends are tied up. Not everyone will accept her conclusions about some of the mysteries of the Shelley myth, but the melodrama of her assertions matches the melodrama of the lives lived. Her gripping novel, enjoyable as it is, goes beyond simple entertainment to try to say something new about a lingering literary mystery.