Thursday, October 15, 2015
The Determined Heart by Antoinette May
Published September 2015 by Lake Union Publishing
Source: my ebook copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley
The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?
Mary Shelley lost her mother only days after she was born. It was not the recollection of her mother that shaped Mary's life but rather the shadow of who her mother had been that influenced Mary's life in ways both good and bad. It drew some people to Mary and her family and caused others to shun them. William Godwin's radical writings had much the same effect on the family. Her parentage resulted in an extremely bright young woman, with radical ideas and a strong will.
Percy Shelley was four years older than Mary and married when they first met but two years later, when she was just sixteen, they became lovers and eloped to France and then Switzerland to be together. Young Mary, one would think, imagined that their life would be a dream but from the beginning things went awry. Percy consented to allow Mary's stepsister, Claire, to accompany them; they ran out of money long before they reached Switzerland and were forced to walk much of the way; and, eventually, the trio was forced to return to England where they were ostracized by their families. Those first few months symbolized Percy's and Mary's lives together. They often lived with high hopes and, once Percy's grandfather died and he came into his inheritance, money was much less an issue. But Mary, who professed to believe in "free love," only ever truly loved Percy and his constant affairs with other women wore heavy on her heart. Her battles with depression after the lose of four of their five children were unbearable for Percy and tended to drive him away. They lost both Mary's sister and Percy's wife to suicide and were never able to mend things with Percy's father. On the other hand, they lived life largely on their own terms, surrounded by the top literary figures of their time, including Lord Byron.
Mary Shelley is most famous for working arduously to bring acclaim to Percy's poetry after he died and for her novel Frankenstein; or a Modern Prometheus but she was actually a prolific author in her own right and had much more success during her life that did her husband. It's true that Frankenstein was the result of a prompt by Lord Byron on a rainy evening when their group was shut inside but the story was one that came about as the result of a number of previous inspirations, as imagined by Ms. May at any rate. It was Mary's first novel and brought her fame, after it eventually came out that she as the author (the book was originally published as having an anonymous writer as it was felt that the public would not accept a scientifically based book written by a woman).
There were times when the book felt repetitive and others when it felt like May had included to much detail. Perhaps a tighter editing of the book would have worked better for me. Still, I enjoyed learning so much about the writers of the time, not just the Shelleys and my heart broke for the little woman whose own darkness was reflected in her most famous work.
As with all novels based on fact, as soon as I finished this book, I started researching Mary Shelley to see how much of the novel was based on fact and was surprisingly pleased to find that May had done an excellent job of sticking to the facts as they were known.