Late last year I was entranced by Lynn Shepherd’s literary novel Tom All Alone’s in which private detective Charles Maddox took on a case involving among others, characters from Dickens’ Bleak House. I was delighted to discover that her new book A Treacherous Likeness is published this month and I made sure that I got my hands on a copy as early as possible.
A Treacherous Likeness is a remarkable book having at it’s heart what Lynn Shepherd rightly describes as, “one of the most celebrated episodes in English literary history”; the time when Percy and Mary Shelley stayed in Geneva with Mary’s step-sister Claire, who was having an affair with Lord Byron.
In some ways, A Treacherous Likeness is far more than a novel and in a video accompanying this book (see below), Lynn Shepherd explains that her purpose in writing A Treacherous Likeness is to explore the gaps and silences in the lives of the Shelleys which history has passed over. She does this by setting her investigator from Tom All Alone’s, Charles Maddox onto the case at the request of Shelley’s family, allowing her to explore in fiction her theories about the scandals and intrigues surrounding Byron and Shelley.
When the book opens we find that Charles Maddox has now moved in with his dying great-uncle and mentor (referred to in the book as “Maddox”). The old man seems to be sunk into the depths of a final sleep, tended by his assistant Abel and house-keeper Molly. Charles reveres the old man and learned the skills of investigation at his side but now he has to root through his great-uncle’s case notes to discover the truth about his new assignment.
Charles is approached by Sir Percy Shelley, the only surviving son of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary (of Frankenstein fame). Sir Percy and his wife Jane are looking after Mary Shelley in her old age and see themselves as guardians of the Shelley legacy. They see themselves as having a sacred trust to root out and destroy rumours and papers relating to the more bizarre aspects of the lives of the great poet and his wife. The couple believe that Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont has in her possession papers and letters which would have an explosive effect on the reputation of the poet and they want Charles Maddox to find out what these are and to see if he can come to a financial arrangement to buy them from her to prevent their publication.
But Charles soon finds out that he has not been recruited solely because of his skills as a young investigator, for we discover that Percy Shelley had employed his Great-Uncle as an investigator forty years earlier. Mary Shelley was not Percy’s first wife, for when he met her and eloped with her, he already had a wife and child with another baby on the way. Poor Harriet was cast to one side when her husband began his torrid relationship with Mary and she disappeared from the scene. Maddox the elder was recruited to find out what happened to her and soon became embroiled in the circumstances surrounding her tragic end. But while the old man kept meticulous cases-notes down the years, he seems to have gone to great pains to hide his notes of this episode, and one of Charles’ first challenges is to find out the extent of his Great Uncle’s involvement in the case.
I have no intention of writing any more about the plot of this fine novel; it is far too good to be spoiled by me. It is sufficient to say that it is as complex as the real lives of the Shelleys and while we will never know the truth of what happened, Lynn’s scenario is certainly plausible (I shall await more scholarly reviews than I can bring to the book).
I particularly enjoyed the diary entries and letters which the author has created and these are nicely contradictory, showing the very different real-life accounts of the events described. Lynn provides us with her own attempts at Claire Clairmont’s account of her time in Geneva with the Shelleys, a long letter from Shelley to Claire and a letter from Mary Shelley to Charles Maddox defending Shelly and accusing Claire of an elaborate fabrication. These three “documents” are very well done and added much to my enjoyment of the novel.
Shelley’s relationship with his wife and her step-sister was close to being a ménage a trois and while the troubled Mary had a difficult life with the highly-disturbed Shelley, Claire Clairmont’s life was ruined by its entanglement with the poet and his wife. Lynn Shepherd quotes Claire as saying that the mere sight of Mary made her feel as if, “the sickening crawling motion of a Deathworm had replaced the usual flow of Blood in my veins”. Yet she was unable to break away and find the freedom she so badly needed.
Among all the “Shelleyana”, I was pleased to find that the author still finds space to develop her character Charles Maddox, who has a fine time digging around the murky history of the Shelleys. A sub-theme sees Charles having to deal with some dirty-washing of his own which gives him some insight into his own involvement in what Philip Roth calls “the human stain”.
The book is very skilfully written and I admire Lynn Shepherd’s skill in managing the vast amount of material she mentions in the lengthy “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book. These explain the background to the book in great detail and show the extent of the research undertaken in preparation for its writing. I was not familiar with the Shelley story and but having read her notes, I can see that the scenario she posits is a quite legitimate one. Clearly the best efforts of Shelley’s descendants in the final part of the 19th century to cleanse the Shelley history have not been as successful as they might have hoped.
In addition to the author’s notes, the book contains a very useful illustration of the Shelley family tree with notes about each character. This was very useful in keeping track of the three generations of Shelleys referred to in the book.
Lynn refers in her notes to the excellent website Shelley’s Ghost – Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, a joint venture between the Bodleian Libraries and the New York Public Libraries. This beautifully designed site is well worth a visit and provides background to the book. Incidentally, reading this book gave me further confirmation of the immense value of Wikipedia for I was able to find very informative articles and illustrations of all the real-life characters in this book, leaving me much more well-informed on the lives of Shelley and Byron that I was before reading A Treacherous Likeness.
Lynn has recorded a fascinating video about A Treacherous Likeness set in the National Portrait Gallery in which she talks about her book while showing her audience portraits of the main characters.