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There are many biographies of Mary Shelley. There is always fascination with her as the teenage author of the iconic Gothic novel, Frankenstein, and the eventual wife of the poet, atheist and reformer, Shelley. What I found fascinating, though, was an aspect of her story that seemed to be pivotal, and was always in the background. This was her relationship with her stepsister, Claire. When Mary eloped with Shelley she was only sixteen, and he was already married with a child and one on the way. Unaccountably, they took Claire with them, and she was part of their household, their ménage, as the scandal went, until Shelley’s death. During the nine turbulent years Mary and Shelley were together, Claire was the ever-present third, whose manipulative behaviour often drove Mary to despair, especially as Claire also loved Shelley.
I deliberately used the novel form to explore the emotional truth of this relationship and it’s effect on Mary’s life. It seemed to pervade every aspect of the scandals, deaths, tortured relationships, loves and losses that pursued her and Shelley. I also found enormous depth to Mary’s character as a teenage rebel, grieving mother, determined author, and long suffering lover of a man well ahead of his time.
One of the many difficulties created by Claire was her seduction of Lord Byron, and her pregnancy by him. This excerpt is from the moment when Claire reveals her pregnancy to Mary and Shelley, when they are staying next to Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva – which is where Frankenstein was also conceived….
It was two a.m. before Shelley, Mary and Claire wound their way down the rocky path to Maison Chapuis, their little cottage on the lakeside, wrapped in blankets against the night chill. Byron’s Villa Diodati stood high above the lake, its three stories commanding a magnificent view but vulnerable to the icy winds of the past weeks. Maison Chapuis, because it was lower down on the lakeshore and surrounded by trees, was more sheltered, and they reached their porch with relief. Claire had not tried to hang back to be alone with Byron as she so often did, and he had made no attempt to detain her The rain had made the short descent to the cottage treacherous and they arrived cold and dishevelled. Claire took off her shoes by the door, the thin white leather and velvet trim clogged with mud. ‘Ugh. These are ruined. I hate this weather.’ She pulled on some slippers and tried to brush the dirt off the hem of her skirt. Mary went to check on William, who had been brought back earlier and put to bed by the nurse, Elise. Claire drew Shelley into his study. ‘I need to talk to you. I’m pregnant,’ she said, unceremoniously. Shelley staggered slightly, then managed a weak smile. ‘That’s wonderful, Claire. And Byron ... is the father?’ He tried to keep the question out of his voice, but failed enough for Claire to step up close and poke him disgustedly in the chest. ‘You, of all people, should know that it could only be his.' ‘We must tell him. Have you told Mary?’ As he said this, Mary came in, looking between the two, suspicious. ‘What is it?’ Shelley told her, while Claire went to face out of the window, looking for light in the darkness, keeping her back to them. Mary pulled Shelley to the far corner of the room and exploded, hissing into his ear. ‘Oh yes, now she has it all. She has achieved her ambition to be just like me. She has the poet, and now the poet’s child.’ Her voice got louder, so that it became audible to Claire. ‘Except that it won’t be that poet,‘ — pointing back up towards the Villa Diodati — ‘who takes responsibility for it, I’m sure of that,’ she rasped. ‘It will be this poet.’ His already dishevelled shirt suffered another poke. ‘The drain on our limited resources will not just be for my stepsister, as it is now, but for my stepsister’s child as well, who everyone will say is yours, and our lives will be even more complicated and hateful.’From the window came the sob of someone who was not prepared to allow herself to sob. Or someone who knows that a restrained sob can be more wrenching than an overt one. ‘She is right in one thing,’ said Claire, turning to face them. ‘Albe won’t want anything to do with the child, because he no longer wants anything to do with me. I will go away. I’ll go to ... I don’t know, Russia, and earn my living as a governess, and leave the baby with a nursemaid. I don’t want to be any more of a drain on you, Shelley, and I don’t want to face Mama back in London. It was bad enough me refusing to go back home after running away with you both. This would kill her, and yes, she and everyone else will assume it’s yours. What a mess! Ten minutes of happy passion, and it discomposes the rest of your life.’ Shelley looked at Mary, worry and appeal distorting his features. He was choosing to ignore her bitter and vindictive explosion. In a situation like this, she was resigned to knowing that compassion would be his strongest emotion. This man who could not comfortably walk past a beggar without tossing a coin, who sought out orphans to subsidise, this man could only see distress, not justice. Yet again I must maintain the image of Mary that he has constructed, she thought tiredly, the calm and in control Mary who can soothe her distraught stepsister, hiding the angry and insecure Mary who more often finds her stepsister selfish and manipulative.So she went to Claire and enfolded her, while Claire stared piteously at Shelley over her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Claire, it was a shock. We will look after you, of course, and Shelley will talk to Albe for you.’ Mary was conciliatory and Shelley nodded, vigorously.‘We will demand that he acknowledges the child and takes responsibility for it,’ he said firmly. ‘But he will not acknowledge me, so how is that to be managed? He has already said he wants me to leave.’ Mary was also wondering just how Byron was to be made to take responsibility for Claire’s child. He would feel no compassion for Claire and would need to be assured that the child was his. Perhaps he could be appealed to as a potential father, since Lady Byron never allowed him to see his legitimate child. Perhaps he would do it out of friendship for Shelley. Shelley would be prepared to support Claire and her baby as much as he could, but, as things stood, his father barely gave him a decent allowance, and if he were thought to be responsible for a child by yet another woman he would be completely disowned. ‘Not, of course that I would ever want to be married. Hateful institution,’ Claire went on, defiantly. Mary felt the surging hatred of Claire that ebbed and flowed, but whose peaks had become continually higher since they had allowed her to come with them when they eloped, two years ago. Shelley had adopted responsibility for her, since he and Mary were supposedly at fault in Claire’s tumble from the rickety heights of respectability, but Mary constantly worried that it was not only duty that drove him. She saw that Shelley was drawn to Claire’s freethinking attitudes, which were more extremely liberal and careless of what society thought than her own. It unsettled Mary that Claire knew her secret, that her true nature was essentially modest and conservative. And Claire knew just how to use that knowledge. Since Mary had first met Shelley in the St. Pancras churchyard, in North London, she had learnt to share many of his passions and admired him for those she could not quite endorse. The problem was that he expected her, the daughter of two radical thinkers, to lead him in liberality, while in reality she felt she was desperately trying to keep pace. With Claire always on her heels, threatening to overtake and overcome.
Note From the Author
I have an honours degree in Sociology with a major in Literature and a Trinity College London Licentiate in Effective Communication. My day job is as a social and market researcher. My projects involve understanding the behaviour and motivation of a wide range of people in many different contexts often conducting interviews and focus groups where dialogue is a major contributor to understanding. I've tried to make good use of that insight in my writing. I have previously only published short stories, poetry and academic papers on research. This is my first novel.
An underlying thread of Almost Invincible is Mary’s damaging relationship with her stepsister, Claire and this sparked my curiosity and snowballed into an obsessive four years research.
Amongst the volumes of extant information and many biographies, I glimpsed a Mary who was a teenage rebel, a grieving mother, a determined author and a long suffering lover of a man well ahead of his time. It made me want to tell her story.
The research has been extensive and the book is factually based, but tries to fill in the emotions, conversations, and some of the mysteries surrounding her life. Finding Mary has taken me to many of the places which were important to her life, and to libraries around the world.
"This book is a terrific read. I have bought numerous copies as gifts for family and friends." - Wendy Cox
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