A Fatal Likeness
“. . . an overwhelming story of love in its darkest moments.”
What a tangled web we weave . . .
When his uncle suffers a stroke, thieftaker Charles Maddox takes over his current assignment and is hired by Sir Percy Shelley, son of the poet, to recover papers written by his mother. As the nobleman explains:
“. . . in the early years of her marriage, Madre spent a good deal of her time travelling . . . It was unfortunate therefore, but perhaps inevitable, that papers would sometimes go astray or be left behind, and some of those have since fallen into unscrupulous hands . . .”
Thus Charles embarks upon the tangled web composing the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and those with whom he associated. When he meets the owner of the documents, he learns she is Claire Claremont, stepsister of Mary Wollestonecroft Shelley. Soon he finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom of controversy, contradiction, and accusation as well as irrefutable facts concerning the association of Claire, Mary, and Shelley.
“Claire Claremont is the only person left alive other than Mary Shelley herself who knows the truth . . .”
Rather than basing his investigation on the common gossip of the time, however, Maddox delves into the past, uncovering half-truths and innuendos, accusations of child-murder and women driven to suicide, of sexual abandon and sexual duress, of desperate acts committed to control loved ones, and so much controversy it’s difficult for even the investigator to determine the guilty from the innocent . . . if there are any.
“I just don’t believe it’s as simple as that . . . but you know as well as I do that he would never have written those words if he wasn’t sure of what he was saying. Even if he didn’t have the proof necessary to make an accusation in public.”
The story centers on the relationship between Clair, Mary, and Shelley. Lord Byron appears merely in passing, almost an onlooker waiting to be seduced by Claire.
Maddox’s personal life is interspersed through the story, but seems a mere aside when compared to the enormity of the relationship between the three that he uncovers, as if simply to show his singlemindedness in ignoring what is going on around him.
There’s a mention of the so-called “Gothic Summer.” Though many stories abound of what went on, Maddox soon realizes none of them come near the truth. It’s soon obvious obtaining Claire’s papers is the least of the Shelleys’ worries. The dispute over the actual authorship of Frankenstein, and even the plot of the novel relate to the mysteries involving the poet’s private life.
“But you claim he wrote the tale, not her—”
“And remember when he wrote it, Mr. Maddox! . . .”
“So that’s what you meant—when you wrote of Frankenstein as a man tormented by the abominable crime he believes he has committed—”
In this novel, Shelley is depicted as a manic-depressive hysteric, a man unrestrained by moral urges while at the same time so childlike as to not realize his own seductive power “. . . this strange, tortured child . . . taken for a youth of seventeen when he was at least ten years older . . . gauche and untidy as a boy half his age . . .”
Mary is likewise diametrically opposed in her emotions, a woman ready to sacrifice even her own children for control of her lover and husband.
“Even if she has long since excused that terrible deed as unwitting and unintended—she knows the cold rude world she dreads so much will not be so unforgiving. . . Not content with poisoning the last months of Shelley’s life with her coldness and reserve, she now forsakes even his memory . . .”
Claire may or may not be the least guilty or innocent of the three.
“. . . Claire’s very presence . . . may have been a retribution designed by fate purposely to torment her.”
As for the other players in the drama, anyone associating with this trio appears to have been touched by their madness for the worse,“. . . even if no blow was struck, no poison administered, no weapon ever wielded . . .”
It’s a dramatic, dark story of people infamous in their own time, famous in ours, some fact, some supposition, some the author’s own flair for the dramatic. Ms. Shepherd has penned the story of a man who may have been guilty of horrendous crimes, if only in his own mind. All in all A Fatal Likeness is an overwhelming narrative of love in its darkest moments, of a man “fated to bring death on all those unfortunate enough to come within his sphere . . . whether it is his intention or not,” while now being considered one of its most notable poets.