English author Mary Shelley is the subject of Kathleen W. Renk’s latest novel, Vindicated. Throughout much of history, Mary has been obscured by what poet Leigh Hunt termed her “four fames,” referring to: her famous radical feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft; her famous father, novelist and philosopher William Godwin; her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Frankenstein, a monstrous creation presented in her 1818 novel.
Kathleen Renk’s novel begins with alternating journal entries in the voices of Mary Shelley’s mother and father that shed a bit of back story at the time of baby Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s birth in 1797. Two months later, Mary’s mother dies and shortly thereafter her father remarries Mary Jane Clairemont.
Ms. Renk masterfully sustains a believable voice and suitable style of writing while revealing Mary’s most private thoughts throughout the rest of the novel. Having been encouraged to read everything her mother wrote, Mary finds that she, like her mother, is acutely aware of women’s oppression, and the lack of equal opportunities for women–so much so that when she marries Percy, she refuses to agree to “thou shalt obey thy husband” and “the vicar agreed to exempt us from that part of the vows.”
She remained steadfast through several doubtful and depressing periods in her marriage that included children’s deaths, flirtations, and extreme poverty. Later, Mary’s spirits are lifted by traveling with her husband and writing about places that most readers of the time were not able to experience.
Visiting her mother’s grave, Mary feels support in imagined conversations. She wonders why her birth had to result in the death of a mother she would never know, except through her writings.
At Eton, Mary accompanies Percy to witness galvanic experiments on dead bodies using electricity. Watching limbs pulse with lifelike twitches, Mary pondered: “If you can reanimate a body, can you animate a soul?” Samuel Coleridge pondered the idea of loving “the hideous and the unlovable.” This idea may have been circulating in Mary Shelley’s mind as she contemplated her Frankenstein story.
The novel Frankenstein started with a story writing contest in 1816 among a small group of writers assembled at Lake Geneva. While there, Mary had a nightmare in which she saw a “fair and beautiful creature” stitched together by a creator who looked much like her husband Shelley. As Shelley applied electrical nodes to an otherwise lifeless heart, the creature jerked to life. While writing, the creation took over, and before long she’d pieced together a story about a being whose body could overcome death and whose soul was capable of resorting to evil.
This novel, rich in historical details that don’t overload, is presented in an interesting format by a talented writer. While Percy Shelley and Lord Byron lived interesting lives cavorting with other writers, poets, and dreamers, Ms. Renk brings us Mary Shelley unbound, in a simple, refreshing, literary mode that helps the reader get a sense of who she was.
You’ll simply have to read the story to see if Mary ever was vindicated and if so, by whom, and for what?