A Fatal Likeness
1850/1816 London. One man, four women. The man is Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The adolescent women who protect him at all costs are the interrelated Fanny Godwin Imlay; Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook; his second wife, Mary Godwin Shelley; and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Lord Byron is here, too, as the natural father of Claire Clairmont’s baby.
The fictional protagonist, Charles Maddox, carries the weight of this disquieting tale. Summoned by Shelley’s son in the fall of 1850, our Charles, who is a private detective, agrees to investigate the “stranger” who claims to possess papers that will reveal the late poet’s secrets to the world. These secrets propel Charles through this complex story of suicide, deceit, lies, accusations, and breathtaking meanness. What is true? Who betrayed whom? What terrible truths may be revealed that has the acclaimed author of Frankenstein, Mary Godwin Shelley, determined to quash them in order to protect her husband’s reputation and, quite likely, hers, as well?
Childlike, prone to horrific dreams, Shelley is eccentric and a raving madman on occasion. Employing an omniscient viewpoint that allows her to step out of the story and interpret events from time to time (from as far away as the 21st century, which I found jarring), Shepherd deftly peels away the layers of Shelley’s disturbing world. Incriminating papers are burned, children die or go missing, the guilty go unpunished. Even Charles Maddox falls from grace as he judges those around him and finds them lacking while remaining blissfully unaware of his own shortcomings. A fatal likeness, indeed. Despite its unsettling underpinnings, the writing in this work is glorious, and I recommend it highly.
The book contains a genealogy with comments on the interwoven Shelley and Godwin families and extensive author’s notes.