Shelley and the Unknown Lady

Written by Lona Manning
Review by Carrie Callaghan

Mary Bertram is young, ambitious, and bored in her loveless marriage when she checks herself into a hotel in Tuscany in 1818. Separated from her husband, on a whim she registers under her maiden name and, in doing so, seems to take an unconscious vow to enjoy herself.

Mary’s fortune takes a good turn when she discovers a handsome, naked young man in the forest one day. She quickly falls into a passionate affair with him, and he declares she is the muse his stalled poetry has lacked. He, Percy Bysshe Shelley, feels misunderstood by a world that scorns his atheism and underestimates his genius.

The pair fall into an enchanted interlude, relishing the natural beauties of a Tuscan summer and reveling in the torrent of poetry that their affection has loosened in Shelley. But Mary, ever convinced the world has a great destiny in store for her, remains set upon shaping Shelley into a great public poet, at which point she can take her place as his wife.

However, Shelley’s marital affairs, as the reader knows, are not so simple. As the author notes, Shelley’s poetry and the reports of his contemporaries suggest he may have had an affair with a mysterious woman. Lona Manning has researched her subject well and found where the cracks in the historical record allow for a plausible story. Mary is a prickly protagonist, and sometimes the plot lags, but this is a vivid portrayal of a poet and a time.