The Nightmare: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft

Written by Nancy Means Wright
Review by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft has just published her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and is active with the men and women of intellectual London. This crowd includes erotic painter Henry Fuseli, with whom Mary is obsessed. When Fuseli’s masterpiece, The Nightmare, is stolen, Fuseli blames minor artist Roger Peale and has him arrested. Mary doubts Peale’s guilt, and Peale’s fiancée turns to Mary for help, but Mary’s obsession with Fuseli hampers her ability to think straight. When fellow intellectual and bluestocking Isobel Frothingham is murdered, her dead body arranged in The Nightmare’s tableau and found by Mary’s maid, Mary wonders if there is a connection between the theft and the murder.

Wright captures the character of intellectual London brilliantly. These writers, artists, and French revolutionaries are passionate idealists, but they lack common sense. With their heads in the clouds trying to unravel the grand philosophical knots plaguing mankind, they stumble into the mud puddles at their feet. Obsessed with trying to change her sexual attraction to Fuseli into an intellectual ideal, Mary hardly pays any mind to the crimes of the story, making her a bizarre yet intriguing sleuth. When she helps to solve the mystery, it is almost as an afterthought: save France from its corrupt royalty, demand equal rights for women, discover murderer, and avoid being killed…

Devotees to the murder mystery genre might be frustrated by the lack of focus characters show to solving the crimes, yet I found Mary’s scatterbrained intellectualism charming. I appreciate Wright’s ability to model her fictional Mary Wollstonecraft with the clay of the historical person, keeping her personality and foibles and not pretending that when faced with a murder she would suddenly become Sherlock Holmes.