Kathleen Williams Renk Recreates the Inner World of Mary Shelley
In Conversation with C.P. Lesley on the New Books Network Podcast
Mary Godwin Shelley had yet to reach her nineteenth birthday when she had the dream that gave rise to the classic Gothic horror tale Frankenstein. The daughter of a dissenting English clergyman and Britain’s first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin lost her mother not long after her birth. After an unconventional upbringing by the standards of late 18th-century Europe, followed by the arrival of a very conventional and far from accommodating stepmother, at the age of fourteen, Mary fell madly in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later, they eloped to Europe, leaving behind Percy’s wife and child but bringing along Mary’s stepsister, Claire.
For the next decade, the trio traveled around the continent—especially France, Switzerland, and Italy—with occasional returns to London to secure funds. Through trips over the Alps by mule, sailing expeditions on Lake Como, and wild parties thrown by Lord Byron—a misogynist who belittles Mary’s talents even as he engages in a wild affair with Claire—Mary records in her journal the events and experiences that will blossom into her first and best-known novel.
In Vindicated (Cuidono Press, 2020) Kathleen Williams Renk recreates Mary’s inner world. Her crisp, utterly compelling prose brings to life a woman whose creation, as in the novel Frankenstein itself, has taken on a life of its own, eclipsing its creator.
CPL: What made you want to tell Mary Shelley’s story?
KWR: When I started writing Vindicated, I wrote about the moment of Mary Shelley’s birth and the strange circumstances of her birth: the fact that her mother was this famous—and somewhat infamous—woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of septicemia (blood poisoning) and of a retained placenta 11 days after Mary was born. Oddly, the physicians who were attending the birth brought in puppies to nurse Mary Wollstonecraft instead of bringing her child in, and that was the strangest thing. I had been a nurse in labor and delivery, and it sounded really odd. But after I wrote that prologue, I read a biography of Mary Shelley and found out that she was so much more than the author of Frankenstein.
CPL: Why does Mary begin keeping a journal, which becomes the frame of your novel?
KWR: In real life, Mary and Percy kept one together until Percy stopped writing his. In my novel, Mary thinks that what her father wrote about her mother was secondhand knowledge, because he never witnessed any of it. She wants people to know what she thought—that if she were ever to become famous, she would want her own words recording her own life. That’s how she begins her journal.
CPL: Mary meets Percy Shelley in January 1811, when she is fourteen. I learned from your book that there was much more to Shelley than poetry. Tell us about him, independently of Mary.
KWR: He was an absolute bad boy, a rebel. He had a scandalous reputation. By the time he met Mary, he had been expelled from University College Oxford because he wrote, with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a pamphlet on the necessity of atheism. That enraged Shelley’s father, who was a member of Parliament and expected Shelley to follow in his footsteps, but Shelley was not going to do that. The father withheld Shelley’s allowance, but that didn’t stop Shelley. He traveled to Dublin in the winter of 1812, all in support of this idea that he was going to aid the Irish in their pursuit of a Catholic emancipation and repeal of the penal laws that forbade Catholics from receiving an education, owning land, and a lot of other things. But he failed in his political work in Ireland. He was only there for about four months. After that, he stopped writing political tracts and began writing poetry—“Queen Mab”—and now he’s known as one of the great Romantic poets. That’s really to Mary’s credit: she redeemed his reputation, gathered his poems together after he died, and had them published.
CPL: While Mary is still sixteen, she and Shelley begin an affair, then run away to Europe. Her stepsister Claire goes with them and soon falls hard for Lord Byron. What—from a literary rather than a historical perspective (because this liaison did happen and produced a daughter)—does this subplot contribute to your story?
KWR: In the novel, it’s a foil for the relationship between Mary and Shelley, because Claire is adamant about being with Byron, and she sees in Byron what she wanted in Shelley. But because the relationship between Claire and Byron is so testy—where they have frequent rows, and they never marry, and he did all kind of terrible things to their daughter, like changing her name and not taking good care of her, so the child dies—they have no real connection to one another. Whereas Mary and Percy—even though Percy was, I believe, most likely unfaithful to Mary on more than one occasion—really, truly cared deeply about one another.
CPL: What would you like people to take away from Vindicated?
KWR: My aim overall was to show that Mary Shelley was a product of both her mother and her father, and that she became a philosopher as her father had wanted her to be. I also want readers to take away the idea that she was a woman who lived by her pen: after Percy died, she wrote several other novels, became a translator, and was able to work despite all the grief that she experienced. Within seven years, she lost six people who were important to her, but despite that, her work was an antidote to her grief. And that’s one of the important things we all need to learn: you can experience great suffering, but oftentimes art will help you combat it.
Kathleen Williams Renk, professor emerita of British literature at Northern Illinois University, is the author of Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley and many nonfiction works.
C. P. Lesley is the author of ten novels, including Legends of the Five Directions, a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. Her next book, Song of the Sisters, will appear in January 2021. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.