Whose Mary Is It Anyway? Anne Eekhout on Fictionalizing Mary Shelley
"If I do my job well, it will ring true."
She has become my Mary. This is something I’ve repeated in interviews since my novel about the teenage years of Mary Shelley was first published (in 2021 in The Netherlands, where I’m from). And I meant it too, although at the time I hadn’t really considered it before. But it rang true.
I never set out to write a historical novel. I never felt particularly attracted to writing a novel about something that—more or les—actually happened. I love fiction, by which I mean pure fiction. I believe it can tell us more about the truth than a depiction of true events can. But what happens if you create a story about someone who actually existed?
When I started writing Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein I sometimes felt burdened by the truth, or “truth” as we think we know it. And we do know a lot about Mary Shelley’s life. She kept a journal for most of it, and wrote countless letters to friends and family while others wrote about her as well. All these journals and letters have remained preserved for over two centuries; biographers can paint a rather detailed picture of her life. Still, Shelley is hard to know. As was custom in those days—the beginning of the nineteenth century—people were not, at least on paper, very forthcoming about their emotions. So we know what she did and liked, whom she met and knew, where she went and stayed, what she read and which plays she attended, but we only get tiny hints of her true feelings in all this.
When her baby girl dies, just weeks after being born, Shelley, then seventeen years old, notes in her journal: ‘Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg [a friend]. Talk. A miserable day.’ A week later she writes: ‘Stay at home; net, and think of my little dead baby. This is foolish, I suppose: yet, whenever I am left alone to my own thoughts, and do not read to divert them, they always come back to the same point—that I was a mother, and am so no longer.’ And that’s about it.
And when annoyed with her stepsister Claire Clairmont, for always being there, getting it on with Mary’s free-loving-poet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, she alludes to it and seems very hesitant to express her true emotions.
So, if we know so little about her inner life, are we free to imagine it? It took me half a novel to get there, but I would say we are. And we should. It is our job, as human beings, to create truthful art, and by that I mean art that comes from deep within. It is our job to create, whatever monsters may be born from it. We can and should make anything from anything, from nothing even, without thinking twice. Just as long as you feel you are telling the truth within you.
Is this Mary I have written the real Mary Shelley? Well, yes and no. I think bits and pieces of her are quite accurate. I was thorough in my research, so that most of what I have written about her stay at Lake Geneva in 1816, more or less occurred the way I described it. But aren’t we all elusive, to a certain extent? Hidden even from ourselves? When we imagine ourselves at the center of a hypothetical, a contrived scenario, can we confidently predict how we’d react, how we’d feel? It depends on so many things and one day is never the same as the next.She has become my Mary.
While we know a lot about Mary’s life, there are still important pieces missing. As frustrating as that might seem to a historian, for a novelist it is a treasure trove, for we work with a different kind of truth. The facts as we know them are these: in 1812 and again in 1813, when Mary Shelley was 14 and 15 years old (and still called Mary Godwin), she travelled to Dundee, Scotland to get away from her stepmother and to seek clean air to recover from a skin ailment. We know that she stayed with the Baxter family, acquaintances of her father. There she met 17-year-old Isabella, and they felt attracted to each other, at least emotionally. It has been suggested that their relationship may have been more than just platonic and this idea struck a chord with me. In my story, this—again—rang true.
Beyond that, we don’t know much of her stay in Scotland. The journal entries over that period have gone missing. Were they lost? Destroyed? And if so, by who? It made me wonder and highlighted the gaps in history I wanted to fill in with my own imagination. A writer of fiction must be free. I truly believe that in every sense of the word. There is no such thing as limiting yourself when writing. If so, you’re not doing it right. You should drag every inch of truth within yourself to the paper, because it is your story, whomever you are writing about. And if you are doing it well, it tells a different truth. But a truth nonetheless.
It doesn’t matter if I portrayed Mary Shelley exactly as she was, if that’s even possible. As a novelist I could have written that Shelley was a murderess, a thief or a wizard, if that’s what it took to convey my truth. If I do my job well, it will ring true. And isn’t that the beauty of fiction? The beauty of writing as well as reading? To be able to open up worlds beyond our own. To imagine a life other than your own. Reading fiction will not only make you smarter and more empathetic, it will also transform you, bit by bit, book by book.
Does that mean that this book has no ‘historical facts’ at all? Au contraire. The fun thing, I think, is that it’s a jumble of true events and fiction, of accurate depictions and imagination. A bit, I would like to think, as Shelley herself would have liked it. Because she knew like no other that imagination takes us further, raises us higher. Imagination gets us to the truth of life.
Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, is available from HarperVia.