Review of A Treacherous Likeness

Posted by jillwilson on May 03, 2013 in Blog, Jill Wilson, Reviews tagged with ,

Review: Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness (Corsair, 2013)

*Some Spoilers*

Few can dispute the fascinating and mysterious nature of the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. Lynn Shepherd’s new novel, A Treacherous Likeness is a wonderfully Gothic and thrilling attempt to understand the silences and gaps surrounding the Shelleys that history fails to provide for. Her third novel, following her style of historical detective fiction, delves even deeper into the realms of both biographical truth and literary license, as Shepherd re-imagines and exposes some of the secrets that history, and the Shelleys themselves, attempted to bury.

The novel follows Charles Maddox, a young detective in London, commissioned to investigate a potential blackmail threat to Mary Shelley, her son Sir Percy Shelley and his wife. Long had the Shelleys sought to privatise their lives, and their curious past, and action must be taken to prevent the emergence of the truth and the potential publication of their dark and enigmatic history. Maddox, however, unintentionally finds himself entangled in the numerous webs of deception, secrecy and mystery spun by the Shelleys, unaware of the vastness of his investigative undertaking, and the close proximity of their past to his own personal life.

Shepherd takes on the challenge of addressing many of the unanswered questions and scandalous gaps in history, in a very interesting and evocative manner. Ranging from Shelley’s claim that someone tried to murder him in North Wales in February 1813, the tragic death of his first wife Harriet Shelley and the seemingly horrific luck regarding Percy and Mary’s children; Shepherd offers an insightful and persuasive re-imagining of the Shelley story, and she seeks to offer the answers that history has failed to provide, whether down to lack of evidence or a more sinister cloaking of the truth.

The novel is thrilling, fast-paced and extremely interesting, fruitful with Gothic characters and settings, and demonstrates excellently the vast amount of both historical and biographical research that Shepherd undertook in the writing of the novel. Not only does A Treacherous Likeness feature an engaging level of historical accuracy, but also an excellent representation of notable figures such as William Godwin, Claire Clairemont, and many other characters intertwined in the Shelley’s history. Shepherd also seeks to investigate further the figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley himself, offering her own psychological insight into his erratic and infamous personality. As the novel unravels, it is clear that Shelley found himself drowning in his own radical ideals of life and love, embroiled with numerous wives and lovers, illegitimate children, murder and suicide; and it is this representation of Shelley that I found most intriguing and gripping.

However, it is Shepherd’s portrayal of Mary Shelley that could be described as most controversial. Thanks to her free-thinking parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary was understandably a confident and educated young woman. Shepherd demonstrates this wonderfully, yet elaborates further, as she portrays Mary as a cold-hearted, selfish and psychologically damaged woman. Along with the doubt surrounding the true authorship of Frankenstein, Shepherd attempts to examine the involvement of Mary in the suicide of Harriet Shelley, and the relationship she had with Percy and her family. Perhaps most controversial, and potentially to the dismay of Mary Shelley fans, is her account of the deaths of the Shelley children. It is here that you can personally decide for yourself what you believe about Mary Shelley’s life, her marriage and the fate of her children; all thanks to the imaginative workings of Shepherd and the wonderfully deep historical context she plants them in.

Overall, the novel is a rich, successful attempt at weaving a highly-imaginative narrative through historical fact. Mystery, secrecy and thrills are in abundance as the story unravels, leaving you turning the pages eagerly, ever in pursuit of the truth, through a fantastic variety of fictional letters and accounts. Shepherd’s historical research gives this novel the kick it really needs, and I felt her own personal opinion was interesting, brave and extremely throught-provoking. This is a great novel that deserves a read, particularly if you’re interested in the young Romantics, and the ever-mysterious lives of the infamous, and fantastic, Shelleys.

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