A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd
18th Feb 2013
Lynn Shepherd is an Oxford-based author of ‘literary mysteries…one part literary fiction, to one part mystery and crime.’ Her latest novel, A Treacherous Likeness, is set in 1850, but harks back to the age of the Romantic Poets.
Shepherd’s début, Murder at Mansfield Park, explored the darker side of Jane Austen. Her second offering, Tom All-Alone’s, based on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, introduced the dashing ‘thief-taker’, Charles Maddox, who returns in A Treacherous Likeness.
Formerly a policeman, Charles is now living in London with his Great-Uncle, a once-renowned detective. Maddox (senior) has suffered a nervous collapse after being contacted by the son and daughter-in-law of novelist Mary Shelley and her deceased husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sent to spy on Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, Charles discovers an altogether darker version of the esteemed literary family’s history, with many troubling secrets. Once the lover of Lord Byron, Claire has often been dismissed by biographers and critics as a hanger-on.
Shepherd reconstructs the fabled night at Lake Geneva, in 1816, when the Shelleys, along with Lord Byron, told each other ghost stories...In Shepherd’s hands, however, Claire is somewhat redeemed as a strong, independent woman, if not always moral in the traditional sense. The myth of the Romantic poets is dissected, and Shepherd reconstructs the fabled night at Lake Geneva, in 1816, when the Shelleys, along with Lord Byron, told each other ghost stories.
Famously, Mary awoke the next morning with an idea that would form the basis of her Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein. Shepherd also explores why Shelley had become so disturbed the previous evening, and her conclusions are unsettling.
Shepherd’s depiction of Mary is not, overall, a flattering one. The daughter of philosopher William Godwin and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, young Mary was led to believe herself ‘the world’s darling’ (or so we are told.)
The liberated lifestyle espoused by Shelley and Byron was not all plain sailing, particularly for the women in their lives. Mary suffered several miscarriages, while Claire’s daughter died in infancy.
Shelley, too, is portrayed rather harshly. All his worst traits are highlighted – his tangled affairs and emotional instability – and the result is a rather shrill, fey character. (It’s hard to reconcile, from this account, how he could have produced some of the most imaginative poetry and radical thought of the age.)
The suicides of Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s abandoned first wife, and Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay (also, allegedly, infatuated with Shelley), are shown sympathetically, but they still come across as minor players.
However, the central action takes place in mid-Victorian England, a far more staid setting than the post-Napoleonic Europe traversed by the Shelleys in their youth. The real-life characters are seen through the prism of letters and diaries, while the major protagonist is Charles – and while no prude, he clearly disapproves of their Bohemian ways.
A Treacherous Likeness is upmarket genre fiction on a literary topic. Shepherd’s omniscient narration, and her tantalising plot devices, resemble Victorian detective novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.
Occasionally, Shepherd interpolates a 21st century perspective – including new literary findings and psychological theories – into the story, and interestingly, her conclusions are broadly similar to Maddox’s. Her research is well-documented, though ardent fans of the Shelleys may find some of her opinions hard to swallow.
Recommended: For readers of historical mysteries, and those with an interest in the Romantic poets.
Other Recommended Reading: Passion, Jude Morgan’s epic novel of Shelley, Byron and the women who loved them; Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics; and Kate Williams’ Victorian-style thriller, The Pleasures of Men.