The Friday Slot - Lynn Shepherd, author

I've just recently reviewed Lynn Shepherd's superb new novel, A Treacherous Likeness, for The Herald, and I enjoyed it so much, I decided to ask Lynn for an interview for a bit more insight into it. It follows the investigations of a nineteenth-century detective, Charles Maddox, who has been asked by the son of the late poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to stop his mother's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, from selling or making public letters his father may have written to her.

It's a fascinating story partly because so much of it is grounded in the real lives of these real individuals - Percy Shelley and his controlling wife, Jane, spark off the narrative, but an extremely alluring Claire Clairmont and the appropriately enigmatic Mary Shelley help anchor the story, too. As the fictional Maddox proceeds with his investigations, he is drawn into the Shelley story, to the mysterious death of Shelley's first wife, Harriet and the tragic suicide of Mary's half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who reputedly killed herself over unrequited love of Shelley.

Lynn's first novel was Murder at Mansfield Park, published in 2010, and she followed that with Tom All-Alone's (Corsair), which introduced us to her detective, Charles Maddox, by way of Bleak House and The Woman in White. 'Gripping' was the word reviews and academics used to describe it and Joan Smith in the Sunday Times called it a "terrific Victorian mystery". Lynn's vast research, though, shouldn't go without a mention, and it's the same with this new title.

I thought she would be the prefect candidate then, to start off a new series of interviews with writers who have fictionalised real people, to ask about the particular joys and difficulties of this kind of fiction. It's also motivated by self-interest - I've just finished a novel that touches on people the Shelleys knew, too, which should be published at the end of this year. I was curious to know how Lynn had managed the process, and here she is with some wonderful answers to my questions:      

LM: I'd like to start off by asking you about the particular difficulties, and particular joys, of writing about a real-life figure. In your latest book, A Treacherous Likeness, you have several real-life figures from the Shelley circle: Shelley himself, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Harriet Shelley, Fanny Godwin, Sir Percy Shelley and so on. Were there particular things about those characters and how they lived their lives that made your job as a novelist harder or even perhaps easier?

LS: Where the Shelley circle is concerned, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches! They lived such extraordinarily complex and tangled lives that sometimes the truth sounds more incredible than my fiction could ever make it. In fact, a few people who’ve read A Treacherous Likeness without knowing the background have wondered whether I was making up melodrama, only to find from the notes at the back that the events they had been deliberating about had really happened!
I’ve never worked with historical figures before, and it was an immense technical challenge. Bringing in another writer’s characters (as I did with Dickens in Tom-All-Alone’s) was much easier by comparison, because I could incorporate those in Bleak House which I wanted, and leave behind those I didn’t. I could even make up my own ‘back stories’ in some cases, most notably the mysterious past I give to Mr Tulkinghorn, but in A Treacherous Likeness, it was very different. There I was working with real people, and real events, and I couldn’t – or wouldn’t allow myself to – play fast and loose with the facts. Some historical novels do that, of course, and TV and film is usually even looser (step forward Mel Gibson and Braveheart, for one), but my academic background meant that if I was going to do it at all, I was going to do it properly.
It matters a great deal to me that my books should work both for readers who know nothing of the background, and for real experts. I was particularly thrilled – as you can imagine – that Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley’s biographer, has called A Treacherous Likeness “marvellously persuasive” and that my use of my research material is “really magnificent”.

LM: You have a very important theory about Mary Shelley that really anchors the investigation that your detective, Charles Maddox, embarks upon. Were you ever tempted to write this book as non- fiction rather than fiction? Do you think we take theories more seriously when they're part of non-fiction? I'm thinking especially of Claire Tomalin's view of Katherine Mansfield that she contracted gonorrhoea which contributed to her ill-health. It's not proven but works strongly in a biography. If she'd used that in a novel, would we have paid so much attention?

LS: Yes, the Mary Shelley theory is an interesting case in point! If this book were non-fiction, then the entire PR campaign would be built around ‘shocking new revelations about the author of Frankenstein’. But because it’s fiction the emphasis is rather different, and in any case, for purely practical reasons I can’t talk about it in detail because it’s part of the big dénouement at the end, and I don’t want to spoil the story. Though based on my research, I do actually think that my theory about this particular issue is extremely plausible. Readers can find out more about how I came to that conclusion in the notes at the end, but I’m personally convinced that I have lighted on the truth here – that the evidence that still exists really does appear to support it.
I know exactly what you mean about non-fiction having more ‘heft’ and influence than fiction, but the great advantage fiction has is that you can speculate, and you can present possible alternatives. It will be really interesting to see if future biographers take my theory on, and explore it in non-fiction.

LM: The Shelley circle were all very prolific, leaving lots of letters and diaries for posterity – a great thing for a biographer, but how helpful were they to you as a novelist? Do they circumscribe the characters too much for you, or do you think they get you closer to a more psychologically true picture?
LS: I found the letters and journals fascinating, as much for what they don’t say, as for what they do. Mary Shelley, in particular, is often an extremely unreliable narrator, even in the privacy of her own journal, though to add to the complexity here, Mary and Shelley often wrote in the same book, so she was also writing for his eyes, as well as her own, making the idea of ‘privacy’ a particularly vexed question in her case. That may perhaps explain why the version of events she records in her journal is sometimes an extremely curtailed or even downright partial version of the truth.
She also uses symbols which function as a sort of private code, and in many cases we still don’t know what they mean - a ‘crescent moon’ symbol, for example, might be her way of denoting her step-sister Claire Clairmont in a way which would not be intelligible to Shelley. One particularly strange annotation was the inspiration for one of the major episodes in my story: on 14th January 1815, a few weeks before the birth and sudden death of her first baby, Mary’s journal reads (LM: apologies for the bad recreation of this entry, my fault!!)

                                                                Shelley and Clary out all day
                                                                Forget ------_________

The other issue with the Shelleys’ journals is how much material has been lost. At certain points quite large sections have been deliberately removed, either by the Shelleys themselves, or by someone else, the most obvious candidate being their daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley. More than 30 years after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death she began a wholesale rehabilitation of the poet’s reputation, in an attempt to sanitise him for a more squeamish age, and she appears to have had no qualms about destroying ‘inconvenient’ documents or even conniving in forgeries.
All of which is a very long way of answering your question! The shorter answer is yes, I did find the letters and journals useful, and I never found them in the slightest degree inhibiting to my own imagination. Shelley’s letters, in particular, gave me a very strong sense both of his mercurial personality and his ferocious intelligence.

LM: There's a strange question of appropriation with real-life figures, that you don't have with purely invented ones, isn't there? A sense of obligation to them, for borrowing their stories – how far did you feel you could push the particular characters in your novel? Did they stop feeling like real-life people to you and become instead fully-fleshed characters in your own book, something different? Do you think that process has to happen for a novel?

LS: This is going to sound a bit odd, I know, but ‘recalling to life’ real people was a little bit like meeting someone on Twitter first, and then getting to know them much later in the flesh. What I mean by that is that I came to know the Shelleys and their circle first though their own words (though rather more than 140 characters in their case!), and then through the words written about them, and it was only when I started to recreate them in the novel I started to see a more rounded version of them.
That said, I never lost the sense that they were not ‘mine’ – that they had their own independent existence, and I had a duty to respect that. But they never felt like untouchable idols either. I felt it was legitimate to write about them in a work of fiction, as long as I stuck rigorously to the known facts, and only speculated in a way that seemed to me to be consistent with those facts. There are shocking episodes in my novel, but I feel confident that I have only extrapolated from what we know, to what might have happened, and I’ve definitely not invented outrageous events in a gratuitous way, purely for effect.


  1. Fascinating. I can't wait to read it, especially because, at the age of 12 I was given Andre Maurois "Ariel" in translation, which I have just fished out of the bookshelves to re-read. But Tom All-Alone's wasn't your debut novel, was it? I loved Murder at Mansfield Park almost as much.

  2. You're quite right, Lesley, Murder at Mansfield Park was Lynn's debut! Apologies.


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