I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be taking my turn today on the blog tour for Arguing With The Dead by Alex Nye, published by Fledgling Press. Thank you to Kelly of #LoveBookTours for inviting me to take part.
So come with me and let’s us take a trip back in time, to 1839. To Putney, by the banks of the frozen Thames where a widowed Mary Shelley finally begins the process of sorting the jumble of papers left by her husband, Percy Shelley.
As she works she recalls in fascinating but often painful detail their lives together. A life that began in elopement when she was just 16 and ends in a isolated Italian villa with Percy’s death.
Told in the first person, this is the extraordinary but tragic life of an remarkable young woman. As the the daughter of William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, she carries a proud legacy, but one that comes to haunt her.
This account is marked by beautifully authentic voice, in which Nye captures perfectly the narrative voice of Shelley.
Nye places repeated emphasis on the fact that Wollstonecraft dies from complications of childbirth, leaving Mary with incredible feelings of guilt but also a true awareness of her own morality, particularly linked to the bearing of children.
Nye presents us with the stark reality of a 17th Century woman. A reality that includes limited if any birth control, perilous pregnancies and deliveries, followed by high levels of infant mortality. For all her mother’s brilliance and progressive ideas, and despite Mary’s own unconventional life style, this is a inescapable truth that marks her young life with Shelley.
And mother’s influence is so keenly felt, in so many ways . It is her mother she turns to in her mind during childhood, trying to escape the tangled web of her unhappy relationship with her Step Mother, Mary- Jane.
When the family’s reduced circumstances force them to leave their beautiful home, The Polygon, to live trapped between the polluted River Fleet, Newgate Prison and Smithfield market, it is the loss of her visits to her mother’s grave that leaves Mary mourning once more.
Mary longs for her mother, longs to be like her. Her birthdays are always tinged with thoughts of what might have been.
But most importantly her mother’s progressive ideas on the role and capabilities of women’s define Mary’s own life, but perhaps not in the way she would wish.
With incredible skill, Nye shows us how it is the ideas and indeed legend of Wollstonecraft that first draw Shelley to the Godwin family home. At first it seems that her adoption of an unconventional life with Shelley is the embodiment of her mother’s ideals. Indeed Wollstonecraft’s philosophy is used by Percy to justify the constant, and for Mary, difficult presence of her step sister Claire in their lives. For every time Mary seeks to push this cuckoo from the nest, Shelley sights her Mother, using her teachings to justify his relationship with Claire. He has found her Achilles Heel and cleverly uses the progressive arguments, held so dear to her heart, as a way of constructing a gilded cage.
It is the ultimate exploitation of an understandable weakness and one which reflects the double standards that run throughout the book.
Brought up in a progressive household and exposed to radical thinkers from an earlier age, it is heartbreaking for Mary to find that when she tests these boundaries she is repeatedly shun by those she loves and respects.
Her father, William Godwin, will not see her until she marries Shelley despite his free thinking political and philosophical views. Despite championing Wollstonecraft, some might saying exploiting her memory; despite, indeed, conceiving his own daughter out of wedlock.
And what of Mary’s own literary career. She is devastatingly talented, conceiving and creating Frankenstein aged just 19. This is a work which draws upon all of her feelings of worthlessness, isolation and disconnection. A work that embodies the idea that she herself is the monster, a product of men created in the myth of her mother but cast aside when she acts on the philosophies they only talk about.
It is the ultimate double standard, the ultimate gilded cage. And one which rears it head time and time again when Mary’s attempts to publish her novel. Nye shows in painful and infuriating detail how the work is rejected repeatedly, only to find a place published under a male pseudonym. A familiar story but set against Mary’s back drop one that seems so grossly unfair.
There is no doubt that the dead loom large in this novel. For it is truly a gothic tale. There is the air of a dark fairy tale woven cleverly through the narrative. The portrayal of a young woman who is continually in danger of straying from the forest path. For when ever happiness settles in Mary’s life it’s appearance is fleeting. Her relationship with Shelley is marked by continual sacrifice and loss, including loss of self and tragically loss of young life.
Through the character of Harriet, the shadowy figure of Percy’s first wife Nye creates a supernatural feeling of inevitability. It is Harriet who haunts Mary’s dreams and increasingly her waking hours. It is Harriet who seems to cast the final judgement on this unconventional union.
Is Harriet a ghost in the truest sense? Or is she a manifestation of a mind at the limit of what it can endure? A physical embodiment of guilt, regret and tragedy?
Arguing with the dead is historical fiction at it’s finest. Nye has captured the very essence of Mary Shelley, given her a voice, a point of view and allowed her story to shine. She has taken a tale we think we know well and given us fresh eyes through which to see it. In the style of great historical fiction Nye has whetted the appetite and made the reader want to find more. For many readers I suspect that this will be the beginning of a love affair with the story and work of Mary Shelley.
About the author …
Alex Nye was born in Leicester, England. She writes for both adults and children. Her children‘s novel Chill won a Scottish Children’s Book Award in 2007. Her historical novel For My Sins, based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots was published in 2017.
And there is more…
For more reaction to,and reviews of, Arguing with the Dead check out the other fantastic blogs listed below. This is just the beginning!
Arguing with the Dead – Alex Nye is published by Fledgling Press and is available now.