The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.
The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?
Publisher and Release Date: Lake Union Publishing, October 2015
Time and Setting: England and Italy, 1801-1826
Genre: Biographic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars
Review by Caz
The Determined Heart is a fictionalised biography of Mary Shelley, concentrating primarily on her relationship with her mercurial poet husband, and exploring some of the influences which eventually led her to create her most famous literary work, Frankenstein.
The author’s research has clearly been extensive, and she has made good use of letters and poems by Shelley, Mary, Lord Byron and others throughout the book. Her writing style is communicative and easy to read, although there are times it feels rather too simplistic and lacking in depth; and while the story is quite compelling, it is not a comfortable read.
And therein lies my biggest problem in writing this review, because most of the characters – notably Shelley, Byron, Mary’s father, William Godwin, and her step-sister, Claire – are such horrible people that there were times I felt that I didn’t want to read about them anymore. But much of what happens in the story is a matter of historical fact, and there is no denying that Mary’s life was a fascinating one, one in which she experienced consuming passion, debilitating tragedy and the gamut of emotions in between, all before she reached her thirtieth year.
The book opens with a Prologue set in 1816, during the time that Mary and her husband were living in Italy with Byron, and when she first started to put together the “ghost” story that was ultimately to become her most famous work. We then skip back to 1801 when Mary is just four years old and living comfortably with her older sister and her father, the author and philosopher, William Godwin. As the child of his beloved Mary Wollstonecraft, his pretty, bright daughter is the apple of his eye. But her young life is about to change when Godwin announces his intention to marry a neighbouring widow, who also has two young children. Both are spoiled and brattish, and it soon becomes clear that “Mum” – Jane Godwin – is resentful of the attention Mary receives on account of her parentage and because of her cleverness and good nature.
Mary clearly adores her father, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is not the indulgent, loving Papa that he has seemed to be. He takes little interest in his daughters’ upbringing, leaving them entirely to their stepmother’s care, and is far more concerned with his work and with arguing about literature, politics and philosophy with the authors and poets who revere him and orbit around him. Unfortunately, however, the income Godwin receives from his writing is not enough to support the family and they are forced to move from their comfortable home into one of the worst areas of London.
Mary meets Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time when she is just fourteen and then again, when she is sixteen and returns from school. Bysshe is young, handsome and the heir to a viscountcy – and Godwin wastes no time in tapping him for money, which Bysshe is happy to proffer, seeing as he counts Godwin as the major inspiration in his life and work. Shelley is married with one child and another on the way when he and Mary fall in love; but having espoused the idea of free love which was also embraced by Godwin and his late wife, neither he nor Mary can see anything wrong with the idea of their going away together. But in a classic case of “do as I say, not do as I do”, Godwin furiously disowns Mary and refuses to have any more to do with her.
This is just the beginning of Mary’s troubles. Because of the scandal caused by their running off together, Bysshe’s family cuts him off and with no means of paying his debts, he is forced to go into hiding, leaving Mary, by now several months pregnant, alone in their dingy lodgings. Or rather, Mary is not exactly alone; her step-sister, Claire decides that running away to live with them is better than stagnating at home, so Mary now has to put up with the young woman who made her life miserable from the moment she came into her life. Worse, Bysshe is a man who doesn’t believe in fidelity, and his on-off affair with Claire lasts almost as long as his relationship with Mary.
This is what I meant when I said these were often deeply unpleasant characters. Claire is selfish and resentful of Mary for almost all of her life; Godwin is a hypocrite; Shelley is selfish and egotistical, and comes to resent Mary for the success she achieves with Frankenstein and her other books while his work struggles to find an audience. Mary endures a great deal during these years – almost constantly on the move, putting up with Claire and her constant attention-seeking, and turning a blind eye to Shelley’s other affairs. Mary bore Shelley four children, only one of whom survived to adulthood, and much of the time, she had to bear her grief and devastation alone.
I can’t deny that Mary comes across as too good to be true. She is rather like the long-suffering heroines of the gothic novels which were popular at the time – perhaps this was intentional on Ms May’s part – but this made it difficult to believe in her as a woman of ideas and great intellect.
Before I read the book, I knew only the basic facts about Mary Shelley, and reading this has certainly added to my knowledge. Her life was not an easy one, and she must certainly have been an extraordinary woman to have coped with all the tragedy the fates saw fit to throw at her.
Ultimately, The Determined Heart is an engrossing read, even though it is by no means an easy one.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Antoinette May is the author of Pilate’s Wife and The Sacred Well and co-author of the New York Times Bestseller Adventures of a Psychic. An award-winning travel writer specializing in Mexico, May divides her time between Palo Alto and the Sierra foothills