When novelist Lynn Shepherd set out to capture the excesses of the Young Romantics, she was able to draw on a previous career in banking in the 1980s.
“They’d have given Byron a run for his money, I’m sure,” the author says of the risk takers and “dominant personalities” encountered while she was working in the City.
Her literary whodunit, “A Treacherous Likeness,” explores the tangled relationships between Byron and fellow poets Percy Bysshe Shelley; his wife Mary, who wrote “Frankenstein;” and her younger stepsister Claire Clairmont.
More than three decades after Shelley adulterously eloped with 16-year-old Mary, Victorian private investigator Charles Maddox is hired to trace documents that might sully the carefully sanitized image of Shelley that Mary has been promoting since his untimely demise.
It’s Shepherd’s third novel and Maddox’s second case. She introduced him in “Tom All-Alone’s,” which drew on “Bleak House” and “The Woman in White” to spin a tale of murder and abuse. This latest finds him questioning the alleged suicide of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, and presents a shocking theory about Mary’s three children who died in infancy.
A lean blonde dressed in black, Shepherd chats about the Young Romantics with a kind of parental despair.
“Shelley just crashes about in other people’s lives and genuinely doesn’t seem to realize he’s doing it. Bryon did it out of bravado but Shelley did it out of a complete lack of empathy,” she says.
We’re grazing on plates of salad at Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion, an Italian restaurant in London’s Soho. As the blue plaque outside reveals, for a few weeks in 1811, Shelley holed up in a back room on the second floor of this building, more or less above our table.
“He had just been sent down from Oxford for atheism and rocked up here,” she says. “As usual, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of planning involved. He was going through a crisis at the time, bless him -- not the first and not the last.”
It was a short yet eventful stay, during which he became fixated on the wallpaper -- a purple and green jungle pattern -- and met Harriet.
Shepherd, 49, had wanted to write about Shelley and Mary for a while. It was only after running out of movies and magazines on a flight to New Zealand that she hit on a workable plot, taking her cue from history’s gaps. Endnotes separate fact from fiction, though she hopes readers will feel “a little frisson that it might actually all be true.”
She is an English literature graduate from Oxford University who went into the City on a whim a few months before she was due to begin doctoral studies. With the Big Bang just around the corner, she was offered a job in sales with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
“For a while it was really exhilarating,” she recalls, “nothing like anything I’d ever done before. It was a very energetic environment, so much was changing.”
She eventually tired of the job’s repetitiveness and stress. She also started to miss words.
“Your ability to express yourself in prose is not high on the list of things you need,” she says. “You need good reflexes, you need to think on your feet.”
It wasn’t until she’d moved to Guinness and hopscotched through a variety of jobs in finance and then public relations that her desire to become an author crystallized.
Parent company Diageo brought in a personal development coach and she found herself confiding her longing to write.
“Once it was out there, it gained a life -- it became a thing in its own right.”
Following a brief stint at Yahoo! Inc. before the dot-com bubble burst, she’s been able to balance novel writing with a career as a freelance corporate copywriter.
Looking back, she sees that her business background taught her about deadlines, efficiency, and public speaking -- all helpful author skills.
Being toughened up by the macho culture of the City back in the 1980s wasn’t such a bad thing either, she adds. It’s presumably where she found the pluck to write her first novel, “Murder at Mansfield Park,” which borrowed Jane Austen’s tone as well as her characters.
“It hadn’t occurred to me until it was published what an act of hubris it was,” she laughs.
Even the corporate copywriting has come in handy, enabling her to see Mary’s attempts to posthumously make over Shelley’s image as ruthless rebranding.
He would have been miserable at the idea of being remembered for beautiful little romantic lyrics like “The Skylark,” she says. “The thing about Shelley is he was an angry young man, he wrote political poems that were extremely controversial.”
Charged with passion, betrayals and conspiracies, Shepherd’s novel more than restores Shelley’s darker side, yet it is Mary you won’t be able to forget.
“A Treacherous Likeness” is published by Corsair in the U.K. now and Delacorte Press in the U.S. in August, where its title will be “A Fatal Likeness” (338 pages, 17.99 pounds, $26). To pre-order the book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)
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