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Happy Birthday Mary Shelley

August 30, 2014


Mary Shelley was born  today.  A mixed celebration to say the least because of course, the day of her birth was the beginning of the hideous agonising death of her remarkable mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’ve long been boring people with my belief that the thing that she did about the mad scientist and the body parts has inexplicably obscured her real masterpiece – The Last Man – a disturbingly “Ronseal” title which depicts the extinction of humanity was an eerie slowness and a chilling beauty.  But having read The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, I’m now revising Mary Shelley yet again.

The name Perkin Warbeck was introduced to me at school as one of two Yorkist pretenders whose name had to be remembered (along with Lambert Simnel) for test purposes.  Warbeck, I was told, spuriously pretended to be Richard Duke of York – younger brother of Edward V and (along with Edward) presumed murdered in the Tower.  A few people have believed in the legitimacy of Warbeck’s claims ever since, and one of those few people was Mary Shelley.  Her novel is equipped with a historical introduction laying out the foundation for these claims and for the duration of the novel, the main character is never again referred to as “Warbeck”.

It’s a long adventurous novel in which Warbeck covers a great deal of territory.  He goes back and forth between Flanders, Spain, Ireland, Scotland and (terminally) England.  It’s a frustrating story of a frustrated life.  Henry VII is pleasantly evil and Tudor rule is described as a crushingly sterile world of spies and informers in which nobody is safe and everybody feels suffocated.  “Richard” on the other hand is the very flower of chivalry, someone who plays the King with remarkable assurance and charisma.

Yet at a certain point a kind of counter-narrative sets in.  Richard’s dynastic claims is believed by Shelley (and after a while, just for convenience, by the reader), yet the sheer cost in human terms of this sort of chivalry starts to really mount up.  Richard himself starts to be haunted by the number of people being chopped into pieces in his name  Not haunted enough  to give up on the whole monarchy thing and go away and live on an island somewhere – but haunted nonetheless.  Some of the most effective and thoughtful passages in the book describe his reaction to Anglo-Scottish border war and the realisation that his “claim” to the English throne has helped energise a deal of ethnic hatred and mass slaughter.

Like Shelley’s other novels, The Last Man, and Thing With The Mad Scientist and the Body Parts, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck is neither a straightforward chivalric romance or a bitter satirical critique of chivalry.  It’s a polyvalent sort of novel which submits a certain ideal to practical experience and explores the fissures between dreams and realities while equally denying the possibility of life without dreams.

Sometimes you can be put off a novelist for life if you start with a mediocre example of their work.  I’ve been given a second and a third chance, and I’m delighted to say that I’m liking her the more and more I read of her.  Happy Birthday to her,


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