Book review: Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon

The spark that ignited the relationship between poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his author wife Mary came close to being extinguished by the ‘third person’ in their marriage.

Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon
Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon

Claire Clairmont, Mary’s bold, flirtatious stepsister, was a constant presence in the lives of the two literary giants during their nine turbulent years together. The lover of another famous poet Lord Byron, and reputedly in love with Shelley too, the manipulative Claire brought Mary almost to breaking point.

Debut author Suzanne Burdon’s impressive fictional tale of Mary Shelley’s creative but tragedy-scarred life blends real events with a compelling emotional exploration of the flesh-and-blood woman who gave us the classic novel Frankenstein.

Almost Invincible places readers at the beating heart of Mary’s unconventional liaison with Shelley which shattered all 18th century notions of respectability and drove the couple onto a nomadic trail through Europe to escape censure.

Burdon admits she was seduced into telling a fictional account of Mary’s story by biographies which gave a glimpse of her as an eclectic mix of teenage rebel, grieving mother, determined author and the lover of a man well ahead of his time.

When Mary Shelley starts writing Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in 1816, she is just eighteen years old, mother of a six-month-old son, and has been living for two years in a scandalous relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who has a wife and children back home in England.

With her and Shelley are Byron who has also fled controversy in London, his doctor John Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Claire who is having an affair with Byron and has just announced that she is expecting his baby.

The other notable conception is, of course, Mary’s novel which is penned as lightning flashes across the lake outside and Byron suggests that they should all write a ghost story.

It is a turning point in Mary’s life, the moment when her writing prowess comes to the fore and proves that she is not just ‘a balloon filled with creative literary gases’ distilled from her talented parents, author Mary Wollstonecraft and thinker William Godwin, but which had so far failed to rise.

When she eloped with Shelley, Mary had been quite prepared to suffer condemnation from society but what she hadn’t reckoned on was her jealousy of Claire who ran away with them and is also in love with Shelley.

Even Byron, who was once seduced by Claire’s charms and flashing eyes, now detests her outspokenness, her sarcasm and her frequent bouts of hysteria.

Over the coming years, as Mary and Shelley move constantly throughout England, Switzerland and Italy, escaping creditors, censorious families and ill health, Mary’s devotion to her poet husband is strained to its limits.

And even in Italy, their spiritual home and ‘paradise of exiles,’ the deaths of her children nearly break Mary’s spirit again. Her writing becomes her grip on sanity along with Shelley’s unwavering belief in her creative genius…

Burdon’s research for Almost Invincible was far-reaching and involved travels across the UK, America and Europe, but the payback has been enormous. Landscapes spring to glorious life, there is an evocative sense of time and place, and authentic dialogue adds colour and texture to a torrid tale of love, rivalry and genius.

The bohemian, scandalous world of Shelley, his wife Mary, the sardonic and self-centred Byron and capricious Claire is vividly portrayed with all its drama, heartbreak and emotional turmoil.

A fascinating study of the fall-out from creative genius…

(Criteria Publishing, paperback, £9.99)