“Even as an outsider I can see that you have much to sort out.”
Antoinette May’s The Determined Heart turns out to be an enlightening look at the woman behind one of the most enduring classics of all time. It’s a fascinating, compelling, conflict-filled read with a dynamic prose style that flits between the curious and the mundane. A story about a very intense marriage, The Determined Heart chronicles the unconventional acts of two revolutionary spirits.
The novel opens in October 1801. Mary and her sister Fanny
live in Number 29, the Polygon in a modest yet comfortable home. They share a sense of closeness solidified by a portrait of their deceased mother that hangs in their father’s study. William Godwin adored his late wife, though we quickly learn of another woman: Jane Clairemont, the ugly goose lady, who is about to become the girl’s new mother. Jane brings with her two children, Charlie and Clara, along with new rules, servants, and changes in William that make Mary question her place in his heart. Their life as a family is so capably described that this early part of the book is irresistible.
William Godwin has many acquaintances that come and go at various times. While he is an astute political philosopher, his venture into the business of publishing proves to be questionable. The business fails to turn a profit, and William is badly in need of an investor.
A wealthy admirer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, arrives as a person who is in a position to save the fledgling publishing company.
Bysshe Shelley’s good looks and poetic talent impress both Fanny and Mary. He becomes a regular visitor pleased to meet the famous Mr. Godwin. Bysshe longs to reform the world, to free it from social tyranny by replacing it with atheism and the rights of women. Despite being married, Bysshe is attracted to Mary, and he is everything Mary admires: an intellectual, a radical, and an activist. She believes that someday he will be recognized for his great works. Mary convinces herself that Bysshe’s wife, Harriet, does not understand him, and the two lovers conspire to run away together. On the night they are to make their escape, Claire discovers their secret and insists on going with them.
So onward the three of them go. Bysshe, Mary, and Claire head for Dover, where they board a ship to sail to France. But this is not a happy story. At its heart is Mary’s secret suffering as Claire begins to become a nuisance who receives the attentions of Percy. It turns out that Claire, too, seeks to find a man with whom she can build a life.
Antoinette May, who also works as a travel writer, doles out the journeys of Bysshe, Mary, and Claire in delicate arrangement, recounting Mary’s feelings to carefully make her reality visible to us. As the book pushes forward, Mary’s success with her novel is offset by her many losses, her effort to connect with her father, and the numerous friends, elders, and acquaintances who desperately try to help her.
May’s prose is always crisp, as when the book conjures the thunderstorms that frequented to Villa Diodati. The book maintains a balanced proportion of description and dialogue, giving the reader an accurate understanding of the realities Mary faces. The thunderstorms that keep Mary awake most of the night fuel her imagination as well as her desire to write a story equal to anything Bysshe or Byron could produce.
A jagged flash of the most intense light was followed by an immense cackling sound. Outside, crashing reverberations rolled down the mountainsides and onto the lake echoes reinforcing echoes. What if electricity--this lightning crackling across the sky-could create a life force? Mary wondered aloud. There was no answer from Bysshe. He had slept through it all.
Mary and Bysshe get a long way through life based on passion and defiance. Their love for each other exists as a romantic legacy with Mary as the eternally devoted wife. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft endured obsession, betrayal, and the tragic loss of three children in her lifetime. She wrote novels and travel articles even as she struggled to support her son Percy. The pirate Edward Trelawny proves to be a kind and loyal friend to Mary, easing her through one of the most difficulty times in her life when Bysshe perishes at sea. The two of them might have found happiness in Italy, enjoying a security Mary had never known. If Trelawny has
a hard time understanding why Mary returns to London, readers may wonder the same thing. Mary adores Italy, the sun, the flowers, it’s easy way of life. Five years of living there provide her with many happy memories. But when a letter arrives from her father telling her of how Bysshe was trounced in the press, Mary can only conclude that she must dedicate herself to seeing to it that Bysshe’s poetry is published, to be made available to those beyond their small group of friends.
The Determined Heart eventually comes full circle. The author’s note ties up any loose ends, explaining how Mary and Claire survived after Bysshe’s death and what adventures Trelawny pursued after leaving Italy. May is strong in detailing the dark places in Mary Shelley’s life and where she manages to find herself content. The novel is a compelling account of people spiraling through turbulent times.