Review by Walter Cummins
The presence of Mary Godwin Shelley opens and closes Don Zancanella’s intimate portrayal of the circle around Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Storm in the Stars. The alternating sections delve into the perspectives of Mary, Shelley, Jeff Hogg, Claire (formerly Jane and Clara) Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidori. While their thoughts are not revealed directly, William Godwin (Mary’s father) and Lord Bryon are significant presences. But it is Mary who is explored most deeply and whose sensitivity and genius emerge as the novel’s center.
Her love for Shelley is profound; yet she possesses the insight to grasp their essential difference: “In truth, she likes the contrast between them. She is the dark spirit and he the light. She never opens a door without expecting bad news on the other side, while he expects someone has come to bring him money or fame or at least something to eat.”
Zancanella possesses a unique gift for exploring the inner lives of figures legendary in the literary world, as he did in his first novel, Concord, which give immediacy to people like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as they interacted with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although those portrayed in the two novels are historically significant and lived in the same time period, their worlds are radically different. The setting of Concord anchors that group in one small, calm geographic area, while the Romantics wandered throughout Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and—in Byron’s case—miles beyond.
While the two groups may have shared some ideas and creative responses, their behaviors and moral conduct were nothing alike. Shelley fathered children with both his first wife and Mary while they were living together. Claire Clairmont seduced Bryon and gave birth to his short-lived daughter. In contrast, Sophia Peabody initially avoided Hawthorne and took many meetings before their first kiss.
Yet Zancanella makes both groups equally convincing, whether it’s Thoreau developing a crush on a teenager visitor, thrilled to take a walk with her alone, or Claire providing cover the many times young Shelley and teenage Mary consummate their love in a hidden corner of the cemetery where Mary’s mother is buried.
The novel opens with a brief prologue of Mary’s birth and the resulting infection that killed her mother, the seminal feminist author, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, whose major work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, her daughter did not read until her late teens. The novel closes with the now-widowed Mary Shelley attending a dramatic version someone else created her novel, Frankenstein. When the last act opens, she wonders if the play will end with the closing words she wrote: “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” It doesn’t, and she slips out during the applause to the cool night air.
Those words had been prophetic as her husband’s drowning had him washed ashore in the Gulf of La Spezia. But many others around Mary were also lost in the darkness of death, including two of her children, Shelley’s first wife, Harriet—who plunged into a river for her suicide, Dr. Palidori—depressed and in debt—a possible suicide in 1821, and Byron a year after the play performance and the end of the novel. Zancanella adds an acknowledgment note that he omitted including additional deaths because there already were so many.
Although the novel mentions the poems Shelley was writing during his time with Mary and quotes lines, much more attention is devoted to her composition of Frankenstein, as she develops her concept and includes passages as she wrote them.
As is well-known, Byron proposed that the group assembled in Castle Diodati on Lake Geneva each write a ghost story. They all started, “scratching at their respective sheets with their pens,” but only Mary delivered a classic. Dr. Polidori did revise Bryon’s first effort into The Vampyre, the first of the Romantic vampire novels. She was only eighteen when she began.
Zancanella has Mary think about her novel’s conception:
In her own piece, the broader contours are emerging. Similar to the lines Shelley read, the human mind’s imaginings will be at the heart of the design. A man follows his curiosity and passion where they lead but makes a terrible mistake. He fails to consider how a power that’s Godlike, that appears at first glance to have beneficial properties, can be misused. As these ideas form, she begins to feel excited; yet she knows it’s wise to keep her emotions in check. A week from now she may have abandoned the story. It’s happened to her before.
But it didn’t happen this time. She became obsessed devoting her days to the composition, finally sharing the final editing with Shelley, who found a publisher for the work. The first reactions were negative, but after praise from Sir Walter Scott, readers began to take the novel seriously and buy copies, as millions have since.
Despite the many deaths of babies and young people in this novel, and later Mary Shelley at fifty-three, they all come to vibrant life in Zancanella’s work, his words restoring them from darkness and distance.