Interview with Heather Redmond
In a literary world where Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, or even mystery novelists such as Josephine Tey or Agatha Christie, can be turned into amateur detectives, why not Mary Godwin Shelley, the author of Frankenstein? She seems like a natural. In this interview with Heather Redmond, we discuss her new mystery series, which opens with Mary Godwin (not yet Shelley) and her half-sister Jane Clairmont living in a rather run-down house in a disreputable London neighborhood, where they spend their time watching their parents’ bookshop. Their father, an illustrious political thinker and writer, has fallen on hard times.
Enter the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who has offered to act as Godwin’s patron despite his own rather uncertain finances. When Mary stumbles over a dead body in the bookshop who turns out to be an acquaintance of Shelley’s, it seems natural for the two girls and the poet to pool their intellectual resources to figure out not only who committed the murder but whether the intended victim was Shelley himself. Read on to find out more.
This is the beginning of a new series for you. What made you decide to focus it on the historical figure Mary Shelley?
In general, I have enjoyed mining the early life of Charles Dickens for my A Dickens of a Crime series and wanted to follow this path again. I’m fascinated by the idea of “becoming” a celebrity. What were the experiences they had that formed them? Also, in terms of my writing craft, those years tend to have a lot of unknown gaps in them where I can fit in a mystery tale without otherwise fictionalizing their lives.
What drew me to Mary Shelley specifically is the conundrum of her. On one hand, I can easily identify with her, a quiet girl growing up in a house full of books, adoring her father, having complex relationships with siblings that she wasn’t entirely related to, and wanting to be an author. But then, she is also the girl who ran off to France just weeks after the Napoleonic Wars went on pause, with her stepsister and a married man she’d lost her virginity to in a grove of willows next to her mother’s grave, while her stepsister loitered a short distance away. I can’t relate to that at all! But it definitely makes her fascinating.
In Death and the Sisters, Mary is still Mary Godwin. What is she like at the age of sixteen?
To set the scene: in May 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin has just returned from a long visit in Scotland to her family home, above the bookshop and publishing business they run. The building is in a not-very-nice part of town, though not in an actual slum. It is an area of prisons and warehouses, and is near to the large animal market, so the flies are constant. Hangings take place across the street.
She lives with her father, famous anarchist philosopher William Godwin, stepmother Mary Jane, half-sister Fanny, half-brother William, and step-siblings Jane and Charles. The family doesn’t believe in marriage or individual wealth and is very involved in London intellectual circles. They are a bookish family. There is a lot of tension in the household. Mary, in particular, does not get along with her stepmother. She wants to be an intellectual like her philosopher parents, but they want her to be a shop girl.
She was known throughout her life for keeping her emotions and thoughts to herself, so I attempt to show that she was incredibly passionate but others couldn’t read her.
This book alternates between Mary’s point of view and that of her half-sister, Jane Clairmont. Tell us a bit about Jane and her relationship with Mary at this point in time.
Jane and Mary had a rivalry from the age of three until their often joined households finally broke up in the aftermath of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death. Jane and her half-brother, both the children of Mary’s stepmother, were treated better than Mary and her half-sister Fanny so they grew up fighting over resources. Percy Shelley cared deeply for both girls. In 1814, Jane was considered less mature than Mary was, still more of a child. Mary, six months older, was already getting marriage proposals and indeed, was soon to embark on her first sexual relationship. Jane was a romantic go-between and a companion who thought nothing of wandering nearby while the lovers canoodled. Young ladies in Regency England weren’t supposed to go about alone, but Jane obviously didn’t do much guarding of her stepsister! She was primarily interested in singing and acting, but she had literary ambitions as well. Jane was also the healthier of the two.
In my books about them, Jane considers herself the true descendant of Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist philosopher and adventuress, versus her biological daughter Mary, who she thinks is more conventional. Mary and Jane are indeed complex people, both historically and in my novels.
The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, also plays an important role in the story. He and Mary are not yet an item, although clearly drawn to each other. Where is he in his life, and how can he be both a potential victim and a suspect?
Shelley did not become famous until after his death, when he joined the literary canon. In these days, he was a student of Mary’s father, William Godwin, and had been writing novels, poetry, and pamphlets since his shortened academic career. Married at nineteen, he’d traveled around the United Kingdom spreading his anarchist message. As a nobleman, he didn’t feel the need to work a conventional job. He wanted to educate the masses, and many of the teenaged girls he came across.
The original question in Death and the Sisters is whether he is the corpse Mary finds in the dark. Once they learn it is not Shelley’s body, Jane thinks Shelley might have killed the dead youth, but Mary thinks the target was Shelley all along, and some other similar young man died in his place. Since no one is sure why the youth died, it is hard to find the killer.
Set up the crime for us, please.
That first spring night of the story, Mary goes downstairs into her family bookshop to borrow a book to read, and finds the body of a young man in the bookshop, with a knife in his back and another between his legs. She initially thinks Percy Bysshe Shelley, the young anarchist poet she had just met at dinner that night, is the murder victim. The girls had been upstairs and had heard doors open and close, and had seen Shelley leave the house at one point. There is only one door to the entire house.
Mary and her family live in a rather nasty part of London, yet they still attract the attention of various members of the upper class. What brings the elite to their bookshop?
This neighborhood did have multiple bookshops historically, though it was mostly a prison and warehouse area. The Godwins ran an educational publishing business. Many of their literary friends wrote books for them. They also stocked supplies for students. I added that they stock a selection of literary fiction as well, but that part is unlikely as William Godwin was a notorious anarchist and the family attempted to mask his involvement in the business in real life. The Godwins were part of London’s literary elite. Godwin himself was part of the intelligentsia in the 1790s and had been hugely successful in his youth. Mary and Jane grew up around people like the poet Coleridge.
This book has just come out, but as we know, these things take time. Are you already working on another Mary Shelley adventure, and if so, can you give us a hint as to what it’s about? If not, what are you writing at present?
The second book in the series is due into my editor in a couple of weeks. It’s called Death and the Visitors. The mystery centers on the true-life visit of royal guests to London in the summer of 1814, a time of great intrigue and pageantry. It features the famous beauty Princess Maria Naryshkina, the Polish royal who was the longtime mistress of Tsar Alexander I. When she and her entourage pay a visit to Mary’s home in order to share their love of the philosopher Wollstonecraft, Mary’s mother, they promise financial support to the struggling family in the form of diamonds. When the princess’s brother-in-law is later found dead in the Thames, the Godwin family is faced with utter ruin. Mary must solve the murder to save her family from debtor’s prison, while managing her forbidden romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Book three has the working title of Death and the Runaways, and I’m also working on a historical romance set in 1803.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Heather Redmond, who also writes as Heather Hiestand, is the author of romances and three mystery series: the Mary Shelley Mysteries, A Dickens of a Crime, and the Journaling Mysteries. Find out more about her at https://www.heatherredmond.com.
Portraits: Mary Godwin Shelley (1840), Jane Clairmont (1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.