Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley
- By Kathleen Williams Renk
- Cuidono Press
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Fatima Taha
- December 1, 2020
This epistolic imagining of the charismatic Mary Shelley stumbles more than her fictional monster did.
Kathleen Williams Renk crafts Vindicated as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s journal so that readers are granted direct access into the tumultuous life of Frankenstein’s author. In case anyone misses the import of this literary device, Mary the character reiterates that “I can’t help but think that second-hand knowledge of a life is not as accurate or meaningful as knowledge from the primary source…I will be sure to record my own truth.”
The novel does stay unwaveringly true to history, guiding readers through Mary’s teenage infatuation with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to their elopement, their children’s untimely deaths, her publishing of several stories, and her eventual widowhood. In that, its deepest flaw lies like a scar traversing the pages.
Successful historical fiction provides fresh, tantalizing insight into a person, time, or event. Unfortunately, Vindicated merely transcribes events, almost like a Wikipedia entry, and the promise of reading Mary’s words loses its ability to enthrall before the first few journal entries are complete.
The narrative does more telling than showing, which results in a rather dry “autobiography” instead of one befitting Mary and her scandalous life. The diary entries feel like wares being pushed by an overly aggressive street hawker; readers aren’t given the delight of picking out a delicious chocolate pastry on their own.
In two entries, Mary writes about the then-married Percy visiting her house. In neither does she discuss the interaction between them that leads to their elopement. Instead, she reflects on what she did after he left. For the reader, being promised insight into Mary’s life and then being kept at a distance is frustrating. The hawker has assured us the pastry is delectable; after we purchase it, he only permits us to nibble its edges.
Some of those edges, however, contain pleasant surprises. Similar to The Modern Prometheus, gothic ambience suffuses this story. The book opens with Mary’s birth and her mother’s death, and it culminates on the beach where Mary’s husband has washed ashore. Death pervades the narrative as ghostly figures glide through the pages. In this way, Vindicated resembles a chilling, pleasing combination of Jane Austen’s marriage-driven plots and the Brontë sisters’ atmospherically charged romances.
The build-up to Mary’s creation of Frankenstein is the novel’s greatest strength. After her first daughter unexpectedly dies 11 days after birth, Mary witnesses an electrifying — pun intended — event:
“The chief inquisitor, Mr. Cyrus McNabb…held up an electrical wire…he then attached to the creature’s leg and within seconds the leg gyrated and danced with electrical impulse…I was excited by the implications of the experiment…What if it were possible to restore life to a dead creature via electricity? What a boon that would be to grieving parents, like myself, or to spouses whose beloved has passed into another world!”
This moment perfectly aligns Mary’s past with her present grief into a crescendo that births Frankenstein’s creature, supplanting the oft-told tale that the monster was conceived after a lighthearted gathering of writers sharing horror stories. Instead, we see that Frankenstein is a catharsis, grief made physical in order to understand and grapple with death.
Apart from these moments, the book ambles, neither revealing new information nor presenting previously known facts in a unique way. Throughout, we can’t peruse the baked goods ourselves because the hawker refuses to stop shouting in our ears. Vindicated might’ve been wonderful if it weren’t trying so hard to convince us of its wonders.
Fatima Taha is working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Maryland while also teaching gender studies and global literature. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her novel. She loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.