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‘On This Day’, Fictionalising 1816: A Treacherous Likeness

Lynn Shepherd is the author of A Treacherous Likeness, a fictionalisation of the lives of the Shelleys. The novel was one of Kirkus Reviews’ 100 Best Fiction Books for 2013, and a BBC History magazine historical novel for that year.

Today for the ‘On This Day’ series we include an extract from Lynn Shepherd’s novel to mark 200 years since the 3rd May 1816, the day when Percy Bysshe Shelley left for the continent with Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Claire Clairmont. This journey was the start of their second expedition to Europe, and would lead to the infamous summer spent by Lake Geneva with Lord Byron.

The story of A Treacherous Likeness includes an account of the summer of 1816, in the form of a ‘long lost’ journal written by Claire. The following is an edited extract of that section of the novel, which has been reproduced by kind permission of Penguin Random House and Constable & Robinson.

 

Fictionalising 1816: A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

treacherouslikeness copy

I do not remember, now, what first led us to talk of ghosts. No one could have known what would eventually come of it, and in any case it was entirely natural that our thoughts should tend in such a morbid direction, with the unquiet shadows cast by the guttering candles, and the wind howling about the walls like a banshee. I do recollect Byron coming down one night with a book of old German horror stories, and taking great delight in declaiming them to us in a loud and lurid voice. Shelley was in a state of the most excited animation, talking – babbling even – of how he had tried to raise ghosts when a boy and had once sat up all night in a charnel-house, reciting from a book of spells and hoping to see a ghastly spectre rise from the heaps of dry old bones. It sounded childish, spoken in that shrill, high-pitched tone that always came upon him in agitation, and I could see the sardonic sneer once again on the doctor’s face.

Byron then cast down his book with a theatrical gesture, declaring the thing to be contemptible trash and that surely our combined intellects could concoct a horror story worth the name. Better still, cried Shelley, let us each devise our own tale, and contend with one another to harrow up our souls and set our eyeballs starting from their spheres! His own eyes were hardly less frenzied at that moment and I could see Mary’s look of apprehension – she was concerned, always, to avoid any circumstance that might provoke a renewed attack, but Shelley was not to be gainsaid. He sought his notebook out at once, saying he had an idea for a story based on his own early life. Again I saw Mary’s look, again I saw the shadow of disquiet cross her face, but she said not a word. Polidori announced that he already had an idea for a story concerning a woman with a skull instead of a face. Shelley squealed with laughter at this, but then his face darkened with thought, or memory, and he cast himself into a chair by the fire, declaring that the most profound horror was to be found not in the artificial apparatus of the macabre, but in the terrible depths of even the truest-intentioned human heart. I can recall moments, he continued, his voice dropping to a whisper, when I have looked upon my own being with unutterable abhorrence, and started from my own company as if it were that of a fiend, seeking anything rather than a continued communion with self.

Mary went to him then, and spoke to him softly, putting her hand to his forehead and looking into his eyes. I could see she was telling him that the idea was ill-advised, that no good could come of it, but she could not dissuade him. Byron, meanwhile, had stretched himself full length on the chaise-longue and was dictating at great speed to Polidori, who was endeavouring to capture it all in his leather-bound notebook. As for me, I had tried my hand at writing once before, and Shelley had been kind enough to encourage me and tell me I had a talent worth nurturing, and I saw no reason therefore why I should not make an attempt at a ghost tale of my own. Mary did her best to discourage me, but I had long since shaken off the conviction so studiously borne in upon me as a child – and not least by her ‒ that it was fruitless, in our family, even to put pen to paper unless one could produce a work of such originality as would cast all other books into the shade. I could not refrain from an inward smile when I saw that she, indeed, seemed not a little fretful at having no immediate idea of her own to hand, but a question or two she subsequently asked Polidori about the discussion we had had of galvanism and electricity led me to believe that she was considering this as the basis of her tale. Though her tone appeared careless when she thanked him for his reply, I saw her go at once upstairs, to where she had stowed her writing-desk.

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

But to return to my story. We slept at the Diodati that night, as so often that fortnight, and when Byron made his appearance at luncheon the following day Shelley was already far advanced in his tale, his hair disordered and flecks of ink spattered on his hands. Mary sought to induce him to join us at table, but he shook her arm roughly away, and for the rest of the afternoon he sat there, his desk placed to face down towards the water, writing with one hand and with the other conveying currants and pieces of stale bread to his mouth from the pocket of his long grey coat. As the hours wore on the weather worsened, and we felt in the air the sulphurous onset of thunder. With the descent of darkness the wind swelled to a roar, and the flashes of lightning leaping from peak to peak lit up streaks of clouds racing across the angry sky, and the bowl of the lake seething like an alchemical crucible. As hour after hour passed it was clear that this vast collision of the elements was stimulating Shelley’s nerves to an almost painful pitch, while Byron, by contrast, was evidently aroused in quite another manner. So much so, indeed, that he and I adjourned discreetly to his room after dinner, leaving the others variously preoccupied about their books.

When I descended again the clock in the hall was striking half after eleven, and the storm was at its very height. And then as the hour of twelve struck, the drawing-room doors were thrown open with a splintering crack and a figure stood in the blue-white glare of a bolt of lightning, both arms outstretched, and draped in a black cloak and hood that reached down over his face. It was as if a monster from a Gothic novel had come that moment to life, or returned, a vampire glistering with the clammy dew of hell, from among the mouldering dead. I saw Shelley start aghast from his chair, even as a smile of ironic amusement slid across Polidori’s face. He knew, as I did, that this was exactly the sort of cruel jest Byron delighted most to play – had he not taunted me, only a few nights before, with dark insinuations that he was the father of his own sister’s child? My own nerves might withstand this latest prank, but I feared for Shelley, in his high-wrought state, after so many days caged up in such constraint. And for a moment – the briefest moment ‒ I wondered if Mary too had not believed it, for in the dazzle of the lightning I had glimpsed her face, and seen there not just horror but something that I should almost have called ecstasy.

But all this passed in an instant, for then Byron threw back his hood and laughed. And now, he said, with a sweep of his black-swathed arm, we will, at the midnight hour, read aloud what we have written. Mary began at once to protest, saying she had nothing to share, but Shelley, by contrast, appeared of all of us the most eager to begin. He went to close the shutters himself as the servants made up the fire and extinguished the lamps. As the room darkened we took our seats again about the fire, and the flames threw grotesque dancing shadows across the walls, transforming each of us in our turn from mortal to monster. Polidori, attentive but detached, ever the observer; Mary, folding her hands on her lap in seeming demureness, her real feelings betrayed only by the dead whiteness about her lips; and Shelley, passing strange, his eyelids drawn back as if in pain, and his breath coming fast and shallow.

Byron took his place in the centre of the circle, planted his feet apart and raised his arm, pointing slowly to each of us, one by one. And then he began, in sonorous tones, to recite. Not a piece of his own, but Christabel. Coleridge’s Christabel. And much as I have always hated it, I could not but agree that it was a fine choice for such a night, that gruesome tale of a serpent-witch taking the shape of a lost and innocent girl. We sat there, silent and motionless, as Byron’s voice mingled with the lashing of the rain against the glass and the boom of the thunder, close and far, and the room became by degrees ever more icy. The fire had risen to a blaze but seemed powerless to dispel the chill, which felt, at that moment, and in that strange and heightened atmosphere, the very ice of death. On and on he intoned, and as he approached the moment when the enchantress begins to disrobe, I could see Shelley becoming painfully restless, his hand at his side and his chest heaving with the effort for calm.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropped to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side

Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue –

At that moment one of the shutters crashed open against the wall and Shelley staggered to his feet with a shriek of such anguish one might have thought his living heart was being torn from his breast. No – no! he cried, and ran sobbing and stumbling from the room. Mary rose at once, but Polidori prevented her and, consigning her to Byron’s care, seized the nearest candle and followed Shelley’s steps. Mary was by this time crying bitterly in his lordship’s arms and, not wishing to play the role of spectator where I was accustomed to that of principal, I made my way out into the hall. I thought only at first of getting a little air and dispelling the poisonous atmosphere of the saloon, but I heard at once the low sound of voices and perceived that Shelley had taken refuge in the breakfast room. There was a little closet next that chamber, and as the lightning flooded again through the windows and the thunder clove the air above me as if to sunder the very mountains, I pushed open the door and slid into the dark space.

Villa Diodati by Edward Finden after William Purser (Credit to "Shelley's Ghost" Exhibition, Bodleian Libraries)

Villa Diodati by Edward Finden after William Purser (Credit to “Shelley’s Ghost” Exhibition, Bodleian Libraries)

I do not think, to this day, that they knew I was there. Neither ever said so, and both, now, are long dead ‒ one by water, the other by his own hand. And certain it is that they gave no sign then. Silent still, I inched the connecting door open and saw Shelley lying on a couch on the far side of the room, his face and shirt soaking wet. It was clear at once that Polidori had thrown water in his face to quiet him, and I could see now that he was holding a cloth to Shelley’s face and adjuring him to breathe deeply. I watched then as Shelley appeared to slide slowly into a curious intermediate state; his body lulled to something like repose, but his tongue excited to a flood of bizarre and nonsensical chatter in which half-memories merged with true fears, and long-told lies struggled towards the light. He owned the truth, for the first time in my hearing, of Harriet and all that dire affair, but the next instant he was jabbering incoherently of a demon with his own face, and a nameless persecutor who refused to come to blows, which matched with nothing I knew – then or since ‒ of his history. And then my blood ran frozen as he described in heaving gasps how, as Byron was speaking, he had looked towards Mary and seen standing in her place the monstrous figure of a woman with her breasts uncovered, and eyes staring at him where her nipples should have been. He stammered that this horrifying vision had taken hold of his mind, and when Byron spoke then of the witch, and her deformed arm and bosom, the picture had come to his mind of a young girl he had known many years before, whose face still haunted his waking days, and would not let him rest. This, he whispered then, his eyes widening, was the story he was writing – this was the tale that would awaken those who read it to terror, and a sick fear of what lurked unseen in their own souls.

I heard the door to the drawing room open then, and Byron calling my name, and I slipped away.

I was not the only one of us to sleep badly that night, and when I ventured downstairs in the grey light of daybreak, I found Mary alone. She started when she saw me, like a guilty thing surprised. She has said, since, that it was this very morning that she announced to the assembled company that she had thought of a story. It is a lie: no such declaration was ever made, then or on any other day that summer. She was not at her desk writing that morning, when I discovered her, but on her hands and knees before the dying fire, feeding page after page into the flames – pages covered not with her own handwriting but with Shelley’s. She answered, when pressed, and with some irritation, that the story he had begun was making him ill – that she had found him sleep-walking again. Her duty, she said, with much emphasis on the word, was to prevent further such mischief, and thus it was that she had taken it upon herself to destroy what he had written. And what, I said, will he find to occupy him now, seeing as you have taken it upon yourself to burn his tale? That, Mary replied, was no concern of mine. Then she stirred the ashen ghosts of Shelley’s story with the poker, watched the flames lift for a moment, and turned on her heel and departed.