The Determined Heart by Antoinette May is many things. A modernized telling of Mary Shelley and her relationships? Yes. A tale of Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein? Not so much. May’s novel is so much more about the relationships Mary creates, destroys and has thrust-ed upon her by circumstance. We are given these unions as told by Mary, her step-sister Claire and her half-sister Fanny. These lovely ladies leave me feeling like the Gothic romanticism is gone from their tale and replaced with the pettiness believed to linger between women.
For those unfamiliar with Mary Shelley she began her life in the shadow of her brilliant yet provocative mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Having died from giving birth to her, Wollstonecraft knew little of her daughter or what she was to become. For a time under the care of only her father, William Godwin, Shelley began to shape herself by novels and literary friends of her mother and father. Eventually Godwin felt that a mother was needed for Mary and her half-sister Fanny and married friend and neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont.
At only 16 Mary ran away with Percy Bysshe Shelley, married at the time, and her step-sister Claire from her step mother Jane Clairmont. May focuses mainly on the relationships of the three during this time of travel, intimacy and attempts at building a paradise of minds. It was during this time, grown from the relationship of Lord Byron through Claire’s unrelenting affection, that Shelley created her most famous work.
Shelley is described as someone who often felt like she creates misery in her wake, as though the monster she created was always inside of her. Percy Bysshe Shelley is sorted by his wanton lust of both beautiful minds and bodies. And finally we come to Claire, who is looking only to be the center of attention. The characters are eager, but dishonest to themselves in May’s portrayal because they are only two-dimensional characters of true selves. Fictionalizing real life requires liberties, and while the story is solid and entertaining it feels like it’s missing it’s heart. In it’s determined path it loses it’s passion.
I had the great pleasure of being able to visit Mary Shelley’s grave earlier this year. Unbeknownst to me her only surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley, had her parents exhumed and moved to Bournemouth so that they could be together in passing as per her request. Despite being next to shopping and a university the church was quiet peaceful during my visit to pay my respects. In any medium they are beloved even in their final rest.
I can’t fault May in her storytelling, but only in feeling unsatisfied by the wanting passion between characters. Despite this The Determined Heart is worth picking up for literary aficionados and the like.