The other day Fledgling Press sent me the first draft proofs for ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, which is to be released on 31st July, all being well. Writing an introduction to the book has also given me a chance to reflect on … why another Mary?
Mary Shelley, the narrator of ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, has a strong literary and historical connection with wild Scotland. What fascinates me most about Mary Shelley is how Nature is a huge source of inspiration for her. Mary loved wild landscapes, mountains, rivers and bleak snowy heights, places which were still seen as hostile and unappealing in the early nineteenth century when Mary was imagining the scenes of her famous novel, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. She used wild landscapes – a Hebridean island at one point, and also the Mer de Glace at the foot of Mont Blanc – as a backdrop for her Monster and his terrible tragedy.
People have often misunderstood the idea behind Frankenstein, in part due to the cliched Hollywood portrayal. Mary feels deep empathy for her Monster, who is rejected by his Creator, the scientist. Having created a being out of cobbled-together body parts, Dr Frankenstein is utterly repelled by what he has made, while the Creature himself struggles to acquire language, culture and education. The Creature is, however, doomed to eternal isolation, rejected not only by his Creator but by everyone he comes across. The only person in the novel who accepts the Monster and welcomes him into the fold of human intercourse is a blind man who cannot see what the Creature looks like. The novel poses the question (echoed in a poem called Basking Shark by Norman MacCaig) Who is the real Monster? Without knowing it, Mary Shelley used poignant symbolism which still rings true to this day. Her Gothic tale can be used in schools and colleges to offer profound understanding on issues like equality, inclusion, respect, the importance of education, science and belief, and of course medical and scientific ethics. From that point of view alone, it is an amazing text.
But it wasn’t just the novel itself which inspired me to write ARGUING WITH THE DEAD. It was Mary’s turbulent and difficult life, full of contradiction and conflict, hope and despair.
It was no surprise that Mary came to write a ground-breaking novel. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of The Rights of Woman (a hugely significant text, which was neglected by successive generations until eventually being re-embraced in the 1970s).
Mary’s life was filled with losses and bereavement. She travelled extensively, and witnessed the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars at first-hand. She was a woman of profound ideas influenced by everything she saw and felt. To some extent she was more fortunate than most. Mary found a voice at a time when most women were silent.
Little did she realise that her novel would find its way into the global imagination in the way that it has. Her novel came from a deep place, and that is why it resonates today.
ARGUING WITH THE DEAD bears some similarities to FOR MY SINS. Both have a strong and sensitive female protagonist who is also the narrator, and suffers much in the course of her life. Both have a colourful and eventful history. Both have links with the Scottish landscape which I love, and both are haunted by their past losses. But that is where the similarity stops.
The seeds for my first historical novel FOR MY SINS, about Mary Queen of Scots, were first planted a long time ago, in the fallow soil of childhood when I read the novel A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, and I suppose I could date my passion for Gothic literature back to this early encounter with a traditional children’s book. It is a fascinating novel set in an ancient farmhouse, where the heroine opens doors and slips back into the sixteenth century, and to the time of Anthony Babington, who saw the imprisoned queen as a tragic heroine to be rescued. He was executed for his efforts. The tragic and romantic appeal of this story planted the first seeds of my love for Scottish history, particularly the tragic queen, when I came to write my own novel FOR MY SINS, where Mary is imprisoned at the end of her life, stitching her tapestries while being haunted by the ghosts of her past.
What I hope to do, both in ARGUING WITH THE DEAD and FOR MY SINS, is to inhabit the mind and heart of a significant woman of the past. I hope I have done my two Mary’s – one a queen, the other a great novelist – justice.