Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.
The Determined Heart. The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein by Antoinette May is a touching story of the devoted love of Mary Godwin Shelley for the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It recounts details of the unconventional lives they lived and follows Mary’s struggles with her own literary pursuits, including her most famous work, Frankenstein.
Mary is quite young when she first meets Shelley who is an admirer of the writings of her parents. Her father is quick to welcome him into their household because Shelley has an expectation of a large inheritance and the Godwins are chronically short of money. William Godwin is forever looking for handouts. Shelley is pleased to offer what he can to support Godwin’s intellectual pursuits. Before long, he seduces Mary. (Shelley is already married with children but his prior obligations don’t weigh very heavily on him.)
Part of William Godwin’s credo (supported by Mary’s mother) had always been advocacy of free love and the rejection of the chains of marriage. So the fact that Shelley was married should have been no obstacle to his pursuit of Godwin’s daughter. Imagine Shelley’s surprise when Godwin refused to let the pair run off together. Mary is warned that a man who abandons his wife and children so readily is not likely to be faithful to her, but she can’t believe that. Their love is different.
Shelley arranges to run away in secret. Mary must choose between her father and her lover, and she chooses Shelley. Imagine Mary’s surprise when Claire appears at the meeting place and Shelley, without any apparent hesitation, invites the interloper along.
Mary makes the best of a situation that isn’t exactly what she imagined. She and her poet do have a life filled with passion, love, and intellectual engagement. She meets other men and women with similar interests (for example, Lord Byron.) They travel. She and Shelley both write. There are babies and miscarriages. She has to put up with his infidelities. She has to put up with Claire. And yet, her love for him runs so deep, she forgives everything, always, and takes refuge in her writing.
The Determined Heart is an absorbing novel. I was familiar with the historical basis of the story from having read Passion by Jude Morgan—a tremendous novel that looks at the lives of the women involved with Shelley, Byron, and Keats. The Determined Heart has a more narrow focus, allowing it to provide more biographical information about Mary—a protagonist well deserving of the attention. For a more sweeping look at the historical times and an examination of several passionate, literary women, I also recommend reading Passion.