The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.
The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?
I’ve read a bit about Mary Shelley, mainly because her life tends to need little embellishment to make it interesting. She herself was a brilliant woman, but tied to men who were self centered and ultimately hypocritical in many ways. The intellectual group she ran with tended to plow rough shod over those who stood in the way of their wants with little empathy. Into this complicated relationship structure it is easy to understand how someone like Shelley could truly understand loneliness and rejection present in her masterpiece. Constantly surrounded by high emotion and much death, Mary’s work is a product of her life.
The novel itself is an enjoyable read, if a bit heavy handed about painting who are the villains and heroes of the story. Mary Shelley’s life and relationships have never impressed me as quite so cut and dry. Claire, who here is pretty unequivocally shown as a callous evil step sister, has always seemed a bit more sympathetic than this book paints her. And Mary too had her own flaws. Harriet Shelley was treated horrifically by her husband, and Mary by extension. Her ultimate suicide is placed squarely on both Bysshe and Mary’s responsibility. Mary left just as much a wake of destruction in some ways as her husband. But it’s hard to make a readable popular novel that is able to take in all the complexities of Mary Shelley’s life and is still enjoyable. And this book is enjoyable. It’s a fast read that doesn’t bog itself down in the deep psychology of the Romantics, but presents their lives as the fascinating story they were.
Four out of five.