Book Review. Mrs Saville by Ted Morrissey. 2018 by Twelve Winters Press

Ever been awed and inspired by a writer who defined the beginning of a genre? Ever wondered what fed that writer’s imagination? Ted Morrissey certainly has. His newest effort, Mrs Saville, is an homage to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I am awed and inspired.

Literati are marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein; Ms. Shelley and her book are the admired grandmothers of all science fiction. Before 1818, when Frankenstein was first published, there was no science fiction. No imagination had conceived of it. Only after Frankenstein could there have been H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Only then could there have been Buck Rogers, Captain James T. Kirk, Darth Vader, The Terminator.

And what of Mary Shelly? How could a twenty year old have birthed a full-grown human, partly artificial, seemingly murderous? Frankenstein would have been a supreme accomplishment for any writer and seems even more so for one barely an adult. What improbable events could have compelled her to write one of the world’s most revolutionary and influential pieces of literature?

Mr. Morrissey went deep into that rabbit hole. He stayed long enough to contrive a fascinating answer. Margaret Saville is a Nineteenth Century London housewife whose husband is away on an extended business trip. London retains a medieval brutality, especially for the poor. Wretchedness is, arguably, the better alternative to debtors’ prison. Disease and disfigurement are everyday misfortunes. Street thugs wander freely and cough out coal smoke.

Margaret’s life, including her relationship with Mary Shelly, is revealed through her letters to her far-away husband. Margaret is lonely, grieves for a child she lost to tuberculosis some time ago, frets over money and her husband’s failure to write back. She becomes host to her disturbed and emaciated brother on his return from a bruising, near-fatal polar expedition, and she fears he has become a wild animal who might consume her and her children. She stands with an ear to his bedroom door, trying to interpret the baffling shuffling and breathing sounds coming from within.

Margaret befriends Ms. Shelley and poet Percy Shelley, the man who becomes her husband, and discovers their financial distress, their near-homelessness, their desperation. Trust and affection bloom. Together, they bleed.

Into this Georgian watch pocket, Mr. Morrissey injects foul odors, subterfuge, child-like innocence, human kindness. The characters take dimension, skate on the edge of ruin and find reason for both desperation and hope. The story is one that compels empathy and engagement, feels as real as a stolen read from a relative’s diary.

Imagine the moment when Mr. Morrissey’s concept for Mrs Saville gained enough weight to be spoken of for the first time. Inventing a plausible, period-correct, compelling narrative about the building of a literary pillar is the kind of idea that most commonly occurs late at night, under the influence of bonhomie and pale ale. It flourishes only in an imagination also able to function on a dreary and sober afternoon, under the guidance of an editor willing to take on a nearly unprecedented form of fiction.

There is no reason to believe that Margaret Saville existed or influenced Mary Shelly. After reading Mrs Saville, you’ll see there’s no reason to doubt it either. The author fits the pieces fit together with a seamless and terrifying logic. He shows a nuanced understanding of the darkness that lives within us all. He summons a literature-lover’s fantasy and adds context and texture to a landmark novel that many thought had already been examined from every conceivable angle.