By Spencer Stephens
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 recently marked the two-hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein; Ms. Shelley is the grandmother of all science fiction. Before 1818, when Frankenstein was first published, there was no science fiction. 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 might 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 story. 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. The details of Margaret’s life, including her new friendship with Mary Shelly, is revealed through her letters to her far-away husband. Margaret is lonely, grieves for a child she lost to tuberculosis, 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. She stands with an ear to his bedroom door, trying to interpret the baffling shuffling and breathing sounds coming from within.
Margaret grows close to Ms. Shelley and poet Percy Shelley, the man who becomes her husband, and discovers how much they have in common: financial distress, fear of homelessness, 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 terror and hope. The story is one that compels empathy and engagement and it feels as real as a stolen read from a relative’s diary.
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 cuts pieces and fits them with a seamless and terrifying logic. He shows a nuanced understanding of the darkness that lives within us all. He’s generated a literature-lover’s fantasy and adds context and texture to a landmark novel. It is a novel that, many incorrectly assumed, had already been examined from every conceivable angle.
Categories: Book Review