Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been thrilling audiences for nearly 200 years, and the author herself has also long been a subject of fascination – the teenage girl who wrote a classic horror story and scandalously ran away with her own stepsister and the notorious Percy Shelley.
It is fitting, then, that Mary Shelley plays a key role in another complicated triangle of characters as part of Lesley McDowell’s novel Unfashioned Creatures, which explores madness and infatuation; themes pertinent to Mary’s own life and, of course, Frankenstein.
Unfashioned Creatures is set in 1823, just a year after Percy Shelley’s death, when Mary visited her real-life friend Isabella Baxter Booth. The meeting obviously perturbed Mary as she wrote afterwards: “I have now renewed my acquaintance with the friend of my girlish days – she has been ill a long time, even disturbed in her reason…”
Inspired by this line of Mary’s, Lesley McDowell has created a dark, Gothic tale that encompasses lunatic asylums, sexual compulsion and destructive desires. In it, we find Isabella to be indeed ‘disturbed in her reason’ – seeing ghosts and dependent on narcotics to escape her hellish life with an increasingly violent, deranged husband.
Fearful of her own murderous impulses towards him, Isabella flees for her childhood home in Scotland, where she meets an ambitious young doctor, Alexander Balfour. He will stop at nothing to establish a reputation as a genius in the emerging science of psychiatry and he believes that Isabella could be the key to his greatness.
But as his own torments threaten to overwhelm Alexander, is he really the best judge of which way madness lies?
About the author: Lesley McDowell is a literary critic for The Herald, The Scotsman and The Independent on Sunday. Her first novel was The Picnic (2007). Her second book, Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, was shortlisted for the non-fiction prize in the 2011 Scottish Book Awards.
1. Tell us a little bit about your book and the inspiration behind it?
Unfashioned Creatures is about Isabella Baxter Booth, the real-life Scottish friend of Mary Shelley, the woman who wrote Frankenstein. I’d come across her when I was researching for another novel that I wanted to write about Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who had had an affair with Byron when she was a teenager, and given birth to his child. Claire’s story is a tragic but inspiring one – her daughter died when she was only five, and Byron had cast her off. But she went to Russia to become a governess and lived independently in Paris.
The only problem with Claire’s story is that she tells it so well herself!! There are diaries and letters that she wrote during her life which tell her story so much better than I could. But whilst I was researching Claire, as I said, I came across Isabella, whose family Mary had stayed with, in Broughty Ferry in the summers of 1813-1815. Isabella went on to marry her dead sister’s husband, David Booth, a learned man much older than her, and who began to suffer bouts of madness not long after their marriage.
It seemed like a good story to tell, and the added advantage was the Isabella left hardly any of her own words behind. So I was free to imagine her for myself, to tell her story in my words. I found it fascinating why she had married a man thirty years older than herself, and I wondered what it must have been like, knowing that your sister had married him first.
As I researched the times a little more, I also found that it was the period when psychiatry was just beginning. New discoveries about the brain were leading people to think differently about the mind and how it was affected – I felt sure that Isabella and her husband must have read of these discoveries, especially with his mental ill-health. It’s a fascinating time, because it’s a moment of light in the darkness – they actually believed they could cure madness. Of course, only a few years later, things would darken again – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre which was published in 1847, tells of a mad woman locked up in the attic at Mr Rochester’s home, who turns out to be his first wife. There’s no suggestion that she can be cured.
My novel begins in London in 1823, when Mary Shelley paid a visit to Isabella and noted in a letter to a friend that Isabella was “very disturbed in her reason”. I wondered then how much David, her husband, had affected her own mental state. Isabella left for Scotland at this time, and I also couldn’t help thinking that she must have wondered if she would ever return to him. I have no record of what she did in Scotland at that time, so I’ve invented something for her – a visit to the new asylum at Montrose, and an encounter with a radical young doctor who is working there. I have no evidence she did any such thing in real life, but it was fun to think and write about.
Is there any true life in there at all? Any characters based on people you know?
2. I think most writers probably draw on people they know a little bit, whether consciously or unconsciously. I’ve known people who have suffered from severe depression, and whilst it’s a horrible situation for them, it also causes real suffering to their partners, their parents, their friends. So I probably did draw on the sympathy I felt for the partners of those who suffer a mental illness – I think they can be forgotten about, we tend not to think very much about them.
Other details have some basis in reality – on the first page, Isabella describes the moment her husband had his first seizure. My brother has had two seizures in his life, and I remembered his then girlfriend talking about the first one, which she witnessed. Luckily, he was not diagnosed with epilepsy or any other serious illness, but it shocked and frightened all of us who knew him and I drew on that for the very first scene.
3. Who are your literary idols?
I tend to like very psychological, interior writers, probably because that’s the way I like to write myself! I find that kind of writing fascinating, so some of my literary idols reflect that aspect – Hilary Mantel, especially for her ‘Cromwell’ novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; Joyce Carol Oates for just about any novel but especially Blonde and her latest one, The Accursed. But I also like anything by Claire Messud, Emma Tennant, and Marina Warner, who writes wonderful non-fiction about women and fairy tales, or historical figures like Joan of Arc.
When I was researching for my last book, Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20thCentury Women Writers, about the loves and passions of nine literary couples, I came across the early work of Jean Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel about the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre , funnily enough. She has a very sparse prose style which I loved, even though I usually prefer long sentences – the longer the better! And I discovered more about Elizabeth Smart, who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and who had four children by the poet George Barker. She is a real heroine – she coped with bringing up four children on her own, she wrote stunning works of fiction, she lived a really full life. I think she must have been an amazing person.
Why the issue of mental health?
I think what amazed me more than anything when I was researching the background to Unfashioned Creatures was how little progress we’ve made in understanding mental health issues since the early nineteenth century. At that time, when psychiatry was just in its infancy, there was a pioneering method of dealing with the insane, called “moral management”. It advocated many treatments we consider now for depression, for example – a healthy lifestyle, lots of fruit and vegetable, lots of exercise, a good social life so that you don’t spend too much time on your own thinking too deeply about things, keeping alcohol at bay, and so on.
Since then, of course, there has been psychoanalysis and electro-convulsive therapy, drugs to raise your serotonin levels – a mixture to help the physical brain, and ease the mind. But nothing has provided the complete answer – some think genetics play a huge part in mental illness, others that it’s socially engineered, the consequence of poverty and deprivation.
Mental illness is still a mystery in many ways, because so much of the brain is still a mystery, and I think that speaks to the ‘writer’ in anybody – secrets, mysteries, how to solve things. And it places human beings at the centre of a story – what their motivations are, why they think and behave the way they do, why they hurt, why they rescue, why they do good and bad. It’s all very fascinating.
Are you a feminist and if so, why?
When I was a student, I dated a boy who was a huge fan of the writer Norman Mailer, and he tried to get me to like him too. But I just didn’t get it – I didn’t understand his work, or why this writer made me so uncomfortable with his words. Of course, I could recognise open sexism then as well as anybody else, but when it was more subtle, when it was just a feeling that made me uneasy, I couldn’t quite articulate it. Then I read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, a book that looked at a number of male writers, including Mailer. And it was like a light-bulb switching on. She articulated for me exactly what it was about Mailer’s writing that made me uncomfortable, and why it did so. And she gave me a way of responding to it.
So I suppose you could say I came to feminism through literature, which is true. And I continued to think about it in linguistic terms, in a simplistic way, maybe – why there was no male equivalent for ugly words to describe women, like ‘slag’ and ‘whore’. Why there seemed to be so few women writers from previous eras (were the Brontes and Jane Austen really the only ones??). Why the English department at University had so few women lecturers. And so on and so on.
But I also just find feminism fun – it’s fun to see a different point of view, to hear a woman’s perspective on a situation, ask questions that you’re not supposed to ask. It’s fun to upset the status quo a bit, to burst people’s complacency just a little if you can. There’s plenty to get angry about – the sexual exploitation of women, the imbalance in pay between the sexes, domestic violence, the way women are represented in the media, in business, in politics. But there’s also plenty to celebrate. My life is very different from my mother’s – she couldn’t get a mortgage on her own; she couldn’t live on her own and not be considered somehow ‘unrespectable’; she couldn’t get married and keep her job. Women of my generation have all of these things, and it’s feminism that’s won them for us.
6. Give us a little bit of info about your career so far?
After I studied English Literature at University, I went into an academic career. I enjoyed the research and the teaching, but it was hard to find a permanent job and I didn’t want to spend my thirties going from one temporary post in part of the country to another somewhere else. I’d just bought my first flat and needed a bit of extra cash, so I began writing reviews for newspapers, and loved it. I couldn’t believe someone was actually paying me to read great books and then say what I thought of them! So when my temporary contract at St Andrews University, where I was teaching, came to an end, I decided rather rashly to try freelance journalism.
The first two years were terrifying – I had no savings to give me a bit of financial cushioning, and cold-calling editors with feature ideas – as you had to do in the days before everybody had email – could be a soul-destroying experience. Although I first began researching for the Claire Clairmont novel that eventually became about Isabella Baxter Booth instead, as long ago as 1998, I’d always wanted to write books. So when I got my first short story shortlisted for a prize and published in 2005, it seemed like at last I’d found the right balance between literary journalism and my own writing. It’s been tricky ever since then to find the time to write, but I’ve been lucky enough to win two arts council awards, and in May I’ll be writer-in-residence at the Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire. A whole month, just for writing – bliss!
Tell us about your beauty regime?
7. I’ve always been interested in fashion and beauty – once I had to write a piece about personal shopping and had the experience of going to Harvey Nichols to be fitted up for a perfect outfit. If I had the money, I’d dress every day in Alberta di Ferreti. Beauty-product wise, I have ‘problem’ skin, which I used to treat with Clarins, as I especially love their facials. But it was never quite solving the problem of nasty acne that would crop up once every month. Then I tried Clinique’s Anti-Blemish range and I’ve never looked back. I’ve never had another acne spot since.
So I use Clinique’s Anti-Blemish soap, toner and moisturiser every night, and I dab on No 7’s Protect and Perfect Eye Cream, too. I’m blonde, and blondes tend to suffer worse lines around the eyes – I’ve used eye cream since I was about sixteen. I’ve also worn make-up every day since I was about fourteen, even if I’m not going anywhere – I like the colour on my face, it brightens me up. My make-up is a mixture of No 7 (face powder and eye liner), Clinique (lipstick), Mac (blusher and eye shadow) and Lancome (mascara).
If you were on a desert island – what would you take?
8. If I had to take one beauty product to a desert island it would have to be sun cream, alas. I burn in seconds and I wouldn’t want to have to spend all my time under a palm tree. I was on a press trip once with a beauty editor who gave me a bottle of Sisley sun lotion, and it was the loveliest lotion I’d ever tried. So I’d take a magnum-sized bottle of that.
Why do you think yummymummybeauty is so popular?
9. Even though I’m not actually a mummy myself, I have babysat some very small people and I know how hard it is to find the time even just to put on make-up when they’re around, never mind shop for it. So I love the fact that women have a place to go to that can tell them quickly and easily what the best products are, how to get them and where the savings are to be made. And when there’s a special offer on Sisley sun lotion, I’ll be first in line!