Arguing With the Dead
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Arguing With the Dead
The year is 1839, and Mary Shelley - the woman who wrote Frankenstein - is living alone in a tiny cottage on the banks of the river Thames in Putney. As she sorts through the snowstorm of her husband's scattered papers she is reminded of their past: the half-ruined villas in Italy, the stormy relationship with Shelley and her stepsister Claire, the loss of her children, the attempted kidnapping of Claire's daughter Allegra from a prison-like convent in Florence. And finally, her husband's drowning on the Gulf of Spezia as they stayed in a grim-looking fortress overlooking the sea. What she has never confided in anyone is that she has always been haunted by Shelley's drowned first wife, Harriet, who would come to visit her in the night as she slept with her two tiny children in a vast abandoned villa while Shelley was away litigating with lawyers. Did Mary pay the ultimate price for loving Shelley? Who will Harriet come for next?
Title: Arguing With the Dead
Author: Alex Nye
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback: 352 pages
Publication Date: July 25th, 2019
Publishing House: Fledgling Press
Skinner Street, 1807
We were sworn to secrecy by a desperate Mary-Jane, as she hissed at us to hurry and dress.
Creditors had been beating a path to our door all winter, and then turned away, disappointed. Godwin and Mary-Jane had been unable to pay the rent on our beautiful home for the past six months – the visits had been getting more aggressive - and so they plotted an elaborate and farcical escape in the middle of the night.
We gathered our few things, and I held William’s hand while we tiptoed down the staircase for the last time. We assembled in hushed tones in the grand elegant hallway under cover of darkness. There was not even time to glance into the library, that space I’d always revered, and whisper a final farewell.
Outside a cart was waiting, already loaded up with Father’s books. Another was full of our linen and other household effects, all hastily packed into wooden chests.
Father looked furtive, like a comic figure from the Merchant of Venice.
This was our leave-taking of the Polygon, the place where Fanny and I had been so happy – at first, anyway. The houses around the square were all shuttered against the night, no candles or lamps lit, not a light showing: no one observed our departure. Our neighbours were all in their beds, like the good citizens they were. But we – the Godwins/Clairmonts – had already begun to stumble on the wrong side of respectability once more.
It was a strange journey, undertaken at night when no one respectable was abroad. Mary-Jane comforted and cajoled us, declaring that it was “an adventure”, that it was “best for everyone” and that our new home was “quite delightful, much more central and therefore interesting…”
On and on she prattled, while we listened to the quiet rolling of the wheels against the cobblestones, and the tramping of the horses’ hooves. Poor Mary-Jane. With the hindsight of age I can see she was perhaps doing her best to console us.
When the carts rolled into a dark and narrow street, and then passed the ominous facade of Newgate Prison, we three girls glanced at each other curiously. Not long after this the front cart drew to a halt.
Surely, there must be some mistake?
“London is a city of contrasts,” Godwin was saying “where the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl.”
“But which are we, Father?” I couldn’t help asking. There had always been some confusion over the issue. One moment I was taught that my heritage was of the highest order, the next that we were teetering on the brink of ruin. We must buy our groceries on credit and lie to the landlord about the rent! Is that what rich people did?
“All writers, Mary, come up against the challenges of straitened circumstances. You ought, really, to understand this by now.”
I was ten. I was beginning to understand a lot of things…
If you have the appearance of being rich and grand, if you live at an illustrious address, you will easily obtain credit from local tradesmen, especially if you happen to be a lord or baronet’s son.
But there may come a point when your creditors grow impatient, lose faith in your wealthy status, and expect to be paid. Lord knows, our Father was no lord or titled earl. He owned no lands. He was a man of ideas. And ideas do not necessarily pay the rent.
Our new house was tall and narrow, five stories high with a schoolroom at the very top, from where we could hear a lone bell tolling with a sad cadence.
The first time we heard it Fanny, Jane and I crowded the small high window and stood on tiptoe to watch as a prisoner was led from the ugly maw of Newgate prison. He was kneeling upright in a rough cart, a rope around his neck.
“Where are they taking him?” I asked.
“Tyburn,” Charles said, appearing suddenly behind us.
“The gallows!” Fanny added. “Execution day.”
I stared, my eyes transfixed by the horror of it. I doubt Mary-Jane had any idea that our schoolroom boasted such a view, if you managed to angle your head in such a way.
I felt suffocated and claustrophobic in our new house. I missed the wide flowering meadows of Somers Town, the country lanes, and I missed the short walk to Mother’s grave.
My exploratory forays around the neighbourhood were an education. The sights are painted on my memory forever.
The blood flowed freely onto the steaming cobbles.
I would walk through Smithfield with its slaughterhouses and butcher’s market, where I would see a man in a filthy leather apron take a knife and carve yellow slabs of flesh from a great carcase. He slit the belly; organs and guts spilled into the sawdust. In my panic, I stumbled and kicked something: a bucket of entrails. I stared down at it and gagged: fat yellow worms twisting in a pulsing knot.
I came upon a narrow alleyway between tall buildings, and glanced along it. Glimpses of poverty reeled before my eyes. Ragged children sat dirty on a doorstep with puddles of water caught in the cobbles at their feet. I often wandered here by mistake, knowing that Father would not want me to see such sights.
Alex Nye is the award-winning author of four novels. She grew up in Norfolk by the sea, but has lived in Scotland since 1995 where she finds much of her inspiration in Scottish history. At the age of 16 she won the W H Smith Young Writers' Award out of 33,000 entrants, and has been writing ever since. Her first children's novel, CHILL, won the Royal Mail Award. Her fourth book is a historical novel for adults about Mary Queen of Scots. Her fifth title, ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, is another historical novel, this time about Mary Shelley, and explores the chaotic and destructive forces which shaped her. She divides her time between walking the dog, swimming, scribbling in notebooks in strange places, staring at people without meaning to, and tapping away on her laptop. She also teaches and delivers atmospheric candlelit workshops on creative writing/ghost stories/Scottish history. She studied at King's College, London more years ago than she cares to remember.
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