A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

Published 2013  set in London in 1850 chapter 3

[Charles Maddocks is investigating Claire Clairmont]

When Charles turns round the woman before him is a conflagration of all his preconceptions. Shorter and slighter than he is, with smooth olive skin, and glossy black hair that shows no grey, though he guesses she must be – what – fifty? Even fifty-five? But it’s the eyes that draw him in. So drowning dark the iris and pupil melt together, and so brilliantly intense he can only meet her gaze a moment before he wants to look away…

[He moves in to her house as a lodger, under false pretences]

The maid [is] beckoning from the house.

‘Miss Clairmont was wondering if you’d like to join her for luncheon, sir.’…

By the time his hostess comes through the door he is where he should be, behind his chair. Miss Clairmont’s long black hair is down, and she’s wearing a midnight-blue gown that clings to her body and cannot possibly have been either made or bought in England. She comes towards him in a rustle of silk on silk, and he can smell a dark musky scent on her skin.

observations: Claire Clairmont is a fascinating character by any standards, and Lynn Shepherd’s book more than does her justice. The novel takes the known facts about Shelley and his circle, and weaves a dramatic plot, or perhaps theory, around them, adding explanations and possibilities (some of them far-fetched) but sticking closely to the correct chronology. (Shepherd also very clearly explains what is fact and what is speculation in an afterword.)

Clairmont is often portrayed as rather silly and annoying - sex-mad and foolish, chasing after men and declaring her belief in free love: in fact she was intelligent, had had some education, and was eager to learn more, and it is obvious but not facile to ask how her behaviour would have looked if she’d been a man. Shepherd goes some way to redress the balance; though the extraordinary story of Shelley and his wives, their sisters, Byron, the children of them all – well, it would make an unlikely and melodramatic novel in itself, just with the undisputed facts. Clairmont’s own family (her stepfather William Godwin had formerly been married to Mary Wollstonecraft: Mary Shelley was their daughter and thus Clairmont’s stepsister) is quite bizarre enough even if none of them had ever met Shelley.

This book is a prequel to Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s (blog entry here), and is even better: riveting, atmospheric, thought-provoking. It’s another book that I feel if it had been written by a man would be taken more seriously (see also Marina Endicott and Elizabeth Speller), and seen as a major historical novel, perhaps a Booker Prize candidate.

It is always interesting to contemplate Claire Clairmont - lover of Byron and perhaps Shelley, who were both so very much dead by 1824 - living on until 1878.
The strange thing had been for me to discover… she was still alive: it was as if I had been told Mrs Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.
That’s from Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, another tale based on her unusual life, and one referenced by Shepherd – the book is full of literary nods.

The picture is a portrait of Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran.

The book is also known as A Fatal Likeness.


  1. Replies
    1. You might like it more than you'd think, but I won't try to persuade you....

  2. Moira - What an interesting perspective on a group of people I've always thought fascinating. People like that almost seem 'larger than life' if I can put it that way, and I always do wonder just how much is fact and how much isn't. Good that Shepherd makes that clear in this work.

    1. Such fascinating lives they led, and so melodramatic! They would have been a gift to modern-day celebrity magazines.


Post a Comment