About The Author
Having studied English at Oxford, Lynn Shepherd spent 15 years in the City and working in PR, before going freelance; this gave her the opportunity to try to make her dream of becoming a writer a reality.
Her first novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, was published in 2010. Combining her passion for classic and detective fiction, it recreates the world of the classic Regency novel and involves Austen*s characters in a thrilling murder mystery. She describes the novel as 'Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie' and it proved a hit with Austen readers and crime fans alike.
Her second novel is Tom-All-Alone's (published as The Solitary House in North America), which this time employs the characters and setting of Charles Dickens' Bleak House.
It features the second appearance of detective Charles Maddox, now much older and suffering from a disease that provokes terrible mood swings. Dismissed from the police force, Maddox's young nephew Charles is hired to investigate a case of blackmail against an eminent banker. A brutal murder brings new danger to this seemingly simple case and Maddox finds himself venturing onto the streets of Tom-All-Alone's, one of Victorian London's most notoriously squalid slums, which Shepherd recreates in uncompromising detail. In an exclusive interview for Foyles, Lynn talked about the challenges of writing a 'Dickensian' novel in the 21st century and the influence of John Fowles.
Her most recent novel, A Treacherous Likeness, sees the return of Charles Maddox, this time being drawn into a bitter battle being waged over the poet Shelley's literary legacy, but then he makes a chance discovery that raises new doubts about the death of Shelley's first wife, Harriet. We were delighted to be able to catch up again with Lynn and talk about the effect forensics and the internet have had on detective work, why some of the sordid aspects of Percy and Mary Shelley's lives are not better known and her fascination with the Young Romantics.
You can hear Lynn discuss her new book at the Bristol Women's Literature Festival on February 18th.
The Author At Foyles
A Treacherous Likeness - Q&A
Did you intend to write a revisionist fictional history or was that the influence of your discoveries while researching?
I've been fascinated by the Young Romantics' circle for years, but my novelistic antennae really started twitching when I was looking for a follow-up subject after Tom-All-Alone's, and started to read Richard Holmes' wonderful biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which then led on to Miranda Seymour's life of Mary Shelley, who was of course the author of Frankenstein. The more I read about the strange and inexplicable gaps in the story of the Shelleys' lives, the more I realised that there was the possibility to write my own story - a story which could make sense of all those mysterious events and echoing silences that Shelley's biographers have so far been unable to explain.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
I'm going to tread very carefully here, as I obviously don't want to give too much away, but there are two major plot 'reveals' about the Shelleys towards the end of my story. One of these is more of a creative interpolation, though I still think it's highly plausible. The other is far more shocking, and comes from a combination of research and what I suppose you would call intelligent deduction. I firmly believe that I'm completely right about that one - that this is indeed exactly what happened, even if it is truly horrifying, and even though I can't prove it. Unlike a biography, a novel gives you the chance to explore and present a theory like that, but there are also some very well-respected Shelley experts who think I may actually be on to something.
How is it that this story isn't better known - is it down to Mary Shelley's assiduous daughter in law, Jane Gibson, destroying documents and doing everything she could to protect the family's reputation?
Jane Gibson was Sir Percy Shelley's wife, and she certainly took it upon herself to destroy or suppress anything she thought might damage the poet's reputation. Given the Victorians' sensitivities about marriage and morals, she was particularly keen to suppress any material about Shelley's first wife Harriet that might cast him in a poor light, especially the fact that he abandoned her when she was pregnant. Jane did her best to suggest that Harriet had been unfaithful before Shelley left her, as some sort of justification for the way he behaved. There's no evidence she was, incidentally.
In terms of my own story, a remarkable amount of what I've written is based on the facts - I would say only about 10% of it is outright invention on my part. I was surprised by that myself, and I think my readers will be too - that their lives really were so full of dark secrets and terrible betrayals. I've given detailed notes at the back so people will be able to see for themselves what is truth, and what fiction.
How difficult was it to keep track of all the complicated liaisons between the protagonists? Were you ever worried that the reader would find the story too far-fetched despite the genuine origins of much of it?
It's certainly a tangled web that they wove! But knowing that, I worked really hard to make sure that there's a strong story running through the book right from the start. So far no-one who's read it has had any trouble working out who's who, probably because the personalities concerned are so dramatic and vivid. But just in case I've included a family tree with some thumbnail portraits at the beginning. And I've also tried to write the story so that people can enjoy it for its own sake, even if they know nothing about the Shelleys or Byron. Some of the nicest compliments I've had so far are from readers who knew nothing about the Young Romantics beforehand, but have now been inspired to go back to explore the biographical accounts of their lives.
Maddox's uncovering of the truth depended on some decidedly underhand if not downright illegal tactics. Do you think he'd get away with it today?
I'm guessing that you're referring to the way he inveigles himself into the house of Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's step-sister). He's been sent there in search of her papers about the Shelleys, and no, he certainly wouldn't get away with that as a bona fide policeman these days. Though of course Charles isn't a bona fide Victorian policeman either, but a private investigator, so he always operates on the fringes of what's permissible. I do love those scenes with Claire - partly because she was such a glorious, shimmering character to write, and partly because they're a deliberate homage on my part to Henry James' The Aspern Papers, which was famously inspired by events in Claire's own life when she was a very old woman, and a young American came in search of the records she still kept about that extraordinary but ill-fated generation.
Have such things as forensics and the internet made detecting a less cerebral affair, or are the benefits of these outweighed by new challenges that Victorian detectives didn't have to contend with?
I'm a great fan of TV series like Law & Order and CSI, and you can certainly build extremely complex and satisfying plots from the ultra-fine details that modern forensics can now detect, though it must take a lot of keeping up with for a writer! My decision to write historical fiction wasn't primarily dictated by that - it's the literary angle that's most resonant for me - but I'm lucky in the period I've chosen (or that chose me) because the mid-19th century is an era of such change and transition. There was so much energy and so many new discoveries being made, that a man interested in science, as Charles Maddox is, can straddle both the past and the present when it comes to detection. Sometimes he has to rely on the 'logic and observation' espoused by his great-uncle Maddox, the Regency thief taker, but at other times he can also draw on techniques closer to those available to the modern police force. A good example would be the episode early on in A Treacherous Likeness, when he reveals some inked-out words in his uncle's old case files, and realises that old Maddox's own past is inextricably bound up with the secrets of the Shelleys.
Maddox feels himself responsible for his sister's disappearance when they were both children and it is his desire to redeem the past that seems to drive him. In this novel his guilt is set to become compounded by his treatment of his housekeeper. How do you manage to balance the very likeable sides of his character with his sometimes callous behaviour - is he merely a man of his time or is something else at play here?
I think there is definitely something else at play. In many ways Charles isn't a man of his time - he's interested in science, and he's not constrained by the dictates of religion or society, so when he behaves badly towards Molly he doesn't have Victorian hypocrisy as his excuse. The more I write about Charles, the more layers I find in him. He is, indeed, haunted by the loss of his sister, and the terrible consequences that followed it within his family, and I think this has led him to 'lock down' his emotions, for fear of being hurt, though that's not an explanation he would consciously admit to. My readers will see at once that there are more than a few parallels between Shelley's apparent blindness to the pain of those around him, and Charles' own self-absorption, even though the causes of their behaviour stem from very different personalities, and very different pasts.
In your portrayal Shelley seems to exemplify the much discussed interplay between madness and genius. How far do you think these qualities are inter-dependent?
As I say in the novel, I think Shelley may have been suffering from what we would now diagnose as some sort of personality disorder. He was astoundingly intelligent, but very ill-at-ease in social situations, and seemingly incapable of seeing the impact of his own erratic behaviour on those around him - especially the women who loved him. It's hard to say whether this made him a better poet, though it may account for the startling imagery you find in some of the poems. There's a sad irony about Shelley's literary legacy in that the long political and philosophical works he would have wanted to be remembered for are all but unreadable today, and he's known mainly for the short lyrics like the Ode to a Skylark, which I suspect he would have dismissed as largely insignificant.
Some readers might detect another story waiting to be told - that of Claire Clairmont and Byron, and of how Claire later became the inspiration for Henry James' The Aspern Papers. Are you tempted - even though that would presumably mean killing off the elder Maddox!
I am tempted, definitely, because it's such an extraordinarily rich seam of material. But I don't think I'll do it, or at least not yet. After I wrote Murder at Mansfield Park people asked me for another Austen, and after Tom-All-Alone's came out people asked for another Dickens. But I've tried with each new book to find a new literary angle, so the one I'm working on now has a different inspiration altogether. But at the moment, that's still under wraps!
Tom-all-Alone's and A Treacherous Likeness would both make brilliant tv - any plans afoot? Would you keep the structure of the omniscient 21st century narrator somehow, or would it have to become a wholly 19th-century affair?
How I would love to see either of them dramatised! My agent is on the case, so we can but hope! As to how you'd turn them into screenplays, I remember how one of my favourite books, The French Lieutenant's Woman, preserved its modern viewpoint in the film version by having a double story - one Victorian, and one modern. Perhaps something like that? But both could work equally well as straightforward period drama. It would be fascinating to see someone like Andrew Davies work his magic on either book. As long as I can have Tom Hiddleston as Charles .....
Questions & Answers
Tom All-Alone's - Q&A
What are the challenges of writing a Dickensian novel for the 21st century?
Interesting question! I suppose I would say that there are challenges that I chose not to take up, and challenges I couldn't avoid. The most obvious example of the first was my decision not to write like Dickens - not to even try to write like Dickens. The 'conceit' of the book I wrote before this one was to create a murder mystery in Jane Austen's style, exactly mimicking her language and the cadence of her prose; with Tom-All-Alone's I decided very early on that any attempt to pastiche Dickens was doomed to descend to parody sooner or later, so I didn't even attempt it. I aimed instead to create a 'Dickensian' feel through the subject matter, and the settings, and the use of some of his characters, rather than by trying to make it sound as if he could have written it.
As for challenges I couldn't avoid, if you're trying to create a Dickensian atmosphere there's no alternative to detailed research, but actually that was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book. All those crowded noisy streets - the sights, the sounds, and, let's not mince matters, the smells.....
How do you account for Dickens' enduring popularity? How big a part do TV dramatisations play in that?
I think much of his popularity stems from the fact that he's just such a consummate storyteller and has such an extraordinarily visual imagination- he creates characters and events that linger long in the mind. Though I do agree that the adaptations have played an enormous role - probably more than with any other comparable writer. There have been dozens of screen versions of Austen and Hardy and the Brontës and the rest, but I think Dickens translates particularly well to the screen. I really enjoyed the BBC4 programme Dickens on Film that was aired in January, which included the Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein's famous contention that Dickens unknowingly invented cinematic 'montage', because of the way he constructs his narratives, and uses a sequence of contrasting scenes to create tension, and evoke emotion. Fascinating.
Your picture of Victorian London is even more brutal and remorseless than Dickens'. Was he too soft on the capital?
No-one knew the grim reality of Victorian London better than Dickens. He walked its streets by night, went into the thieves' dens with the police on patrol, and helped to manage a home for so-called fallen women. The problem was that it was impossible to put the full extent of London's filth, disease, poverty and crime into his novels - the conventions of Victorian publication simply wouldn't stand for it. But of course we have no such self-censorship, and no such qualms, so I can 'stand alongside Dickens', and write about what he saw, but couldn't say.
Do you think violence and depravity stalked London even more in Dickens' day than in ours, or is the present-day violence - despite the coverage it receives in the press - just less visible to most people?
A bit of both. Some types of crime were no doubt just as prevalent in the 19th century as they are now, but it was simply not possible to talk about them - particularly 'middle-class crime', such as domestic violence committed behind closed doors. We're much more aware of issues like that than Dickens' contemporaries were. On the other hand there were levels of destitution-driven depravity then that would shock and sicken us now, like the widespread prostitution of children, often by their own families, and the frequency with which poorer women 'disposed of' their own babies because they simply couldn't afford to feed them - a crime that's only too horribly brought home to us in the very first pages of Tom-All-Alone's.
Some of Dickens' characters fared worse under your pen than did their Bleak House counterparts, especially Esther/Hester. Do you think Dickens' Esther was deluded, or were you trying to mix in some spice with the saccharine?
Bleak House is famously constructed as a 'double narrative', with part of the story told in the present tense by a third-person narrator, and part related by Esther, as the story of her own past. I've deliberately echoed this in the structure of Tom-All-Alone's, with the account of my young detective Charles Maddox's investigations interweaved with a separate narrative written by a girl called 'Hester'. She's definitely not the Esther of Bleak House, but I chose a very similar name because I wanted her story to be, in part, a commentary on Esther's. Esther is presented to us in Bleak House as a reliable narrator, but in fact she can be very disingenuous at times, and her story raises questions and issues which can make the modern reader quite uneasy. I wanted to explore that tension.
Did you decide at the outset which characters would fare better under your pen than in Bleak House or did the story develop its own twists and turns as it went along?
Some were just so marvellous that no writer in their right mind would change them - Tulkinghorn, Bucket, Trooper George. The challenge with them was to become Dickens' 'ventriloquist' - to find a way of replicating the very distinctive ways these people speak, which would bring them to life in my own story. As for the twists and turns of the plot, I'm one of those novelists who have a detailed synopsis before they start, so the Dickens-related aspects of the story were very clear to me before I started. The character who did change was Charles Maddox, my young detective, who is of course entirely mine. Every time I write about him I discover something new.
As well as Dickens, your book also shows the influence of, among others, John Fowles and the poet Henry Mayhew. What was it like trying to integrate these disparate sources?
One of the great joys of the book! Henry Mayhew is almost as important a 'presiding genius' of the book as Dickens. His London Labour and the London Poor was almost exactly contemporaneous with Bleak House, and is to Victorian non-fiction what Dickens' novel is to fiction. His account of the real lives of the real people on London's streets is so amazingly vivid you can almost imagine yourself walking alongside him. And that's exactly what I have Charles Maddox do one memorable evening in a pub on the City Road...
As for John Fowles, I have always loved The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Tom-All-Alone's doffs its cap to that great book, most obviously in the way I sometimes step out of the text and talk directly to my reader about things they and I know, but the characters cannot possibly understand. Like, for example, the real nature of the illness that afflicts Charles' great-uncle and mentor, old Maddox, the former Regency thief taker.
The Soane Museum provides a fabulously sinister location and an apt metaphor for the machinations of its fictional creator, Tulkinghorn. How much do we know about the motives and aspirations of its real founder?
Dickens has Tulkinghorn living in Lincoln's Inn Fields, but he never says exactly where, which meant I could choose to have him live in a house inspired by the one once owned by Sir John Soane, which is also in the same square. I've taken the odd architectural liberty in describing it, but as you say, there could hardly be a better model for the private residence of a man as powerful and mysterious as Tulkinghorn. Soane's house is one of my favourite museums in London - he was a celebrated architect and a passionate, almost obsessive collector, and he created the most extraordinary private gallery to display his artefacts. If you haven't visited the museum I really do recommend it - and not just because you will then be able to visualise my two favourite scenes in Tom-All-Alone's!
Tom-All-Alone's is hugely ambitious, in which you have to inhabit - though not exclusively - another's voice. It was preceded by a re-imagining of Jane Austen, Murder at Mansfield Park. Will your next novel tackle a different classic author or are you tempted to write in the contemporary voice of Lynn Shepherd?
I'm staying with 'literary mystery' with the third book, which will bring back the two Charles Maddoxes, senior and junior, for another 19th century investigation. I'm not engaging with a specific text this time, but with real-life people. This has been fascinating to do, but much more demanding technically than working with another novel as your inspiration, where you have much more room to manoeuvre in terms of things like plot and time-scheme. After that, who knows? I never intended to write a series when I wrote Murder at Mansfield Park, but so many people asked me if I would write another story about the original Charles Maddox that I've ended up with three books. Something tells me I may stay with historical fiction, and I've always loved mysteries, so perhaps I won't stray too far.
The narrator occasionally pops into the narrative to provide a 21st century perspective. Why was it important to remind the reader that this, after all, is not actually a Dickens novel?
If you're going to write about the 19th century now you basically have two choices - you can immerse yourself as narrator into the story, and bring none of your 21st century knowledge to bear; or you can step back and actively use that knowledge to provide a different perspective, as I do. As I said, I was partly inspired by the example of The French Lieutenant's Woman, but I also felt it was important to put some distance between myself and Dickens, and I hope that's a source of creative tension in the book. Above all, I wanted Tom-All-Alone's to 'be its own book', as well as a homage to Bleak House, and I worked very hard to ensure it works just as well if you've never read a single word of Dickens, as I hope it does if you're a devotee.
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